Even before it’s premiered, HBO’s new coming-of-age drama Euphoria is already stirring up controversy, as debates over whether the explicit sex and drug use are appropriate in a show about high schoolers. Starring Zendaya as 17-year-old drug addict Rue, Euphoria doesn’t aim to glamorize these experiences, though. Instead, creator Sam Levinson set out to write a show inspired by his own struggles with anxiety, depression, and addiction as a teenager, with the intentions of authentically reflecting an experience that so many young people can relate to, even if some people would like to pretend otherwise.
“I just started with myself and I started with my own experiences, whether that was being prescribed medication and ultimately just abusing medication, and I just went from there,” Levinson told TV Guide of creating the show at the ATX Television Festival on June 6. “I tried to explore the guilt and shame that comes with being a drug addict and how, even despite knowing the destruction that it causes to people around you who love you, the inability to stop and that longing for the quiet and the peace that it can bring until obviously it doesn’t and things get more chaotic.”
The series picks up shortly before Rue’s junior year of high school as she returns from a stint in rehab after overdosing at the start of the summer. With no intention of staying clean, Rue quickly falls back into her old habits, taking any substance she can get ahold of in order to quiet the suffocating anxiety in her head. It’s a role unlike any other Zendaya, a former Disney Channel star and the female lead in the new Spider-Man movies, has played before. But despite her family-friendly roster of previous credits, Zendaya was always Levinson’s first pick for the part.
“Probably about a year before we started shooting I had a photo of her on a mood board that I took into HBO,” Levinson shared. “I always imagined Z as Rue, but I also never thought she would do it because it’s a pretty explosive, graphic series, just in terms of its depictions of drug use. … We were late into the casting process and I got a call that she wanted to sit down and talk, and we sat down and within two minutes of her walking in with her hood up and glasses and we were just talking, I was like, oh, this is Rue. That’s it. This is a wrap.”
While Zendaya’s Rue acts as the audience surrogate in the series, speaking directly to viewers on and off through voiceover, Euphoria works best when it functions as an ensemble, giving screentime to its captivating cast of young stars, including Hunter Schafer, a runway model and trans activist who makes her acting debut as Rue’s new best friend, Jules.
Having moved to town over the summer, Rue and Jules quickly develop a close bond that helps Jules break away from her previously established toxic routine with men, which includes a troubling sexual encounter with an older man (played be Eric Dane) in the series premiere. While the show doesn’t ignore the realities that young trans girls face in high school, particularly when it comes to romantic and sexual relationships, Schafer expressed her gratitude for the ways in which Euphoria gave Jules room to be so much more than her gender identity.
“I think that’s one of my favorite things about the show, and it’s definitely what stood out to me when I was reading some of the scripts when I was auditioning, is that these characters are allowed to breathe and be amorphous outside of the identities they might have,” Schafer said. “I really think it lets Jules be multidimensional, and the same thing goes for the other characters with their own identities. Each character has their own complex storyline that’s not limited to some sort of identity crisis.”
In Euphoria, every character is given room to grapple with their own unique set of obstacles and insecurities, ranging from the catastrophic impact his father’s actions have had on alpha male jock Nate (Jacob Elordi) to the quest for identity and sexual empowerment by the former wallflower Kat (Barbie Ferreira). The team behind the series are hopeful that their no-holds-barred approach to modern teenage life will help shine a light on what teenagers are actually facing today.
“I think it’s important to bring realness to television, and while this show might be in touch with fantasy at some moments, we wanted to make sure it was real and visceral and altogether just like a three-dimensional story,” Schafer said. “I think as far as not sugar-coating anything, that’s important. I think with all the stories we just want everyone to follow through and stay with the story and let it hit them and really feel it.”
Added Eric Dane: “It’s real and sincere and honest and I think with that, you get a lot of the stuff that you see about teenage life that may be glamorized that might not be as positively influencing on the youth. But this was such an accurate depiction, from what I gather. I think it’s good. It’s definitely not a love letter to drugs. And it can start a conversation.”
Euphoria premieres Sunday, June 16 at 10/9c on HBO.