Hunter Schafer broke through in ‘Euphoria.’ Now she’s mining her life for it
Warning: This post contains spoilers from this week’s special episode of “Euphoria.”
Hunter Schafer spent a half-hour screaming, sobbing and slamming her body against a door while shooting the latest episode of “Euphoria.”
The 22-year-old actress described it as the “most physically demanding scene” she’s ever filmed for the gritty HBO drama, which became known during its first season for graphic depictions of violence, sex and hard drugs. This sequence involved none of the above — just Schafer in character as Jules, a locked door and a devastating fear of what awaited on the other side.
The harrowing dream sequence occurs near the end of Friday’s “Euphoria” special, which sees Jules in a prolonged state of vulnerability and introspection. During the intense nightmare, Jules arrives at her imaginary New York City apartment to find her high school soulmate, Rue (Zendaya), alone and unresponsive in their bathroom.
Jules’ increasingly desperate pleas to “open the f— door” are met with ominous silence — an extension of last month’s episode, which saw the self-destructive Rue midrelapse in their shared dreamscape.
“It was kind of like letting the worst of Jules’ imagination take over,” Schafer says during a video call from New York City. “Which was really difficult, because even I personally love Rue so deeply and do not like to think about the images that I had to come up with in my head and sit with for that scene.”
Now streaming on HBO Max, the episode continues Schafer’s creative evolution. The Raleigh, N.C., native spent her late teen years working in New York as an in-demand runway model before making her acting debut in 2019 with “Euphoria,” on which she plays the effervescent new girl in town who develops a romantic and sometimes toxic relationship with her drug-addicted best friend. Schafer also co-wrote and co-executive produced the episode, titled “F— Anyone Who’s Not a Sea Blob,” with creator and showrunner Sam Levinson.
“Sam is super collaborative and has been from the beginning,” Schafer says. “He really wants all of us, as actors, to have input into our characters and their livelihoods.
“Taking that to the next level with really having a hand in what [Jules is] saying — and also in an episode that allows us to stay with her for a much longer period of time than we’d ever been able to in Season 1 — it was just really exciting.”
Filmed in October, the episode picks up after the emotional Season 1 finale, which saw Jules flee home for the city, leaving a distraught Rue in her wake. Now, Jules is back in suburbia — and in therapy — to unpack the trauma that led to her climactic getaway.
While brainstorming dialogue for the hourlong character study, Schafer and Levinson took turns pretending to be Jules and her therapist, imagining what might come up in conversation between a counselor and a 17-year-old in crisis.
“I would say a lot of the episode — particularly the therapy session — was birthed out of us just riffing and maybe accidentally falling into character while we were on the phone talking,” Schafer says. “There’s an element of play that I didn’t understand about writing before. Really, we were just acting on the phone, and I found that to be so useful and also fun to contribute to the script.”
The collaboration was therapeutic, not only for Jules but for Schafer, who struggled with adjusting to life in quarantine. Production on Season 2 of “Euphoria” was postponed just three days before it was scheduled to begin in March, and a “maybe too optimistic” Schafer hadn’t anticipated spending months in isolation.
“It was a rude awakening,” she says. “I think we were all grasping onto the hope that [the pandemic] would be something that would maybe last, like, a month or two. And then that started to fade away as well. We all just surrendered to quarantine and stewing in our homes.”
A self-professed workaholic, Schafer was forced to slow down and address mental health issues that had been lurking “under the surface for a long time.”
“Having to really sit with myself and not having an objective was terrifying and brought up a lot of things maybe I hadn’t processed yet,” she says. “I’m medicated now, and I feel more like myself than I have in years …. It sucked at the time because it was really kind of a crash and burn, but I’m so thankful for it.”
Key to Schafer’s healing process was resuming work on “Euphoria” in a new creative role. Shortly after Levinson penned the series’ first holiday special, starring Zendaya as Rue, he and Schafer began generating ideas for a followup from Jules’ perspective.
Schafer shared with him a poem she wrote upon graduating high school:
“It was about this strange spiral I was having about hormone therapy and making an analogy between learning how to find beauty within yourself,” says Schafer, who, like her character, is trans. “Like, rather than wanting to be as beautiful as another cis woman, wanting to be as beautiful as something even grander, like the ocean.”
Schafer’s reflection became the inspiration for “F— Anyone Who’s Not a Sea Blob,” during which Jules considers going off her hormones after coming to the self-critical realization that she’s “framed her entire womanhood around men.”
“Being trans is spiritual” for her, Jules explains to her therapist, and she doesn’t want to “stand still.”
“She is, rightfully so, going through a questioning of [herself] and the decisions [she’s] made before — not because they were wrong in any way but just because she is evolving as a human and is coming to understand herself in a deeper way,” Schafer says.
“Gender and self-expression are incredibly fluid and incredibly ever-changing,” she continues. “And I think it’s very emotional … and psychological in a way that’s outside political gender assignments of, like, male and female. Those are … not a fun way or a fruitful way to think about inhabiting your gender.”
In addition to the therapy session, the episode features a mix of dream and fantasy sequences — such as the apartment nightmare — as well as flashbacks providing further insight into Jules’ complex relationships with her mother and with Rue, both of whom struggle with addiction.
“Euphoria” has previously offered glimpses into Jules’ traumatic history with her mom, who is largely absent from the show. But Friday’s installment makes an explicit link between Jules’ turbulent upbringing and anxieties about Rue’s fragile hold on sobriety.
“Jules actively does not think about that a lot because it’s something that bothers her and hurts her,” Schafer says of Jules’ mother’s absence. “It makes sense, in a way, that her and Rue came together … also, it makes sense why they have the conflicts that they do, in that there are a lot of parallels between what Jules’ mother was going through and what Rue is going through.”
The end of Friday’s episode sees Rue and Jules (affectionately dubbed #Rules by fans) briefly reconnect for the first time since the Season 1 finale. But it isn’t exactly a fairytale reunion.
“I know Jules would have done anything to be held by or hold Rue again in that moment, after everything that happened,” Schafer says.
“Rue is not capable of doing that in that moment, and maybe Jules wasn’t either. But … you can tell that there’s still a vulnerable, raw love there between them.”
Though their midpandemic material has been heavy, even by “Euphoria” standards, Schafer was eager to return to set opposite Zendaya, fresh off her historic lead actress win at the 2020 Emmy Awards.
“It was hard,” Schafer said. “But she’s also the scene partner that I’ve spent the most time with and have shared the most with emotionally, so I always feel really comfortable with her and excited to see what happens because we both love our characters so much and we love their connection.”
Schafer was careful about revealing what’s in store for the pair in Season 2, only sharing the two will “reexamine their relationship.” (“That is so vague!” she says, laughing. “I’m sorry. I don’t want to get in trouble!”)
It remains unclear when Schafer will be able to revisit Jules — no announcements have been made about when the sophomore season will resume production. But there might be more writing in Schafer’s future.
“This was genuinely the most cathartic artistic experience I’ve ever had,” she says. “It was really special, being able to put that much of yourself into one singular product.”