'Euphoria' Creator on Boundary-Pushing HBO Drama: "We Didn't Want to Pull Any Punches"

Showrunner Sam Levinson talks about mining his own life for the authentic series, why he never got used to filming sex scenes and parents' reaction to the show: "They're fairly inarticulate about it because it is overwhelming."
Eddy Chen/HBO
Hunter Schafer as Jules and Zendaya as Rue in HBO's 'Euphoria'

HBO's much-buzzed-about teen drama Euphoria debuted Sunday after star Zendaya warned audiences about the show's "raw," "graphic" and "triggering" content just hours earlier on Instagram. But what most viewers might not have known when they tuned into the new series is that it’s actually the deeply personal story of creator Sam Levinson.

The 34-year-old showrunner and son of director Barry Levinson opened up about his own experience with addiction ahead of the premiere of the hourlong drama. "Since around the age of 18 or 19 before I cleaned up, I was always playing around with this idea of chronicling a version of myself from birth to, in its own crazy, mad way, discovering drugs and the need for it," he told The Hollywood Reporter.

For Levinson, who spent his teen years in and out of hospitals, rehabs and halfway houses as he tried to quell his anxiety, depression and obsessive compulsive disorder, whatever television show he ended up making was always going to explore why he started using drugs. "Not that I necessarily have a clear answer for it," he says. "But it was something that I was always trying to write about in a way that felt universal even though it is such a personal experience."

Now 14 years clean, Levinson found a way to infuse his own experiences into Euphoria, which stars Zendaya as Rue, a 17-year-old drug addict navigating high school relationships in the age of social media and perpetual anxiety. The drama, HBO’s first major teen-centered show, doesn't hold much back — but Levinson is hoping that the show's boundary-pushing material will shed light on what it's actually like to be a young person today. "I just feel like there is such a disconnect between what young people are going through and what everyone else thinks they're going through," he says.

Ahead of Euphoria’s premiere, Levinson sat down with THR to talk about which storylines he drew from his own past (yes, that intense kitchen scene happened in real life), what it was like to capture all the nudity on camera (“It's just awkward”) and the reaction he's gotten from parents ("They're fairly inarticulate about it because it is overwhelming.")

You’ve funneled your own life story into the show’s various characters. In what ways are you like Zendaya’s Rue?

It’s a lot of the actual things that Rue goes through, whether it's rehabs or being prescribed medications at an early age for anxiety and a host of other disorders — some of them valid, maybe other ones not so much. Also, her anxiety and her general outlook on how she is able to make it through life is a hundred percent true. The idea of having a panic attack at an early age [and] going to the hospital and getting valium for the first time and going, “Oh, this is it.” That moment. And just feeling like you’re out of control of your emotions. All of those things are true.

And how are you like Hunter Schafer’s character, Jules?

The story in the pilot between Nate (Jacob Elordi) and Jules, where Jules picks up a kitchen knife and [cuts herself], that's a real story. I was at a party, I was wearing a dress or some outlandish outfit and I was about to get the shit beaten out of me. I thought, “Maybe I can avoid getting punched and beaten up if I hurt myself first.” I don't mean to turn this into a therapy session, but I have a very even temperament on set, yet there was this really surreal moment [in an upcoming episode] where I had to go in the other room and take a deep breath and go, “This is pretty incredible that I was once there and now I'm here re-creating pieces of it and putting it into other characters who can then tell their own stories.” I also think it's a way of telling that version of myself when I was that age that, like, it's going to be okay. Just be easy on yourself.

What did you see in Zendaya, who’d mostly acted on Disney Channel and in family movies up until this point, that made you think she could play this character?

It was an instinct. But if you watch her in The Greatest Showman or K.C. Undercover, or if you watch her in interviews or in Instagram videos, there is a warmth that radiates from her and also a sensitivity and a vulnerability that she tries her damndest to hold back sometimes. And I just thought that for this character, who makes some pretty poor decisions in life and is very easy to judge and to dislike because of the things she does, the audience would be on her side no matter what. I didn't think she would ever do the project.

Why not?

