It’s hard to upstage Zendaya, the Disney Channel star who soared through ‘The Greatest Showman’ and ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ into the Hollywood stratosphere. But in HBO’s ‘Euphoria’, Hunter Schafer has done just that, in what is her debut acting role.
Schafer plays Jules, the new kid in town — a girl with a dreamy Sailor Moon vibe and a self-destructive yearning for affection — who becomes best friends with Zendaya’s addiction-tormented Rue at their high school.
Her performance as a sensitive, stabilising force amid the insanity has captivated viewers and critics alike, who’ve anointed her the series’s breakout star. And its fourth episode was devoted to Jules’ story.
Shafer was modelling in New York, with plans to study fashion design at Central Saint Martins in London, when her agency informed her that she’d been asked to audition for ‘Euphoria’. “I gave it a shot just because I had been mildly interested in acting, but it wasn’t something that I thought I would be pursuing seriously in any way, shape or form,” she said. “Then I just kept going back in and getting more of the scripts and eventually started to fall in love with my character.”
After landing the role, she spent hours with Sam Levinson, the show’s creator, filling out Jules’ transition experience. “We were just telling each other stories and bringing forward timelines that we thought could make sense for Jules and then conceptualising and sharing ideas, and that was the beginning,” she said. “I feel like Jules was being built until the last day we wrapped.”
‘Euphoria’ may be her first on-screen gig. In a phone interview as she shuttled between a photo shoot and her New York hotel room, the sunny Schafer, 20, talked about her newfound fame, representation in entertainment and why she doesn’t want to be called an activist. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q: How does it feel to be having this breakout moment?
A: It’s pretty surreal. I feel so lucky to have ‘Euphoria’ as a first experience with taking on a character and exploring acting, and in having this group of people as well.
Q: You’ve said that your life was similar to Jules’.
A: I transitioned in early high school, and her transition might have been a little bit earlier than mine. But transitioning while you’re in state school is a pretty intense experience, so I knew I could bring that to her. And then Jules’ drive and motivation for the way she acts from the start, as far as a desire to be treated “like a woman.” And I’m saying that with quote fingers because that’s a loaded term.
Q: What’s it like working with Zendaya?
A: She’s amazing. Z was my main scene partner for most of this season and I just feel so lucky to come out of this experience with a new best friend.
Q: The Parents Television Council issued a warning about ‘Euphoria’ before its premiere, calling it a “grossly irresponsible programming decision” for its graphic content. Does the show ring true to your memory of your own high school experience?
A: I can’t say I lived the way these characters do, just because my default is to be internal and stay home. Making artwork was my saving grace in high school. I didn’t really go out to parties very often the way these characters do. Oftentimes their actions make their experiences kind of messy where there’s no parents involved. But it’s interesting because my siblings have recently seen it, and I think they have a different experience of high school than I did. And they found it extremely true or relatable.
Q: You’ve been what most people would consider activist, and yet you say you don’t like that word. Why?
A: When I think of an activist, I think of a community organiser who is working every day and directly with community members, and making it a job to take care of and speak up for a community in some way. So as an actor and an artist whose primary focus is making artwork or world-building, I don’t think I fall into that category. There might have been a point in my career where, because people have been telling me I’m an activist, I took on that label.
Q: Are you auditioning for other parts, and do you have a dream role in mind?
A: I’m still kind of winding down from ‘Euphoria’. It’s taking a bit of time, just because we were doing this for eight months and I’m very immersed in that world, and I’m still in the process of letting it go. But I think I will start auditioning soon, and I’m really interested to explore what other characters I could inhabit.
‘Euphoria’ is streaming now on Wavo.