Jennifer Morrison says directing Maddy's Euphoria episode 'was one of those kismet situations'
HBO’s boundary-pushing new series Euphoria hasn’t shied away from trying new things on both sides of the camera.
Jennifer Morrison, known for starring on shows like Once Upon a Time and House, made her TV directorial debut Sunday night with Euphoria‘s fifth episode. The actress, who directed her first feature Sun Dogs in 2017, spoke with EW about bringing her own creative style and acting experience to the provocative drama.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve spent a lot of your career as a series regular on shows like Once Upon a Time and House. How long have you been interested in directing for television, and how did you end up directing this episode of Euphoria?
JENNIFER MORRISON: I wouldn’t necessarily say that there’s any one particular medium that I was interested in, or that I was aiming for television, it’s just more about material. I was really lucky that I found a script that I loved that I turned into my first feature, and then as I was doing different directing projects and taking different things on, there became an opportunity to direct Euphoria. The material itself, the idea of working with [creator] Sam Levinson and HBO and A24, there was just so many elements that made the content so exciting.
It was one of those kismet situations. I have known Sam for a long time socially and he and I have collaborated creatively before; he reads the stuff that I work on, I read the stuff that he works on, and we go back and forth about stuff creatively a lot, so we knew each other’s work really well. And I had just recently had a great general [meeting] with HBO because they really liked Sun Dogs, my first feature, and were interested in me as a director. Sam and I already had a great rapport and he was looking to find directors that he trusted to really caretake his vision and the visuals and movement of the show, and he really had faith in me to do that. HBO felt the same way, so it was kind of a happy magical accident that it all came together at that moment and that it was something that became possible for me.
One thing that jumps out about Euphoria is how stylized it is. Was it a challenge to jump into capturing that vision?
It’s an interesting combination of a certain visual lexicon that is given to you in terms of lensing and the light and certain things like that, but in terms of the movement, and when it happens, and how it happens — when you’re moving through space and time using the camera — that’s up to you as a director. So it was both exciting and intimidating to come into something where you’re being pushed to be as creative and expansive as possible. Sam posted something where it was like 700 storyboards for episode 5, and that’s true. I sat down with Drew Daniels, who was the cinematographer on the episode, and our storyboard artist, and we had to work out every single plan for movement.
For example, I decided to go from Jules really getting upset in the bathroom stall, and go up over the wall and into the bedroom. Deciding that that transition was going to feel seamless over that wall, that was something we planned ahead of time, and had to think through. Sam and Marcel Lev, who’s the cinematographer who shot the pilot and episodes 3 and 4 with Sam, had come up with those more prescriptive things like the light and energy of the movement, but it was really on me to sit down with Drew and figure out exactly what we’re going to do, and how and when you’re going to do it for episode 5. That was massively exciting, and intimidating because you never get an opportunity like that to be so free creatively. It was an interesting mix.
Are there any other examples where you felt like you get to play around a bit?
Almost every transition is like that. The whole show is really a jigsaw puzzle, and that’s the tricky thing about keeping track of it as you go because, as in anything, when you’re on set there’s certain things that adjust, or change, or you start to realize “Oh, this works better when I do this.” Sometimes there’s huge domino effects of adjusting storyboards and shot lists because everything has to fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. Basically every transition is as planned and is drawn. It’s one of those shows that’s really wild because you can just put the storyboard next to it and go “Oh wow. They planned that.”
What was the most difficult scene to shoot, and what was your favorite scene to shoot? They may be the same thing.
The opening sequence with the dance montage just because there was so much to cover in such a short time, and we were shooting with a minor, so you have very limited hours. That little girl did that full dance so many times, she was absolutely extraordinary, but a reset in a situation like that is pretty significant. We had a very exact plan and very little time to execute, so I would say that was one of the more difficult days to shoot.
Gosh, there were so many favorites. Obviously we have Maddy’s backstory in this episode and she’s facing so many difficult challenges in the show, especially by the time she gets to this episode, that I had so many wonderful moments on set with Alexa [Demie]. Sometimes it was just in these single one-off scenes that ended up in the big opening montage, but just watching her continue to dig into this character that we didn’t know a ton about up until this point, revealing more and more. She’s someone that I think we had a lot of questions about until we come into episode 5. I also really loved scenes with Rue and Jules. There’s just such a sweetness to their connection, and when they’re talking about “How many times have you had sex” and “What was your first time,” and all that stuff, that feels like such a genuine high school conversation that you share with your closest friend.
