They don’t call Sydney Sweeney the queen of memes for no reason. Even if you’ve never seen her play the beautiful, vulnerable Cassie Howard on the groundbreaking TV show Euphoria, you’ve almost certainly seen her in character and curled up in a bathtub or having one of Cassie’s many, storied breakdowns in the “I’ve never, ever been happier” meme.
Meeting Sweeney, it can be hard to reconcile this lively, sweet person with her on-screen implosions and tragedies. There’s a reason for that.
“I never want to take my own life and put it in a character, because I want to be feeling and thinking exactly what my character is feeling and thinking,” she says. “I don’t bring anybody home with me. Cassie is very close to my heart and means a lot to me – and will forever be very close to me. But nobody necessarily gets into my head.”
The 25-year-old has been working for more than a decade, guest-starring in such TV shows as 90210, Grey’s Anatomy and Pretty Little Liars while still in her teens, then landing more prominent roles in Sharp Objects, The Handmaid’s Tale and Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
“Every director has their own incredible, artistic approach to a film,” says Sweeney. “But working with someone like Tarantino, is, of course, an actor’s dream. And being able to cross that off the list at 21 was unbelievable.”
It was Euphoria, however, that cemented Sweeney’s status as the internet’s girlfriend.
“That’s such a funny way to put it,” she says. “It did change my life for sure. And White Lotus was like a double whammy. When people come up to me, they might say they know me from White Lotus or they might say they know me from Euphoria. Sometimes it’s The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s all over the place. But I find fan interactions are supersweet. It’s great to get these reactions and meet all these amazing people. I feel like the last five years have been a long dream. I keep having pinch-me moments.”
Sweeney is seldom out of the news, often for no reason at all. In recent weeks, photographs of her with Glen Powell, the Top Gun: Maverick star, on the set of the new romcom Anyone But You were enough to spark headlines.
Vox jumped the gun with the compound “Poweeney”, despite Sweeney remaining firmly engaged to her long-time boyfriend, Jonathan Davino, a restaurateur. British Vogue weighed in with a formidable think piece headlined “The ‘Sydney Sweeney scandal’ is a classic case of Hollywood slut-shaming”.
She laughs off the furore around the photographs. “You know, I’m so excited for people to see the movie, because I think they’ll see the joy that all the cast and crew had creating it and the love that we all had for Australia, where we shot, and each other. It was a really fun time. We watched popcorn movies. We saw John Wick 4 and Scream. And we watched [my costar] Dermot Mulroney’s movie My Best Friend’s Wedding.”
Last March, when Sweeney spoke about feeling ostracised for developing breasts at an early age, the internet combusted with commentary: “The misogyny aimed at Sydney Sweeney’s ‘boobs’ shows there is a ‘hatred of female sexuality’, says expert,” one headline ran. “Sydney Sweeney could be the best actress of her generation and we wouldn’t know it because her boobs get top billing everywhere she goes,” a film critic bemoaned at Lainey Gossip in a think piece that went on to mention those “boobs” at least five times.
Sweeney has noted, not inaccurately, that there is a “stigma against actresses who get naked on screen” and that nobody talked about her work on Euphoria “because I got naked”. The White Lotus, conversely, provided a juncture after which “all of a sudden critics are paying attention”.
They will certainly be paying attention to Sweeney in Reality, a new feature based on the interrogation and arrest, in 2017, of the US intelligence contractor Reality Winner, a former US air-force linguist and National Security Agency translator who made international headlines when she was arrested and charged with leaking classified information.
In 2018 she was sentenced to more than five years in prison – the longest term ever imposed for unauthorised release of US government information – for leaking a document alleging Russian interference in the American presidential election of 2016 to the media.
Tina Satter, the film’s director, adapted it from her play Is This a Room.
“I didn’t know anything really about the story going into it,” says Sweeney, who is superb in the role. “I was able to look at it as a human experience. And that’s what I love so much about our movie, that it’s from the actual transcript. It’s not a political headline. It’s not what someone else has imagined is going on in somebody else’s head. It’s the actual transcript from somebody’s real experience.”
In preparation for the role, Sweeney got to know the real Winner over Zoom and text. She watched as many interviews as she could find to perfect Winner’s dialect and mannerisms. Aware of her subject’s time as a yoga and CrossFit instructor, the actor re-created Winner’s diet and exercise programme and gained considerable muscle mass.
“Tina, our director, already had a relationship with Reality and Reality’s sister and mom. So when I got the role, Tina connected us and I was able to dive into her personal life and her situation and the experience that she went through. Because I was portraying a real person, I wanted to embody her as fully as possible. I was following her workouts on Instagram. I had to look like someone who did bodybuilding and yoga.”
She laughs. “I love doing homework. It’s no matter if I’m on a role or a project for a day or if I’m on it for five months. I will put the same exact amount of work and ethic and effort behind what I do.”
Reality, which premiered in Berlin last February to considerable acclaim, was shot chronologically, an unusual strategy that makes the ordeal of the central character more palpable.
As the film opens, the young translator returns from a yoga class to find FBI agents waiting at her home. At first she is mostly concerned that her dog and cat don’t escape as agents stomp through her house searching for evidence.
Two interrogators (played by Josh Hamilton and Marchánt Davis) muster small talk and gasp over her weightlifting and language skills – Winner is fluent in Persian, Dari and Pashto – before relocating to an empty spare room, where they exert ever greater pressure to expose her as the source for a story leaked to the Intercept, the nonprofit news site founded by Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill.
The thriller’s vice-like grip felt very real on set, says Sweeney. “As we went on I definitely could feel the intense weight of the situation growing stronger and stronger,” she says. “And once we got into that room, there was no way out. We were in that room for the rest of the shoot. It was a very short time frame as well. That made it more impactful.”
Sweeney’s appearance at the Berlinale was part of a whirlwind series of stopovers at Cannes, Sundance and South by Southwest over the past year. It’s a far cry from her rural and religious upbringing in Idaho. She was born in Washington state to a lawyer mother and medical-practitioner father. She was something of a polymath at school, learning several languages and excelling at soccer, baseball and slalom skiing.
She recalls being asked to write an essay on possible future careers at middle school. Unable to settle on one, she gravitated towards acting. When an indie movie called ZMD: Zombies of Mass Destruction began shooting in her hometown in 2009, she was determined to play a part.
“My parents thought it was like wanting to be a princess,” says Sweeney. “They did not understand it at all. And they thought that it would just kind of go away. And then I was 11 or 12 years old when this very small, cringy movie came to town. I wanted to audition. But I had to speak to my parents in a language that they could understand. So I put together a five-year-business-plan presentation. And they’re, like, ‘Oh shit, she’s very serious about this,’ so they let me audition – and I got it and we all just fell in love with it.”
Fourteen years later and she has joined the Marvel Universe as Julia Carpenter, one of two competing Spider-Women in the forthcoming Madame Web. The film swings into cinemas next February.
“My NDA [nondisclosure agreement] is still very much alive,” she says. “But I’m very excited to speak about it when I can, because I think it’s just going to be such a beautiful movie, with incredible female leads and Dakota Johnson. I can’t wait for audiences to see it. I grew up watching Iron Man with my dad and little brother. It’s quite a world to be in.”
Reality opens in cinemas on Friday, June 2nd