Euphoria Zendaya
Credit: HBO

Gossip Girl this ain't.

HBO's new teen drama Euphoria is a visually striking, no-holds-barred look at high school life featuring a gaggle of teens, including The Greatest Showman's Zendaya, who have sex and do drugs frequently. Even before its Sunday premiere, it had people talking.

EW talked to series creator (and director Barry Levinson's son) Sam Levinson (Assassination Nation) about the personal inspiration behind the series and anticipating controversy.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So this was originally an Israeli show. How did you get involved in this and decide to adapt it?

SAM LEVINSON: I had gone in to sit down with [HBO's Head of Drama] Francesca Orsi. I asked her what she liked about the Israeli series and she said just sort of what a raw and honest portrait it is of drugs and being young and everything. So, I started talking about my own personal history with drugs. I was a drug addict for many years and I've been clean for many years now. But we just kinda just talked about life for about two hours, and then she said, "Okay, go write that." I was like, "Uh all right." And I went back and sat down and I wrote kind of a 25-page outline that consisted of mainly dialogue because I'm not organized enough to actually write outlines and sent it over. And she said, you know, said "This is great. Write the first script." And we kinda went from there.

I was just trying to capture that kind of heightened sense of emotion, when you're young and how relationships feel. Relationships have such a pull and people have such a pull, and the world feels like it's just constantly sort of bearing down on you and that anxiety and those sort of mood swings that I think are inherent to being young, in general then, but are even more so when you struggle with anxiety and depression and addiction. So, just trying to create this character that just is constantly trying to navigate this world of just heightened emotion and trying to either enhance the joy or kind of dampen the sadness or the darkness of it.

When adults write teen shows, it can often come across as inauthentic. How did you capture this generation?

No, I just wrote myself. I just wrote myself as a teenager. I think those feelings and memories they're still extremely accessible to me. So it's not a hard reach. I just write myself and what I was feeling and what I was going through when I was younger and I was dealing with addiction.

This is a very different role for Zendaya. What made her right for this?

To be honest, I had had this mood board that I brought into HBO and I had her face on it. There's just something that I couldn't get over. She had this real vulnerability to her at times, and then a real toughness to her. I think that the toughest part of writing a character and sort of portraying a character that's dealing with addiction is understanding the root causes of it and the sensitivity behind it.

I had a meeting with her and we were just talking about life and various things. In that moment, I thought oh, this is someone who has no ceiling. She, as an artist, she can do anything. She can go anywhere and she has a curiosity and a real drive to explore every aspect of it. She's willing to be pushed in that way. I think what she does throughout the course of this series is astonishing. She's just a spectacular talent and a joy to work with.

"Euphoria" Premiere
Credit: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

You mentioned your mood board—what were your inspirations behind the look of this show?

Our general inspiration, I think, for sort of the lighting and the design of it we were looking at a lot of Todd Hido's photography—sort of night, suburban landscapes that felt almost sci-fi-ish in a way where you had these kind of striking cyans and golds. It was sort of a way to express the kind of alien nature of the world when you're young.

In terms of film, I think Magnolia, in particular, is a big inspiration in terms of just movement and camera work and dolly work. I think we wanted to make sure that even though it was a show about young people we didn't wanna shoot it handheld and messy and rough. We wanted it to have a real formality to it. I think it helps because narrative moves so fast it helps structure it and it helps give it something to frame it. Otherwise, it could feel like there is a train going off the tracks.

This show is obviously very sexually explicit and there's a lot of drug use. Was it a challenge to find actors to sign up for this?

There's always certain actors that are interested in certain things and other actors who aren't. I think a lot of credit goes to our casting directors. Our goal was to try to cast a mix of actors and non-actors so we sent scouts throughout the country. We found actors in malls in Ohio and down in Florida and it was more about finding the right mix of people who can handle the material and other people who bring a certain kind of uncontrollable spirit and life to it, that is sort of authentic to who they are.

I am always curious to sit down with the actor who's playing the part after the casting process and get to know them, get to understand their life a little bit more. And then sort of tailor each character a little bit more towards who they are as an individual because I think the closer it is to who they are, the more they have at stake and the more authenticity and ultimately, it shows in their work at the end of the day.

Speaking to that, Hunter Schafer is so wonderful as Jules. She was telling me you two collaborate together on this story. What has it been like working with her?

Hunter has been one of the most incredible people I've met in my life just in terms of her openness and her vulnerability and her willingness to put herself into this character. After she came in to read and we cast her, I wanted to get a cup of coffee with her and we sat down at this deli. We ended up sitting there talking about life and her experience and growing up for about 6-7 hours. It was one of those moments as a writer and as a storyteller I walked away from that meeting on such a high because she has such a unique perspective about life, love, identity, the future, work, creativity. I just wanted to do her and the character justice from that in a sense that I wanted to try to weave in as much of who she is into the DNA of this character because she's a rare individual. Just on a creative level, she's an incredible artist. And it's been interesting working with her because she had had no prior acting experience.

That scene where she pulls the kitchen knife on the jock is incredible.

Oddly, that's a true story. I was the person who didn't want to get the s— beaten out of me.

This show will likely freak out a lot of parents. Are you worried about that? Do you think about it?

I don't know, I mean I'm kind of inside of it in a sense where I'm inside the making of it and I tend not to think about the response to it. But, I feel like this is a debate that goes on constantly throughout time, where people go, "Parents are gonna be scared," and you go "Yeah." And young people will be like, "Yeah, that's my life." I'm sure certain people will be freaked out by it and other people will relate to it.

I think what's different about this time is that at least pre-Internet there were more similarities between one generation and the next. And now, I think that gap has grown in a very significant way. I think part of what's so difficult to try and navigate the world at this age right now is there is no map. There's no compass, there's no one to kind of guide you one way or another. Because it's a brand-new world every five years. I think that's what makes it particularly difficult is that kind of very real and big disconnect between parents and children. So if anything, I hope that it at least opens up a dialogue between the two because it's hard being a teenager. It's difficult, especially too if you're struggling with addiction and battling those things. Hopefully it'll open up those means of communication.

Drake and his manager Future the Prince are executive producers on this. What's been their involvement?

He's been a champion of this piece, him and Future and so just from a musical standpoint and also just a sort of marketing and producorial standpoint as well. So that's been, we've been very grateful to have him and his team.

Are they producing new music for this?

You'll find out. We'll see.

Related content:

Euphoria (TV series)
  • TV Show
  • 2