Sydney Sweeney changed my life. In 2019, I was Cosmo’s op-ed editor—a busy job unto itself. But I was also in the midst of another professional challenge: finishing my first novel, They Wish They Were Us. Around the same time, Sydney was stealing scenes in Sharp Objects and The Handmaid’s Tale—and although she was about to debut as the hungry-for-love, bad-decision-prone Cassie on Euphoria and the snarky, privileged Olivia on The White Lotus, she was dreaming even bigger too. Determined to be the person in control of her career, she was plotting the launch of her own production company, through which she’d option books, adapt them for the screen, and become a Reese Witherspoon–level Hollywood boss. She was, by the way, 22.
Sydney ended up reading my book—a prep school murder mystery—and flying to New York to talk to me about buying the film rights. Now she’s in the midst of turning it into an HBO Max series called The Players Table, starring herself and her real-life best friend Halsey (casual). So like I said: life, changed.
Along the way, Sydney’s been dramatically transforming her own life. She’s been optioning a slew of projects through her up-and-very-much-running company Fifty-Fifty Films, writing screenplays, and solidifying her spot as a next-gen A-list actor in movies like Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, the erotic thriller The Voyeurs, and the Netflix vampire flick Night Teeth and, of course, on the new season of Euphoria, where her already nuanced character goes to even more complex places.
She dives deep into all her projects by creating what she calls “character bibles,” backstories and inner lives that often take months to catalog. (“There are characters I love, and then there are characters I’m scared of—those are the good ones,” she explains.) It’s a process that wouldn’t surprise anyone who really knows her. This is, after all, the same woman who, as a preteen, convinced her family to move from Spokane to Los Angeles via a PowerPoint presentation that included a five-year plan for how she’d become an actor. “I love something that feels like a challenge,” Sydney says as we reconnect for this interview. The more daunting, the better.
Most actors wait for what seems like decades before they get involved with the business side of the industry. Did you have a plan for how to get started?
I’m obsessed with branding and marketing. I love the idea of being like, Okay, I love this project, now how can I make this consumable to a mass market? So I called my agents and was like, “Do you think this is something I can achieve?” They’ve always believed in everything I put my mind to, so they supported me and sent me books to consider. Of course, I fell in love with yours, and you know the rest of that. But I don’t think they thought I’d become so engrossed in it.
What’s surprised you about being in the driver’s seat of Fifty-Fifty Films?
One, how many steps it takes to get something made. There are so many hurdles and passageways and people. Two, as much as people in the industry say they support young female voices, I’m still having to fight, even among older women. I was told that I couldn’t get a credit I believed I deserved, and I couldn’t get my company’s name on a project I was developing. I have my theories why. Maybe they feel like we’re getting it too easy. I was told I have to do multiple things before I can get a credit like that, as if I didn’t deserve it. And that came from women. I found that very surprising. Everyone puts on the charade that we’re supporting each other, but I have not felt that fully yet.
It’s like they want you to jump through the hoops they jumped through. What else—besides the projects we already know about—are you working on right now?
Like, a shit ton. I sold a movie. I may or may not have adapted a book as a screenplay. I have about seven different books that I have the rights to. It’s terrifying because this is the kind of industry where everyone gets to watch you fail. It’s a lot of pressure. But everyone is going to have good and bad; no one has a perfect slate of box-office hits.
Are there any roles you look back on now and, well, cringe just a little?
Anything before Everything Sucks! and Sharp Objects. I pretend that was a whole different person—I have blocked out so much of that time, of my high school life. Going to school in L.A. was so different from back home in Spokane. People’s values were on a whole different level. My grandparents gave me their old Volvo that squirrels were living in. I had to put cardboard on the floor because oil would just spill out everywhere. All the other kids had Range Rovers and BMWs, and I was so embarrassed by my car. I feel bad because I’m so beyond grateful that I had grandparents who were able to give me a car, but I would leave the keys in the ignition hoping someone would steal it so I could take the insurance out on it. No one did.
It sounds like you were straddling a double life as you were trying to get your acting career off the ground.
Yes. And at that time, I wasn’t the most confident person. I knew I was a good actor, but no one believed in me. I was told to lose weight or that my hair was the wrong color. Random things that make you start to question, Am I not going to ever become my dream?
And you had a lot going on at home too, right?
In Spokane, I played sports every day. My cousins were always over at my house, teaching me how to start fires with magnifying glasses. I miss my childhood a lot. I miss how beautiful the world looked and I miss having a family unit, my mom and dad and brother all in one place. After we moved to L.A. so I could act, finances were a huge stress. My dad lost his job and we went bankrupt. They always say, “It wasn’t your fault.” It was. And when my parents were getting a divorce, my brother blamed me. But at first, I think they enjoyed L.A. It was an escape from routine. That’s what I tell myself. There was definitely a different, rough route that I could have taken.
