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 remarkably her debut acting role.
Schafer plays Jules, the new kid in town — a trans 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 sex-and-drugs-deluged high school.
Her performance as a sensitive, stabilizing force amid the insanity has captivated viewers and critics alike, who’ve anointed her the series’s breakout star. And its fourth episode, on July 7, explored Jules’s story, following her harrowing journey from a depression-filled childhood into a psychiatric hospital — and, eventually, a happier transition.
Shafer was modeling 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, helping to fill out Jules’s experiences transitioning. “We were just telling each other stories and bringing forward timelines that we thought could make sense for Jules and then conceptualizing 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, but Schafer is no stranger to attention. Raised in Raleigh, N.C., she was a plaintiff in the American Civil Liberties Union’s 2016 lawsuit against North Carolina House Bill 2 that required people to use the restroom for the gender they were assigned at birth. She wrote about the experience of navigating bathrooms in her public high school for i-D, and for her convictions made Teen Vogue’s 2017 list of “21 Under 21.”
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.
How does it feel to be having this moment as a breakout star?
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. I couldn’t be happier about the situation, and so whatever people are calling me is just the cherry on top.
You’ve said that your life was similar in certain ways to Jules’s. How?
I transitioned in early high school, and her transition might have been a little bit earlier than mine. But transitioning while you’re in public school is a pretty intense experience, so I knew I could bring that to her. And then Jules’s 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. But I think one of Jules’s main battles is her desire for romance and normalcy and love, which I think she’s kind of locked down a routine as far as getting some form of that. But of course it’s not healthy, and I can relate to that point in my life. I didn’t act out on it, but I certainly desired to be treated a certain way in order to affirm my femininity.
What’s it like working with Zendaya?
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.
As an aspiring fashion designer, did you have any input into Jules’s distinctive style?
Some of Jules’s looks were already written into the script, and it was clear that she was expressive and stood out at her school. But as far as narrowing down what that aesthetic was, that was something that was really fun to work on with Heidi Bivens, our costume designer. I remember she let me make mood boards coming into filming. Then throughout Jules’s arc I think we start to witness a little bit of a change in style, which was fun to navigate as well. Heidi and I were just constantly sending each other references and photos and general guides that we think Jules could inhabit so it was really collaborative.
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?
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. It just sort of clocked high school in a way that they hadn’t seen before, which I was really excited to hear.
You’ve been what most people would consider activist, and yet you say you don’t like that word. Why?
When I think of an activist, I think of a community organizer 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. But in retrospect, I don’t think that’s what I am — or what I’ve been — just because I’m vocal about my identity sometimes.
You’ve listed “Pose” as one of your favorite shows. How do you feel about trans representation and opportunities in Hollywood?
I think it’s always preferable that a trans person plays a trans person — one, because there’s enough cisgender actors in Hollywood, and two, because trans people can bring levels of experience to the trans experience that they might be portraying. A cisgender actor might be able to conceptualize and get it down to a T but won’t have the experiences in their back pocket that they can bring forward to use for that character. Trans people deserve to see themselves represented on their own TV screens, not being inhabited by people who might not completely understand them.
You’ve walked the runway for Helmut Lang, Miu Miu and Marc Jacobs, to name a few. Any plans to return to modeling?
I think I’ve taken a step back for now just because I really liked the way I felt in front of the camera acting and I want to keep exploring.
Are you auditioning for other parts, and do you have a dream role in mind?
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. Jules was so parallel to me in a lot of ways. I would love to branch off to someone who is cisgender or a fantasy role. There are many different ways to go and I feel so new to acting and really excited about the art form. I’d love to just keep exploring.
In a 2016 interview, you said you came out first as gay, and then trans. Then you began exploring non-binary identity. Could you explain what you mean?
Earlier in my transition, I think I relied on a vantage point of the world that was very close to the gender binary and was only able to be myself in the gender-binary viewpoint. And as I’ve learned more about my community and come to understand gender as a spectrum, and the gender binary as something that’s nonexistent and a construct and a product of colonialism, I have sort of let go of the idea that I need to do the one or the other — and just let myself be.
In Episode 4, we see Jules admitted to a psych ward as she struggles with body dysmorphia and self-harm, and her desire to transition initially treated as a mental illness. Was that something you could relate to?
That experience is something from Sam’s life actually, something that really happened to him, not necessarily because he was trans but because he was dealing with similar symptoms of anxiety and depression that I think Jules was dealing with at that time as well. He was talking about being on the set and how it looked exactly the same and how intense that was.
I remember when I was early in my transition and had just come out and was starting to get help, I had to meet with a therapist for a year and have that therapist confirm to doctors before I could have access to hormones — have that therapist confirm to them that I was, in fact, female in my head, which is nuts just to have to have some doctor making decisions about your identity when you know the whole time. I don’t think it’s like that everywhere but that’s one experience that I remember specifically that was just really weird and not affirming as far as people believing me when I’m saying who I am.
This episode is also the moment we see Jules rethinking the ways in which she has pursued affection. And then that kiss with Rue as they’re lying in bed …
What I just loved about the script is that we see her start to recognize [her reliance on men] and eventually move away from it, particularly with her relationship to Rue, which I found really exciting as well as a young trans girl in a not-heterosexual relationship.
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