The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Terrified of Gen Z? Sydney Sweeney and HBO can take some credit for that.

Her sexy ‘Euphoria’ and snarky ‘White Lotus’ characters shock (and scare) viewers. But she swears she’s nothing like that in real life.

Sydney Sweeney's roles on “Euphoria” and “The White Lotus” have made her an HBO breakout star. (Philip Cheung for The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

As Olivia on “The White Lotus,” Sydney Sweeney narrows her blue-as-Barbicide eyes over a copy of “The Portable Nietzsche” to toss off a vicious, vocal-fried observation that will straight-up shatter a grown man’s confidence while sending a tremor of terror through anyone older than 30 watching at home. As Cassie on “Euphoria,” those same eyes go Bambi-wide in love, hope and panic; rather than fear her, viewers fear for her, a naive romantic melting down as the guy she’s secretly having sex with studiously ignores her, lest his volatile ex (who is also Cassie’s best friend) discover their tryst.

Cassie is the girl even bad boys dream about. Olivia is the stuff of most parents’ nightmares. It is very funny and a little odd to think of Sweeney, the 24-year-old responsible for both characters, as being either one. When we meet over Zoom, she is eating animal crackers, sitting on the floor of the house in Los Angeles she bought with her “Euphoria” money. The home is perched on a hill overlooking a golf course, with high ceilings striped with exposed wooden beams and a backyard big enough for her dog, Tank, to run happy laps in all day.

It’s cliched to compliment an actor by saying they’re nothing like the characters they play. But Sweeney, who comes across as practical, levelheaded and extremely self-aware, seems almost parodically distant from the roles that made her famous, two unstable young women with no idea who they really are, one of whom she doesn’t even like. When she watched herself as Olivia in “The White Lotus,” Sweeney says, “I was like, 'I cannot stand this girl. If I ever ran into her, I’d be so scared.’ ” People have asked Sweeney if they think Cassie and Olivia would be friends. To which she replies: “You really think Olivia would be friends with anybody?”

The White Lotus” is a classic Mike White creation, a biting, uneasy satire about rich people in paradise who keep finding ways to be miserable on a luxury vacation. Olivia’s best friend could be lying to her, her dad could have cancer, and all her brother’s earthly possessions could be swept up by the sea — and she would look on, bored by it all, a droll comment always at the ready.

“I just thought there was real courage in the way she was able to understand and tap into that kind of cynical coverup that I think so many young people do,” said Connie Britton, Sweeney’s TV mom on “The White Lotus.” “She was able to capture that in such a nuanced and honest way, in a way that another actor might have thought they really had to play that. Sydney never played it. She just embodied it.”

Meanwhile, “Euphoria” feels like it was concocted in a lab to incite panic among anyone old enough to remember where they were on 9/11. A chaotic, hedonistic swirl of sex, glitter and fentanyl, the series premiered in mid-2019, right around when TikTok exploded, and seems designed with that app’s frenetic, remixed consumption in mind. Though she’s sometimes on screen for only minutes of the hour-long episodes, Sweeney’s a breakout star online, her darkly comic big swings as meme-able as they come: waking up at 4 a.m. to have a manic episode via elaborate skin care routine; drunkenly wailing along to Sinead O’Connor while using a bottle of wine as a microphone; projectile-vomiting into a hot tub; scream-crying in the girls’ bathroom that she has “never, EVER been happier.”

Between the two shows, Sweeney has basically been crowned Miss Teen HBO, a regular presence on Sunday nights, the most prestigious time slot in prestige TV landscape. “I don’t even get my generation,” Sweeney says, yet she has become something of an avatar for Gen Z, encapsulating adults’ twin concerns about teens today: that they are either like Olivia — manipulative, ruthless — or Cassie — so hungry for approval that they make themselves easy prey. In portraying both, Sweeney has found herself at the center of two charged cultural conversations around the depiction of young women on television.

“Your eyes are drawn to her,” White said. “She doesn’t have to do a lot to bring you in. And it was something that I didn’t even really realize [until] we were editing: There’s just something about her. She’s a little scene-stealer. She just has that thing that makes someone a star.”

Sweeney has been aimed arrow-straight at the career she now has since she was a tween in Spokane, Wash., and an independent movie was being shot in her state. She persuaded her parents to let her audition by putting together a presentation on a five-year business plan of what would happen if she got the role: an agent in Seattle, commercials for a reel, travel to Los Angeles, then booking a TV show during pilot season. Her parents, figuring nothing would come of indulging this fantasy, relented, and Sweeney got the part. (Perhaps you caught her cinematic debut in “ZMD: Zombies of Mass Destruction”?)

What followed, Sweeney says, was seven years of auditioning and landing nearly nothing. “I was getting small, really cringeworthy things,” she says. After two years, her family relocated to L.A. to support her still-nascent career. “People from back home … didn’t understand what we were doing, and so I got a lot of hate for that,” Sweeney says. “I was getting so many terrible phone calls and emails and just random text messages from people telling me I should kill myself, that I'm ugly, [and] telling my parents they can't believe that they're letting their daughter go to a hell-ridden city.”

Sweeney struggled to assimilate at her high school in Burbank. She regularly missed class for auditions (though still graduated valedictorian), and she says her 1990 Volvo that “leaked oil everywhere” was formally exiled from the gated student parking lot to make space for her classmates’ nicer cars. “It’s just a very unhealthy environment to grow up in.”

In time, Sweeney started stringing together meatier parts. She played a devout, doomed young bride on Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a psychiatric patient on HBO’s “Sharp Objects,” a passionate drama kid on Netflix’s one-season-wonder “Everything Sucks!” Finally came the audition notice that would change everything, for a new HBO series that promised to tell the unfiltered truth about growing up with anxiety and addiction: “Euphoria.”

