The Feel-Good & Feel-Bad Worlds Of Sydney Sweeney
Television's bright star shares why she dares for darkness on screen
There comes a moment near the end of Euphoria’s second season when every key character seems on the brink of self-implosion.
Abuse, drug addiction, affairs, betrayal, revenge, sadism, violence; the dark themes that have run across this provocative and brilliant HBO show through its ensemble of messed up Los Angeles rich kids suddenly knit together to become one horrifying, twisted mess. You start to think: can I stomach a minute more?
But then, right at the climax, in comes Sydney Sweeney with one of the most unexpectedly comic scenes of the entire show. We see 18-year-old Cassie Howard, whose desperation to be loved has effaced any sense of autonomy, in the grips of pure melodrama.
Having done something unforgivable, she throws herself from room to room, wailing and shouting, while her mother and sister Lexi watch skeptically from the kitchen.
Eventually, her mother half-heartedly tells Lexi to hide the knives in the garden, only to find a tearstained Cassie slumped on the floor, gently scratching her unblemished wrist with a corkscrew.
Not many actors could take the sensitive subject of self-harm and turn it into such delicate tragicomedy, all the while maintaining our empathy for this lost girl with a huge heart, who wants to scream but doesn’t know how.
But 24-year-old Sweeney has form for playing such complicated and often repellent characters with a relatable warmth and nuance that has made her one of past year’s most exciting rising stars.
In 2018 she found her breakout role as the righteous but doomed Eden Spencer in The Handmaid’s Tale, followed by a supporting role in psychological thriller Sharp Objects, as roommate Alice to Amy Adams’s character Camille in a psychiatric facility.
Then, after enjoying a small part in Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood as one of Charles Manson’s cult, she was cast as hopeless romantic Cassie in Euphoria, which received nine Emmy nominations and became the second “most-tweeted about” series behind Game of Thrones.
After a two-year hiatus, in which Sweeney launched her production company Fifty-Fifty films and began a bachelor’s degree in Business at UCLA, she returned to screens last summer. In HBO’s hit satirical comedy The White Lotus. Sweeney delivered such a parody of a threateningly woke teen the New York Times dubbed her and her co-star Brittany O’Grady “the scariest girls on TV”.
Now Euphoria’s new second season — in which Cassie’s character arc takes centre-stage — will surely propel Sweeney to stardom.
Born in Spokane, Washington to a conservative household — her mother was a criminal barrister before she gave birth to Sweeney’s younger brother, her father is a pharmaceutical rep — Sweeney’s role in one of the most graphic shows on television was not the easiest family announcement. Particularly when the very first episode sees Cassie having sex, topless, while another scene has Cassie enjoying a highly public solo orgasm on a family fairground ride.
“It was really hard for my mum, I think, because there is a generational divide, and there were so many rules and filters for TV back when she was young. She wasn’t used to seeing something so blatantly in front of her. Whereas this season she has realised that this is real life, and it’s easier for her to get it,” says Sweeney bright and chirpy over the phone from LA, with none of Cassie’s morose listlessness.
“And also, when it comes to nudity, I mean, she gave birth to me.”
When I ask whether she has ever watched the show with her mother she emits a tiny shriek of horror. “Oh my God can you imagine? Who does that? Although I get way too nervous to watch any of my work with my family, even the work with no nudity,” says Sweeney, for whom acting was such a calling she sent her parents a five-year plan by PowerPoint when she was just 12.
Convinced, the family moved to Los Angeles shortly after, where Sweeney successfully auditioned for starter roles in Pretty Little Liars, Grey's Anatomy and Under the Silver Lake.
And what does her dad make of Euphoria? Another small shriek, followed by audible wincing. “So my dad is a little scarred, because for whatever reason I forgot to tell him what Euphoria was about. And then the first season came out, and he sat to watch it with his parents, my grandparents!, and the first scene is…well… I think he made it to the point where I was slammed down on the bed and he has refused to turn it back on since.”
The show’s rampant nudity has caused much tittering among certain generations, and was the reason Sweeney ignored the first audition request. But after rationalising that the sex scenes are “real scene[s]. It’s not sugar-coated. It’s not glamourised, it’s not covered up”, she also realised there was something deeply relatable about Cassie. So when she was asked to audition a second time, she gingerly set off a tape.
“I connected with her on so many levels, such as her devotion — I definitely will lose myself to love and follow my heart sometimes more than my brain,” says Sweeney.
“Also on the level of her being sexualised. I developed my boobs very young, I think in sixth grade, I already had 32 DDs. And when you are young with boobs, you aren't looked at the same way. And you're not treated the same way by girls or guys — although girls are the worst. It’s not the same experience. Sometimes people don't look past your body.”
