Sydney Sweeney Takes Control: The ‘Euphoria’ Star on ‘Feeling Beat Up’ by Online Rumors and Proving People Wrong in Her Producer Era

It’s a hot Thursday afternoon in Los Angeles, but Sydney Sweeney, balancing on a block of ice, is keeping her cool.

Sweeney — the 25-year-old star of “Euphoria,” “Reality” and now this photo shoot — is clad in just a hot-pink swimsuit and matching heels as she kneels on the frozen surface; despite the chill, she betrays not a hint of discomfort. Her entourage, which today includes her father, Steven, huddle around monitors to observe a master at work.

Suddenly, the performance switches off, and she leaps up shrieking, letting out giggles and shivering. She recalls the moment two weeks later at a tea shop in New York City (and three weeks before SAG-AFTRA goes on strike). “I love when they let us play,” she says.

Luckily, as one of the most prodigious actors of her generation, that’s Sweeney’s job. On set with us, she is a ’90s-throwback magazine queen, channeling the glory days of Cosmo cover girls; on “Euphoria” and “The White Lotus,” she deploys calibrated brattiness (and received supporting Emmy nominations for both); in “Reality,” her 2023 film that rocked the Berlin International Film Festival before bowing on HBO, she’s less demonstrative, emitting waves of unease as real-life National Security Agency whistleblower Reality Winner. Each time, she’s beaten expectations to prove herself an expert excavator of character, and a performer eager to forge her own path.

Eric Ray Davidson for Variety

There’s been plenty of both sides of Sweeney — the actor and the woman — on view in the past couple years. Sweeney has lately seen career opportunities explode, with a Marvel movie, “Madame Web,” in the can and a “Barbarella” reboot in development. And she’s become an object of endless speculation, with rumors swirling around her family’s politics and a certain rom-com co-star. “Sometimes I feel beat up by it,” Sweeney says pensively. “It’s hard to sit back and watch, and not be able to stand up for yourself.”

Which has made independence, through producing her own projects, a goal of Sweeney’s. Her small, showy role in the 2018 limited series “Sharp Objects” gave her the chance to study the late director Jean-Marc Vallée. “I was there as many days as I possibly could. I was like, ‘I want to do this.’ I just didn’t know if people would even listen to me.”

Sweeney is rigorous in her preparations; for “Reality,” she had to be word-perfect. The script, adapted from director Tina Satter’s stage play, quotes the precise language that Winner used in the moments leading up to her arrest. “She was like, ‘I don’t need to run this a million times with the other actors,’” Satter recalls. “‘I’ll come in prepared, and I’ll have my system.’ And she totally did. She’s a top-level athlete.”

Sweeney weighs her words carefully in conversation as well; she is a student of her own image. “When we have a two-hour conversation and there’s six quotes in it, it’s so hard to have the context behind what we’re speaking about, and how we’re saying it to each other,” she says astutely, a statement of fact that Sweeney’s had to accept. Her study of the industry has yielded crucial insights: Never respond to the rumors, and always find a connection back to the project. “I’ll see my uncle comment on things and I’m like, ‘You gotta stop,’” she says. “But it’s so hard, because I grew up in a small town, and they don’t get the business of it all. Just like Reality, it was all these tabloids and headlines, but no one knew the actual story.”

As a child growing up on the Washington-Idaho border, Sweeney rarely watched television. She focused instead on reading books like the Nancy Drew series and “The City of Ember,” and playing outside with her brother. (Both traits remain in evidence; she brings Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Klara and the Sun” to the interview in her Miu Miu purse, and brags that she “aced” an athletic assessment test to prepare for “Madame Web.”)

Since she began auditioning at 12, Sweeney has detailed each of her characters’ lives in what she calls “character books.” The books began, in part, as a mechanism to avoid going Method: “I wanted to make sure that none of my own memories, my own personal life, was in the character.” Creating a new persona for each audition allowed some untouchable part to remain her own. “I think that’s what makes me feel the most human, is being able to have stuff that’s personal to myself,” she says.

Eric Ray Davidson for Variety

But the world of entertainment makes humanity hard to find. She clocks inaccurate information about herself all the time — even emailing Wikipedia to inform that her father isn’t a doctor, as her Wikipedia entry indicates, but a hospitality professional. “I wish he was a doctor — life would have been a little different!” she says jovially. “I have tried emailing, and they won’t change it. Like, it’s the real me!”

