Tiffany Nicholson

Sydney Sweeney Is Whoever You Want Her to Be

Sydney Sweeney’s Instagram is a nightmare. Not because of anything the 22-year-old Euphoria star posts — her innocuous feed of vacation snaps and red carpet looks is a publicist’s dream. But, behind the grid, Sweeney’s DMs are a cesspool.

Shortly after Euphoria premiered on HBO, Sweeney’s inbox filled with images of men holding their own penises. In the background, there is usually a TV or laptop screen, paused on one of her character’s scenes. It’s disgusting stuff, and Sweeney sees all of it because, as of this writing, she handles her own social media. The unsolicited attention is especially gross because, she says, “I don’t think I’ve played a 20-year-old yet.”

In last summer’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Sweeney played a 14-year old Manson girl named Snake. In The Handmaid’s Tale, she was Eden, a child bride. In 2018’s Sharp Objects, she was the teenage rehab roommate of Camille (Amy Adams), and, in Euphoria, she plays Cassie Howard, a sex-positive high schooler coming of age at 2X speed. With her cartoon-big, downturned eyes and peachy moon face, Sweeney can easily play Hollywood's fallen angel types. But it’s what she does with the falling part that makes her one of the industry's most compelling young talents.

Zimmermann blouse.

Consider the infamous Euphoria scene, “Cassie Rides the Carousel.” In it, Sweeney delivers a public orgasm to rival When Harry Met Sally while credibly portraying someone rolling on molly, followed by a shame hangover so potent it’s practically contagious. When fans tag her in their own Instagrams, sexually thrashing on local merry-go-rounds, it’s an homage, not harassment.

In real life, Sydney does look angelic, fluttering up the iron staircase to an Italian restaurant in Los Angeles’s Century City mall in bouncy white sneakers and a cropped baby Givenchy Paris hoodie. If she has a purse, I don’t notice it; she’s too ethereal to be weighed down by keys and loose change. Maybe it’s the spread of bruschetta and burrata, but she gives off major cherub-in-a-Renaissance-painting vibes.

Brognano dress, THE Marc Jacobs sweater, Lelet NY headband, Mia Becar shoes.

Talking about Sweeney’s online “admirers” quickly brings us down to earth. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, great first date,’” she says of the d*ck pics. The onslaught has scared her off online dating, even in secret. “I don’t have enough friends to have a finsta,” she says when I ask about her sanitized social media presence. A million people follow Sweeney on Instagram, but Sweeney follows only the 376 she’s actually met, most of whom have blue checks.

Given the scrutiny Sweeney now faces, it’s not surprising that she seems to have drawn a crisp line through her sense of self. There’s Online Sydney and there’s Offline Sydney, and we’ll only see exactly what Online Sydney wants us to see. You will be hard-pressed, for example, to find a candid photo of the actor, not even a boring paparazzi shot of her leaving barre class or valeting her car.

Prabal Gurung sweater, Adam Lippes sweater, Wacoal underwear, Miansai rings.

As a point of contrast, consider Sweeney's friend and Big Time Adolescence co-star, Pete Davidson. According to Sweeney, Davidson is a "kind-hearted" person who is "always in the wrong place at the wrong time." His status as a tabloid fixture, she says, is a result of "this industry where to be somebody, you have to be something, and he's that something."

Davidson's "something" is his ability, in the wake of his very public breakup with Ariana Grande, to inhabit the archetype of America's Favorite Ex-Boyfriend, the swaggering, tattooed f*ckboi whose jokes still make you laugh. Davidson's personal drama made him a household name, it made Saturday Night Live relevant again, and it made him a no-brainer casting choice for Suicide Squad 2.

THE Marc Jacobs jacket, Bouguessa dress.

Sweeney knows this. "If you have that one big moment, people are like, ‘Oh my god,’ and you become something," she says. “Sometimes I’m worried that because I’m not crazy or I don’t do anything, that I’m just going to trail off." Sighing with a twinge of disappointment, she tells me, “I did [have drama] for a little, but nobody knew who I was, so it didn’t matter.”

