EuphoriaPictured: Hunter Schafer, Zendaya
Credit: Eddy Chen/HBO

How does Sam Levinson, executive producer of HBO’s Euphoria, describe his visually stunning, boundary-pushing series? He doesn’t.

“I try not to, honestly,” the Assassination Nation director admits of verbalizing the show. “It’s complicated. It’s messy. It’s tumultuous. And, at times, it’s beautiful and tragic.” Adds star Zendaya: “People keep seeing the trailers and all the stuff for the show, and they’re like, ‘What is this show about?’ I just say, ‘It’s about life.’”

To be more specific, Euphoria (June 16 ) is about modern teenage life. Zendaya plays Rue, a high schooler who has just gotten out of rehab and returns home to her mom (Nika King) and sister (Storm Reid). Despite her previous sober living, Rue wastes no time returning to her old habits of drugs and partying. But the arrival of a new girl in town, Jules (transgender model Hunter Schafer), seems to signal hope.

While Euphoria is based on an Israeli series of the same name, Levinson (the son of Rain Man director Barry Levinson) incorporated his own experiences when adapting the material, particularly when it came to Rue’s journey. “I was a drug addict for many years, and I’ve been clean for many years now,” he explains. “I was trying to capture the heightened sense of emotion when you’re young and how relationships feel. The world feels like it’s just constantly bearing down on you. That anxiety, and those sort of mood swings, I think, are inherent to being young — but even more so when you struggle with anxiety and depression and addiction.”

A provocative drama about sex and drugs might not seem like the obvious choice for a former Disney Channel star most recently known for swinging around the circus rafters with Zac Efron in The Greatest Showman. But Zendaya admits she yearned to challenge herself. “It’s finally being able to push myself and be more scared and be more uncomfortable, because that’s what makes great storytelling and great art,” she says.

Euphoria is sure to draw a polarizing reaction, given its racy content. “Let’s just say the first episode is the most mild, to be honest,” says Zendaya, who stars next in Spider-Man: Far From Home (July 2). “It definitely doesn’t shy away from anything, that’s for sure.” Adds Schafer, “There’s a lot of stuff that hasn’t been on TV before, or at least not to the degree Euphoria is putting it out there. I just want people to let themselves be taken on the ride and let it hit them.” Buckle up.

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