From show creator and writer Sam Levinson (who also directed five episodes), the eight-episode HBO drama series Euphoria follows 17-year-old Rue (Zendaya, in a haunting and heartbreaking performance), a drug addict who’s just out of rehab and trying to figure out what’s next. As she comes to terms with how deeply her addiction affects her mother (Nika King) and sister (Storm Reid), she forms a deep connection with Jules (Hunter Schafer), a trans girl who’s new to town, and the two search for where they belong among the minefield of high school life.
At the Los Angeles press day for the series that’s a shocking, beautiful and uncomfortably honest look at teenage life, Collider got the opportunity to sit down with co-stars Jacob Elordi (who plays Nate Jacobs, a jock with anger issues that hide his sexual insecurities) and Alexa Demie (who plays Maddy Perez, Nate’s on-and-off-again girlfriend), who talked about why they wanted to be a part of Euphoria, how it felt like a spiritual experience, what they learned from working with the different directors, being a part of such a collaborative environment, connecting deeper with their characters as they learned more about them, the challenge of playing such heightened emotions, and what they’re looking for in future projects and roles.
Collider: When you read this script, was the appeal of a project like this, the fact that material like this doesn’t come along very often?
JACOB ELORDI: Never.
ALEXA DEMIE: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. Sam [Levinson] is so good at what he does, creating the world, and writing out the descriptions of the characters and everything that’s happening. You can see it as you’re reading it, or at least I could, and it was a dream come true. I was in a really weird place, at the time. I wasn’t getting anything good and I was like, “I’m done with this! Why am I even doing this? Everything that I’m reading is so not what I want to do.” And then, this came along and I was like, “I have to do this. I want this.” And luckily, I got it.
Is it hard to then want a role so bad, but you still have to convince them that you’re the one that they should hire?
DEMIE: Yeah, a lot of actors don’t like auditions. When [Jacob] met me for our chemistry read, he remembers me having a giant bag of different costumes because I just wanted to be that character. From day one, Sam was very collaborative, even in the audition room. He actually went through looks with me and told me what to wear. So, the auditioning process is really hard, but I stayed really focused. I knew that I wanted it, and I just kept my eye on that, the entire time.
ELORDI: From then to now, it’s just been incredibly strange. I was essentially homeless when I auditioned for it. We were all in these places that were just this very classic Hollywood existence, so maybe it read on our faces that we were dying for it. When it comes to something with this quality and substance, I was at the end of my tether. Weirdly, everything came into place, spiritually.
DEMIE: Yeah, it was a spiritual experience. When I saw [Jacob] at the very first audition, he was walking down the street and I instantly went, “That’s Nate. That’s gonna be Nate.” And then, I went to a sandwich shop and there was a cheese called Euphoria. I just kept having this synchronicity. Even with [Zendaya] being Rue, she was in my dream before I met her. And then, when we met, it was like we knew each other, forever. It was like this instant like family bond.
ELORDI: It was so strange. You just can’t make up the amount of things that happened like that.
DEMIE: I met (pilot director) Augustine [Frizzell], a year before because I auditioned for her movie, Never Goin’ Back, and I didn’t end up getting that, but we loved each other, and she emailed me and was like, “I know we’re gonna work together.” Exactly a year from that day is when I got the Euphoria audition, and she directed the pilot, so she was actually in the audition. I ended up running into the girl that did get the role in her movie. She was also auditioning, which was just super wild.
Sam Levinson directed five of the eight episodes, but you also had three woman – Augustine Frizzell, Pippa Bianco and Jennifer Morrison – come in to direct the other episodes. What was it like to have their voices and perspectives on your characters?
DEMIE: I loved it. I’d never worked with a female director. I’ve worked with a lot of male directors, who were all incredible, but I really have been dying to work with a female. And so, being able to work with three very different, but very great women, who are great at what they do, it was a great experience to learn from each and every one of them.
ELORDI: They all had looked such a distinct style and were so different. Sam has his own style that was as good as anything going on, but then, it was so interesting to work with three separate people who couldn’t have been more far apart, in the style and the way that they directed. I’ve never worked with that many directors, in a short period of time, so I learned so much from watching everyone. We got a smorgasbord of different styles of directing. We got a crash course in everyone’s style, which was brilliant.