There’s a history of alcoholism and drug addiction in my family tree. I’ve never done any drugs—I’m terrified that I’m going to have that addiction. There’s something in my family’s blood that just hits a different way when they do stuff. I drink maybe once a year, because I have social anxiety. I prefer intimate gatherings. I’d like everyone to pile up on the couch and play board games or watch TV. I can’t do the pointless standing around and drinking and getting nowhere in life. But around the time my parents got divorced, I did act out with guys. I would run into the arms of guys to try to fill this void.…I was looking for love to replace the emptiness of a home.
This is the stuff that makes us. How has your relationship with your family changed?
My relationship with my mom became way healthier, and my dad and I kind of drifted apart, which broke my heart. My brother and I are way better now. Do I wish that we could all be together? Of course, what kid doesn’t? I tried, once. When you’re an actor who’s a minor, a small percentage of your paychecks goes into a bank account you can’t access until you’re 18. I naively thought I was going to have all this money, and I had this grand plan for it. When we left Spokane for L.A., we had to sell the house I grew up in. It was my mom’s dream house. So when I turned 18, it wasn’t even a year after my parents divorced and I thought, I’m going to buy this house back and I’ll save everyone. I’ll get my family back together. Turns out, I had nowhere near enough money. I never cried more in my entire life.
It’s heartbreaking, that feeling of realizing there are some things you can’t fix. Since that moment, though, the rest of your life and career have changed, a lot. Euphoria was such a turning point. You have a lot to work with when it comes to Cassie—drugs, pregnancy, revenge porn….
I don’t agree with all of Cassie’s decisions, but I remember being a teenage girl and letting my heart speak louder than my mind, so I would probably make some of the same decisions that she did.
How has the reaction to season 2 been different to season 1?
It’s been a whirlwind. Seeing how many people feel for these characters is incredible, and I hope they’re learning empathy as a result. We worked really hard for a really long time; the cast and crew poured their hearts and souls into the show, so [I’m glad it’s] getting recognition.
Cassie’s “I’ve never been happier” scene has gone viral on TikTok. How do you feel about fans relating to the show so heavily?
I know! It’s crazy. I keep getting sent different videos of people using the sound. It’s fascinating. It’s a beautiful thing when you have a character that so many people are able to draw from and relate to. It’s a very special experience to be able to connect to people through that.
Season 2 ends with Cassie having a physical fight with best friend Maddy and a falling-out with sister Lexi. That must have been intense for you.
Alexa Demie plays her character so flawlessly. Who wouldn’t be scared of Maddy? I personally would be terrified, so I can only imagine how scared Cassie is. But no, we don’t [do method acting], we’re best friends. Season 2 was so different [from season 1] because last season, Cassie was so confident and on this path of self-love and self-worth. And then in the season 2 finale, Cassie is completely destroyed and distraught. I can only imagine where she’s going to go next season.
Where would you like to see her go in season 3?
I never want to put my own opinions onto a character because I thoroughly enjoy Sam [Levinson]’s writing and I’m excited to see what he cooks up for Cassie. I’m patiently waiting to find out.
And how did it feel to see everyone’s reactions to your character Olivia in The White Lotus?
The White Lotus has been a completely different kind of turning point. I don’t think as many people took me seriously in Euphoria because I took my shirt off. With The White Lotus, all of a sudden, all these people came out of the woodwork like, “You’re the most amazing…” and I’m like, But I went through the craziest emotional roller coaster in Euphoria. So, thanks?
How do you feel about doing nude scenes, personally?
I’m so disconnected from it. When I get tagged in Cassie’s or Pippa from The Voyeurs’s nudes, it feels like me looking at their nudes, not Sydney’s nudes. When you film one of these scenes, it is so technical and so not romantic. There are people staring at you, there’s pads between you, there’s nipple covers and weird sticker thongs all up in your butt. When I saw The Voyeurs for the first time, I wondered if I’d done too much. I researched celebrities who have done nude scenes, trying to make myself feel better. There are hour-long compilations of world-famous male actors with nude scenes who win Oscars and get praised for that work. But the moment a woman does it, it degrades them. They’re not actresses. They just take off their tops so they can get a role. There’s such a double standard and I really hope I can have a little part in changing that.
Does it feel strange when fans, especially on social, think they have real relationships with you?
Sometimes I feel guilty about it. I would love to share my normal life so that people can see that it’s not all glamour. But I can’t because one, I like my privacy, and two, social media is another platform for business. Sharing my life on it could go against the integrity of the business and brand I’m trying to create.
So how do you decide what to share?
I have this formula that I try to follow. I’ll post about my work, I’ll post about fashion because when the hell else would I look that good? And then I try to sprinkle in a Syd post once in a while.
Syd is the real you.
Syd is the real me.
Who gets to see Syd?
A lot of my family back home, my dog Tank, and a few close friends. I don’t have a giant group of friends. I prefer quality over quantity. Sometimes at work, if I feel really comfortable with the cast and crew, different versions of Syd will come out. Sometimes I’ll go home and be like, I wish I didn’t speak as much.
