Ahead of her breakout role in Sam Levinson’s teen drama Euphoria, Hunter Schafer talks to Rowan Blanchard about her love of fantasy and moving to California
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For her role in Euphoria, a forthcoming HBO show set to update the high school drama for 2019, Hunter Schafer had to make a few life adjustments. For one, she had to reconnect with what it felt like to be a sophomore, before she became the model and artist she is known as today. Secondly, it required a move from New York to Los Angeles. In the show, Schafer plays Jules, a new-to-town trans teenager navigating the trials and triumphs of coming of age. As the brainchild of Sam Levinson, director of last year’s gonzo big-screen satire Assassination Nation, the project is both the next stage of Schafer’s multiplicitous career, and the one which has felt like the most natural fit.
Schafer, 20, has always aligned herself with iconoclastic talents. Last September, she cut a spiky figure at Rick Owens’ SS19 show, striding around the designer’s blazing, witchy pyre in the courtyard of the Palais de Tokyo. Her elven-like beauty – austere with flickers of a youthful sincerity – was the perfect foil for the designer’s meaningful severity. “Rick Owens is one of my absolute fucking favourite designers!” Schafer exclaims. “I had been wanting (to do) that show ever since I started modelling.” It was also earlier that year, at Miu Miu’s 2019 cruise show, where Schafer met kindred spirit and politically minded actress Rowan Blanchard – when they phone me while sitting next to each other one day in December, Blanchard interviewing Schafer, it’s a proper young actress summit.
“I was a fan of Hunter long before I actually met her,” says Blanchard, referencing Schafer’s work outside of fashion, which includes her stint as a contributing artist for the seminal, recently folded Rookie magazine. From the age of 15, Schafer created watercolour paintings, collages, sketches, comics, photos and essays displaying her romantic, buoyant touch for the website. It was a style in conversation with that of founder Tavi Gevinson, who has also parlayed her knack for world-building into fashion, then acting. Working for Rookie, Schafer says, introduced her to the idea of making art to a deadline and with an audience in mind.
When Schafer was 17, she was a plaintiff in the lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) against her home state of North Carolina regarding House Bill 2, which, per the ACLU, banned “transgender people from accessing restrooms and other facilities consistent with their gender identity and blocks local governments from protecting LGBT people against discrimination in a wide variety of settings.” Schafer was, notably, the youngest plaintiff in the suit and her considered, heartfelt perspective cut through the noise. At the time, she penned a widely shared piece for Teen Vogue, explaining her position, writing that she was fighting not only to reverse the law, “but also to represent other transgender youth in North Carolina who are as hurt as I am, and to raise awareness and acceptance for transgender individuals”.
Three years later, the label of ‘activist’ feels a bit baggy on Schafer. She sees the course she’s charting as primarily an artistic practice, explaining, “When I took my place as a plaintiff in the House Bill 2 lawsuit, I did that because I could. I was in a really privileged place where I wasn’t struggling with my transness in the way I had been previously. I felt like I could be of use to my community, but before that it had always been my intention to be an artist.” For now, she’s relishing the chance to focus on being an actress, and is already thinking about the worlds she could create for herself on-screen. “There’s a lot of room for us to expand into roles that are completely out of this world,” she muses to Blanchard, in typically thoughtful fashion. “I think trans people know fantasy really well.”
Where in California are you guys right now?
Hunter Schafer: I recently moved to a house by Silver Lake.
Rowan Blanchard: Yeah, she’s in this cute townhouse in Silver Lake.
And Rowan, are you nearby?
Rowan Blanchard: I’m literally right next to her… (laughs) Oh, you mean in LA. Yeah I’m really close to Hunter! Like, 15 minutes away.
Did you meet in LA, or had you met through friends elsewhere?
Rowan Blanchard: I was a fan of Hunter’s long before I actually met her. I followed her on Instagram and was just really captivated by her art. Then she followed me back and we started talking a little bit, I think.
Hunter Schafer: We kind of mutually acknowledged each other.
Rowan Blanchard: And then we were both in Paris for Miu Miu! We were walking the show and I saw her backstage and I was like, ‘I am so overwhelmed and I’m freaking out…’
Hunter Schafer: It was so nuts!
