Hunter Schafer: “Trying to Feel Seen Has Been the Project of My Life”
AT 21, HUNTER SCHAFER IS ALREADY AN ACTIVIST, MODEL, ARTIST, AND BREAKOUT STAR OF EUPHORIA. AND SHE’S JUST GETTING STARTED.
Hunter Schafer recently saw something magnificent.
But first: She bought a truck.
At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Schafer found herself alone in Los Angeles. As one of the lucky Americans who could afford the pause in work, she spent those initial weeks in excited, nocturnal bursts of creative writing. (She took Shonda Rhimes’s TV-writing course on Masterclass.) “But I couldn’t handle the severe sense of isolation — being alone in the apartment and having no mode of transportation,” she says. (“Outside of a skateboard,” she adds, like a cool teen.)
So she bought the truck, and then drove across the nation to her sister’s house in North Carolina. “It was probably the most stable I felt throughout all of quarantine,” Schafer says. “I just had one objective, which [was] stay on the road and follow the map and drive. And it was great.”
She drove through Arizona to see the preschool she attended. She stopped in Memphis to visit the Lorraine Motel, the place where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated that has since been converted into the National Civil Rights Museum. But she was in Texas when, on a road that stretched through open country dotted with windmills, she saw it: a very big, bad cloud. It was a fluffy tempest, as vast as a city, crawling across a sea of grass. It was a cumulonimbus cloud. Schafer is sure of it; a cloud cooked by the hot Texas wind into something magnificent, terrifying, and massive, and capable of sneezing out a devastating tornado at random. This is all an extended metaphor to say that Schafer knows what it is like to drive right into the eye of a storm.
For an audience of millions, Schafer appears in the highly stylized HBO teen bacchanal Euphoria as Jules, a 17-year-old girl who is both the best friend of and object of desire for the show’s protagonist, Rue, played by Zendaya. The rest of the cast is filled out by other superlatively attractive young actors. But even among jewels, Jules is exquisite, and the show is more or less filmed from the perspective of somebody who is slowly falling in love with her.
This seduction is a dual effort for Schafer and the show’s creator, Sam Levinson, whose point of view is so specifically lush that season one of Euphoria reportedly cost about as much to produce as season one of Westworld. “There’s a magic [to Euphoria],” says Schafer, “that I think something like Westworld, which is sci-fi, requires the same amount of attention to detail and persistence, as far as making sure that vision comes across. So we can thank Sam and our wonderful producers for our wildly expensive TV show.”
Euphoria made Schafer enormously famous. Not overnight, but over a series of Sunday nights in the summer of 2019, as season one aired. Her Instagram, which had previously served to document her life as a model in New York City, swelled to over a million followers. Schafer was written about, interviewed, photographed, put on lists. HBO moved her into a West Hollywood apartment with views of HBO’s studios so that she could walk to work. Then, just days before shooting, production on season two of Euphoria was suspended due to the escalating pandemic. But Schafer’s star has continued its skyward climb: A Japanese cosmetics giant, Shiseido — the Japanese cosmetics giant, if we’re speaking honestly — hired Schafer to represent its concept of beauty. (Schafer is Shiseido Makeup’s latest global brand ambassador. Says Schafer of the opportunity, “I was shook.”)
“I think, perhaps, there’s a bit of a projection of Jules onto me, Hunter,” says Schafer. She hypothesizes that this is partly because of their uncanny physical resemblance. “Sometimes I dress like her; sometimes I like to dress like her.” She immediately hoists a leg up, cramming her limbs into the Zoom interface, displaying formfitting head-to-toe black with searing-white, high-top Air Force 1s. “But she’s one part of me.” She reaches for a Teen Titans reference, a Cartoon Network series about kid superheroes from the DC Comics universe: “Raven [the goth empath] has this moment where she goes to her home in the depths of hell and separates into 10 versions of herself, and they’re all a different color of the rainbow. I feel like Jules is one of the 10 or however many parts of me.”
Schafer’s speaking voice is slow, considered, and slightly raspy. It works to give the impression that she is somebody with monk-like reserves of self-knowledge and wisdom beyond her years on Earth, of which there have been 21. “I think I’m different from Jules in where I am with myself,” she says, “and how I love people, and what my concerns are as far as being affirmed, and whatnot.”
There are other differences too. In Euphoria’s first episode, when the evil hunk Nate menaces Jules at a party, she reacts by dramatically escalating the situation, threatening him with a kitchen knife. Then she demonstrates her capacity for unbridled chaos by slicing her arm in front of a Saturday night’s worth of astonished teens. That is not something Hunter Schafer would do, she says.
Though not even roughly equivalent, when Schafer is in an awkward social situation, she reacts in the opposite way: by choosing humility over chaos. “When I was staying with my sister in North Carolina and met her friends that she’s quarantining with, they approached me being like, ‘Damn, you have your life together. You know what you’re doing. You’ve got jobs, whatever.’ And I’m so not that,” she says. “I have no idea what I’m doing — just riding the wave that life is handing me and trying to be okay and keep my shit together. I think whatever presence I have, in the public-figure world, presents itself as something more collected, but I’m messy. I am just trying to figure out how to be a 21-year-old.” Like many other people, she is simply careening through a terrifying, unpredictable, gorgeous world that is filled with hunks and clothes and pandemics and pain and euphoria; but she is doing it in four-wheel drive, and much, much faster.
Schafer’s career trajectory hews close to a narrative popular among America’s most charismatic and youthful percentile: A beautiful teen becomes a successful model becomes a celebrated actor. After a model turns actor, their career threads tend to separate, and from there they cease to stay predictable. Whether Schafer will win an Oscar, start a lifestyle brand, or both is unclear at this time.
