“Nobody is getting their head cut off,” Zendaya says. She’s referring to the hubbub over her latest project: “Euphoria,” HBO’s unflinching portrait of teen life.
It’s true. There aren’t the beheadings viewers came to expect from “Game of Thrones.” But that doesn’t mean the new HBO drama hasn’t raise eyebrows since it premiered this month.
The first episode includes a drug overdose, an unsettling statutory rape scene, and a sexual encounter involving unsolicited choking. “Euphoria” spurred controversy ahead of its premiere for its gritty use of sex, drugs, and nudity to illustrate the grown-up situations Generation Z must navigate. The show airs Sundays at 10 p.m.
While such mature content has become a hallmark of HBO, adding teen characters to the mix has provoked criticism.
Zendaya and her costar, Raleigh native Hunter Schafer, are deep in discussion about the need for a dark, uncensored exploration on teen life – an antidote to the glossier version typically pushed on television.
“This show is in no way to tell people what the right thing to do is,” Zendaya, 22, says. “This is not ‘The Moral Message Show.’ This is to inspire compassion among people for other human beings and to understand that everyone has a story you don’t know about, a battle that they’re fighting that you don’t understand. I don’t find the show shocking, but there will be people who do.”
“But I also think that’s what being a teenager is,” adds Schafer, 20, a graduate of the UNC School of the Arts. Schafer is known in North Carolina for her role in a lawsuit over House Bill 2, which among other things, required people to use bathrooms in public places that match the gender on their birth certificates.
“Finding the middle ground between being an adult and being a kid and that transition,” Schafer said. “I think that’s one of the hardest parts, is finding yourself in adult situations but not knowing how to navigate them. And that makes people uncomfortable – because it is uncomfortable.
“So, yeah, it’s not easy to watch, but to some degree, everyone will be able to relate to it because everyone has experienced what that’s like on some level.”
Based on the Israeli series of the same name, “Euphoria” was adapted for HBO by Sam Levinson (the son of filmmaker Barry Levinson) and counts rapper Drake – a graduate of the more wholesome teen series “Degrassi: The Next Generation” – as an executive producer. Levinson, 34, pulled from his own troubled youth and battle with anxiety, depression, and addiction to opiates in creating the series.
“I think people like to kind of put their head in the sand when it comes to some of these conversations,” Levinson says in a telephone interview. “And there’s such a generational disconnect. It’s not like 30 years ago, when one generation could provide at least a bit of a road map for the next generation. Life now moves at such a fast speed. I think we’re all adapting at the same time, so it’s difficult to give any kind of real advice to the younger generation about how to navigate the world.”
While “Euphoria” features an ensemble of teen characters, it centers on the intimacy that develops between Rue (Zendaya) and Jules (Schafer), who become each other’s confidants and advocates amid the pressures of adolescence.
The series is full of hefty material for Zendaya and Schafer to dig into: Zendaya’s Rue is a high school student fresh off an unsuccessful stint in rehab who can’t stop her destructive compulsions – “I know you’re not allowed to say it, but drugs are kinda cool,” Rue confesses while riding a high.
Schafer’s Jules is a trans girl who recently moved into town and is battling her own demons, including a habit of spending her nights having sex with closeted older men and a harrowing past of self-harm.
“I think Rue and Jules are soul mates,” Zendaya says. “Whether that’s healthy is questionable. But I think that at a point in time, there’s a connection that nobody else will be able to understand but them and they’ll always have it. ... There’s a lot of beauty in it, but there’s also a lot of toxicity. They’re both leaning on each other in a way and finding comfort or safety ... or a bit of a new addiction within each other.”
“They become each other’s alternative to the toxic elements in their lives” is how Schafer describes the relationship between the characters.
Stepping into the roles was its own coming-of-age tightrope for the young actresses.
A Disney Channel darling since the age of 13 in 2010’s “Shake It Up,” Zendaya (whose last name is Coleman) was facing a transition in her career. During breaks from her subsequent Disney gig, “K.C. Undercover,” she built a list of credits that took her beyond the bounds of Mickey Mouse. She appeared in 2017’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming” as Peter Parker’s love interest, MJ – a part she’ll reprise in the forthcoming sequel “Spider-Man: Far From Home.”
She also starred in 2017’s big-screen musical “The Greatest Showman.” But plotting her post-Disney career after “K.C. Undercover” came to an end in early 2018 proved daunting.
“It’s very hard to go from what feels like elementary school and feels like the same grade over and over and over again to finally being able to go to college and then having to go back to the same elementary grade,” she says. “It was just tough. I’m not saying it made me sad or anything. But it didn’t feel great. And all the scripts I was getting just did not feel right to me because they were with the pretense of what I’d done already, still in that world. Nothing fit. Nothing worked.”
For Schafer, “Euphoria” marks her first TV series. Schafer had been working in New York as a model for fashion heavy-hitters like Dior and Marc Jacobs. Teen Vogue named her in 2017 as one of 21 “Girls and Femmes Changing the World” younger than 21. She was set to go to fashion design school when she saw a casting call on Instagram seeking a trans actress for the series.
“I was a little scared about being trans and falling into an archetype,” she says. “But after getting a few scripts, it started to make more sense to me and started to resonate even more.”
When the conversation turns to whether they share any similarities with the characters they play, the two become contemplative.
“One of the first things that lined up was just that we had similar transition timelines – we both transitioned on the earlier side of high school,” Schafer says. “I kind of could see her from the beginning, as far as what she looks like and what her energy was like, and it wasn’t that far off. But I would say Jules was probably a little more confident than me in high school. Where we really differ is the way we coped and the way we survived high school. Because my way of coping was fantasizing about where I could get myself in the future. Jules wants to have relationships and go to parties and has built these toxic relationships with men that she turns to for affirmation.”
Zendaya says it’s hard to explain how she relates to Rue. Unlike the character, the actress says she has never done drugs or consumed alcohol. “I know in that sense people kind of assume this is a huge acting stretch for me,” she says. “But as a human being, I think Rue is very similar to me. She’s a good person. There’s an innocence to her.”
Beyond the shocking nature of the series, the two hope “Euphoria” provides a sobering window into the anxiety and stress facing young people today. There have been a number of studies that assert Gen Z to be the most stressed and depressed generation.
“I think a lot of people don’t understand how intense and complicated it is to be a teenager today,” Schafer says. “I think a lot of parents see their kids on their phones and think they’re a ... zombie. That is an entirely alternate reality that they are immersed in in that moment that is probably way more complicated and fast-paced than parents even realize.”