Rowan Blanchard: Then we had a fun night in Paris and got close. We’ve been friends ever since!
Amazing. So, Rowan, I think you’re supposed to take over from me and be the journalist?
Rowan Blanchard: All right! Can I go in?
Thora Siemsen: Go for it!
Rowan Blanchard: I guess the first thing I wanted to talk to you about, Hunter – seeing as we’ve gotten closer since you moved to LA – is how LA has impacted you as an artist, as opposed to New York?
Hunter Schafer: It’s hard for me to compare the two cities from a neutral perspective because my circumstances were just so different. When I was living in New York I tried to make it work for a year but I didn’t really have my own space to be creative. It was really inspiring, but I think that coming to LA has allowed me to take a breath. Having a job is a different circumstance. I get allotted time off and I only have to really focus on one consistent thing, which is being this character. I have room to grow here. I think there’s more contrast between the circumstances of my being in those cities than the cities themselves. They’re both really lovely and I love them both in their own ways.
Rowan Blanchard: Did you ever see yourself coming to LA until you had booked Euphoria?
Hunter Schafer: No, I thought I was going to be in school in London right now. I was on my way to Central Saint Martins (to study design). I had wanted to nurture that practice with my gap year in New York and make a little money to help pay for school, and make contacts in the fashion industry. LA was never part of the plan.
Rowan Blanchard: I feel like you’re responding so well to it. How did Euphoria come into your life?
Hunter Schafer: I saw the open call over Instagram. A lot of trans women I know in New York were sharing it, trying to get each other to audition. So I saw that and then a few days later I got a call from my modelling agent saying they were asking if I would be interested in going in for the audition. I took a look at the people involved and was like, ‘I don’t know, this looks kind of weird. This is a white, cis, straight man writing what seems like a really intense show about a lot of different intersections of various identities that aren’t directly related to him.’ But I decided to give it a shot because I had been interested in performance art and acting and hadn’t really been given an opportunity to try it. I went in, got asked to come back, and kept getting more and more of the script.
Rowan Blanchard: When I’m auditioning for something over and over again, I start developing this connection to the character that gets very possessive in a way. When did you start feeling that connection to Jules and her inner workings?
Hunter Schafer: At one point in the audition process, I got all four of the first episodes. A lot happened in those first four episodes that I, as a transfeminine person and a queer person, really identify with. Seeing the arc of what she’s going through really clicked with me. I could start seeing her in my brain and I sketched her out.
“No matter what I’ve worked on or what art practices I’ve delved into, they’ve always been an attempt to world-build” – Hunter Schafer
Rowan Blanchard: How old is Jules?
Hunter Schafer: She’s a sophomore in high school, 16 or 17. I was looking back to when I was a sophomore and putting myself in the situations she was in. That’s when it clicked. It’s the way Sam writes and the way he writes music into the script – and which music correlated with Jules’s scenes. I could see her and feel her.
Rowan Blanchard: Even though this is your first time acting, it doesn’t feel like a big departure from what you’ve been doing before. I was looking back at your performance art and the photos you take of yourself. It’s all performative, in a way.
Hunter Schafer: No matter what I’ve worked on or what art practices I’ve delved into, they’ve always been an attempt to world-build. Whatever was not in my direct vicinity that I needed in order to feel fulfilled, I tried to create. When I decided to start acting it just felt like another level of world-building, because the way I’ve been approaching acting and this role, I feel like I’m living in two realities right now. This is the most fully realised world I’ve helped build or create.
Rowan Blanchard: Those worlds can start to feel confusing, especially when you’re doing TV.
Hunter Schafer: I’m definitely still in the thick of that. I just got a separate journal for Jules, so I’m not journalling in my own journal as Jules any more.
Rowan Blanchard: That’s a really healthy update! (laughs)
Hunter Schafer: I’m starting to develop my practice, learning how to come home after a really long day of shooting and letting myself breathe. I’m drawing and painting and listening to my music and keeping those things separate.
Rowan Blanchard: The way that Jules’s character is set up in the pilot is so beautiful. She’s very fully formed, even in how she does her hair and the clothes she wears.