What’s it like to capture that balance between these young women owning their sexuality, but also struggling to come to grips with these toxic relationships they’ve built for themselves?
First of all, these kids are incredible, they’re so talented. Sam and everyone involved in making the casting decisions in the first place just absolutely nailed it. They all bring something so extraordinary to the table, and as a director, when you show up and you’ve got that kind of talent to work with, it’s an amazing place to start. In terms of finding those nuances, a lot of what I’ve seen and faced as an actor for many years is that, oftentimes, people write women to be completely strong or completely vulnerable and nowhere in between. I’ve really been trying to find that balance in my own work in terms of whatever is on the page, trying to find a wholeness to a person because we’re all just people and no matter how strong you are one minute doesn’t mean that you’re not just as vulnerable in another minute.
That’s just the truth of being a human, not just the truth of being a woman, and I think that that’s something that’s really beautiful about these characters that all of these kids have really tapped into. We just dig in there with them, and you get to know each of them, and you get to figure out what makes them tick, and I felt really honored to be in there with them, and be exploring that with them, giving them some suggestions, but honestly nudging them in a little bit different ways based on what they were already bringing to the table from their own experiences, and from how they got their characters.
How was meeting the young actors for the first time? Did it make the experience even more thrilling, after you were already enthusiastic about the script?
Yeah, I had seen the pilot, so I was already really excited based on having seen all of their performances in the first episode. And I’d obviously heard about it through Sam and his producers, in terms of having had a great experience with all those actors. I also spent a lot of time on set before my episode because I really wanted to study the way Sam and Marcel were shooting, and really understand his taste and exactly what they wanted out of the style, so I was able to be on set quite a bit to build a rapport with the actors, and be around. It was a huge benefit as well because I would be able to not only be taking in those stylistic elements and watching the way they were achieving them, but also starting to become a part of that family and that energy, because it takes a lot of trust for those kids to give those performances, and so I felt that time spent is critical to be able to feel like they knew me, and they knew that I was there to really support them, and love them, and give them whatever it was that I could.
Is Euphoria a show you would’ve wanted to act on in your early 20s?
Oh wow, yes, absolutely. I guess I can’t know for sure just because hindsight is 20/20, but I’ve always been a fan of HBO and my heart just leapt at all the scripts. When I read the scripts from Sam before I even knew for sure if I had the job, I can’t imagine that the 20-year-old me wouldn’t have just killed to be on this show. There’s just such complexity to these characters across the board, and one of the things that is so beautiful about the show, and that I’m just so blown away by what Sam is doing, which is that all of these ideas and these experiences that the world is so anxious to label and judge, he is not labeling or judging. He’s just showing them and letting them be what they are, and I think that’s part of what drew me so strongly to every script, because everyone is so human, they’re all just living their life, doing the best they can, and sometimes it’s a mess, and dangerous, and hard in these situations. I think it really provokes a lot of empathy.
Finally, Euphoria got picked up for season 2. Would you hope to direct another of the show, and is there more TV directing for other shows in your future?
Yes, absolutely. I’m not sure how season 2 will be structured. I think in an ideal world, because Sam is such an auteur, and he writes all the episodes, that if the workload was manageable, he would probably direct all of them. If that doesn’t happen I, of course, would love to be back. I had the most extraordinary creative experience working on this.
In terms of other episodic television, absolutely. I think there’s something really wonderful about being able to step into something and flex those muscles as a film director, but there’s a huge commitment. As a television director, you get to kind of dip your toe into these different worlds, and try out different styles, and learn the different visual lexicons of these shows. You inevitably gain so much knowledge from those experiences just working with the different crews, and cinematographers, and actors, and all the different storytelling and styles, so I think there’s something really exciting about that. I’m looking forward to Euphoria hopefully opening doors for me to be able to step onto other television sets as the director.
Euphoria airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on HBO.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Euphoria (2019 TV series)