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With HBO's gritty teen drama 'Euphoria,' stars Zendaya and Hunter Schafer aren't afraid to raise eyebrows

Yvonne Villarreal, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

LOS ANGELES -- "Nobody is getting their head cut off," Zendaya says. She's referring to the hubbub over her latest project: "Euphoria," HBO's unflinching portrait of teen life.

It's true. There aren't the beheadings viewers came to expect from "Game of Thrones." But that doesn't mean the new HBO drama isn't raising eyebrows.

The first episode includes a drug overdose, an unsettling statutory rape scene, and a sexual encounter involving unsolicited choking. "Euphoria" spurred controversy ahead of its Sunday premiere for its gritty use of sex, drugs, and nudity to illustrate the grown-up situations Generation Z must navigate.

While such mature content has become a hallmark of HBO, adding teen characters to the mix has provoked criticism.

Inside the energetic Crossroads restaurant on Melrose Avenue, Zendaya and her costar, Hunter Schafer, are deep in discussion about the need for a dark, uncensored exploration on teen life -- an antidote to the glossier version typically pushed on television.

"This show is in no way to tell people what the right thing to do is," Zendaya, 22, says. "This is not 'The Moral Message Show.' This is to inspire compassion among people for other human beings and to understand that everyone has a story you don't know about, a battle that they're fighting that you don't understand. I don't find the show shocking, but there will be people who do."

 

"But I also think that's what being a teenager is," Schafer, 20, adds. "Finding the middle ground between being an adult and being a kid and that transition. I think that's one of the hardest parts, is finding yourself in adult situations but not knowing how to navigate them. And that makes people uncomfortable -- because it is uncomfortable. So, yeah, it's not easy to watch, but to some degree, everyone will be able to relate to it because everyone has experienced what that's like on some level."

Based on the Israeli series of the same name, "Euphoria" was adapted for HBO by Sam Levinson (the son of filmmaker Barry Levinson) and counts rapper Drake -- a graduate of the more wholesome teen series "Degrassi: The Next Generation" -- as an executive producer. Levinson, 34, pulled from his own troubled youth and battle with anxiety, depression, and addiction to opiates in creating the series.

"I think people like to kind of put their head in the sand when it comes to some of these conversations," Levinson says in a telephone interview. "And there's such a generational disconnect. It's not like 30 years ago, when one generation could provide at least a bit of a road map for the next generation. Life now moves at such a fast speed. I think we're all adapting at the same time, so it's difficult to give any kind of real advice to the younger generation about how to navigate the world."

While "Euphoria" features an ensemble of teen characters, it centers on the intimacy that develops between Rue and Jules, who become each other's confidants and advocates amid the pressures of adolescence. The series is full of hefty material for Zendaya and Schafer to dig into: Zendaya's Rue is a high school student fresh off an unsuccessful stint in rehab who can't stop her destructive compulsions -- "I know you're not allowed to say it, but drugs are kinda cool," Rue confesses while riding a high. Schafer's Jules is a trans girl who recently moved into town and is battling her own demons, including a habit of spending her nights having sex with closeted older men and a harrowing past of self-harm.

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