Double Emmy Nominee Sydney Sweeney Talks About Feeling “Empathy” For Her ‘Euphoria’ Character & Her “Terrifying” ‘White Lotus’ Teen Role

·11 min read

As a rule, Sydney Sweeney is drawn to characters that are nothing like her. “I find that challenge interesting,” she says. But playing Cassie Howard, the LA teen who wears her emotions on her sleeve in Sam Levinson’s Euphoria was a welcome exception for the 24-year-old. “Cassie is one of the most relatable characters to me, because I search for love and acceptance, and I’m scared of being alone.” Deadline talked to Sweeney about embodying the intensity of her character, showing real depth to Cassie and what makes her character Olivia on Mike White’s black comedy The White Lotus so terrifying.

DEADLINE: Going into Season 2 of Euphoria, how was it different for you?

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SYDNEY SWEENEY: It’s the first time that I’m able to revisit a character. I was really excited because it was the longest time I’ve ever spent with another character — another person. So being able to go back into her shoes and learn more about her and grow was truly an experience that I’ve always dreamt of.

DEADLINE: How did Sam prepare you for the intense arc that was coming?

SWEENEY: He gave me a heads up of Cassie and Nate’s love affair in between Season 1 and Season 2. But other than that, I was just along for the crazy rollercoaster ride.

DEADLINE: This girl is so alive. What is Cassie like to live in?

SWEENEY: I truly feel everything Cassie feels. I like to look at it as if I am living and breathing that character’s life, and the moments that are happening are truly affecting her. I’m just allowing whatever hits her to hit me. It’s quite a process, but it’s why I fell into acting.

Sydney Sweeney in Euphoria. - Credit: Eddie Chen/HBO
Sydney Sweeney in Euphoria. - Credit: Eddie Chen/HBO

Eddie Chen/HBO

DEADLINE: From the affair that begins in the first episode of Season 2 until Cassie’s unraveling in the finale, do you have a sense of the season’s arc, or do you get the story script by script?

SWEENEY: We will do a chunk of episodes at the same time. We filmed the first four episodes all at once. The first scene that we did was the scene of me in the bathroom going, “I’ve never, ever been happier.” But everything is out of order, and you have to keep track of where you came from and where you’re going, and follow that path that your character’s on. I had no idea what was happening after Episode 4, until we got towards the end of that block. You just have to let go. It’s like this beautiful feeling of, yes, you know your character, but you also have to be open enough to whatever happens next.

DEADLINE: The bathroom scene is so powerful. If you are not actually building up to that chronologically, how do you get to that level of intensity?

SWEENEY: It goes back to me being able to allow a character to just affect me. I truly believe when they call action, I am now Cassie. And when they call cut, I’m Sydney. Anything that is happening [in between], whether it’s the scene partners, the atmosphere, anything in a moment — like a conversation you are having, I just truly listen and feel what Cassie is experiencing. I don’t like to plan it. I don’t do line reads. I just truly allow myself to live in my characters.

DEADLINE: Which is interesting, because sometimes that means that the body doesn’t know the difference between reality and fiction. Do you find that it affects you afterwards? Is she hard to shake off?

SWEENEY: No. Before I even come to set, I am able to flesh her out so much as her own individual that I know her memories, the way that she moves and the way she talks, to the point where what you see on screen is Cassie. I don’t put my own memories and my own life experiences into a character. So, I’m able to separate myself as completely as I need to.

Sweeney as Cassie in Euphoria. - Credit: Eddie Chen/HBO
Sweeney as Cassie in Euphoria. - Credit: Eddie Chen/HBO

Eddie Chen/HBO

DEADLINE: Was there a scene that opened Cassie up to you in Season 2? Something that made you understand her better?

SWEENEY: Yes. It was a scene where she’s sitting in her bathroom and she’s surrounded by all the flowers. I don’t know what it was about it, but that scene just completely broke me — or Cassie. After that moment, I knew that I had so much sympathy for her and empathy for her, even though she was making so many terrible decisions. I hoped that maybe there was an ounce of the audience that would be able to feel empathy for her as well.

DEADLINE: That scene is so quiet compared to how Cassie is usually reacting. What do you think that silence said?

SWEENEY: I think that it was the fear of being alone. She went so deep inside herself that she’s worried that she’ll never be able to come back from it. And I think that she knew that she was falling down this path and she is willing to continually fall.

DEADLINE: The way we’re talking about her is very relatable for a show where it is sometimes difficult to connect to the characters’ dark journeys. As an actor, do you need to find a personal connection to your characters?

SWEENEY: No. I actually try to find characters that I don’t connect to at all because I find that challenge interesting. I always want to challenge myself so that I can better my craft. Cassie, I think is one of the most relatable characters to me, because I search for love in other people and acceptance, and I’m scared of being alone. I was a teenage girl, too, so I definitely relate to her, but most of my characters I try to be vastly different from.

DEADLINE: Was there a scene or a sequence that you were nervous about in Season 2?

SWEENEY: One was the hot tub scene, because I had to have a tube in my mouth and it was filling my mouth with disgusting chunks of food and I don’t even know what, and then I had to hold it in my mouth while the scene was happening and act as if it wasn’t happening and then throw up everywhere. And then the sequence where Cassie goes up on stage and ruins her sister’s play, because I have terrible stage fright and there was an actual audience in the auditorium that we built. So, I was very nervous, but Maude [Apatow] and I, we had a great time together. She made it more enjoyable for me.

