Actress Sydney Sweeney was nervous Monday morning.
She wasn’t headed down a red carpet, into a big audition, or performing in front of icons like Leonardo DiCaprio or Brad Pitt. She’s done all of that, recently.
Instead, she was about to face 30 students at Mountainside Middle School in north Spokane.
Sweeney came back to her home town to speak to an eighth-grade class about the importance of education and to answer all their burning questions about her life on the big screen.
At 22 years old, Sweeney has starred in the some of the most popular recent TV shows and movies. She played Cassie Howard in HBO’s “Euphoria,” a wildly popular teen drama that garnered 5.6 million viewers last season, according to the Hollywood Reporter. Sweeney also played Snake in “Once Upon A Time in … Hollywood,” and Eden Spencer in “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
Those roles have boosted her celebrity status and garnered her more than a million followers on Instagram.
The actress was born in Spokane and lived on the South Hill much of her childhood. She attended Saint George’s private school in north Spokane through much of middle school before moving to Los Angeles to pursue her acting career.
“I always wanted to be an actress,” Sweeney said. “I have a crazy, crazy imagination.”
She auditioned for a local indie film and was hooked on acting. So, the family decided it was time to pursue acting more seriously. At 12, Sweeney went to Los Angeles with her mom, Lisa Sweeney, to audition during pilot season, where casting directors and producers book roles for upcoming TV pilots.
Not long after those first auditions, Sweeney and her mom moved to L.A..
She booked small parts on shows like “Criminal Minds” and “90210.” She worked consistently in recurring TV roles and on indie films.
“I built a lot of relationships and experience from those sets,” Sweeney said.
When Sweeney was 19, she booked a role on HBO’s “Sharp Objects” and “Everything Sucks!” on Netflix. Since then she’s been working nonstop.
One of the biggest changes that has come with her fame, is being called a role model.
“I had a little girl write me a letter and ask me to speak at her school and now I’m here,” Sweeney said. “She said I’m a role model.”
That little girl was Grace Merrel, 13, who wrote to Sweeney as part of an assignment in teacher Drew Piper’s elective class, where students wrote letters to people they look up to in the career they want to pursue.
Merrel was looking up her favorite shows to write to an actress and saw that Sweeney was in “Everything Sucks!” Merrel said she wrote to Sweeney and “poured out her heart.”
Sweeney not only replied to Merrel’s letter, but said she would come speak at her school. Merrel was overwhelmed.
“I wanted to cry. I was so happy,” Merrel said. “I’ve been nervous the whole day.”
Sweeney chimed in: “I’ve been nervous, too.”
Part of those nerves came from Sweeney having to talk about herself, she said.
“I have horrible stage fright, which is so funny,” Sweeney said. “I get more nervous having to be myself than the character because when you’re a character you kind of let go of everything.”
While most of the character’s Sweeney plays aren’t appropriate for middle-schoolers, she said she hoped parents and young children could see the separation between Sweeney and her characters when it comes to being a role model for their children.
“I know it might be hard for some parents because of the roles I do take on,” Sweeney said. “I think that I can show them that education is important no matter what you do, that coming home and visiting your family when you can is important and staying humble is a good thing to be.”
Sweeney stressed the role that education plays in all aspects of becoming an adult not just your professional life but in balancing responsibility.
“I missed a lot of school because of work but I had the grades to keep up school,” Sweeney said. “It taught me how to balance work and homework and life and a social life.”
When she was about 15, she took an exam to exempt her from having to complete required school hours, have a teacher on set, and allowing her to work longer days.
A lot of her peers, who also took the exemption exam, didn’t finish high school, Sweeney explained, but her mother was adamant that Sweeney have a good education.
“In the last couple months, somebody that we know that went the other route of quitting now wishes that they would have stayed in school,” Lisa Sweeney said.
Sweeney graduated from high school with straight As and was named valedictorian. She even attended college to study business before having to take time off last year to film “Euphoria.”
Many of the students asked about Sweeney’s goals for the future, which include starting a production company, directing and writing.
With Sweeney’s busy schedule, she doesn’t get back to Spokane as often as she would like but tries to visit in the winter to ski and in the summer to spend time at her family’s lake house.
“We dust her bedroom,” Lisa Sweeney joked. But she firmly insisted her daughter is still a Spokane girl at heart.
“I like coming to Spokane because it’s just my family and no one is really like, ‘Oh my god, it’s Sydney,’” Sweeney said. “I can wear sweats and sweatshirts all the time.”