The L.A.-based actor has mastered being mean on screen in The White Lotus and Euphoria. But this California girl’s true colors are anything but dark.
Words by ROB HASKELL
Photography by DAVID ROEMER
Fashion Direction by PETRA FLANNERY
PRADA Linea Rossa top, $1,050. CARTIER Clash de Cartier earrings in rose gold, $4,100.
In case there was any doubt that adulthood is little more than an illusion — a scam perpetrated by parents on their credulous children — we can thank Sydney Sweeney and her expanding repertoire of on-screen teenagers for making the truth painfully clear. “As a kid, you think grown-ups are superheroes,” she says. “They’re not.”
On a crisp afternoon in October, Sweeney and I are sitting at a quiet outdoor table at the Glen Centre, a collection of shops and restaurants at the crest of Bel Air that is a midday oasis for the perpetually underscheduled but also a favorite pit stop for this dizzyingly busy young actor. Sweeney spent her teenage years bouncing among towns in the San Fernando Valley but didn’t discover this place until she got her first apartment in Los Angeles and started ducking back over the ridge to visit her family. The Beverly Glen Deli is now her weekend go-to.
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As Olivia Mossbacher, the smug and smirking daughter on The White Lotus, Sweeney excelled at quiet judgment: Olivia sits by the pool, alternating between her Portable Nietzsche and her portable phone, but with a side-eye trained on the mischief swirling about her. She is a pillar of calculating quietude, and if you found her chilling, you weren’t alone. “A lot of people were terrified of me after Olivia, which I thought was hilarious because I was scared of her myself,” Sweeney explains. “Those are the girls that scared me in high school and still do.”
In Euphoria, which returns to HBO for its second season in January, Sweeney plays Cassie Howard, a teenager who uses her body, often recklessly, to control the boys in her orbit. And who can blame her? Her father is an addict who has disappeared from her life, while her mother swans about the dark house, drunk and boundaryless. “I think that’s why Euphoria has had such a big audience — because no one, at any age, has figured life out,” Sweeney suggests. “Everyone’s still trying to find themselves. Everyone’s trying to get their shit together.”
A few days before our meeting, Frances Haugen testified to a Senate subcommittee about the potentially noxious effects of social media on teenage girls; it’s something that Sweeney, 24, has thought a lot about. After all, social media has been jostling the tectonic plates of Hollywood for a decade, and there are new rules controlling Generation Z’s new stars. “It’s a back-and-forth battle,” Sweeney explains. “It’s amazing to learn about things from all over the world, to connect with so many different people. But it can be an unhealthy place where you get yourself down a deep, dark hole of filters and body dysmorphia and jealousy.”
But Sweeney, who has a production company of her own and is halfway through a bachelor’s degree in business, believes that it would be naive to underestimate Silicon Valley’s grip on her industry. “It’s all numbers,” she says of Hollywood. “And a lot of it is the numbers generated by tech companies. I didn’t grow up in the Jennifer Aniston time, where you could have syndication, residuals, box office, back-end deals. I’m in some of the biggest projects, but we don’t make the money that stars used to. I need the branding space. It’s such a difficult balance. I don’t treat social media the way I would if I were an influencer — I look at it more as a platform for my acting, with a little bit of Syd mixed in there — but in return, I don’t get as many endorsement opportunities because my numbers aren’t as high. So should I lean more into it, like the TikTok stars? Then I’m not taken as seriously as an actress.”
“Euphoria has had such a big audience because no one, at any age, has figured life out”
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Sweeney was born in Spokane, Wash., and spent her childhood a few miles east, in a cabin by a lake in northern Idaho that has been in her family for five generations. Apart from the mountainous beauty of her surroundings, it was a quintessential American childhood, in a town two blocks long, with a church, three bars and a grocery store. She recalls it as the kind of place where you marry your high school sweetheart and move down the street from your parents. “I grew up looking at my family and friends and their parents, and they literally lived one life,” she says. “I couldn’t imagine that.”
She was not a child who appeared destined for Hollywood. Shy and awkward, uncomfortable in her body, Sweeney avoided the stage. But at home she had a rich imaginary world that provided a refuge from the sense of inevitability that her upbringing offered. She pretended she was a special agent, tasked with saving the world, or a princess cheetah. On her play set in the forest, she was a teacher instructing a class of insects she had collected. “I kept myself entertained,” she remembers.
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Quietly, Sweeney yearned to be in movies. And when she was 12, a small indie zombie picture came to town and held auditions. She had seen the presentations her father made as a pharmaceutical sales rep, so she decided to present her parents with a five-year business plan for her own career, beginning with that zombie movie. “They were like, fine, let’s let her audition, and maybe she’ll be quiet,” Sweeney remembers. She got the part. And before long, she and her parents were regularly driving 19 hours to Los Angeles for auditions, turning around and driving back without stopping at a hotel to rest. They met other kids and their parents who had the same routine, and these families became their closest friends. When Sweeney was 13, her family relocated to the Valley.