Sweeney is on the slow path to becoming somebody. The path of small but challenging parts and, in between, keeping her head down. The path of trying to remain a blank slate for the next director's vision. When Sweeney is known for winning an Oscar, all those nights in will have been worth it. Until then, she says, “You won’t find me topless, stripping on top of a table.”

THE Marc Jacobs jacket, Bouguessa dress.

Sweeney’s calling card as an actor is what she calls her “character books.” Every time she works on a new role, she creates an imagined autobiography of the character’s life, from the moment they were born until the first time they appear in the script. Working on The Handmaid’s Tale marked the first time Sweeney showed her book to a collaborator, showrunner Bruce Miller. The book of ideas, drawings, and clippings “represented a ton of hard work,” Miller wrote in an email to me. He believes Sweeney’s ideas about Eden were “a strong influence in the writer’s room.” Hard work, according to Miller, is “what I came to expect from Syd.”

Sweeney’s own character book — the version being written piecemeal by the press as her star rises — tells the story of her own immense tenacity. At age 12, the story goes, Sweeney convinced her parents to let her audition for a film shooting in Spokane, Washington, where the family lived, by creating a PowerPoint five-year business plan for her acting career. They agreed, and she booked the part.

Bouguessa dress.

Not long after, Sweeney’s parents moved her and her brother, Trent, down the Pacific Coast to Los Angeles to concentrate on her acting. The decision baffled other parents at her school and alienated her from her roots. “Small town, small minds,” she says with a shrug. “I lost mainly all of my friends.”

Sweeney only starts to light up as she recalls her worst audition story. At 14, she got her first big callback for a role on the ABC Family gymnast show Make It Or Break It. The assignment: memorize a huge monologue. “I actually like to audition,” Sydney says. But when she arrived at the callback, she had a full-blown panic attack. “All of the girls there were way older than me. I'm this prepubescent little 14-year-old with acne and strange boobs.” When she opened her mouth to deliver the monologue, she says, “I just lost my sh*t... Nothing, nothing came out of me, nothing happened.” The casting director asked if she wanted to compose herself, and Sweeney decided to bounce. “I said, ‘Nope I’m sorry,’ and I left.” She downplayed the episode to her mother waiting outside. “I was like, ‘Yeah, Mom, I'm not going to get that one.’”

Red Valentino dress.

Better auditions followed, and Sweeney racked up small parts on Criminal Minds, Heroes, 90210, and Pretty Little Liars, eventually landing her own Netflix vehicle, Everything Sucks! “I just love to work,” she says.

But as Sweeney’s career took shape, her family life fell apart. Her parents divorced and moved out of state. Her brother left for college. Sweeney was left to fend for herself in California. “It sucks,” she says. She contemplated trying Bumble BFF, but chickened out. These days, she’s open to meeting people through people and “a little club here and there with some friends.” She's taking online college classes, majoring in entrepreneurship. “With a business degree, you can do anything,” she says. Earlier this year, she told Cosmopolitan that the classes have helped her read her contracts to avoid “getting f*cked over.”

Red Valentino dress.

Sweeney likes to talk about her training in mixed martial arts (MMA), a legitimate passion and a good excuse for male-oriented news sites to write about her. But few such reports mention that she’s not allowed to fight. Not messing up her moneymaker is a line item in her Euphoria contract, she says. (Besides, showing up to set with a black eye would pose serious continuity issues.) For now, Sweeney has to live vicariously, which isn’t hard to do as a self-described hockey fan. Hockey fights, she says, are “sexy as f*ck.”

More than a biography, this combination of press-friendly chestnuts coalesces into a personal brand: Sydney Sweeney is disciplined, professional, and tough as hell. Other actors in her shoes might be basking in the glow-up as the toast of young Hollywood. But Sweeney sounds like any friend staring down a big promotion, battling impostor syndrome. Asked whether she worries about being boxed into a dated blonde bombshell archetype, she seems surprised anyone would see her as such. “I mean, if I can play a blonde bombshell that would be great,” she says. In between gulps of water on the mall terrace, she says things like “I don’t go outside enough,” “I’m exhausted,” and “I just get sent an itinerary and I show up where I’m supposed to be.”