Because it’s tough material and it's graphic in its depiction of drug use. It can be tough to watch for some people. Just given what she had done prior, I thought, “I don't think she's going do this.” Or that her team might not let her do it. But she got a hold of the scripts and the moment I heard she wanted to meet, I was excited. She came in hoodie up with her glasses and she started talking, and even though she has lived a very different life, I just immediately was like, “This is it. She's Rue.”

Were you concerned that some of her younger fans, who will likely want to watch anything she’s in, might not be old enough for this kind of mature content?

As someone who struggled with drug addiction and overcame drug addiction, I'm very sensitive to portrayals of drug addiction, and I understand that she has a large following of young people, but I do think our show is very authentic and responsible in the way in which it depicts drug use. It's not a cautionary tale, it's not an after-school special, but it shows how drugs can destroy your life. It also shows how they can quiet the anxiety and the feelings you may be having in a given moment — but ultimately the consequences are very real and devastating.

Since Zendaya herself has said she hasn’t had a lot of those experiences in life, was there ever a moment where you thought about casting someone who’d actually lived it?

I studied method acting for four years and I'm a big believer in the idea that it's not about the actual experience itself. You don't have to go through exactly what this character has gone through. We don't ever ask Gerard Butler has he ever fought off a terrorist attack in [Washington] D.C. But I believe that if you can find the emotional parallels in your own life, then you can portray it honestly and authentically. And from day one, I was very open with [Zendaya] about my experiences and just the physicality of it. I remember sitting in my office with her, just talking about, “When you're high, you're trying to figure out how to use as few muscles as possible, so you can use your elbow but don't use your wrist and just let it hang there. And you just have to kind of slump into it in a way.” That kind of stuff.

A lot of the young cast has talked about how they trusted you with helping them get to these dark places within themselves. Did you feel at all like you were a parent figure of sorts on set?

Yeah, because I care so deeply about all of them. I want them not only to do good work, but I want them to feel good about the work while they're doing it because it's tough stuff. There are tough places you have to go to just emotionally. So I think it's important to just keep in mind that the work doesn't end when the scene ends. You want to check on someone to make sure everyone’s good, and also create an environment where everyone is rooting for one another.

Did you find yourself having conversations with the actors that weren't even directly related to the show but what were about what they were dealing with in life?

No, because I try to keep it about the work. I'm writing, I'm directing, I'm editing, I'm mixing, I'm showrunning. There is a certain point where it's like, the work is the work. I'm interested in the emotional parallels of their own life, but I'm not a therapist. There are actual therapists out there who people should reach out to if they feel the need to.

That’s fair. Who do you think the audience for the show is?

I think the audience is everyone.

Really? All ages?

I mean, over the age of 17 or 18. I’m not the MPAA or whatever, but I think it's for anyone who is old enough to watch the show and for any generation older than them. Even though older generations may not relate to the specifics of, let's say, some of the issues related to the internet, they'll relate to the emotional world of it. In the same way that like I can watch The Breakfast Club and go, “Oh that feels authentic in some way,” or, “I see myself in this character or that character or this character,” we wanted to look at it from a very human perspective and an emotional perspective, because I think that transcends all ages and groups.

Sure, but someone at the Los Angeles premiere told me that as a dad, "the show scared the hell out of” him. Don’t you feel like it might terrify some parents out there?

There's going to be parents that are totally fucking freaked out by it. I get it. I know that because I've screened it for people and they have been really scared by it.

And what do those parents say to you?

Normally they're fairly inarticulate about it because it is overwhelming. It's just fucking, "We should just shut the internet down!” And you go, "No, no, it's not just the internet's problem ... the internet is not good or bad. It just is what it is.” It's funny, the show is not even about social media that much. We don't deal with a ton of technology. Yeah, sure, they text one another — but you don't see them scrolling through Instagram constantly. It's not really about the internet, it's about the internet's effect on them.

That's an important distinction.

Yeah, that's where it's different and that's where it's disconcerting. Because when you look at any of these studies about anxiety rates, depression rates, self-injury, and you look at what the rates were for self-injury in the '90s versus now, it went from four percent to 50 percent, especially with young women. You go, “Well, what's different?” It's not like there’s something in the water. There was a major change in how we communicate with one another — and it was the internet. So we just have to figure out how to have these conversations. I feel like a lot of young people today have no one to look to or to talk to about it because, one, they're afraid that people will judge them immediately. And two, it's hard to disconnect from it. Ad I don't mean on just an addictive level, I just mean that it's where so much of young people's social life takes place, so you run the risk of being a pariah. How do you keep up with what's actually happening in your school or among your friends if you're not engaged in social media?