In the beginning, the roles were few and far between. Sweeney estimates that she landed one part in 100 auditions. Her family was pressed to the limit financially; there was a year when they had to move into a motel in Burbank. “My mom, my dad, my brother and I were in a regular one-bedroom hotel room for nine months,” she remembers. “I was 16 — not the year when you want to be living in a hotel, sharing a bed with your mom.” Her parents divorced shortly afterward. “There was a period there where my parents tried to shield me as much as possible from the pain and the financial stress. They didn’t explain things to me, and that made me angry. So I acted out, but not in the way you would think. I was a straight-A student in all AP classes. I was valedictorian. I never went to a high school party. I’ve never done drugs, to this day. The acting-out Syd tried to find love through boys. I got myself into sometimes really unfortunate and even dangerous relationships.”
“Social Media can be an unhealthy place where you get yourself down a deep, dark hole of filters and body dysmorphia and jealousy.”
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When Sweeney was 18, her career took off. She booked Everything Sucks!, a Netflix high school dramedy, and Sharp Objects, in which she played Amy Adams’ character’s teenage roommate at a psychiatric hospital. The roles have poured forth since then, from the martyred child bride Eden Blaine in season two of The Handmaid’s Tale to Snake, one of Charles Manson’s acolytes at Spahn Ranch, in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Teens navigating their dystopias remains her bailiwick.
And though she is no longer a teenager, Sweeney is not quite ready to quit her celluloid adolescence. “I have the financial responsibilities of a full-blown adult, but at work I’m in a high school hallway on set,” she says. “It definitely plays with your mind. People say, ‘I can’t believe she’s still playing a teenager.’ But older always plays younger. Thirty-year-olds are always going to play 25. I go out and audition for 20-year-old projects, and they say I’m too young! Admittedly, I still feel like I’m a teenager sometimes. My own high school years were not a normal experience. I never went to a football game or a dance. There was a year when I missed 117 days of school. There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to stop playing high schoolers until I’ve lived all the high school experiences that I want to. It’s like my own therapy for myself.”
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Of all her characters, it is Euphoria’s Cassie with whom Sweeney identifies most strongly. “Being able to love yourself before allowing anyone else to love you — that’s where true happiness and healthiness comes from, and it’s a part of my own life that I wish I could go back to,” she says. The show’s new season offers no less bleak a look at suburban coming of age, fueled as ever by sex and drugs. “It’s a darker look into the psyches of teenagers, more raw and dirty than the first season. Cassie, unfortunately, is still looking for approval, and she’s willing to ruin all the relationships that are important to her because she wants love so much.” For parents who are still wringing their hands over the show’s hypnotizing but disturbing first season, there is no antidote here. “The writers didn’t take their feet off the gas. In fact, there’s a whole new pedal they’ve added, and they’re pressing it even harder.”
The car metaphor feels apt, considering that Sweeney, when she is not on the Euphoria set, has been hard at work restoring a 1969 Ford Bronco that she won at an online auction during the doldrums of the pandemic. A family friend named Rod Emory (his son was one of those kids on the audition circuit) is a noted restorer and customizer of antique Porsches, and he gave Sweeney a berth in his North Hollywood shop. Under his tutelage, she recently finished her truck’s transmission, brakes and suspension, and she is now moving on to the interior. She also just bought a baby-blue 1965 Mustang and is plotting a few tweaks. “I never feel more at home than when I go to the shop,” she says. “It’s therapy for me.”
On weekends, Sweeney takes her dog, Tank, on hikes or picnics at the beach. She especially loves the drive down to Rosie’s, a sandy stretch of Long Beach teeming with canines. Because her old shyness persists, you will never see her at a night club. “I’m the one in the comfy sweater at an early dinner at Nobu or Jon & Vinny’s, before the crazy crowd gets there,” she says. Sweeney prefers to remain mum about romance, but a beaming smile at the question suggests that she is contented. “I never talk about it, but I have a very healthy, very steady personal life.”
“A part of me doesn’t want to stop playing high schoolers until I’ve lived all the high school experiences that I want to. It’s like my own therapy for myself”
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In the wake of The White Lotus and with the approach of Euphoria, Sweeney is bracing for a flush of fame that she has not known before. “Being more recognizable creates a little of that social anxiety,” she says. “I get nervous that I’ll disappoint people: Am I not going to be what they expect me to be or want me to be?” She’s stockpiled the baseball hats and sunglasses, but there’s no armor against the sting of online commentary from those who have forgotten that Cassie isn’t Syd, and Syd isn’t Cassie. In such moments, she gives herself the same advice she’d have for her character, or for her 17-year-old self: “You don’t need validation from anyone else. Just you.”
Hair by BOBBY ELIOT at The Wall Group using RENE FURTERER.
Makeup by MELISSA HERNANDEZ for ARMANI BEAUTY at The Wall Group.
Manicure by ZOLA at The Wall Group using OPI.
SYDNEY SWEENEY wears HERMES jacket, jeans and glove; CALLE DEL MAR top; and BULGARI and CARTIER jewelry.
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This story originally appeared in the Winter 2020-2021 issue of C Magazine.
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