Sydney Sweeney and Brittany O’Grady on Becoming a Pair of Mean Girls for ‘The White Lotus’

Actors Sydney Sweeney and Brittany O’Grady give the instant impression of being fun and joyous. It speaks to their talents considering the dark, tense moments they manage to conjure in HBO’s six-part limited series “The White Lotus.” Their lot in this wicked satire by Mike White about the bubble of American privilege is to be part of the Mossbacher family, which includes dad Mark (Steve Zahn), CEO mom Nicole (Connie Britton), and son Quinn (Fred Hechinger). Sweeney is Olivia, the college-aged daughter who can easily get bored and reads Nietzsche by the pool for no discernable reason, unless it is to fuel her sense of power over friend Paula (O’Grady), who begins to suspect she is being brought along as a feel-good prop. The Mossbachers are just one of the low-grade dysfunctional characters staying at the Hawaiian resort of The White Lotus, including unhappily married couple Shane (Jake Lacy) and Rachel (Alexandra Daddario), lonesome mourner Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge) and the resort’s manager, walking time bomb Armond (Murray Bartlett). 

“It was nice to just wake up and go to work,” said O’Brady about practically living on set in Maui. “It was kind of like a summer camp in a way. We all ate together. We all traveled in the elevators together, went to the same restaurants and hung out at the same pools.” 

“Sometimes we would walk to work in our PJs,” said Sweeney about the communal, almost bohemian style of the “White Lotus” set. “We would spend the weekends together on the beach and literally hang out 24/7. But this also granted us the opportunity to build true relationships with each other, which comes across onscreen. We felt safe in what we were doing with each other. You need that to build the depth of the characters.” 

Sweeney and O’Brady came to the series with a background already in acting in shows that capture the times through intense, youthful experiences. Sweeney appears in HBO’s feverish “Euphoria,” and has also acted in “The Handmaid’s Tale” and the acclaimed limited series “Sharp Objects.” O’Brady was in the teen slasher remake of “Black Christmas” and The CW’s apocalyptic “The Messengers.” But “The White Lotus offered a chance to explore territory both familiar and fresh, especially because of the pandemic. “It was very different from everything else because of the time we filmed it in,” said Sweeney. “We were isolated and working at a time when no one else was able to. I didn’t even think I was going to work that year. The process of filming during covid required a lot of tests, continuous mask protocols. It was very different from anything else I did just because of the time.”

“Yeah, we came in with an immense sense of gratitude,” said O’Brady. “We were able to meet with people again. This crazy business we’re in depends so much on interaction. What Sydney just said about the masks reminded me of that feeling of coming on set for the first day, seeing the crew but not knowing what anyone looked like. We were all together and had to guess who we were (laughs). At first it was a little sad because it felt like we wouldn’t get to bond. But by the end we did bond, we got into the rhythm of it. It just felt different because of how all of this world-changing stuff was still going on.”

But just how close are the characters in the show to the actors bringing them to life? Olivia is smart but a bit cold, while Brittany has an insecurity that keeps her from speaking out for herself early on. But both can be so mean to Quinn, forcing him to sleep in a bathroom while also gossiping about other guests. “Mike had a very clear vision early on of who these characters were. But I’ll be honest I’ve always been scared of these kinds of girls (laughs). So I really dove into that aspect of it! And Sam and Connie were great to work with too because when the cameras were off they were so funny, they lightened it up.” 

“Mike gave us specific research materials,” said O’Brady, “like podcasts where certain girls are speaking in a specific, very nuanced way. So we bounced off these materials. But you do use your imagination, combined with experiences you’ve had with people who are actually like that (laughs). It’s almost like tapping into a side of yourself that might not exist, or you have pieces of it within you and you can build on that. But much of it is working off everyone else and how they’re approaching it. That’s how it unfolded for pretty much all of us.”

“I don’t have just one favorite memory,” added Sweeney. The aura of the locale had its own effect on the cast, which is such a contrast to the show itself, which has dark emotions and boiling rages ready to snap. “The entire experience was incredible. We would see the sunrise every morning. We would just go outside together and watch these beautiful sunrises.” 

“I remember just looking up at the stars at night,” said O’Brady about her memories on set. “There would then be these small moments of normalness. You could step outside of yourself and just watch the nature around you and realize there’s more to life than the conflicts going on around in the outside world.” 

Now that “The White Lotus” is airing, Sweeney and O’Brady are back to work in a world where the pandemic is still looming, yet the film and TV world is finding its stride in terms of production schedules. “I’ve got an erotic thriller coming out soon in Amazon,” said Sweeney. “That’s all I’ll say about that, and I’m also in the midst of shooting ‘Euphoria’ season two, also for HBO. Just keep waiting for it. It’s going to be something good.”

“I just shot a pilot and we’re waiting to see if ABC will pick it up,” said O’Brady. “It’s a fairy tale show from the creators of ‘Once Upon a Time’ and ‘Lost.’ But you never know. You know how this business is. Nothing is definite and anything can happen.”

The White Lotus” premieres July 11 and airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.