The star of Tina Satter's whistleblowing drama Reality speaks about the challenges of playing a real person and the concept of the modern movie star.
Eye-grabbing roles on TV’s The White Lotus and Euphoria established Sydney Sweeney as a fan-favorite talent. Her latest turn as document-leaker Reality Winner in Tina Satter’s Reality reintroduces America’s sweetheart as a technical performer of rigorous control and untold depth. Reciting the transcript of the NSA employee’s grilling by two FBI agents as dialogue, she faced a more pronounced version of a classic actor’s paradox: how does one come off as naturalistic and spontaneous while adhering to the exact letter of the given text? Sweeney explained her approach to this unique exercise, confessed to a bit of in-the-spotlight nerves, and mused on movie stardom.
LWLies: This is such a technical performance, where every pause and incidental ‘um’ is specified in the transcript of Reality Winner’s interrogation. How did you have to adjust your process to the strictness of this script?
Sweeney: That was one of the biggest challenges for me, because I like to find the freedom in the words of a character, so it was hard to adapt to. But I loved it. That was one of the reasons I wanted to play Reality, for how different it would be than everything I’ve done before. There were plenty of days when I’d have been up late the night before, going over and over, trying to get everything down verbatim. It’s an exercise for the brain. On Euphoria, we have a lot of room to explore. [Showrunner] Sam [Levinson] really lets us run with our characters. We create them, and we know them so well, whereas with Reality, I’m going from a real experience for a real person. You have to honor the person you’re playing as much as possible. We actually, surprisingly enough, did not have rehearsal time. We shot it in sixteen days, and we did a table read a few days before the shoot, but then we just dove right in.
At the same time, the dialogue you’re given only represents part of a performance that’s so often about a person trying to project an image that can cover her actual reactions and motivations.
Yeah, I always felt like there were multiple dialogues and subtexts happening at the same time. You’ve got a character who’s constantly recalculating what’s going on; in that first scene, she really does start out believing these guys are here to see if the house is for rent. She didn’t see this coming, at first. In real time, she’s trying to determine every step, every word, every move she’s going to make. There’s so much thought under every exchange, so much that goes unsaid.
In your research, you spoke with Reality Winner from her house arrest. Where does one even begin that conversation? I assume you can’t just call someone up and say, ‘So, tell me about your inner workings.’
Tina had been in contact with her mother and sister, and once with Reality herself before I came on board. I wanted to speak to her prior to prepping on this, one, just to know her as a person, but two, to understand her mannerisms and how she speaks. Tina connected us, and I got to Zoom with her, started texting her. It’s an interesting dance, because I wasn’t quite sure how much I could ask of someone. When I’m building a character, I get to create memories and relationships as they come to me. It’s all in my brain. With this, depending on another person, I had to ask myself what would be taking it too far. Reality’s so open, though, so casual. She’s funny, quite a wit about her, and she was really gracious with her time.
Having completed this, do you have any curiosity about doing theater?
I’ve never done it before. I have an, ah, very interesting level of stage fright. I get terribly anxious. So, maybe one day? But… [Laughs.] Come back to me on that one.
This role is also distinct from your past work in its physicality. Reality Winner, a regular person on a regular afternoon in her life, is kind of deglamorized relative to the other roles you’ve played. Can you feel that element in your performance?
I loved it, the rawness. I didn’t want any makeup, just wanted my hair up in a bun, everything like she had it on that day. Especially on camera, you can see the dirt, and I find that beautiful in its way. Being able to come in and break it all down, that was a really great experience, as an actor.
There are a few lines that express a hint of body-consciousness, and then after the film, I learned that Reality Winner has had her struggles with bulimia. It’s not stated in the text, but did this factor into the profile of the character you were compiling?
It did, yes, she and I spoke about it. I was aware of this, and wanted to bring it into the character in a sort of quiet way. There’s so much to these conversations, interactions that are bringing up things from her past, things from when she was twelve in some cases, and it can all be silent.
Reality Winner comes from a background we don’t see much of in movies — she’s a young woman, she owns multiple guns, she’s from a red state. Did you draw at all from your own upbringing, which is a lot closer to Reality’s than most Hollywood types’ would be?
She’s a pretty average person, in that anyone can relate to her. But she does have a lot of interesting contradictions that defy what people might think about her, boxes they might try to put her in. That’s a big part of what drew me to this character.
You’ve said you started dreaming of acting when you were a kid. Who did you see onscreen at the time that made you want a piece of all that?
I loved Meryl Streep, Angelina Jolie, Kate Winslet. All great actresses.
Bona fide movie stars, yeah. We don’t have too many people like that right now, movie stardom being a different beast than it used to be. Some of the projects you choose — the romcom you’ve got coming with Glen Powell, the erotic thriller Immaculate later this year — seem to point back toward that era in the ’90s and early ’00s.
I don’t know if that construct of a movie star is possible anymore. There used to be more mystery behind all of it. You have so much access to your favorite stars or celebrities, and the whole concept is different because of it. Hollywood’s different than what it used to be; I don’t think that has to be a good thing or a bad thing, it’s just that the world is changing.
Creating mystique, being elusive, that’s not as big a part of it. You share a lot of your life on social media, hobbies and travels and whatnot. Do you consider yourself pretty open?
Yeah, I’m a real person. I think I’m pretty relatable to a lot of people; I grew up in a smaller town, pretty normal childhood, so I don’t always feel so Hollywood, you know? Making an image of yourself, being a different person for the public, I think that would get lonely. You gotta live your own life and not worry what others think of you. I’ve always felt that my duty is to my characters, and to my work.
I’m looking forward to Immaculate. Did you get into nun cinema in preparation for your role?
I did, yeah, some of the older ones, Black Narcissus. I’ve been living with this movie since I was sixteen, wanting to make it for almost ten years, and we were finally able to get a team behind it. This is the first thing I’m fully producing, too, and I’m working with Michael Mohan, who first directed me on Everything Sucks when I was nineteen. He really wants to bring back a certain kind of Hollywood motion picture.
Published 31 May 2023
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