Back to the audience question for a second. I feel like it wouldn't be hard for kids under 17 or 18 to easily find this show. Do you think they could watch it?

I mean, it's interesting when young people see the show. There were some people who brought their kids to the premiere, and the one comment that we consistently get from young people is, “This feels so real,” which is interesting because I think there is something that it's dealing with that I don't know if young people have seen before. In terms of who should watch it and what age, I'm not the right person to ask. That's a parental question. I remember my parents wouldn't let me watch certain movies when I was younger. I watched them anyway, and I didn't have anyone to talk to about those films that I saw. I think it would've been great if I was able to have that conversation about whatever movie it may have been. So I think if you feel like your kid is going to watch it regardless of what you say, then maybe you should watch it with them and have a conversation about it. But I also completely understand if parents have absolutely no desire for their children to watch it because it's hard to predict how ultimately something affects an individual. Something could be extremely overwhelming, and I'm sensitive to it even with my own son. He's 3 years old, and I don't like when he's watching something and there's a really suspenseful score. I feel like it just soaks into him and it gives him anxiety. But he's also 3. If he was 13 or 14, I would a hundred percent … I mean, I would've had these conversations. I would be talking to him about his life. I just feel like there is such a disconnect between what young people are going through and what everyone else thinks they're going through.

What about your parents? Have they seen Euphoria and if so, what did they think?

Yeah, it's funny, I always send everything to [my mom]. I share every script with her. I feel like she's the perfect audience in some way because she is very emotional, but she has limits. I remember when I gave her the pilot, there was the voiceover for the prologue and then no voiceover [for the rest of the show]. And my mother called me and she said, “I was reading the script and I thought that there was some great stuff in it, but then I got to this scene with the choking and I just thought it was just too much and I threw it in the garbage."

She means the sex scene between Sydney Sweeney and Algee Smith’s characters, right?

Yeah, and I said, "What do you mean?" I said, "You have to understand that he’s acting a certain way based on his preconceptions about her and the photos and you also have to understand the impact that pornography has had on culture." And I went through this long-winded explanation of it and she said, "Well, how the fuck am I supposed to know that?" And I thought, “That is such a valid question.” So I just continued the voiceover and the show became even more freewheeling.

So we have that one scene to thank for Zendaya’s narration throughout the show?

Yeah, and it’s one I’m curious to hear people's opinions on, because I think it's a complicated scene. It's about consent inside of sex, but it's also about agency and being able to own up to what you want, what you don't want, when you want it — and it’s also about acknowledging when you have crossed a line or made a mistake. As much as I love political people and passionate people, I’m not interested in making art that's easy, and I'm not interested in having things that feel like they're teaching a lesson for everyone as opposed to exploring the kind of nuances of what leads to an uncomfortable situation like that. That's something that's very important to me. It's not judging these characters — it’s allowing them to be messy and make mistakes and do things that, like, we may not feel good about. You care about them and you want them to make the right decision, but they don't and that's what it's like to be a parent. They have to find their own way.

There are obviously a lot of sex scenes in the series. How did having an intimacy coordinator help that process behind-the-scenes?

Everyone had the scripts for the first four episodes, so they knew what certain scenes called for — but I think the wonderful part about having an intimacy coordinator is that if an actor doesn't feel comfortable doing something, no matter what they agreed to do before, they have the right to not do it. Our intimacy coordinator's main job was to be an advocate, someone who can talk to the actors. Because I know that the dynamic between the director and actor is ... well, I know that they want to do a good job and it's weird. Talking about a sex scene beforehand or shooting a sex scene, it's all uncomfortable. No one is thrilled about it. They're emotionally draining in that respect, and so it's nice to have someone come in and say, “Alright, so what are you thinking for this?” And I can have a conversation with Amanda [Blumenthal], our intimacy coordinator, and then she can go and she can talk to the actor and tell them, “So this is what he's thinking. What are you comfortable with?” And then she comes back, we talk again, then we all get together and we all have a conversation and we plan for it in the same way that we plan for any stunt scene. It’s just such a weight off of your shoulders as a filmmaker and also a production, too. I would never not work with an intimacy coordinator.

