'Euphoria' Star Sydney Sweeney on Tackling Teen Pregnancy, Abortion Discussions

Sweeney also talked to The Hollywood Reporter about discovering that her 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' co-star Leonardo DiCaprio was a fan and getting cast shirts made with his viral 'Euphoria' quote.
Courtesy of HBO

Ahead of next week's season finale of Euphoria, Sydney Sweeney got her breakout moment on Sunday night's seventh episode of HBO's boundary-pushing drama. Sweeney stars as Cassie Howard, a teenager with a promiscuous reputation who, this week, finds out she's pregnant with boyfriend Chris McKay's baby. 

Early on, the episode dives into Cassie's difficult childhood, with divorced parents and a once-doting dad who spirals out of control with drinking and drugs, vanishing from her life. In response, she spends high school looking for love and validation from boys, giving in to their requests for nude photos and sex tapes, which ultimately end up on the internet. Cassie eventually ends up with football star McKay and discovers she's pregnant with their child. Keeping the secret from her friends and family, she gives him the news, only for him to panic that he's not ready to be a father and pressure her to end the pregnancy. At the end of the episode, Cassie breaks down in her mother's arms while asking for advice, unsure whether to keep the baby, as she seems to want, or get an abortion, as McKay wants. 

Sweeney, who is currently featured in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and has starred in The Handmaid's Tale and Sharp Objects, talked to The Hollywood Reporter about tackling teen pregnancy, creating her character's backstory and counting Leonardo DiCaprio as a fan. 

We learn a lot about Cassie’s relationship with her parents in this episode. How did that upbringing affect who she is today? 

I think that any young child or teenager, you take a lot from your parents when you're growing up. In the voiceover, it says she looked at her dad like a superhero, and when you start to see your parents not as parents but as human beings, I think it's a really hard thing as a younger child. That really affected how she moved forward with guys, especially because of everything her father has gone through and how she interacts with him. 

In the HBO aftershow, you talked about having a character journal for Cassie. How did that help you?

It's these character books that are an interactive timeline journal or diary of their entire lives, from the day that they're born to the first page of the script. With TV shows I'll usually add in more and more every episode as we learn more and more about the character, and I built her entire world: every house she's ever lived in, every neighborhood she might have walked, friends you've never met on the TV show but have made her who she is today. Everybody is always like, "You must be a really good liar," and no, I'm actually a truth teller, and I'm telling someone else's truth. If I'm lying, then I'm not doing my job correctly. By building these characters as real humans, I'm telling this person's truth, because something that happened to Cassie or [The Handmaid's Tale character] Eden or [Sharp Objects character] Alice — any character that I've played — when she's three years old might affect the way she speaks to a person when she's 16. Every character speaks differently, every person moves differently, and I wanted to make sure when I dove into these characters I would make it as honest and realistic as possible, so I create these books. 

There’s been a consistent storyline about Cassie’s leaked nude photos and sex tapes, and we get more into that in this episode. How do you think that’s impacted her relationships and her trusting men?

I think that she thinks that's what guys want, and deep down she knows that's not a healthy relationship and that's not how it should be, because one of the lines is, "She just wants to dream for a little." Cassie is always dreaming of this different life, and that teenage relationship that you see in the movies is everything she wishes she could have. She thinks that to get a guy's attention that's how she has to be, because everyone in her life has always left: her dad left her, her mom, in a way, has left her to alcohol. To keep people around, especially men, the only way she knows how to is with her body. Slowly that starts to take a toll on her because it doesn't make her happy, it doesn't make her feel good. Maybe in the moment she is, but afterwards she sees all of her nudes and her videos leaked everywhere, and she acts like it doesn't matter, but deep down to every girl it matters. 

Why does Cassie confide in her friends about cheating with Daniel but not about being pregnant? 

