HBO's Euphoria Is The Real Talk We Need
As high-chasing bad girls on HBO, IRL pals Barbie Ferreira and Hunter Schafer recast the archetype.
When HBO’s Euphoria hit screens in June, filling the network’s GoT-shaped void with a pure-cut dose of contemporary teen life, its trippy dramatics and issue-tackling realism had been preceded by a much-publicized production. While Zendaya’s lead role as the high-chasing Rue and Drake’s attachment as executive producer accounted for much of the buzz, the show’s unorthodox recruiting tactics didn’t stop there. Hunter Schafer and Barbie Ferreira, both non-professional actors who happen to deliver two of the show’s most surprising and complex performances, each came across the show’s open casting call on Instagram.
On paper, Schafer plays Jules and Ferreria plays Kat, two ennui-stricken friends in Rue’s orbit. The first episode establishes their respective archetypes: Jules the put-upon transfer student and Kat the posturing bad girl. But each of their storylines touch on distinctly of-the-moment themes, from body shame to identity politics to app hookups gone wrong. While the show, trafficking in narrative clout and meta-narrative social savvy, may seem particularly suited to both Schafer and Ferreira’s progressive modeling tracks, their well observed performances suggest major dramatic careers to come.
Ferreira says 16-year-old Kat reflects much of her personality pre-modeling. “ was a special age for me, because that’s when I started breaking out of these insecurities, and just thinking that I am not worth it,” says Ferreira, who, after being scouted by American Apparel in high school, became an early drumbeater of the body-positivity movement. After she and her recently divorced mom moved from Queens to suburbia, Ferreira, like Kat, put up walls around her creative impulses. “I mean, I am like a theater kid; all I wanted was to be on Disney Channel. I would try my hardest to see managers by myself without my mom,” she says. “[But] I started isolating myself even more after [I started modeling] because my classmates never really gave a fuck about me… Our experiences aren’t identical, but the feelings are all the same. The lines are blurred between where Kat ends and where I begin.”
Meanwhile, in North Carolina, Schafer harbored no such showbiz dreams. “I was never really into acting; I was so shy and not sure of myself. I didn’t ever see myself being able to do [this],” says Schafer. After being diagnosed with gender dysphoria in ninth grade, Schafer’s first taste of the spotlight was as a plaintiff in the ACLU’s lawsuit against the state’s anti-LGBT law HB2, which forced trans people to use public restrooms according to their assigned gender. Before serving as the face of the “bathroom bill” and then as a model for the likes of Versace, Helmut Lang and Miu Miu, Schafer says she experienced some trauma similar to that of Jules, which the role brought back to the surface. “Of course, it was uncomfortable to revisit those places in my life because I was pretty insecure at the time and I did not really know who I was,” she says. “The way I have functioned, as a human being, is to push through [painful experiences] and work really hard, so that I had a good future. [But] a hundred percent, Jules and I have a similar transition timeline, as far as [being] in high school and dealing with that in front of your peers.”
Ultimately the similarities between Schafer’s past and Jules’s present endowed her with a whole new outlook. “Acting blew my mind,” she says, recalling her first session with an HBO-enlisted coach. “It’s definitely been therapeutic to look back at those points in my life and to relive them,” she says. “It’s like picking old scabs on purpose because you want to bleed a little again.” Acting out the first episode’s climax, which takes place at a crowded party, was a learning curve, Schafer adds: “Frankly I was terrified for that scene because I never had to be that open in front of a camera before and there were like 200 extras watching it happen… I had never screamed at anyone like that before in my real life.”
Between filming or rubbing shoulders with Drake (“It was fun to be in the middle of work, and then be like, ‘Oh, Drake’s here,'” says Ferreira of set life), Schafer and Ferreira, who had briefly met in New York, found a chance to reconnect on set, free from modeling-world varnish. “We [met] at some random fashion-y event, some award show, so we didn’t really hit it off,” Ferreira recalls. “But now Hunter is like my best friend. We had two very different spirals in high school, but the bottom line was that we both needed to get out of wherever we were. To this day, we’ll be in the car together, and just scream, like, ‘Sis… What is going on?!’ She is the only [other] person who gets it.”
Whatever turbulence they experienced in high school has made multi-hyphenate status that much sweeter. “[We] both are so thrilled about the transition [to acting],” echoes Schafer. “While modeling was fun and we got to travel and make some cool work, doing this project together and getting to be artists together is immeasurably valuable.”
With Euphoria mid-season and continuing to garner buzz, the saga of Ferreira and Schafer has only begun to take shape. But as their characters and careers illustrate, stories are best when you don’t know the ending.