Name almost any of the most talked-about, award-winning dramas on prestige TV in the last two years, and there’s a good chance you’ll find Sydney Sweeney. The 21-year-old actor has had harrowing arcs on The Handmaid’s Tale and Sharp Objects and, more recently, Sweeney has earned fans as one of the central characters on HBO’s drug-fueled teenage drama Euphoria. She’s also been busy filming a number of features—most notably Once Upon a Time...In Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino’s glamorized alternate history of the 1960s movie industry—all while finishing up college.
In each of her roles, Sweeney has the uncanny ability to inject hope, compassion, and a touch of romanticism into otherwise dark plot lines. “I love characters that scare me,” Sweeney said over the phone from Chicago last week. “If I read it, and I’m scared of not knowing if I can pull it off, those are the roles I tend to want. I like challenging myself.” Vogue spoke with the star about playing complex women, sharing scenes with the likes of Amy Adams and Elisabeth Moss, and the next role she has her eye on.
With the red-carpet premiere of Once Upon a Time...In Hollywood and Euphoria’s renewal for season two, the last few weeks have been big for you! Are you taking this time to get any R&R in?
I’m trying! Well, actually, I get very restless when I’m still. I try to stay as creatively busy as possible.
Looking at your credits, you seem to be doing a great job of that. Lately, you’ve been working alongside so many talented people actors of any age would dream of working with. What’s that experience like as a 21-year-old?
I have been so honored and humbled because I am only 21, and for the past two years, I’ve been able to work with an endless amount of incredible people. It’s better than any acting class, any schooling I could’ve ever asked for. Because being able to be there, in person, firsthand, learning from these people has been a dream come true. I can now take all of my experiences shooting as a 19-, 20-, 21-year-old and take that further on in my lifetime.
Growing up, your parents were very keen on you receiving a full education, right? How did you navigate that as a young actor working as much as you did?
I thank my parents for drilling [the importance of education] into my mind then, and now. At first, I was doing school for them. And now I look at it as I’m doing school for myself. I think that education, in any career that you choose, is always important because you can never learn too much. There’s never a limit on how much you can learn. I’ve always been infatuated with school; I loved math. I used to actually think I was going to go to college and be a mathematician.
I did! I mean my mom is a lawyer, and my dad was in the medical field, so I came from a very educated family, and I’m so thankful for that because I think that has been able to help me carry myself in a different way. Like, I can walk into the room with grown men and women and handle myself differently than I think I would have if I didn’t have a strong educational background.
Has that background helped you form a deeper understanding of some of the literary significances of your characters, like Eden, Nick’s (Max Minghella) wife on The Handmaid’s Tale?
Yes! Actually, I never noticed that until I started working on Handmaid’s Tale because, I mean, it’s such deep work with the history and politics it ties in. I was in my sophomore year of college when we were filming, and I had just started my first law class, and I’m sitting on set reading all these law books, thinking, ‘This is actually helping me.’ I also just have a crazy imagination, which I’ve always used to the full extent.
With all your characters, you seem to consistently take on these roles of dynamic, strong young women. Why do you think that is?
I think it’s in part because of the incredible writers that we have nowadays who are creating more diverse, strong female characters that we didn’t use to have in Hollywood. I also love trying to find characters that are completely different but are still going through a learning and growing experience. I like characters that are struggling with something that is in their own world but is also relatable to an audience.
Let’s talk about your role in Once Upon a Time...In Hollywood. You play a Manson girl, Snake. What was it like to take on a historically inspired role like that on such a big scale?
It was my first time playing a character that was real. And it was really neat being able to research this girl, Snake. She was the youngest Manson girl, and I read all these books about her and the Manson Family. She actually wrote a book, and I went and bought it, and I read it. I saw some of her interviews and just dove into all of it because I wanted to make the character her.
Wow! You really went all-in on your research.
I love building my characters as much as possible, and I create these books to prepare for each role. And so, in this book, it was the first time that I wanted every single word in the book to have either been written or said by the character. So I went and I pulled quotes and dialogue from Snake’s book and interviews and put it all into the book as if she had written this book of growing up as a Manson girl, down to the newspaper clippings that she found that she was in. When I was first on the set of the ranch—and Quentin and his set team did an unbelievable job building the ranch, because I studied all the pictures and videos of it—when I first walked on, I felt like I was truly there.
Ok so now that your career is really taking off, are there any kinds of roles that are on your bucket list?
I mean who doesn’t want to be a superhero? Honestly, I’d love to do a romantic comedy. I’ve never done something that’s lighthearted before! Naturally, I’m a very bubbly kind of person, and I think it’d be fun just to be able to finally bring out that side of me.
This interview has been edited and condensed.