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 Sydney Sweeney (who plays Cassie Howard, the older sister of Rue’s childhood friend Lexi) and Algee Smith (who plays Chris McKay, a football star who finds the adjustment from high school to college harder than expected), who talked about what made them want to be a part of Euphoria, the conversations they had with showrunner Sam Levinson prior to shooting, the challenges of playing these characters, having an intimacy coordinator on set, what they learned about their characters as the season progressed, the most fun days of the shoot, what they’re doing before they return for Season 2, and what they hope viewers take from watching this series.
Collider: Everybody does such great work in this, and you guys are put through so much, emotionally. When you read this, was it very apparent, just what type of show this would be?
ALGEE SMITH: I can say that I had an idea of what we were getting into, but the more it just kept going on, it just turned into more and more and more. But reading the first episode, I had an idea, yeah.
Did you have a lot of questions and was there a lot of conversation involved, before you signed on?
SYDNEY SWEENEY: Yeah, I had a phone call with (showrunner) Sam [Levinson], before we started filming and after I booked Cassie. We just talked about Cassie’s storyline and her arc, and the different storylines that would go on, throughout the show. We just really communicated about what was going to happen.
SMITH: It was the same thing for me. Before I signed on, of course, we had the conversations of just how far the limits with go and where we’d have to push to. It was just about making sure that I felt comfortable with everything, being put in those certain situations to act. It was good.
You hear a lot of actors talk about how they want to find roles that challenge and scare them, but with this show, it seems like there are endless things that could have done that. Where there things that most concerned you about your character, or that you were worried about pulling off, in general?
SWEENEY: I don’t think worried would be the right word. As an actress and as an art form, the dark, deeper, more emotional stuff really draws me in. I feel fulfilled when I’m doing those types of scenes. I enjoy that challenge.
SMITH: I could say the same. I love looking for challenges, as well. There’s a specific scene that my character, McKay, has that I wasn’t scared or nervous about doing, but it was uncomfortable. I had to quickly come to terms with being an actor and this is the job that I’m there for, to inspire and to make it feel a certain way. There’s someone that may have actually went through that situation. So, it wasn’t hard for me to snap out it and just do it.
Because there are so many times where you all are so vulnerable in this show, did it feel like a very safe environment on set?
SWEENEY: Yes, it did. It felt like we were with our peers, and that if something went wrong, they’d be there to catch you. I never felt like weirded out, or uncomfortable about doing something.
SMITH: There was a very safe environment, from our castmates and also from the producers. We had an intimacy coordinator on set that would talk to us, personally, before every intimate scene that we would do, and we had stunt coordinators.
SWEENEY: And Sam was amazing at talking with us, too, and making sure that we felt good.
It’s not a given that you’ll get a voice in your character or the development of things, so it’s cool to hear that’s how it worked out.
SWEENEY: Yeah, it was very nice.
SMITH: That’s very rare, for a whole season.
SWEENEY: We were very involved with our characters. We got very lucky.
Did you guys spend time talking to each other about the relationship with your characters?
SMITH: For my experience, we just jumped into it. I had my audition with Sydney, for McKay and Cassie, and that audition went well. After that, we jumped right into shooting.
SWEENEY: We built it like while we were doing it.
These relationships and friendships all seem very natural and real.
SWEENEY: That was one of the really amazing things, if a scene didn’t feel like it was working or flowing, Sam would sit with us and we would just change it, right then and there, and just rewrite an entire scene. You can see on the show that every scene does flow and it does work, and it does feel very real because we made sure that it was.
We meet your characters on a more superficial level, in the beginning, and then we get to learn about who they are, as the series goes on. As you guys learned about your characters, were there things that you grew to appreciate about who they are?
SWEENEY: Yeah, as the season went on, Cassie grew so much. You’ll see, towards the end, that she goes through quite a lot, and it really makes her grow into the person that she’s gonna be. It was really beautiful, being able to watch that and portray that. I also learned more about myself, being able to go through that change with her.
SMITH: For me, I just appreciated seeing, I don’t know if I would say that it’s growth with McKay, as the season goes on, but he goes on a roller coaster ride. I just appreciated the journey for McKay. I just felt like I was really becoming him. It wasn’t, at all, forced.
Have you thought about what you’d still like to learn about your characters?
SWEENEY: Oh, 100%, and I can’t wait to talk to Sam about that.
SMITH: There are some things, for sure, where I’m gonna be like, “Can we expand on this?” Now, we can step back and say, “This is what we’ve worked on, that’s what it is, and that’s how it looks. Now, I understand that about him.”