A few months ago, you went on Instagram Live and talked about trolls and how their cruelty impacted you, through tears. It was an incredibly intimate moment that went viral. But it also seemed a little out of character.
It was. But there’s more to the story. That morning, I had a campaign shoot for a lingerie company. I started my period and I did not want to put a tampon in because I didn’t want to be bloated in the photos. I googled that you could take, like, three or four pills of birth control and mix it with Advil or Tylenol and it’ll make you stop your period. [Editor’s note: We don’t recommend this due to health complications…as you’re about to see.] I did that and went to the photo shoot an hour later and started feeling dizzy and nauseous. I was like, Fuck, maybe I need to eat something. I had a muffin and it did not make me feel good. All of a sudden, I threw up in the middle of this shoot, everywhere. I was a mess. I felt so embarrassed. I was jacked on so many different hormones. And I was appalled at myself because I’m always so on top of it and professional. I had to go home. That night, one of my friends really wanted me to go out with her and I texted her and said, “I can’t come.” I think it was the last straw, me bailing on her. She said that she couldn’t rely on me and didn’t want to be my friend anymore. So that happens and I’m already crying, throwing up, and then two seconds later, I go on Twitter and see that I’m trending. I’m reading all these comments saying so much stupid stuff about my appearance. I went on social media and cried. People were like, “Oh, she’s just looking for attention.” People literally kill themselves over stuff like this. And people just don’t give a fuck. I went on for, like, maybe 12 seconds. I did not think anyone was going to record it. I just needed to let it out. Then it just went everywhere and it became its own beast.
Looking back, are you glad you talked about it?
Yeah, because it’s something people deal with on a daily basis. Am I embarrassed? Of course. I still don’t think everyone is going to see what I do.
Is all this—and the fact that most people don’t see the real you—one reason you choose to keep your romantic relationships private?
I don’t date people in the spotlight. I don’t date actors or musicians or anyone in entertainment because I can just be normal Syd that way and it’s easiest. I have a great support system.
I have people who will battle for me and allow me to be on the pedestal and shine without making me feel like, Oh no, I’m shining too bright and I need to step back.
Is that what you look for in a partner?
I look for a best friend. I need to be able to be with someone who I can literally hang out with 24/7 and never get sick of and we laugh every single day.
Like someone who can just hang out while you’re working on your car? People are obsessed with your TikToks about restoring a vintage Ford Bronco. How did all that start?
Anyone can go buy a brand-new car, but not everyone can have something rare that has history. In quarantine, my creative juices were overflowing. I was very bored and I got addicted to going to auction sites for cars. I wanted a Bronco so badly. But I wanted to build one so that when I drove it and people said “cool car,” I could be like “yeah, thanks” and know I made it.
What does it feel like to be able to indulge in these hobbies—and all the other things that used to feel out of reach?
I just bought a house for the first time. It has a lot of similar features to the house that my family lost in Spokane. Little secret doors and laundry chutes. It really feels like I’m now able to start the life that I wanted to give to my family. Sometimes I feel really guilty talking about it because I remember myself just three, four years ago not wanting to park in my school lot because I didn’t have a nice car. But then at the same time, I’m beyond proud of myself. I get teary thinking that I’m actually working and achieving my dreams.
Stylist: Cassie Anderson. Hair: Florido Basallo using The Hair Shop. Makeup: Melissa Hernandez at The Wall Group. Manicure: Zola Ganzorigt using Dior Vernis. Fashion assistant: Kate Longarzo. Props: Cate Geiger Kalus. Executive Producer: Abbey Adkison. Senior Producer: Liesl Lar. Cinematographer: Jennifer Cox. Editor: Amanda Evans. Postproduction Supervisor: Heather Weyrick. Production: Crawford & Co Productions.
On Sydney on the cover: Gucci dress, necklace, and minaudière. Lead image: Hervé Léger hot pants. Marlo Laz necklace. Sydney in bed: Michael Kors Collection top, briefs, and belt. Foundrae necklace. The Euphoria Books: Season 1 Boxed Set. Sydney in basket chair: Fendi dress, pants, heels, earrings, belt, and bag. Gucci sunglasses with chain. BVLGARI watch. Sydney at the piano: Giambattista Valli dress. Cadar earrings and ring. Pink top and skirt: Prabal Gurung top and skirt. Kloto earrings. Marlo Laz ring.
Jessica Goodman is the New York Times bestselling author of young adult thrillers They Wish they Were Us, They’ll Never Catch Us, and The Counselors. She is the former op-ed editor at Cosmopolitan magazine, and was part of the 2017 team that won a National Magazine Award in personal service. She has also held editorial positions at Entertainment Weekly and HuffPost, and her work has been published in outlets like Glamour, Condé Nast Traveler, Elle, and Marie Claire.