By Tim Stack
June 16, 2019 at 11:00 PM EDT
Eddy Chen/HBO
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HBO’s provocative new drama Euphoria is guaranteed to polarize and provoke, but one thing everyone can agree on is that Zendaya (Spider-Man: Far From Home) gives a heartbreaking, career-high performance.

The series, created by Sam Levinson (Assassination Nation), follows a group of teenagers, including Zendaya’s Rue, as they navigate teendom while also engaging in a lot of drugs and sex.

EW talked to Zendaya about this breakthrough role and anticipating controversy.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What drew you to Euphoria?
ZENDAYA:
It was a few different things really. I kind of was going through this phase where my Disney show had ended. I was kind of in that situation of having to face the music of being a real actor where you kind of are now going from project to project and that’s kind of a scary thing. What is this next move? What am I going to do? How do I branch out? How do I show what I can do and prove myself in this way? The Greatest Showman had come out. I was in this weird place of getting a lot of things sent to me that I think… there are a lot of people, not necessarily maybe underestimated me, whatever it may be, but they just saw me in a certain way, so I just kept getting the same kind of stuff. I never want to take a job just because I need a job. I want to do it because I’m passionate about it and because I believe in it. I was looking for this feeling. For example, like obviously Spider Man: Homecoming I just knew I wanted to do it.

The Greatest Showman was very risky, but after my first meeting with the director, I was like, “I have to be a part of this” — so I was searching for that feeling [when] I got a call from my manager about this project that HBO was doing. She’s like, “It definitely goes there. I don’t know what your comfort level is, but it’s a great script.” I got the script and raced through that first episode. I read it so fast. I was just glued to it and felt so connected to Rue immediately in some crazy way.

I asked to have a meeting with Sam and our pilot director, Augustine Frizzell, who is brilliant but I sat down and had a talk with them about the show. Sam told me that I was on his vision board for Rue, which I thought was crazy. I was like, “I don’t believe you. What in my career have I done to prove that I can do this?” I just got so lucky to meet him and that he saw something in me that I could translate that or trust me with that much of his life. I just really enjoyed being there and being able to take it there and finally prove, I think not only to people but to myself, that I can do it. So it’s really nice when you’re proud of the work you do and you love the people that you work with.

You and Hunter Schafer, who plays Jules, have a really sweet romance on the show. This is her first acting role. How has it been working with her?
She’s like a little angel. Like I just want her to be mean for two seconds because I don’t believe she has it in her because she’s just so sweet and kind and really a wonderful person. But also, this is like her first acting experience and to kind of have to come into this, not really understanding this world or how it works, she’s been so brilliant and really been able to take it there and really form a wonderful character.

So I’m definitely proud of her for that. I think everybody in this cast feels so connected because at some point we’ve all had to be so vulnerable in front of each other. Some people have had to be literally naked in front of each other, so you build this bond and this trust and this support system.

This show is definitely going to be controversial. Are you all prepared for that?
Yeah, of course. There’s going to be like lots to say about it because it’s so honest in a lot of ways. I mean, it is what it is, but I think at the end of the day, it’s someone’s story. If it’s not your personal story, it’s someone’s story. Specifically like literally some of them are literally Sam stories.

I think another thing is, this show is not meant to be a political statement. I think that we don’t want it to be that. We just want it to be a reflection in a beautiful way of storytelling that allows people to think and connect and feel however they choose to feel about it. But it’s definitely not supposed to be this political statement about the world, you know what I mean? I think we tap on things and discuss things that are tough, but again, it’s storytelling. It allows the audience to see things how they choose to.

Do you feel like this is a game-changing role for you?
Definitely. For me, for such a long time I felt stagnant in my career because I have been doing the same thing since I was 13 years old. Not that I didn’t appreciate it or love it — I think it’s important for me to embrace where I come from and embrace the work that I’ve done in my past — but it became so easy. It’s like doing the same grade over and over and over again. You gotta go to the next grade. You gotta graduate.

Can you tease what we’ll see next on Euphoria?
Let’s just say like, the first episode is the most mild, to be honest. It definitely doesn’t shy away from anything, that’s for sure.

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