None of the sex scenes in Euphoria are titillating — if anything they are grotesque, crucially highlighting how damaging young people’s consumption of porn can be to their conception of intimacy. Cassie in particular is a victim of revenge porn, and when confronting a boyfriend about how aggressive he is in the bedroom, he replies, baffled: “I thought that’s how you liked it?”
Interestingly, the only (but relentless) full-frontal nudity in the second season is male. “Well, only because they’re wearing prosthetics,” corrects Sweeney when I bring it up. “Because you can’t possibly show an erect penis but tits are totally fine!” she quips.
In fact if anything, the nudity has been beneficial, reflects Sweeney, whose confidence was knocked last year after bitter trolls ripped into her appearance on Twitter, prompting her to upload a tearful video to Instagram.
“Apparently I am trending on Twitter right now for being ugly,” she said. “I would never actually do this, ever, but I think it's really important for people to see how words actually affect people… I know everyone says you can’t read things, you shouldn’t read things, but I’m a f______ person. I’m just sitting here with my dog, Tank, watching HGTV, wearing my snuggie.” Her nude scenes, however, have proved empowering, helping her feel like “nobody can judge me, I just put myself out there.”
Movingly, she also credits the show with helping her forge close female friendships for the first time. “I found girl groups so intimidating growing up, it was so much easier to hang with the guys. I was so jealous of Cassie's friendships in the first season, but playing her helped me make my own.”
She maintains a healthy level of distance from her characters, so that even when the inevitable screengrabs of certain scenes make their way onto social media, she is able to see the images as of her character, rather than her. “I’m really lucky that I can slip in and out of my characters very easily,” she says. In the past, she has joked: “When I see nudes of Cassie on the internet, I think, OK, Cassie’s having a good day.”
Preparing for these characters becomes a full-time job for Sweeney, who begins a “character book” filled with chronological diary entries, letters, stickers and lists from her character’s perspective, as well as details about their friends, family and where they went to school, from the day she gets the part.
To prepare for Cassie she listened to the kind of wallowing music she would get lost in — from Billie Eilish to Adele and Lana Del Ray — and repeatedly watched Mommy Dearest, the biopic about lonely movie star Joan Crawford.
For Olivia in The White Lotus, she listened to episodes of the liberal culture podcast Red Scare, mimicking the hosts’ bored and cynical drawl when lecturing her on-screen father about cultural appreciation on behalf of her mixed-race school friend Paula.
“Olivia is basically just a woke Twitter account, retweeting other woke people’s views,” she says of the character, who, in one particularly brilliant scene, sweetly comforts her father finding out his father was gay and died of Aids with the line: “Even if he wasn’t a top, that doesn’t mean he was femme.”
While playing Eden in The Handmaid’s Tale, her character book was so in-depth it even influenced the script, with producer Bruce Miller “borrowing” the book for a day, and working in parts of Eden’s backstory that revolved around her parents and her sister.
“During Eden’s demise, she has a mum, a little sister in the stands watching, and none of her family stuff had been developed yet, so it was so cool that Bruce took note of that. But that’s the first and the last time I’ve ever shown anybody my book.”
Sweeney is building up quite the repertoire of “dark” roles. Where does she get these impulses from? “I don’t know,” she giggles . “I grew up watching Sponge Bob Square Pants, Scooby Doo and cheesy love stories! But I think, because I am such a happy person, I love to tap into these parts of me that I don’t have access to most of the time.”
Up next for Sweeney is a film she describes as “Tarantino meets Clint Eastwood”, which begins shooting in Albuquerque very soon. “It’s very different from anything else that I’ve done,” she says. The first film from her production company, The Players Table, based on the YA murder mystery novel They Wish They Were Us by Jessica Goodman, is also currently in development at HBO and will star Sweeney alongside her friend and musician Halsey.
Until then, she’s keeping busy by refurbishing an “old home built in 1932” herself. “I tore up the carpet the other day, repainted and finished the floors,” says Sweeney, who, quite the “fixer”, also delights her fans on TikTok with videos of her doing up her collection of old cars: Betty, Brittany and a yet to be named Bronco.
For now, fans will have weekly episodes of Euphoria to look forward to — the finale in particular.
“Cassie goes somewhere completely unexpected,” she says slowly, careful not to give anything anyway. “Cassie has never tapped into something like that, and neither have I. But there is such a personal meaning for me in the show, that I have secretly weaved into her character throughout the season, which you’ll see in the finale.”
Can she give me a clue? “You get to find out what that is when she goes ice-skating,” Sweeney dangles mischievously. “You’ll see.”
Euphoria is available to watch on Neon.
The Daily Telegraph