Hunter Schafer: One of my favourite things about working on this show is the fact that it is so collaborative. We had sessions where we just tried on outfits for hours – it was like playing dress-up at home! I think earlier in my transition, where Jules is right now, I definitely relied on clothes and dressing-up as a way to affirm myself. More than I do now, I think. Being in high school and having that many eyes on you, or feeling like you have that many eyes on you, and sticking out like a sore thumb. I feel less pressure to dress for the eyes of other people now. I think that happened once I started modelling, near the end of high school.
Rowan Blanchard: Tell me, what was it like walking the Rick Owens show?
Hunter Schafer: Oh my God, it was just magical. Rick Owens is one of my absolute fucking favourite designers! I had been wanting (to walk) that show ever since I started modelling. The space that he used for the show – the Palais de Tokyo – was magic, and they had this giant, burning, witchy sort of totem in the middle. I really was feeling what I was wearing – I felt like myself. It was the closest I felt to myself while on the runway.
“I come from a background of working in modelling and high fashion… Not a lot of transgender women are able to occupy that space” – Hunter Schafer
Rowan Blanchard: I feel like as an actress you do interact with fashion in a different way. Do you see acting as something you want to do for a long time?
Hunter Schafer: I think so! Jules is an amazing place to start, because she is so close to home for me, but I would love to delve into something that’s not so close next time. I think that’s something trans women in this industry might be able to identify with, because we have a sense of adaptability that a lot of cisgendered people might not have to think about. There’s a lot of room for us to be able to expand into roles that are completely out of this world. I think that trans people know fantasy really well. That’s something I’m really interested in, a fantasy role.
Rowan Blanchard: You want to do it all! Let’s talk about your relationship to Sam (Levinson). I spoke to Hari (Nef, actress in Levinson’s film Assassination Nation) about him, too. How did you come around to accepting that a cis straight person was able to portray (a trans woman)?
Hunter Schafer: In the final audition for Euphoria, when it started getting serious, I had to sign something saying that if I got this role, I was going to commit. That meant I wasn’t going to school and was fully committed to filming this entire show. It was an intense moment, but I came out to that audition in LA and that’s when I met Sam, and we became really close. We had a five-hour meeting on the day that I got the role. We met at this coffee shop; he really wanted to listen to me and my thoughts. He’s writing these roles around all of us. He’s listening and using his privilege to uplift our stories and make them complex.
Rowan Blanchard: It feels good that he was able to write these characters with identities that are different from his without trying to make them represent the entire community.
Hunter Schafer: I was worried about that. I come from a background of working in modelling and high fashion, which has a pretty toxic set of standards. Not a lot of transgender women are able to occupy that space. I have a lot of privilege working in an industry like this and I was putting pressure on myself, worrying about how many facets of the trans community would not be represented by this one singular trans character.
Rowan Blanchard: Well, there aren’t a lot of trans roles in Hollywood right now, so of course you’re going to feel that pressure and expectation.
Hunter Schafer: That’s a really good point. There’s much more freedom in the idea that people can represent themselves instead of feeling that pressure to represent others.
Rowan Blanchard: Did you see the Hilma Klint show (at the Guggenheim) yet? I was thinking about her, and (feminist filmmaker) Barbara Loden…
Hunter Schafer: Yeah, I feel like we all identify with (Loden’s 1970 film) Wanda!
Rowan Blanchard: I wanna remake Wanda with you in it! (laughs) Yeah, I was just thinking about all these women who made work that was never seen at the time). Even though I never feel like things are changing, it does feel nice that we’re making things that get to be seen in our own lifetimes, and we don’t have to hide them.
Hunter Schafer: That’s a huge thing. Just think about all the beautiful things that are made behind closed doors, the things that haven’t been seen yet or are still to come – especially from your brain! Women are fucking powerful.
Thora Siemsen: You’ve both just said some really lovely things to each other and I feel lucky to have talked to you. Rowan, come and take all of our jobs, please.
Rowan Blanchard: Oh God, no, I couldn’t! I can’t.
Hunter Schafer: Yeah, this is the best interview I’ve ever had.
Rowan Blanchard: Aw, I love you!