This summer, HBO’s Euphoria exploded on to TV screens like a supernova of kinetic energy, teen angst, and pinballing hormones. Before the pilot episode is over, the series has depicted rampant drug and alcohol use, distorted sexual roles as a result of porn viewing, bullying, gender-based violence, and statutory rape. But the final moments of the episode offer a palate cleanser of pure tenderness between young women when, in the light of daybreak, Zendaya’s Rue (fresh out of rehab), cleans and dresses a deep slice on her new friend and soon-to-be love interest Jules’s arm before they fall back side-by-side, their arms just grazing one another’s.
That scene that telegraphs the abiding love that will blossom between Jules (Hunter Schafer in her first acting role) and Rue contrasts with two earlier scenes in which Jules is vulnerable opposite physically-imposing, violent men. Before her sweet moments with Rue, Jules has self-destructively hit up a seedy motel where she meets with Eric Dane’s Cal Jacobs, the town bigwig with a violent streak and a fetish for underage trans people. It’s there that he commits statutory rape. Later, she finds herself in a confrontation with his son Nate (Jacob Elordi) — Cal’s savage spitting image of a son. She diffuses the situation by slicing her forearm.
Prior to Euphoria’s premiere, there was an outcry on social media and in think pieces about the show's portrayal of teens run amok — even if several of them are acting out the cycles of abuse their parents handed down to them. But for all of the handwringing about the show’s gritty content, creator Sam Levinson (who directed last year’s teen horror fever dream Assassination Nation) has tapped into real-world issues that young people face. Schafer, a 20-year-old model who was a named plaintiff in the ACLU’s lawsuit in her home state of North Carolina’s anti-trans “bathroom bill,” says that Jules’s journey from seeking out toxically-masculine men to allowing Rue in is, in some ways, reflective of her own experience.
“One of the parts of Jules that I identify most with is her transition from having this pretty toxic idealization of men and having certain desires towards them, and not knowing why. Then ultimately realizing that it's not working and that what she's searching for can be found in a safety and a solace that she finds in her best friend,” Schafer tells The Advocate.
“And that it's feminine and loving,” she says about Jules and Rue's bond. “There's no dynamic of misogyny because it's not really possible within their relationship.”
Hunter Schafer as Jules
As the first season of Euphoria progresses (it was picked up for a second season early in the run) — and despite Jules falling for a mythologically perfect man she knows only through an app who later blows up her life — she and Rue become increasingly inseparable and reliant on one another. Rue, a previously unrelenting addict, is even willing to forgo drugs if it means she can be with Jules. A few episodes into the season and with only a single kiss having passed between them, it’s clear that theirs is a love story that moves beyond friendship.
“That's something that I went through as a trans person,” Schafer says of a shift that happened in her life around the time she became involved with the show.
“At the time I was getting the scripts, I was in my first relationship, and a relationship that was not with a man,” Schafer says. “It took me a really long time to get there, but it just kind of blew my mind that I would be able to kind of portray that transformation or that transition and work through those feelings in a different way in a character who dealt with it in different ways than I did.”
When Schafer stepped into Euphoria, she'd already built an impressive career as a model for designers including Dior, Miu Miu, and Marc Jacobs. For her first acting gig, Schafer was given three sides (scenes) to read before she got the scripts for the first four episodes. Considering that two out of those three scenes included the aforementioned run-ins with Cal in the motel and Nate in the kitchen of an unruly house party, Schafer was “a little worried” about where the show would take Jules, but mostly, she says she was “intrigued.”
Schafer as Jules and Zendaya as Rue
By the time she got the first four scripts — the last of those being the one that delves into Jules’s background before she arrives at her new school and the first episode to even really mention that she’s trans — she began to see the possibilities in playing the character.
“[I] was able to see some of the transformation that Jules undergoes throughout the season. That's when I started to get excited about this character, and particularly her delving in some way into queerness and what she's navigating throughout this series,” Schafer says. “That her trans-ness is sort of taking a backseat in this story… It was really cool.”
While Schafer was buoyed by Euphoria’s refusal to make Jules’s trans identity the first thing the series amplified about her, she’s been heartened by the reach the show has for people seeking visibility and for the feedback she’s received since its premiere in June.
“It's been so wild having [Euphoria] out in the world and receiving messages from people from all ends of the spectrum of reactions.” Schafer says.
“The ones that have been really special, and maybe ones that I didn't even feel prepared for, were people who did feel like Jules was something that they hadn't seen on TV before and that it was special to them to be able to see themselves in some way, shape, or form through the TV and in her,” she says. “That's been beautiful.”
Euphoria's season finale premieres this Sunday on HBO.