The tone changes a little bit, depending on which characters are being spotlighted in each episode, so it seems like those different perspectives could really help and make an impact on a show like this.
ELORDI: These were very much our characters, and Sam helped us build them, but then, when someone new came in, they would ask us, what does it feel like for you? How have you been doing this? It was this collaborative thing that everyone carried, as a unit.
DEMIE: Sam was so involved. Even when Augustine was directing, he was there, every minute of the day and night. This is very much his world. He created this world. Even though these directors came in, it was still very much that they were walking into Sam’s world, and then doing such a beautiful job with us, in getting the performances needed to complete it.
What was it like for you guys to be a part of such a collaborative environment, and to really get a voice in your characters and work? Did you have to find your voice and get used to being encouraged to speak up?
DEMIE: Not really. I’ve always been very vocal about what I want. I grew up writing shorts and music videos. I love the visual aspect of everything. I think I’m very clear in that. My issue is letting go and not being so controlling with things. Sam made it such an incredible space, from day one. We had a cast dinner, and we had a 30-minute conversation about make-up. He loves make-up, so my character, specifically, always had a very detailed, beautiful make-up look. He made it really comfortable for us to suggest anything, whether it’s the script, music, or our look. It was very collaborative. We got to improv a lot, and that was really nice. So, it wasn’t hard to speak up.
We’re initially introduced to your characters in a more superficial way, and then we get to know them, as the series progresses. Are there things that you grew to appreciate about them, the better you got to know who they are?
DEMIE: Yeah, I think we grew with the characters.
ELORDI: We grew with them, 100%. For me, by Episode 5, the biggest thing was falling into the love aspect of it. In the first episodes, it’s established that it’s tortured and it’s not good. By Episode 5, I took a step back and realized that these kids are madly in love with each other. And we grew personally with it. At the end of the shoot, good luck finding Alexa and Jacob because it was Maddy and Nate. It was the first time that I was ever truly lost in the character and what was going on.
DEMIE: I could have, because I’m a professional, but acting alongside [Jacob], and doing such crazy traumatic, physical and emotional work, I’m so grateful. He’s such a great actor, and also just really a sweet person, in real life. I have a hard time being vulnerable, especially with men, so any other person, I maybe would have had a guard up, but it felt very comfortable and easy to let that down, working with him.
ELORDI: Some mornings, I would get to work, and she would just walk in my trailer and we’d sit for two hours, talking and shooting the breeze. I think that was just established from the moment we were in that room together, during the audition. It just happened.
We also get to learn about their lives at home and with their families.
ELORDI: You need that. Nate is the way that he is purely because of his family and the way that he’s treated. In Episode 5, you get great insight into Maddy’s family, as well. You start to see why the children were acting the way that they were acting, in the earlier episodes.
Did that make it harder to leave the job, when it was done?
ELORDI: Yeah, it was incredibly difficult. It was also incredibly difficult to hurt [Alexa] with words. We would always say that we wished we could just have a scene where we would just go get ice cream and watch a movies, or something like that. It’s difficult to hurt each other, when you care so much about each other.
DEMIE: When you’re a teenager, emotions are at an all-time high. In the coming episodes, there’s rage with Maddy. I thought about it and I was like, “I would never act like that, right now.” But as a teenager, your hormones and emotions are going crazy. That’s with boys and girls, but for girls, specifically, with their mothers, it can just be really, really hard, and everything can feel like the end of the world.
When you are considering projects, what is it that you look for?
DEMIE: I’ve always been like extremely specific and picky. I’m grateful to have worked with some incredible filmmakers. I just know what I like when read something. I have a certain taste level, and I’ve been really true to that, and will continue to be true to that. It really is a feeling. When you read something, you get a feeling or you don’t. Everything I know that I’ve wanted, I’ve gotten. There are things that I think I wanted and I really liked, but I didn’t get. I feel like Euphoria was one of those that I had to be a part of.
ELORDI: For me, I just wanna work on something that makes me wanna get out of bed in the morning. I want to do work that I genuinely enjoy because the time that you spend acting, between action and cut, is a minute. So, if you have to live in a world around that, for 17 hours, for work that you don’t want to do, for someone else, and with words that you don’t want to say, that’s hell. I know that, speaking from experience.
Euphoria airs on Sunday nights on HBO.