During casting, information was kept largely under wraps, and a handful of women were brought in to read for just one part: Maddy, Cassie’s best friend (played by Alexa Demie). Sweeney was scandalized by what little she could learn — “I was like, ‘Oh, my God, this show, my family’s going to kill me’” — and initially passed on the audition.

But the producers came back to her, asking if she’d put herself on tape for Cassie, a girl who falls for every guy she dates but gets pilloried for her alleged promiscuity. Sweeney begged to read the full pilot, which didn’t tell her much more about her character (as Sweeney puts it, “It’s literally just Cassie getting naked on a bed”) but did sell her on the series as a whole. Though most young people would probably die at the thought of even watching “Euphoria” with their parents (and vice versa, no doubt), Sweeney asked her mom to read with her so she could submit a tape. She requested more scripts and a call with creator-writer-director Sam Levinson, who told her more about Cassie’s journey. “I knew I could bring way more to Cassie than what is just written,” says Sweeney, who takes her character development seriously, writing entire books for every character she plays, tracking their lives from birth to the present day.

“It’s tricky with a character like that, who is doing things that most of the people watching the show don’t agree with,” said Maude Apatow, who plays Lexi, Cassie’s sister. “But Sydney is so thoughtful about her characters and her preparation, and I think she really loves the characters she plays and creates these backstories for them … [so] they seem so vulnerable and complicated. She’s never judging the parts that she’s playing.”

White had seen some episodes of “Euphoria” but didn’t recognize Sweeney on her “White Lotus” audition tape. “She had this great, deadpan, monotone approach that I thought was pretty funny,” White said. “Lots of actresses that did it in a little bit more of a precocious way, or a more traditionally comedic way … they were landing the zingers. She just had this disaffected, blank way, [and] it was kind of an original take. … I don’t think she has a lot in common with Olivia, per se, but she ended up being the perfect person.”

“She is, at the same time, just incredibly savvy and professional and smart, but also has this innocence and naivete,” Britton said.

White knew he had something special when they shot the scene in which Olivia offers mock comfort to her dad (Steve Zahn) when he finds out his father died of AIDS complications and likely had sex with men. “He could’ve still been butch, Dad,” she assures him.

“The way she landed those lines,” White said. “This valley girl slash intellectual slash little nymphet, it was like: Oh, my God, this girl is going to steal this episode.”

While the behavior of Cassie and Olivia can be terrifying for different reasons, Olivia’s malice and Cassie’s desperation play very differently on screen, in large part because of how often Cassie is shown in compromising positions without clothes.

The graphic scenes in “Euphoria,” particularly those featuring Sweeney, have prompted some criticism among viewers who question exactly how much and how often skin must be shown in service of Cassie’s story. But Sweeney says she finds the show’s nudity “empowering.” She was made to feel so self-conscious about her body in high school, where she was regularly dress-coded for wearing the same clothes as her peers with smaller chests, she says. Now, she says, “I actually feel more powerful with my body. I feel more confident. I feel more free.”

She reiterates that she has never felt “pressured” to do anything explicit on “Euphoria” and that Levinson recently added clothing to a nude scene per her request. “I said, ‘Sam, I don’t think that she needs to be naked in the scene and I don’t feel comfortable doing it. Everyone’s just going to look at my boobs and not actually take the scene seriously for the content that’s happening.’ He was like, ‘Okay, yeah. You don’t have to do that.’ … I appreciate people being worried … but I’m totally fine on ‘Euphoria.’ ”

“I think that people are projecting a lot onto how she should feel, or what they think she should feel, about the nudity,” said Molly Lambert, a pop culture reporter and one of the sharpest observers in the very active “Euphoria” online universe. “But I also think the nudity on the show is obviously there to titillate. It’s not just plot-driven, necessarily always. But it is also plot-driven, which is that her story line is that she’s getting treated like a piece of meat by everybody. … Not taking her at her word that she doesn’t feel exploited [is] misogynist.”

While in clumsier hands Cassie could seem pathetic, “[Sweeney] is really funny. That’s what makes her compelling,” Lambert said. “She has an almost Cameron Diaz energy: She’s the hot girl who is a really good comedian. I think she’s very good at doing the drag of being a babe, but she seems, as a person and an actress, to know who she is: just sort of a regular girl.”

Sweeney’s performance as Cassie, Lambert added, “is offset by the fact that Sydney Sweeney herself seems really smart and self-aware about the performance she’s doing, and that she seems nothing like the character.”

She pointed to Sweeney’s TikTok account, @SydsGarage, where Sweeney documents the process of fixing up a 1969 Bronco. Contrary to her on-camera style, “She’s just wearing a white tank top and using a blowtorch to fix a car. It just makes her seem like she’s a real person.”

Sweeney’s “Euphoria” character is ending the season with her secret exposed, her life and sanity apparently coming undone. (Apatow: “Sydney plays a nervous breakdown so well.”) In real life, all of Sweeney’s efforts seem to be coming together. She’s busy with her own production company, Fifty-Fifty Films, and “Euphoria” has been renewed for a third season. And she feels like her work is finally clicking with viewers, especially after “The White Lotus” debuted, which sent some “Euphoria” skeptics back to her work on that series. “People are like, ‘Oh, my God, where did she come from?’ ” she says. But nobody asks her that anymore. “People are now taking my performance more seriously and giving me respect.”

She remembers traveling in Europe after “The White Lotus” aired and being recognized in public more and more. “For the first time I was getting followed into stores,” she said, but “people were scared to come up to me because they thought I was going to be mean like Olivia. I was like, ‘That’s not me, don’t worry.’ ”

Loading...