Perhaps the main difference between Schafer and others who have walked the path before her is Schafer’s identity as a trans woman, of which there are few models and fewer models-turned-actors. It becomes a popular fixation point in a way that it doesn’t for others — rarely are Cameron Diaz or Amanda Seyfried questioned at length about their pubescent years. For Schafer, this occurs at least once in nearly every interview she does, sometimes sustaining the entire conversation.
“Even right now, I have to filter what I say, because more often than not I’ve found that when I say the T-word, whatever sentence that is becomes a headliner,” she says. “Not only do I think that’s so boring and so predictable, it’s, like, such a fraction [of my life]. It feels sensational. It feels like it’s prone to getting sensationalized. I also understand the need for dialogue on it.”
Schafer shares these thoughts at a particularly traumatic moment for the trans community, days after the murder of yet another trans woman of color — there have been at least 12 this year, according to the Human Rights Campaign — and a week after a children’s book author published what was essentially an anti-trans manifesto, so this interviewer shifts awkwardly in his seat, looking anew at his sheet of questions.
“I just wish it could be normal or a part of an interview that doesn’t change the course of the conversation,” she adds. “You know?”
But identity politics are powerful, and an HBO show provides a massive platform, and, well, it is complicated, isn’t it? It is daunting for Schafer to have to speak on behalf of an entire community, especially when she represents its smallest, whitest, most modelesque faction. To support Black Lives Matter, she has posted sparsely on Instagram, drawing attention to organizations that benefit Black trans persons and encouraging her following to donate to them (including For the Gworls, the Black Trans Lives Matter Youth Fund, and the Marsha P. Johnson Institute).
“I feel like with a lot of white celebrities in particular who do benefit from their whiteness and white supremacy, and by proxy the oppression of Black people, they need to be speaking in these moments or to be active in some way,” Schafer says. “Part of that is using your platform or giving it to someone else, but I also think our voices aren’t necessary in this. There’s also a way to quietly do your part, and a lot of that has to do with allocating funds to the right people. It’s going to be [about] finding some direct action with your body and interrogating your whiteness. None of that is Instagrammable.”
She pauses. “I don’t know,” she says finally, a phrase she often uses to punctuate her thoughts, as if to say, I am thinking about all of this all of the time, and of course I haven’t figured it out, but there, that was my humble attempt.
Schafer has spent much of her life being aware of the LGBTQ+ civil rights movement, which was playing out on the political stage during her adolescence. She first earned the activist title when she appeared as a plaintiff in the ACLU’s case to overturn North Carolina’s HB2 “bathroom bill,” which required citizens to use the corresponding restroom of their assigned sex at birth. She was 17 — the same age as Jules at Euphoria’s outset — and represented one of many North Carolinians unfairly targeted by the bill. The campaign was successful, in part: The bathroom bill was repealed (though replaced with something only moderately less discriminatory), and Schafer pushed on with her life, moving to New York City and finding work as a model.
Euphoria’s depiction of transness, which has been the composite effort of Levinson, Schafer, and trans consultant Scott Turner Schofield, is remarkably genuine. Most trans characters in pop culture exist on the periphery, or spend their story lines grappling with their transition. (Many, significantly, are played by cisgender actors.)
Jules’s transition, like Schafer’s, occurred well before the events of the show, and her story line deals with navigating queer desire. In an interview, Schofield credited Schafer with adding vivid color to Levinson’s sketch of Jules: “It feels authentic because it is authentic,” he said. “It’s something that is really there and really of this moment because it was brought to the table by an actual person.”
Schafer’s adolescence was mostly ordinary. Her father was a pastor and the family moved between congregations in New Jersey and Arizona before eventually settling in North Carolina. (When asked about her spirituality, Schafer gives the measured response of a progressive Senate candidate: “That’s something pretty fluid. I’d say a work in progress, but I do feel spiritual in some senses.”) Her bedroom was painted lime green, and she had a matching Neopet, Shoyru, a chubby, lime-green dragon, who patiently waited for her in one digital world while she learned about hormone therapy from a trans YouTuber in another.
At 16, Schafer moved to Winston-Salem to study at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. “I always wanted to be an artist,” she says. More specifically, she wanted to illustrate comics. She reveals a black notebook that travels with her like an appendage, filled with scribblings, sketches, studies. Schafer’s drawings infrequently appear on her Instagram, often in black and white, often grotesque portraits of herself and other characters dressed in otherworldly fashions, animated in movement, almost writhing.
“When you think about it, [my work] has this common thread of creating the identity of a person,” Schafer says. “Even when I was trying to make comic books, the characters were my favorite part to make, what their outfits were and what that meant about them and how it reflected who they were. Telling stories or trying to portray a message through a body, how that body looks in a garment, and how the garment affects the way the body moves; to modeling, which is bringing garments to life with your body; then to acting, which is bringing a character to life with your body and mind. It feels linked in a lot of ways.”
“That’s been the project of my life,” she says. “Just trying to feel seen and learn how to see others correctly.”
Schafer glances at her window. There is a brief moment at dusk when Los Angeles begins to glitter, as the city is pulled inexorably into purple night, a great, wide plain shimmering into the future. In a few days, she’ll return to North Carolina. The roads there snake between the misty foothills of the Appalachians. Schafer likes to drive the mountain highway. It’s peaceful and meditative. Clouds sometimes fall from the sky and lay downy on the road, but her truck cuts right through them, heading toward a clearer place.