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The beautiful blonde with Bette Davis eyes has captured the spotlight and snared the hearts of viewers on teen-centric hits, including Netflix's Everything Sucks!, Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale, and HBO's Sharp Objects and Euphoria. Tripling down on her streak of "not a girl, not yet a woman" roles on HBO, on The White Lotus, Sweeney plays Olivia Mossbacher, the Freud-carrying college sophomore stuck in paradise with her type-A mother, self-absorbed father, technology-obsessed brother, and a slew of other affluent and oblivious guests at The White Lotus Resort in Maui, Hawaii.
The setting is indisputably picturesque, but the story that unfolds over the six-episode miniseries is both tantalizing and tart. It's not just Sweeney's entitled character that leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of viewers. (That's the unifying trait among this elitist cast of misfits.) Her deadpan delivery packs a particular punch. As in previous roles, her acerbic, often pithy one-liners are biting and abrasive. There's no blood in the water of this summer satire—it's not like that—but by the end, it's clear that Sweeney is ready for a bigger boat.
We caught up with Sweeney via Zoom from her Los Angeles apartment a few days after The White Lotus premiered to discuss everything from being trapped in paradise to plotting her next moves as a producer.
Courtesy of HBO
Were you given specific direction from Mike White about your latest character, Olivia Mossbacher? Or was it more of a collaborative effort?
It was definitely collaborative. He gave me and Brittany [O'Grady] a podcast actually to listen to… It was between two girls that just banter back and forth, and how monotone they were—the timing, the tone, everything—he just loved how these two girls sounded communicating. He gave that to us and said, "Run with this." So I would spend every night just listening to these girls talk back and forth, understood half of it, and played Olivia from that.
Courtesy of HBO
That's so interesting… I haven't heard of a podcast being used as character inspiration.
I also noticed that the whole show has a lot of fun with beach reads. That really caught my eye because I'm a big reader, but Olivia and her friend Paula are seen reading some pretty dense material for a tropical Hawaiian vacation. Nietzsche, Freud, etc. Do you think those books are representative of what they're studying in school or more of their Gen Z perspective on the world?
Oh, they were definitely just reading it to look like they were reading it.
Like when they say they have a book stylist?
Yeah, exactly. They were joking about that. But they actually were just holding up [the book] and reading it just to look like they are intelligent and interesting. The funny thing was I thought I was reading all of these books. And I started realizing that all of these chapters are the same. All of these books are the same. What's going on? So I ask the props department, and they're like, "Oh, they're not real books. We just put random stuff inside." So I was reading these books really thinking I was reading Freud and all of these authors, but it was just some random book that didn't even make sense. I was thinking like, "Wow, this writer is so intelligent. I don't even understand it," and it really was not even a book.
Courtesy of HBO
Wow. Oh my gosh, that adds such another layer. That's amazing. So how do you think this faux intelligence plays into this relationship between Paula and Olivia? I think they're interesting contrasts even though they're such good friends. Do you think they're on the same page?
Oh, they're definitely not on the same page. I think Olivia thinks she's on the same page as Paula, and she tries to be on the same page. But her privilege definitely blocks her from being able to think the same way or be on the same page of anything with Paula. And she's totally oblivious to her privilege… She tries so hard, but in doing so, I think it makes her look worse.