Even amid Sweeney’s busy schedule, her family is top of mind — her father flew in for the photo shoot to see her, although she says they don’t discuss her work in great detail. “He lives on a ranch in Mexico, and doesn’t have internet or cell service,” she says. “I know he’s proud of me, and I know he’s like, ‘Wow, this is a crazy world!’” Her mother was a criminal defense attorney who stepped away from law when she became a parent. “She could not come home to two little babies and be mentally OK. So she had to quit,” she says. “My mom grew up with barely anything. She got her GED when she was 16; she worked five jobs to put herself through school; she took care of her brothers; she takes care of everyone. It’s unbelievable seeing where she came from, and being able to show her this world now.”

She credits her parents with supporting her as she found her footing in Hollywood. “I was going to five to 10 auditions a week, and not getting a single callback,” she remembers. “I always believed that if you have a plan B, you’re prepared to fail. No matter how hard or how long it was going to take, I was just going to keep working at it.”

She finally booked a major role on the 2018 Netflix teen series “Everything Sucks,” followed by attention-getting parts on “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Sharp Objects.” But as Sweeney was following her ambitions, her parents divorced and filed for bankruptcy. “My parents sacrificed so much to support my dream, and they lost so much during it. I just felt a responsibility to show them that it was worth it,” she says.

Did the sacrifices her parents made contribute to these crises? “I’ll never know,” she says. Her eyes are wide; the brilliant constructor of character is unmistakably, now, herself. “I think as a kid, as the eldest, I feel a responsibility,” she continues. “They’ll say no, or they’ll say yes, depending on what fight it is. But I’ll always feel responsible.” She pauses. “But that’s OK.”

The upside of fame, as a family member, is that it provides opportunities. “Most of my family have never even been on a plane before,” she says. Now, she brings her cousins to set: “To help them grow and open their minds — that is what I love doing now.”

The downside is that family can too easily become the story. Sweeney, unprompted, brings up that her father wasn’t at “the birthday party,” an event she threw for her mom’s 60th in 2022 that drew social-media opprobrium; photos of the celebration showed guests in what appeared to be Blue Lives Matter garb and MAGA-styled red caps later revealed to read “Make Sixty Great Again.”

“There were so many misinterpretations,” Sweeney says. “The people in the pictures weren’t even my family. The people who brought the things that people were upset about were actually my mom’s friends from L.A. who have kids that are walking outside in the Pride parade, and they thought it would be funny to wear because they were coming to Idaho.”

We’re speaking on the Sunday of New York City’s Pride March, which has blocked traffic; on her way to the interview, she’d asked her assistant over the phone if she could get out of the car and walk, only to be reminded that, well, she’s Sydney Sweeney. “People are so fast to build someone up, and then they love tearing them down,” she says. “And it’s so fascinating to see. Three years ago, I was going to college just like everybody else. And all of a sudden, I’m not a human anymore.”

Eric Ray Davidson for Variety

Taking control of her destiny helps matters. Sweeney, in her first outing as an executive producer, put together the upcoming film “Anyone but You” as an homage to the romantic comedies of 20 years ago, like “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” — “that early-2000s big blockbuster that people love to go to that made you feel good,” she says. She developed a spec script over the course of a year with screenwriter Ilana Wolpert and Jeff Kirschenbaum at RK Films, then hired Glen Powell as her co-star and Will Gluck (of “Easy A”) as her director. “She never left set,” Gluck says, “never went to her trailer. She’s so blazingly smart, and she’s such a quick study, and she’s not afraid to ask questions. Her other superpower is that she doesn’t sleep. Two hours every night.”

On set in Australia, Sweeney acted as “camp counselor,” scheduling group activities such as an outing to the Sydney Opera House and a double-decker bus tour. But photos of her and Powell at work sparked rumors of an off-screen romance, and Gluck watched the growing frenzy with curiosity: “Sydney is brilliant at a lot of things, including how to deal with social media; she didn’t emotionally internalize it. It was crazy, but after a while it became normal.”