DEADLINE: How do you think Cassie has stretched you as an actor?

SWEENEY: I think that she has taught me to let go of insecurities that I may have. And she has taught me to fully allow myself to just engulf myself in her emotions. It’s been a really beautiful experience to be able to play out all of her different, crazy emotions that she’s been having to deal with. It’s been really fun.

DEADLINE: Is it cathartic to have all your emotions on the surface all the time?

SWEENEY: Oh yeah. I feel great when I go home. It’s like therapy.

From left, Connie Britton and Sweeney in The White Lotus. - Credit: Mario Perez/HBO
From left, Connie Britton and Sweeney in The White Lotus. - Credit: Mario Perez/HBO

Mario Perez/HBO

DEADLINE: Then there’s The White Lotus, which is a 180 from Cassie. A character who really holds it in. When you read it, what felt unique about Mike White’s script?

SWEENEY: When you read it, you know it’s Mike White. That was just unique in itself. And I felt like I knew exactly who each one of these characters was. But I was so nervous and I was so scared because I’ve never done comedy quite like that. When I realized that I was nervous going into the audition process, I really wanted it, because I knew it was going to be a challenge. And if something challenges me, then I’m going to go for it, full force.

DEADLINE: That was the case with Euphoria as well, right? You’ve said that you weren’t a lock for Cassie, but you fought for it.

SWEENEY: Because it was the first [role] where I felt like I knew exactly who Cassie was and I was worried that someone else might just come in and play her as the blonde girl and the sex symbol, because there’s so much more to her. I wanted people to be able to see that there is so much more depth to characters like that. And I knew I’d be able to find the depth in a character like that. And I hope people have seen that. And with White Lotus, it was because Olivia is terrifying, and it was a challenge for me to play comedy and I wanted to make sure that I was challenging myself and learning.

DEADLINE: How is Olivia terrifying?

SWEENEY: I mean, look at her [laughs].  She’s like a walking woke Twitter account. Terrifying.

DEADLINE: What’s the challenge in portraying her, as opposed to someone like Cassie?

SWEENEY: Olivia thinks that she knows everything, and you have to fully allow yourself to think that you know everything. She’s expelling who her mother is. She doesn’t want to be anything like her mother, but in doing so, she’s becoming exactly like her. Having to allow that to happen was a fun process.

DEADLINE: How does one portray that kind of confidence?

SWEENEY: I had a lot of amazing co-stars. Being able to work with Connie Britton, Steve Zahn, Jennifer Coolidge — when I was working opposite them, they helped me have that confidence through my character because they allowed themselves to fully become the characters that Mike White created. And Mike White was like, “Don’t even try to be funny.” I’m like, “OK.” So, they truly helped me find the confidence within my character.

DEADLINE: What is unique about Mike White as a director?

SWEENEY: Mike White was the first director where I’ve never changed his words. Everything he wrote, I truly believed that Olivia was there and I was like, “How many people do you have inside you, Mike?”

DEADLINE: Is Euphoria more collaborative?

SWEENEY: Sam is very, very collaborative. We always talk through every scene and our characters. Because, in a way, I feel like we are closest to our characters and we’re living our characters’ lives. So, if we feel like, “So-and-so wouldn’t say this,” Sam’s very receptive and he listens to all of our thoughts.

DEADLINE: As someone who knows Cassie best, what have you managed to impart?

SWEENEY: Especially with her relationship with Nate, there was so much that we were finding as we were going. We wanted there to be different beats that we thought our characters deserved to have. We would sit and work on a scene and Sam would allow Jacob [Elordi] and I to find different moments that grew the scene even more. So, we had the scene, but he allowed us to live in it even longer than what was on the page. Doing that was an amazing experience because he allowed Jacob and I to find even more dynamics throughout the characters.

DEADLINE: Would you say it’s the way they care for each other?

SWEENEY: The care and also the struggles that they were having to go through, because it wasn’t all just a beautiful dream. We wanted to show that there still was a bit of toxicity and control over who actually was playing with whose strings. I really loved finding that Cassie was learning how to use her power and manipulate Nate as well. I wanted to show that shift of power dynamics in it and not just show that she’s his puppet and his puppy.

Read the digital edition of Deadline’s Emmy Nominees magazine here.
Read the digital edition of Deadline’s Emmy Nominees magazine here.

DEADLINE: The White Lotus must have been such a fun juxtaposition to Euphoria. Do you wish you could have gone back for Season 2?

SWEENEY: I am so excited for Jennifer and her season. Of course, I love everyone involved, but who knows? Maybe later on.

DEADLINE: And lastly, we know you can’t say much about Marvel’s Madame Web, which you’re working on currently. But how does a project like that allows you to evolve professionally?

SWEENEY: Well, I think it’s challenging me in new areas. It’s something I’ve never quite done before and it’s physically and emotionally challenging in new ways that I can’t wait for everyone to see.

DEADLINE: Is the secrecy hard?

SWEENEY: Yeah. Because I’m a pretty open person, but I’m learning. I can’t wait until I can actually talk everything through.

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