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 executive producer Sam Levinson and superstar Zendaya to talk about taking on Euphoria, the importance of telling this story, why this was a challenging and scary role to take on, shooting an episode at a carnival, the Rue-Jules dynamic, how important Gia is to Rue, how the character evolved, Zendaya’s desire to direct, and what’s still to come for Rue.
Collider: I am so impressed with this, everybody’s performances, and the story that you’re telling, so congratulations on all of that.
SAM LEVINSON: Thank you!
What was it like to take on writing, directing and producing all of this?
ZENDAYA: He’s amazing!
LEVINSON: It really was a dream.
ZENDAYA: I still don’t how this man was writing episodes, editing episodes and directing them, and then making sure it’s beautiful. I was like, “Dude, I don’t know how you’re doing this.” I would just combust.
LEVINSON: Yeah, but it just gets set into motion. We have such a fucking incredible cast and an incredible crew, and it’s such a collaborative and beautiful environment, that I would get up and go to work, every day, and I was excited about what our costume designer, Heidi Bivens, was going to come up with, what our make-up artist, Doniella Davy, was going to come up with, and across the board, what the actors and the crew were gonna bring to it. We tried, every day, to really push it from a cinematic level, in terms of lighting and form, that we didn’t even know was possible. It was terrifying because, if they weren’t possible, we were gonna get in a lot of fucking trouble with HBO.
ZENDAYA: It’s really impressive when you read things and you get this idea in your head of what it’s gonna look like. Nine times out of ten, it’s never that good. You have an idea and you’re like, “Wow, it’s so nice in my head.” But then, when you do it, it’s like, “Okay, it’s pretty, but it never quite gets there.” But this is the one thing that I’ve done that, every single time, it went beyond what I could have imagined. Every shot, whether it was literally just a two second shot in the kitchen, or it’s a magical shot through a carnival, was shot beyond what my brain could have thought it would look like. It’s craziness.
Setting an episode at a carnival seems like so much fun, but also such a nightmare?
ZENDAYA: It was a nightmare, but it was also the best.
LEVINSON: It was really tough. It was a nightmare. But what’s interesting is that most of the episodes were storyboarded, and we storyboarded 880 storyboards per episode. Then, we would actually build everything around the storyboards. That entire carnival was 125,000 square feet, and we had rides everywhere. We just assembled it to fit our shots, our camera, and the actors. It was freezing cold, it was dusty, it was horrible, and we shot it in six days.
ZENDAYA: All night shoots. I couldn’t breathe. I needed an inhaler.
LEVINSON: It was brutal.
ZENDAYA: It was dusty, but it was worth every moment.
LEVINSON: But thinking back and watching the footage, I get happy. I’m like, “Yeah, that was so much fun, in retrospect.”
Actors talk about wanting to find roles that are challenging and scary. What was it about this that most scared you, and what most excited you about getting to do this kind of material?
ZENDAYA: Well, it’s so funny because I had a lot of fears, prior to even knowing that this script existed, about what I was gonna do next, what I should do next, and what I was looking for. I had all of these ideas in my head about what the next move should be, and there was nothing that I felt like I was connecting with. I was starting to stress and bug out because I just didn’t have anything, and nothing was connecting with me. I didn’t want to just say yes to a shitty project because I didn’t have anything else. So, I was just waiting, and other things fell through. Everything was just not going right. And then, Euphoria came along. When I read it, I immediately just loved it. There’s no other way to put it. I just fell in love with the script, and I feel in love with Rue and all of the characters. I wanted to know more about them and about their lives. I wanted them to be okay. I just wanted to be a part of that world of Euphoria. All of those thoughts went out of my head, and I just knew I wanted to be a part of this project. And then, after meeting Sam and knowing how personal it was to him, and after our conversations, I just knew I was in the right place and that this is where I was clearly meant to be because I didn’t stress. I can stress. I stress in silence. Nobody will ever know ‘cause I’m a very calm person, but I will be stressed and pressed, to no end because my mind is constantly doing these equations for the good and bad outcome of everything. So, the sheer fact that I did not have that stress, the entire time, even when we were shooting this show, I was able to fully just let myself go into the show and enjoy every moment of it. Clearly, this is where I need to be, and this is what I was destined to be doing, at this time.
LEVINSON: Thank god!
ZENDAYA: And it’s an amazing piece of material. You don’t find just roles like that, just lying around. It’s rare when you find something where you’re like, “I can get into this, and it’s gonna be exciting and challenging and hard.” You just don’t get that, ever. And then, that it was being written by someone who was actually coming from an honest place and who wasn’t like, “I have this idea about a kid with addiction, but I made it up because I’ve seen a lot of movies about addiction, and this seems like what happens,” as a developed society, we know when it’s bullshit and it’s not real. What I immediately connected to and realized about this script was that it was real. Sam just knows how to convey all of this stuff into a script. I hate reading scripts, so the fact that I read through it so quickly and was like, “This is how people talk. I understand it. I’m laughing. I’m heartbroken,” I knew that I had to do it. That’s how it was.