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Sydney Sweeney Is Getting Peak-TV Exposure, but the Hustle Continues

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo by Eddy Chen/HBO

Sydney Sweeney’s getting all sorts of recognition. She got one Emmy nomination for her work on Euphoria and another for her role on The White Lotus. You would think that she would be sitting on top of the world, but in a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Sweeney said otherwise. She talked about being financially strapped even as a successful actress. She said she didn’t come from money and has no family connections in the industry, so right now, to keep affording her life, she doesn’t think she could even take six months off if she wanted to have a baby.

The internet did not like this take. How dare this popular actress who lives in a $3 million home say it’s tough to make ends meet?

This week on Into It, host Sam Sanders chats with Defector co-founder and features writer Kelsey McKinney, whose recent essay “The Money Is in All the Wrong Places” sympathizes with Sweeney’s high-end precarity. McKinney asserts that some famous actresses really don’t have much of a financial safety net, because America. You can read an excerpt from their talk below, and check out the full episode of Into It wherever you get your podcasts.

Sam Sanders: In your Defector story, you say that you can always tell who in Hollywood has family money by their Instagram. Whatever do you mean?
Kelsey McKinney: I’m a little bit obsessed with secret family money. There are a lot of people who pretend to be middle class or upper-middle class who actually have a lot of money secretly stowed away. I enjoy deciphering the signs that this is happening, and there’s no better platform to do that on than Instagram.

You can tell which celebrities have family money — and I’m talking lots of family money with deep Hollywood connections — because they don’t post as much. Or when they post, they’re posting pictures of themselves onstage. Or only self-promotion. There’s a divide appearing even at the top level of celebrity between people who are posting ads and spon-con and people who don’t have to. And it’s easy to tell the ones who are posting spon, because it seems as if it’s all they do.

I have loved Sydney Sweeney’s work for a long time and followed her forever. She is always doing advertisements. This is true for a lot of Hollywood celebrities, but it seems more stark for her. Now that she’s Emmy-nominated, you would think that the ads would be dropping off. But they’re not. She’s posting more and more and more of them.

How is someone who was one of the breakout stars of the second-most-viewed show in HBO history after Game of Thrones talking about “I don’t have enough money”? Explain it for us.
To be clear, I don’t have access to Sweeney’s bank accounts, and she has yet to text me any personal details about her life. I’m working solely off of what she said, so that’s a huge caveat here. She is rich in comparison with most of the country.

This woman has so much money.

And she might be getting richer. She’s slated to star in a Marvel film soon. That’ll be some Marvel money.
Exactly. So huge caveats there. But I think the point she’s making is really good. She says two things in the interview. The first thing she says is, “I don’t get all the money I make.” She estimates that more than 20 percent of her income is going toward paying other people who help her do her job.

Lawyer, agent, publicist, et cetera.
Mmhmm. Her stylist, her hair and makeup, the clothes that she wears, right? All of those things cost money.

Well, then she’s taxed too.
Then she’s taxed, exactly. So she said all of this in the context of not having enough money to take six months off. But the reason she said that is that she said, “I really want to be a young mom.” That was a goal she had, and she’s looking around thinking, I can’t afford to take six months off.

If an actor like Sweeney were on a popular show 20 years ago, they’d get residuals if that show went into syndication, which meant that if you were one of the Cosby kids on The Cosby Show, you were getting money with every rerun. That ecosystem does not exist in streaming.
And even if you make a more direct comparison — The Cosby Show had way more episodes than a show like Euphoria did, but a show like Sex and the City is a pretty close comparison, right? They were both HBO shows, both only on cable, and you saw a lot of the actors in that show didn’t have to do this kind of work after Sex and the City hit it big. They got to take the gigs they wanted to take, and she doesn’t seem to be afforded that same luxury.

I was surprised to read her calling out all the nepotism in the industry, because that is a thing that is not spoken of — especially if you want to keep getting work.
I think it was a dangerous move to come into an interview with a publication and say, “Hey, there are a lot of people around here who aren’t as good as me and aren’t working as hard as me and are getting gigs that I can’t get.” You are fighting a group of people with a ton of power. Her peers — like Maude Apatow, Maya Hawke, and all of these people who have deep lineages in Hollywood — aren’t having to do the same kinds of things that she’s having to do.

Yeah, Maya Hawke just became a star on Stranger Things. She just showed up. I don’t know what she was doing beforehand.
Right. And she’s had that one role, right? And if you look at her socials in comparison, it’s only self-promotion. It’s “Here’s a picture of me on Jimmy Fallon.” And I can understand why Sweeney is so frustrated by this: You’re looking around at your peers (or people who shouldn’t be your peers, because their resumes aren’t as padded as yours). They have all of this time and money to do passion projects that you don’t have, because you have to take a picture holding a Tory Burch purse.

People who make the creative work get paid less for it now than they did years ago. But all of the people on the periphery — the execs, agents, CEOs, lawyers — they get more and more money.
Yeah. Endeavor mogul Ari Emanuel made $308 million last year.

Just him or the company?
Just him.

You’ve got to be lying.
This is CEO-award money. So this includes their salary and stock awards. Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav took home $246 million in total pay for one year of work.

How dare he?
It is hard for me to believe that anyone is doing a job worth that much in one year. No labor is worth that.

Let’s call Sweeney a first-generation actress. She feels financially insecure, even as she is very, very famous. What would need to change in Hollywood to make that a little better?
I want to be clear that I’m not an economist and my only business experience is running a small media company, but when I look at places like Hollywood, because so many of their workers are freelance and working for a lot of different places, I think there are a few options. The first option is a stronger union. Since this piece came out, I have heard from people who have argued that this has happened partly because A-list actors who used to be on the side of small actors are now producers, so their allegiance is no longer to acting people making money but to there not being a strike.

There are a couple ways you can fix that. You can say that if you’re a producer, you can’t be in the union anymore. You could go on strike, which generally works. If a company wanted to fix it, which none of them ever want to do, they could simply give actors stock options. They could give them investment in the companies that they’re making money for. They could pay them yearly wages instead of daily wages. There are so many ways to do this, but no one’s trying right now.

What Sweeney was trying to do is say that the same problem that exists at your regular company, your boutique shop where the owner is taking home all the profit and you’re getting an hourly wage, is happening in Hollywood.

When I see these celebrities selling stuff now, what questions should I be asking? What should I think instead of just, Ugh, that’s tacky?
I mean, you’re allowed to still think, Ugh, that’s tacky. That’s a fair response to a lot of things that celebrities do. But I think skepticism is always a good hat to wear when dealing with any rich person at all. We should be looking at all celebrity spon-con with the same kind of judgment that we would give anyone. But people who aren’t doing it aren’t not doing it because they have some kind of moral compass or because they are less tacky.

It’s very easy for me to say, “Sydney Sweeney shouldn’t post so many ads. That’s so silly.” But she’s getting judged for that. And someone like Maude Apatow isn’t, right? Because she doesn’t have to. And that’s the kind of divide that I think we should be wary of. Who are you criticizing and why?

This interview excerpt has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Sydney Sweeney Has Peak-TV Exposure, but the Hustle Goes On