Sweeney’s attitude remains calm — and in service to the movie (out Dec. 15 from Sony Pictures). “It’s a rom-com,” she laughs. “That’s what people want! Glen and I don’t really care. We have so much fun together, and we respect each other so much; he’s such a hard worker, and I’m a hard worker. We’re excited for the press tour, and I literally just left ADR with him. We talk all the time like, ‘That’s really funny.’”

In a media environment that’s outside even a gifted actor’s control, there can be a certain pleasure in leaning into the narrative. “They want it,” Sweeney says. “It’s fun to give it to ’em.”

Sweeney may not draw from her life while performing, but she brings insights from her 25 years onto set with her. On “Euphoria,” in which her Cassie Howard is a high school bombshell prone to explosions, Sweeney would insist to show creator Sam Levinson, “Give me more. I’m going to show you what I have. There’s so much to this girl.”

Indeed, Sweeney leveled up between Seasons 1 and 2 — her tearful imagined confession that she has “never, ever been happier” was a rare thing, a moment of scripted drama that went viral for its intensity, and its virtuosity. And it came from a set where reality was constantly shifting. “Chaos thrives on that set, because that’s when the most incredible art is made,” she says. “With Maude [Apatow] and I, whenever Sam goes, ‘It doesn’t feel right,’ we’ll be like, ‘No, we’ll show you how sisters fight.’ And we’ll just workshop the scenes, and that’s where the magic comes from.”

That creative intensity has also formed long-lasting bonds. When the news broke on July 31 that Angus Cloud had died at the age of 25, the “Euphoria” cast’s collective heartbreak was palpable even through social media. “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to post, and I’m struggling to find the right words,” Sweeney wrote in her Instagram tribute. “You will be missed more than you know, but I’m so blessed to have known you in this lifetime.”

“Euphoria” has won nine Emmys — two of them for its lead, Zendaya — and has made Sweeney’s name. But its raw depiction of sex in a show about high schoolers has turned Levinson into a controversial figure, and his most recent HBO show, “The Idol,” further inflamed things. (When we speak, the day the fourth episode is to air, Sweeney hasn’t yet watched that series.) Even if “Euphoria” has become a subject of endless conversation, Sweeney says the show has helped her find her power.

Eric Ray Davidson for Variety

“You have me, you have Z, you have all of these very strongminded, independent women. If we didn’t feel comfortable with something, or we saw something we didn’t like, we’d all speak up,” she says. “It’s hard to see someone completely trashed by the public and the media when no one’s actually there. We are there, and clearly we’re still working on the show, and we’re still supportive.”

She’s not done yet. “The point is making people uncomfortable, and thinking outside the box. What else is the point of art?” Sweeney says. “For me, I feel so free and confident now. And I’ve found that through Cassie.”

Sweeney has avoided being pigeonholed — who’d have guessed that her high school high-wire act would land her the role of Reality Winner? — while watching the industry typecast her peers. “It’s kind of sad to watch,” she says. For her, “The White Lotus” and “Reality” have shown people that she’s not Cassie. “I don’t think I’ll be able to change it, but I’m glad that people are like, ‘Wow, she can act,’” she says. For every project since “Euphoria,” “I have had to prove people wrong.”

And proving them wrong is a grind that doesn’t end. Describing her 2022, Sweeney ticks off cities and events, from Albuquerque, N.M., to the Met Gala to a 16-day “Reality” shoot to five months in Boston on “Madame Web.” When we meet in New York, she has just wrapped the thriller “Echo Valley,” produced by Ridley Scott and co-starring Julianne Moore. Sweeney plays Claire, who shows up at the doorstep of her mother, Kate (Moore), in an alarming state. Moore, who met Sweeney for the first time on set, says the intense nature of the movie’s plot forged a quick bond between them.

“Our characters’ relationship is super intimate, and it’s also very physical and very volatile. And she was somebody who… I wanted to be with Sydney. I wanted to hug her, I wanted to give her a big kiss,” Moore says. “She just feels very authentic and real, and is easy to work with and be close to.”

In a sense, Moore says, Sweeney reminds her of herself. “I was very furious about my work at that age, and she is too,” Moore says. “I think probably her degree of comfort is much greater than mine was at that age. She’s somebody who is not just interested in being a star, but is interested in being an actor.”