I think it was a parallel to her. She didn't feel comfortable telling her friends she was pregnant, because yes they're her "best friends," but she's not really very close with them and doesn't think she can trust them. She's very scared and alone, and her way of being like, "Should I tell McKay about Daniel, should I tell him about the making out?" in her mind what she was really saying was, "Should I tell him about me being pregnant?" When she's lying in bed with Lexi [played by Maude Apatow] and she's like, what's the other thing, and Cassie goes, "What if not telling him makes me an awful person?", it's about the pregnancy, not about Daniel, but the only way she knows how to communicate is about Daniel. 

How does she feel when she finds out she's pregnant, and then how does she feel about McKay's reaction? 

She's a teenager, so she's of course terrified and scared, but there's the underlying fear of being alone. In that moment there's a thought and a realization that maybe she could never not be alone, but being pregnant and having a child, she'd always have somebody, and maybe that's her path, that's what she's supposed to do. That makes her feel safe, being able to have someone all of the time, like a best friend who will always look up to you, and you can be that superhero. So when McKay shuts that entire idea down, it kind of breaks Cassie's world, and that's why she says, "I just want to dream about it," because even though it wasn't expected and she didn't try to get pregnant, it was like, "Maybe this is my path, maybe this is what I'm supposed to do." 

At the end of the episode, we see Cassie talking to her mom about what she's going to do. What can you tease about what's coming in the finale?

There's some very big decisions for Cassie to make, which will change who she is and her entire life, her relationships with people. I think it's a very big growing point in Cassie's life that you will see. 

Teen pregnancy is kind of a common high school show trope. How do you feel like Euphoria took that deeper and made it more than a stereotype? 

I think that the whole show we make as authentic as possible. I think that teenage pregnancy is something that is 100 percent happening in the world, so when people are like, "It's cliche that she gets pregnant," I'm like, "Yeah, but that's happening out there." We definitely saw the raw, emotional side of what goes on and not really the glamorized parts of any of it. 

After taking on some really dark and heavy roles in the past year with The Handmaid’s Tale and Sharp Objects, how does working on this show compare to those?

Every show is completely different. For Euphoria, that was the longest project I've ever been on -- we filmed for eight months for seven episodes and then a month before for the pilot. Being in a character's shoes for that long was completely different for me; The Handmaid's Tale was only five or six months, which is still pretty long, but every single crew and cast is so different. On Euphoria it's so fun because we're all the same age, so being able to hang out and go out together and go to different events together has been so fun compared to always being the youngest on set, which was really fun, but it's like, you're going to go home to your husband or wife and I'm going to go home to my dog. 

You've had some pretty intense sex scenes on the show. How have those been to shoot, and has your on-set intimacy coordinator played into that?

I honestly think that every set should have an intimacy coordinator. She just was there as an extra voice and would come in and talk to us before we started the scene, even if we already signed off and agreed to everything. We would go over anything we wanted to go over, and on set she was there to make sure that we were comfortable. She could say things without us having to say things to her and could read the situations and environment. But overall the set of Euphoria was such a safe and comfortable environment that I never felt like, "Oh, I need to go secretly talk to the coordinator," so that was good. It was just a very good environment, I never felt like, "This isn't something I should be doing." The actual situations themselves were uncomfortable, which I wanted to tap into. 

A lot has been made about the sex and drugs aspect of the show, but what do you hope the show says about high school today? 

I hope that the generation that believes this is not happening in today's world listens to the generation that's saying, "This is a very real and true representation of what's going on." I hope that it opens up their eyes and their minds and conversations about everything. And I hope that some people can see themselves in these characters and know that they're not alone, and I hope that people learn because we don't sugarcoat it, we show the dark sides of reality.  

You also appear in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and there was a viral clip from the premiere where Leonardo DiCaprio said he loved Euphoria. What was your reaction when you saw that?

I couldn't stop laughing, I was like, "This is so cool!" I've always been a big fan of Leo, so getting to work with him was crazy awesome, but then to be on the same red carpet for the same movie and then he's saying my show is amazing, I'm like, "What is happening right now?" The whole cast was talking about it and freaking out in our group chat, and then Barbie [Ferreira, who plays Kat] made a shirt of the quote that Leo said and made it for all of us. So we all have a shirt that says it now.

Interview edited for length and clarity.