Sydney Sweeney has almost no memory of her 25th birthday last fall.
“I don’t think I processed that night. I don’t think I even realized where I was that day. It was crazy,” the actress said to IndieWire. While others throw parties or go on vacation to celebrate the milestone birthday where one now has a much easier time renting a car (and a harder time should they enter a quarterlife crisis), Sweeney’s big day happened to coincide with her attending her first ever Primetime Emmys, as a double nominee no less.
“It was such an amazing moment, but I did not live in the moment as much as I should have. I think I was just in shock the whole time,” said “The White Lotus” and “Euphoria” star. “I don’t even know who I talked to. I can’t remember a single thing. […] It truly felt like I was living a dream.”
Now in “Reality,” her acclaimed new HBO film that premiered at the Berlinale earlier this year, Sweeney is already back on the road toward making this year’s Emmys a night to remember. “It’s definitely a crazy turnaround,” said the actress with a laugh. “It definitely feels like people are paying attention and I like to find projects and characters that put people on their toes and don’t really expect to see from me. That’s what makes it exciting.”
Based on the 2019 play “Is This a Room,” about the moment on June 3, 2017 when NSA contractor Reality Winner was approached by the FBI about classified information they suspect she had leaked to the press, “Reality” sees Sweeney and her co-stars speak the words off the actual interrogation transcript verbatim to chilling results.
Though the star had been unfamiliar with Winner’s story before booking the role in the thriller co-written and directed by Tina Satter, who also conceived of the play, Sweeney said she saw “Reality” both as “a different challenge for myself and something different for viewers to see me in.”
While her two biggest roles so far, Cassie in “Euphoria” and Olivia in “The White Lotus,” were written and directed by Sam Levinson and Mike White, two visionaries with the capacity to change story elements on the fly, Sweeney was now playing a real life person, only saying lines that Winner literally said in the hour or so that the FBI questioned her.
On the surface level, the actress said “I was in a memorizing brain bootcamp every single night,” but to go deeper into the mind of Winner, Sweeney still used her go-to approach of writing a detailed journal dedicated to her character. However, she did mix in details she got from Winner herself.
“I Zoomed with her and spent quite a few hours getting to know her. I was able to take that information and that knowledge into the homework that I do to build my characters,” said Sweeney. “And then also when I reread the script, I saw so much more of Reality and who she is in it. And it just brought a whole different layer in life to it for me.” The star added that Winner “would tell me different memories or experiences and I was able to take those and expand off of it. I always say they’re my givens from the script — they’re given facts that I then build off of. And instead of just having a script, I had a real person to be able to build off of.”
Ultimately, the intention of the piece is not to cast judgment on Winner, but paint a more vivid picture of the conversation that led to Winner receiving the longest sentence ever for a civilian accused of leaking classified documents to the media. “All I wanted going into it as an actor was to focus on her as a human being. Not the headlines surrounding her, not people talking surrounding her. I just wanted to know her as a human and on a human level,” said Sweeney of playing the whistleblower. “I loved how raw and real it was.”
“Reality” aligns with the greater aspirations for the roles she plays. “I always want people to watch my characters and get to form their own opinions about them instead of me, or circumstance building that opinion for the audience already. So I try to find as many layers to them as possible just because we all have layers. We all have good and bad and right and wrong choices in us, and good thoughts and bad thoughts and highs and lows,” said the actress. “So I want to find all of those complexities that make a human. And especially a woman, we have so many layers to us.”
As for what’s next for Sweeney, her upcoming film “Anyone but You,” which her company Fifty-Fifty Films produced, has already made waves after fans saw paparazzi shots that suggest the on-screen chemistry with co-star Glen Powell was palpable. When asked if Sony, the film’s distributor, may have fast-tracked the romantic comedy’s release date having seen the excitement around its production this spring, Sweeney said the film, slated to open on December 15, “always [was] aiming towards an end of the year release or top of next, so I was really excited that we got the slot that we did.”
She added, “I’m so excited for people to wanna go see a rom-com. I grew up loving rom-coms, so I’m just super stoked. It was such a fun experience, and it’s a fun cast, and the crew were awesome, and Australia’s amazing, and I think people are gonna really fall in love with the story and the characters.”
And regarding Sweeney’s other lauded HBO project, the highly anticipated third season of “Euphoria,” the actress teased, “Cassie definitely has a lot more life to live and I can’t wait for everyone to see what Season 3 brings.”
“Reality” premieres Monday, May 29 at 10 p.m. ET on HBO and will be available to stream on Max.