To achieve a career as long as Moore’s, Sweeney would want “to find a really healthy balance,” she says. “I always thought I’d have a kid by now. I always wanted to be a young mom. I love acting, I love the business, I love producing, I love all of it. But what’s the point if I’m not getting to share it with a family?”

A smile breaks through, and Sweeney’s voice turns whimsical. “The time will come, and I’ll have four kids. And they will come with me everywhere and be my best friends.”

Before then, “Madame Web” will premiere in February, with Sweeney playing Julia Carpenter (who in the comics becomes Spider-Woman) opposite Dakota Johnson’s titular superhero. When she booked the role, “I was freaking out, of course,” Sweeney recalls. “I went straight to the comic store, and I bought every comic that mentioned my character.”

Although box office returns for superhero films have been slowing down, Sweeney is confident “Madame Web” will break through. “I think it’s different from what people expect a superhero movie to be,” she hints. “Quote that! That’s a quote, because the tabloids will pick up everything else we talk about.” When asked if she hopes her character will have an expanded role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Sweeney gives a coy yes before taking a long sip of tea. A question about potential stand-alone Spider-Woman movies is met with a shrug, as Sweeney smiles knowingly.

Her production company, Fifty-Fifty Films, takes its name from Sweeney’s belief in fairness. “I like knowing that the person that’s doing this with me is eating the same and is putting in the same, and we’re both going to kill it because we both know we got each other’s back.” (Asked what it’s like to be producing partners with her fiancé, Jonathan Davino, Sweeney will only say, “I like working with smart individuals.”) Her first production credit under the banner will be “Anyone but You,” followed by horror film “Immaculate,” in which she will also star. In early development is a new take on “Barbarella,” the erotic sci-fi flick that made Jane Fonda an icon. Though Fonda has expressed concern over the remake, Sweeney says she would “absolutely love” to speak with her, adding that, to her, the original is all about seeing “women own their power.”

“I find power in my femininity,” Sweeney says. “I use my brain, and I use everything that I’m learning every single day in this industry as my power.” She speaks clearly and with intention, and if one didn’t know she keeps her characters at a remove from her own emotions, one might see Cassie’s (pre-breakdown) plain-spoken confidence. “Knowledge,” she continues, “is everything.”

With that in mind, Sweeney is actively optioning novels by first-time women writers, and even wrote a screenplay during COVID. “I think it was a little too complicated for people to wrap their heads around,” she says. “It was cool and it was beautiful and it was bittersweet, but I look at it now as just a really cool exercise that I had for myself.”

Speaking with Sweeney is exhilarating — she seems an idea generator, and passionate about whatever she talks about. (She can’t discuss the rumors that she auditioned for the now-shelved Madonna biopic, for instance, but volunteers that she’s a classically trained singer who’d gladly audition if Hollywood ever remade “The Phantom of the Opera.”) To Sweeney, as with entrepreneurial stars before her, producing and development is just another way to flex her intellect, and to play a different sort of role. The business, too, can become its own subversive performance. “I really enjoy being in a room with men in suits,” she says, “and kind of shocking them.”

“Sometimes,” she says, “I love this crazy run I’m on, because I fall in love with so many characters and I want to do them all. And I love what I do. And then sometimes I’m like, ‘OK, maybe I should do one to two projects a year so I can give myself time at home with my family.’”

Sounds appealing. And yet it’s hard to miss the fervor in Sweeney’s voice as she imagines the alternative. “But I think that I’d get so unsteady. I thrive in chaos. I love having, like, five projects that I’m juggling, and I’m also reading 10 scripts and three books at the same time. I love it.”

Set Design: Danielle Von Braun/Art Department; Styling: Molly Dickson/With Falon; Makeup: Melissa Hernandez/The Wall Group; Manicure: Zola Ganzorigt; Hair: Glen Oropeza/The PRNTRNS; Look 1 (Lollipop): Vintage Moschino Set: Clothed LA; Earrings: Dolce & Gabbana; Rings: Yaya PR ; Look 2 (Cover, Ice Cream): Bodysuit: Vintage Guess; Jewelry: Vintage Versace; Look 3 (Ice Block): Swimsuit: Vintage Versace from Opulent Addict; Earrings and shoes: Versace; Look 4 (Fan): Top and skirt: Vintage Versace from Opulent Addict; Shoes: Stuart Weitzman; Earrings: Mountain and Moon

From Variety US