Sydney on the Map: To Land Breakout Roles, Sydney Sweeney Draws Her Own Maps of the Characters She Inhabits

A reverent initiate of a patriarchal regime; a disturbed young psychiatric hospital ward; a sexually questioning teen with a flair for the dramatic; a mysterious denizen of neo-noir 1970s Los Angeles named Shooting Star.

Before 2018 is halfway over Sydney Sweeney will have debuted each of these characters in their corresponding, highly anticipated vehicles. From The Handmaid’s Tale, to the Jean-Marc Vallée helmed, Amy Adams-starring HBO miniseries Sharp Objects, to It Follows director David Robert Mitchell’s Cannes-debuting Under the Silver Lake, 2018 is undoubtedly breaking her way.

“It’s your year!” I exclaim. There’s a pause.

Sweeney hails from Spokane, an oasis in the flatlands of eastern Washington, where at 11 she began acting. When I meet with the ascendant 20-year-old actor on a sunny spring day in L.A., she graciously receives my enthusiasm, but pushes back.

“I’m lucky,” she insists. “I’ve been really lucky to play characters that aren’t the girl next door or the girlfriend. There’s a complexity to the characters, a darkness—things that are completely different from myself.”

It would be easy to chalk the prolific year Sweeney’s currently enjoying up to luck. It would also be dismissive. She’s put in the work—racking up appearances in prime-time television (Heroes, Grey’s Anatomy), awards-eligible shorts, and low-profile indies—all while she studied entrepreneurship in Los Angeles.

Women’s efforts in the entertainment industry are frequently diminished, if not outright erased, to make way for less threatening narratives which sidestep the reality that women can be complicated. A narrative of that stripe would distort Sweeney’s expanding oeuvre, for it’s precisely her rigorous research and character development which make her performances shine.

Sydney Sweeney in Burbank, CA in April 2018. Photograph by Arianne Alizio

“I make a book for each of my characters,” she says matter-of-factly. “It’s a timeline of their lives. I have all their memories, maps of their world, what triggers them—scents and sounds.” Stunned, I pause, searching for the words to ask whether she’s speaking literally or figuratively before, with an amused smile, she adds, “It’s all hand-written.”

Sweeney is among an exciting batch of stars in season two of The Handmaid’s Tale, including Clea DuVall and Marisa Tomei. Handmaid’s returned in April, meaning viewers will see her as Eden, a puritanical Econowife who “represents the new generation of girls born and raised in Gilead,” and you can soon catch her as Alice, a tortured psychiatric ward opposite Adams in Sharp Objects.

Mapping out these characters’ interiority is integral to Sweeney’s performances, yes—but her research is also a matter of survival. When she was 16, Sweeney filmed Stolen From Suburbia, a movie about sex trafficking, in El Salvador. She recalls: “I would see girls lined up on the side of the street. It felt very real to me because it was real. I didn’t do a good job of separating myself from it.

“But that’s why I create the characters how I create them,” she muses. “When things happen to my characters, I react exactly how they would react. But when the director yells ‘cut,’ Sydney is separate from Eden or Alice.”

Something no emotional or intellectual work could’ve prepared her for: the cancellation of Netflix’s Everything Sucks! just two months after its February premiere. Sweeney played Emaline, a theatrical, self-empowered high schooler whose arc culminated in an on-screen kiss with series protagonist Kate (Peyton Kennedy). Fans’ response to Emaline (and to #Kemaline) continues to stun Sweeney. “To be able to give young fans Emaline and Kate means so much, not just to the LGBTQIA community, but to everyone. For that to be taken away is hard.”

Disappointing as it was, the experience made Sweeney keenly aware of her growing visibility. “Once I saw what Emaline did for the people she represented—young and older people, men, women—I wanted to do more to help people.” Though Sweeney won’t admit to the year she’s having, there’s no denying that she’s paved the way for opportunity after opportunity to come. MM

This article appears in MovieMaker’s Summer 2018 issue. Photographs by Arianne Alizio. Hair and Makeup by Vittorio Masecchia. Outfit by A.L.C.

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