Why Sydney Sweeney Fought So Hard to Make Immaculate

Exclusive: Sydney Sweeney reveals how her childhood love of horror movies led her to her "guttural" performance in Immaculate.

Sydney Sweeny and Michael Mohan
Photo: Nick Morgulis for Den of Geek

In the new horror movie Immaculate, Sydney Sweeney plays a devout nun named Cecilia, who, after learning that she is somehow with child, is pursued by both the manipulative clergy inside her convent in Italy and servants of darkness. But before she became the young blonde prey in this “nunsploitation” flick, Sweeney was the one doing the chasing.

Sweeney first heard of Immaculate many years ago, when she was just 16 years old. “I auditioned for it, was obsessed with it, and didn’t get it,” she tells Den of Geek while promoting the film at SXSW 2024. “And then I found out that they never made it. And every year, I followed up with my team asking, ‘Did they ever make that movie Immaculate? Whatever happened to it? Who booked it?’ And when I got older and I realized I wanted to make it myself, I went after the script.”

Sweeney is coming off of an acclaimed dramatic performance in Reality, a breakout turn in Euphoria, a rare rom-com box office hit in Anyone but You, and a viral Saturday Night Live hosting gig. Why did one of the biggest young stars in Hollywood spend so much time thinking about a part she didn’t get all those years ago? The story actually goes back to her childhood.

“I grew up watching horror films with my dad, and so I always loved that genre,” she explains. “My dad had me grow up watching all the OG John Carpenter films: Halloween, The Thing. I was watching Psycho, The Shining.”

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In other words, the role allowed Sweeney to play in a genre close to her heart, and through her education in horror classics, Sweeney was able to bring to Immaculate what Den of Geek movies editor David Crow called “Nic Cage-ian levels of gonzo fury.” Just in the trailers for the film, we get hints of how far Sweeney’s character has to go to escape her increasingly dire predicament. At one point, we see her face completely covered in blood, and Sweeney herself describes her take on a would-be nun in a moment of spiritual and physical crisis as “pretty guttural.” As the scenes grew very raw, she “allowed the character to just feel every depth of her soul.”

Part of the Sweeney’s extreme response in the film may actually come from the inclusion of needles in the story, which brought up for her a real-life fear.

“I have a phobia of needles,” Sweeney reveals. But rather than let her fears freeze her up, Sweeney dove straight into them for the performance, suggesting the phobia may have even enhanced some scenes in the film. “I usually just start crying and screaming and thrashing around.”

You may suspect that when a character challenges you not only creatively but also on a personal and physical level, the role takes its toll on the actor, but Sweeney says she had no trouble dealing with even the most extreme moments of the film. When we ask her if it was easy for her to find it within herself to go “full Nic Cage” for the movie, she laughs as she says, “Yes, which is probably crazy!”

“I don’t know how to describe it. Since I was young, I was able to jump in and out of my characters,” Sweeney adds. “I had someone who told me it was really important to separate myself from my characters as much as possible, and it’s allowed me to jump in the moment we call action and jump out the moment we call cut.”

And yet, she does like playing parts that reflect every day life. Another reason that she wanted to make Immaculate was its basis in real, believable anxieties: “One thing I loved about it the most was that most of the fears and the horror all stem from reality, and I always like when things are kind of psychological like that.”

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Even better, the movie’s connection to reality allows Sweeney to make it more than a spiritual story for those with a background in Catholicism. When asked whether the film reflected anything in her own religious history, Sweeney responds, “I never looked at this as just a pure religious film. I truly just looked at it as a character’s journey through her personal journey through God, and the religion aspect just added a beautiful backdrop to what story we were creating.”

In fact, Immaculate wasn’t originally about a nun in a convent at all. The religious setting came later.

“Originally, the script was not set in a convent, she wasn’t a nun. It was a boarding school,” Sweeney reveals, while explaining how the script evolved to what’s on screen. “We wanted to elevate the film in a different way, and add multiple different concepts to the story that people draw different themes from as they watch it. So I look at it as this is just her own character’s journey. And she happens to have her journey with God.”

Beyond starring in the film, Sweeney played a major role in the development of Immaculate as a producer, working with director Michael Mohan and Andrew Lobel throughout the scripting process. And that’s something she plans to continue going forward. So, what kind of project would Sweeney like to make next?

“I’m approaching it kind of how I’ve been approaching my choices as an actor, where I want to try all different genres and all different mediums and see what speaks to me the most. I’ve been loving going from romantic comedies with Anyone but You and now [Immaculate]. I’m kind of dipping my toes into as much as I can,” she says, teasing that she’s always discussing new projects with Mohan, who she previously worked with on The Voyeurs.

One thing that is clear is that Sweeney is proud to have championed Immaculate and Cecilia’s “crazy rollercoaster” journey. She sums up the feeling best when she says, “I always think that the best roles are the ones you have to fight for.”

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Immaculate premiered at SXSW 2024 on March 12. The film releases in theaters on March 22.