What’s It Like to Play the Scariest Girls on TV?

After “The White Lotus” premiered, Sydney Sweeney and Brittany O’Grady were worried about the extent to which they would be linked to their characters, the terrible Gen Z twosome known as Olivia and Paula.

On the show, which HBO has renewed for a second season, the college sophomores are the mean girls of the luxury resort where they are vacationing. Almost always together, they issue scathing judgments of the other guests from behind the covers of highbrow texts.

They’re sharp-tongued, they’re blasé, they’re observant and they dress well. What could be more terrifying?

I’m super sensitive, so I was like, ‘Oh, gosh, we’re not that awful,’ and then I’m looking back, and I’m like, ‘Oh gosh, we really did our job,’” Ms. O’Grady, 25, said over Zoom from Long Beach Island, N.J. She was quick to emphasize that her real-life social circle is very different.

Ms. Sweeney, 23, who joined the video call from Los Angeles, agreed. “Oh yeah,” she said. “Can you imagine having a friendship with Paula or Olivia?”

To other guests at the five-star resort, the two women present a united front. But there are troubles within their relationship and an ever-shifting balance of power.

“It’s interesting to watch people analyze our characters and say, ‘Who’s the bully, who’s the victim?’” Ms. O’Grady said.

On Monday, the day after the finale aired, Ms. O’Grady and Ms. Sweeney talked about their onscreen dynamic, Gen Z representation in film and making TV during a pandemic.

Are Olivia and Paula actually friends?

Sydney Sweeney: Their friendship was definitely the definition of the kinds of friendships that Olivia has in her life, where she likes to feel like she is in control and she is No. 1.

Brittany O’Grady: Their friendship kind of crumbles under the circumstances of the world and how they view it or their experiences in it. And it’s not necessarily good or bad. It is what it is. But I do think in the beginning that they have this emotional comfort. We kind of created that dynamic together.

Sydney: Where we hide from the outside world through what we believe is our knowledge about everyone else.

Is there romantic tension between Olivia and Paula?

Sydney: I keep reading that. To be honest, when we were doing it, I never thought of it. I didn’t even think about doing it. And now I’m watching, going, “Oh. Oh wow, Olivia.”

Brittany: Paula having this experience with someone else when she’s supposed to be bonding with her best friend, I think that totally leans into it and kind of insinuates a romantic tension. I’ve definitely had people ask as well.

Sydney, you said in another interview that Mike White (the show’s creator) suggested that you both listen to a podcast to get a sense of what your interactions should be like. What was the podcast?

Sydney: “Red Scare.” I mainly listened to it for the frequency of the voices of these girls and the timing and the monotone. It was so dry and drawn out and slow. I would just emulate and copy that as much as I could and then bring it into the present day, Gen Z-esque-type woke Twitter girl. When he first told us to listen to it, I was like, “What is this?” I have never really listened to podcasts.

Brittany: I don’t understand it. It’s a whole world. It’s like a different culture.

What was it like to work with some of the older, established actors, like Jennifer Coolidge, Molly Shannon and Connie Britton?

Sydney: I felt like all of my childhood TV icons were brought to life in front of me. You walk around the resort like, “Oh my God.” I’d call my mom and freak out. I mean, every single one of them I idolize in a different way. The entire process was like this amazing comedy boot camp.

Brittany: Our first scene filming with Jennifer was when we were in the buffet line. Jennifer just kept pulling things out of her.

Sydney: She kept calling the waiters the funniest names ever.

Brittany: Like, “Popeye over there.” And the guy is really ripped. “The guy with the khaki face” or whatever.

Sydney: We were like, “What does that even mean?”

You were filming in late 2020. What was that like?

Sydney: We were locked in our rooms for a couple of days. And then once we got out, we weren’t allowed to leave the property, no one was allowed to come onto the property and we had to test every other day. So the entire time we were walking around wearing masks, or shields if we had makeup on.

It’s really difficult for the director as well, because as an actor we get so much off of the director’s notes and facial expression, and especially someone like Mike — there’s so much that goes on, on his face, that he’s trying to explain to you. And so a lot of times we would be like, “What do you mean?”

Do you think your characters were an accurate depiction of members of Gen Z?

Sydney: I think we were a specific subculture of Gen Z. I don’t think every person in Gen Z is like Olivia and Paula.

Brittany: A lot of feedback I’ve gotten has been from millennials, so I don’t really know if it’s an accurate depiction of Gen Z. But I have a little brother who’s Quinn’s age, and he did almost sleep in the laundry room, and there was no air conditioning in there. And he brought his PS5.

Sydney: I definitely saw my little brother in the character, too.

Brittany: I have an older sister, and I hung around a lot of millennials growing up. So I identify more with millennial culture. But I’m ’96, so I’m right on that cusp of being a millennial and Gen Z. My sister was saying that if you’re in the middle of the two like I am, it depends on what, culturally, you identify more with. One was, which is kind of gruesome, but if you remember 9/11, that means you’re considered a millennial.

Sydney: I feel there is a name for that because I’ve talked about this before with a lot of the “Euphoria” cast, where I don’t feel like we identify as either. We’re a little mix of both.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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