Because there was so much nudity in the show, did it feel like you got more comfortable with it all? Did it get easier along the way?

No, because I'm always sensitive to it. I don't even like getting my picture taken because I feel terrible about the way I look. I'm so self-conscious about things. [Sex scenes are] always tough to shoot. I mean, it's not like we're all sitting around going, like, “Oh, fuck, this is brutal,” or whatever. It's just awkward. Because the stuff that you have to wear and the things the actors have to ... it's all so strange. To have to simulate sex in front of a small, pared-down version of the crew, the fact is it’s an odd thing to do. It's just weird.

There's really no way around it.

But we wanted to portray the sex and the sexual situations as awkwardly as possible in the way that most sexual situations are when you're younger. They're kind of dumbfounding. And our camera movement and our shot selection is far more rigid. The camera is normally not moving — they're statics, they're close-ups on faces, wide shots. It's almost like when you're shooting a violent scene. Sometimes you just want the camera to just be still because you can't look away. So we were able to move through them pretty quickly.

Someone was telling me the intimacy coordinator on set could say when you needed to be done with takes if she could see in the actors’ faces that they were tired of doing it. Is that true?

There's funny legalities. Like, “Oh they're not allowed to hook up in the front seat, the rider says that they can only hook up in the back seat.” So if two people are kissing in the front seat of a car and it's, like, heavy petting or something, Amanda would be like, "Sam, you have to cut." I'm like, "Why? They're supposed to hook up." And she's like, "Well, the rider says for the back seat, not the front seat." Just the way HBO legal would do the contracts, it's very specific as to what you can show and what you can't show [based on] how it’s written in the script. There are so many of these kind of technicalities that that’s the beauty of having an intimacy coordinator is I don't have to deal with them.

Given the show’s explicitness, how are you thinking about the response some viewers will inevitably have just in terms of the shock of seeing things portrayed onscreen they’re almost certainly not used to seeing on television?

Yeah, I know that there's going be people who feel shocked by the show's depiction of it. But I don't think the show is that gratuitous in terms of its nudity and stuff. Sometimes it's like, with the Nate locker-room montage, it's sort of making fun of stereotypes in films or film history. I literally wanted to re-create the Carrie locker-room scene, but do it with all football players. That's what was written in the script: “This shot should mirror the Carrie locker-room shot, but it should be the male equivalent of it.” But I think the show is far more restrained than our world, and certainly more restrained than the internet. But there's always been a puritanical streak in America, and just the idea that there is any kind of nudity onscreen is always something certain people recoil at. And I think we're authentic to the experience of being young. We didn't want to pull any punches. We didn't want to make it feel like we were holding anything back or that we are hiding anything. We wanted to make it feel like it feels. And we wanted to make sure that we weren't glamorizing it in terms of our shot design. I’m thinking of Eric [Dane] and Hunter’s [statutory rape scene in the pilot]. It's very restrained. I don't think anyone would watch that show and go, “Wow, that's so cool.” I can’t imagine that that would be the response. It's uncomfortable, it's unsettling, it's dark and it's messy emotionally.

HBO executive Casey Bloys has said the series “isn’t just sensational to be sensational,” noting that a lot of it is drawn from your own life.

Right, we're not anarchists. We try to be really thoughtful about it just in terms of the conversations that we have between ourselves, between the producers, between HBO, between editorial. Julio Perez, our supervising editor, is someone I rely on a lot. And then also with the actors, the consultants, the intimacy coordinators, the trans consultants. We try to look at it from a number of different perspectives of, how does this feel? How does this land so that we're not operating in an insulated way? It's a really creative and collaborative environment. So I think we're cognizant of what we're doing and trying to depict and where the limits are. There are certain things that we don't want to push, we don't want to bring it into an area that feels exploitative or feels like it fits the universe of it.

How would you rate the show if you had to?

I got an NC-17 on Assassination Nation, even though there is no nudity in the movie, there is a nude watercolor — and they gave the movie an NC-17 rating because of that nude drawing. So I can't even imagine what they would do with this.

Interview edited for length and clarity.