Tory Burch coat, Brognano dress.

On tonight’s itinerary is a major industry party honoring women in Hollywood. Sweeney will do her glam out of a friend’s family’s house because she’s technically “homeless,” she says, renting an Airbnb and storing her clothes in a 5-by-10-foot storage unit while trying to figure out her production schedule.

Not on Sweeney’s itinerary? Recreational partying. “Drug and alcohol abuse, and addiction, runs in my family,” she says, “I just never really cared to try any of it.” Sweeney’s mother (coincidentally, a cannabis attorney) “would kill my ass if I ever came home drunk or high,” she says, “and I was terrified of my mother.” Sweeney says parts of Cassie’s storyline on Euphoria — which encompasses substance abuse, divorce, and slut-shaming — hit close to home. Asked to elaborate, she shakes her head. “One day,” she says. She won’t say what she uses from her real life to inform any of her characters, and she says that when she leaves a set, she takes nothing home. She is a master compartmentalizer, in her telling. “Nothing really affects me.”

Guess blouse, Anna Sui dress.

“Home” is a concept Sweeney is working on, with her usual diligence and with the much-deserved support of the industry. Through Euphoria, Sweeney became friends with co-star Maude Apatow, whom she now considers her Hollywood family. “She’s like the sister I never had,” Sweeney says. “[Maude's sister] Iris is awesome, her dad is hilarious, I love them all. It feels like a real home.”

Given Sweeney’s professional prospects, she might consider putting down roots in Los Angeles. But asked what neighborhood she’d like to live in, Sweeney says she’d rather live in two places far from Hollywood. The first is Italy’s Amalfi Coast, where Sweeney spent the summer — and which happens to be one of the most romantic destinations on the planet. I raise my eyebrows, and she brushes me off.

“I was with a friend.”

An industry friend?

“God, no.”

The other place Sweeney can imagine herself living is Chicago. As a native Chicagoan living in Los Angeles, I’m shocked to hear Sweeney defend the city of subzero temperatures, sleet-rain, and ice-wind. “I have a place there,” she says. “It’s like my getaway place.” Not a storage unit, or the Apatows’, or an Airbnb — a straight-up house.

Asked whom she knows in Chicago, Sweeney brushes me off again.

“A friend.”

A friend from an app?

“God, no.”

To Chicago’s credit, the city lacks the celebrity media ecosystem that can make a young star like Sweeney’s life a living hell. There is no Chicago equivalent of TMZ, which, in spite of Sweeney’s carefully cultivated privacy, rounds up her “hot shots.” But there are some small-time gossip blogs such as ShowBizShelley, where, shortly after our interview, I find a September post linking Sweeney to a Chicago pizza heir in his 30s. Sweeney was "very affectionate" with the guy, ShowBizShelley reports of his birthday party at TAO Chicago, “dancing on the banquette with him to the sounds of Sam Feldt as they toasted with Dom Perignon.”

Through a spokesperson, Sweeney declines to answer a follow-up question about her rumored boyfriend. But the story reminds me of what Sweeney said about Pete Davidson, and her desire to avoid being known for scandal. Every hard-working actor — heck, every 22-year-old with an Instagram — needs a backstage, a place to wipe off the makeup, blow off some steam, look in the mirror and reflect on the ludicrousness of notoriety. Chicago might not be the kind of place one can be “topless, stripping on a table.” But at least you can get up on the furniture once in a while.

Top image credit: Brognano dress, THE Marc Jacobs sweater, Lelet NY headband, Mia Becar shoes.

Photographer: Tiffany Nicholson

DP & Video Editor: Jake Mitchell

Stylist: Molly Dickson at The Wall Group

Hair: Bobby Eliot using Schwarzkopf at SWA Agency

Makeup: Melissa Hernandez using Marc Jacobs Beauty at The Wall Group

Manicure: Stephanie Stone at Forward Artists for Essie

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