Euphoria’s Breakout Star Hunter Schafer on Playing an Unprecedented Character
Hunter Schafer is not your typical tween starlet. For one, her most recent endeavor—a breakout role in HBO’s Euphoria as Jules, whose life is complicated not only by being the new girl in town but by also being trans—is something of a second (or possibly third) career for her. Before she starred in the suburban dystopian drama of millennial life, she was a model, photographed by Inez & Vinhood for Vera Wang, and stomping down the runway for Rick Owens. And before that, she was on her way to Central St. Martins, where she planned to study fashion design. Before that she was an activist, joining in the ACLU and Lambda Legal’s lawsuit against HB2, North Carolina’s so-called “bathroom bill” that prohibited transgender people from using bathrooms consistent with their gender identities. It’s a hefty resume for someone who has not yet entered her third decade of life. And it’s understandable that she’d prefer to focus on the direction her career has taken her recently, not her activist past. Doesn’t three years ago seem like another lifetime when you’re in your teens?
But it’s not just her perspective that makes Schafer seem to want to steer the conversation toward her latest work. It’s the sense that the making of Euphoria has been an all-consuming, high-stakes, intense experience for her (not unlike teenage life itself). When I speak with her, she is just coming off a two-week break from filming the final episodes of the show’s first season, and she says she’s been in “a moment of decompressing and letting that part of my life go.” Not that she has been slacking off. It’s hard to tell exactly how she’s been spending her days, but it sounds as though there have been some projects in the works. “It’s cool how to see how my creative juices have shown themselves when they’re not being used for Euphoria every day,” she says, speaking from L.A., where she’s currently living. “I’m trying to find a new rhythm as to how I’m going to externalize my artistic energies. It’s a moment of re-formation.”
But before the re-formation, though, comes the formation: a sharp-yet-tender performance that becomes something like the shining light at the center of the increasingly dark world that Euphoria depicts. “I’d never known anyone like Jules before,” comments the character of Rue, played by Zendaya, the narrator and protagonist of the show. If Jules is a beacon, Rue is a dark pit, her trajectory toward self-annihilation seeming to know no impediment. Schafer is captivating in the role not because she’s a purely sunny antidote to the depravity and confusion surrounding her, but because she’s sometimes subject to that confusion (and violence) herself, and she still looks at life as an optimist and romantic.
I spoke with Schafer about the show, the controversial reaction its extremes have elicited, and what it’s like to portray a nuanced trans character in popular culture.
So what kind of creative work are you most interested in now that you’re not working on the show anymore?
I’m interested in everything. If I had enough time on this earth, I’d like to learn every art practice. But recently, of course, I’ve been transfixed with acting. Ever since I can remember, I drew, and visual arts have been my main way to express myself. I like dancing, although I’ve never done that very seriously. It’s something I’d like to explore more. I almost went to Central Saint Martins for fashion design. I deferred for a year when I graduated high school so that I could go model and make some money and immerse myself in the fashion industry for a year. I needed a break from school. But I was set to go there until this role came up and turned my whole life upside down. I don’t think I even told them I wasn’t coming.
You don’t come from a typical acting background. You definitely weren’t a Disney kid! How did the casting come about?
I saw a casting call floating around on Instagram last year, and then a few days later, my model agents told me that I’d been asked to come in for it. I’d heard that other trans models were doing it, so I was interested. I could have never really seen myself taking on such a performative art practice, because I’m pretty shy, but I went in and gave it a run, and they asked me to come back and come back again. Eventually, I got a few scenes and then more and more of the script, until I had the first four episodes. Having those first four episodes made me fall in love with the project.
The show has been criticized by some for its violence. The Parents Television Council condemned the show for “overtly, intentionally, marketing extremely graphic adult content—sex, violence, profanity, and drug use—to teens and preteens.” What’s your take on the level of violence in the show.
This is the first whole script I’ve ever read, so I didn’t really have much to compare it to. But I think I found it really exciting to read, and there was a realness to it that Sam Levinson [the show’s creator] brought that was really appealing. Yes, I was definitely intimidated by some of the scenes, particularly those in the pilot that get pretty graphic. I was definitely intimidated, asking myself, can I do this? I’ve never acted before, and these are really intense scenes.
And then as a trans girl playing a trans character, I had to ask, where is this going, what’s her backstory? Is this going to depict a trans girl in a weird way that I think needs to be in the world? But as I got more of the script and witnessed her arc develop, I became more confident in the way she had been constructed. And I really fell in love with her and Rue and their overall trajectory.
What about the script made her character not a caricature and gave you this confidence?
When I got a few more of the episode, and I read her backstory, I started to understand where all this shit that she’s pulling was coming from. By the end of episode four, we begin to see her sexuality take a turn, and I identified with that shift, in terms of having a toxic idealization of men, and then letting that fall away and putting more value in relationships with femme people who you trust and love deeply. That was something I hadn’t really seen on TV before: a trans girl in a non-hetero relationship, in a queer relationship. Seeing that spoke to me as a queer trans woman.