Euphoria star Zendaya took on an executive producer role on the second season of the HBO drama series, which she says made her come out of her shell not only as an actor but behind the camera as well. The second season of the Sam Levinson-created show, which scored 16 Emmy nominations this year, including one for Zendaya’s acting, came with its own set of challenges that extended far beyond the parameters of COVID. Zendaya talks to THR about why she wanted to become an executive producer (she was already doing it during season one, sans official title), why the ending changed and what she hopes to see in season three.
Congratulations on the show’s Emmy noms! Where were you when you found out?
I was shooting in Boston and then I took a little time in New York to chill before Budapest [to shoot Dune: Part Two]. I got a nice phone call from my mom who was watching it, and from Sam as well, which is funny because that’s the same way it happened the first time.
This season, you also served as an executive producer. How did that conversation start and why did you want to take on a bigger role like that?
On the first season, I was already doing it without having the title. Sam was giving me the space to be creative and to learn, and so when it came down to the second season — and also the in-between [special] episodes — it just felt like the right thing to have it in a more official capacity. The show has allowed me to come out of my shell as an actress, but also behind the camera, being in a place where there are no bad ideas and you feel safe enough to speak up and say, “Hey, what if we tried this?” Personally, I’m very self-critical, but I’m also very shy sometimes, so I won’t say anything. [But here], I’m given my own responsibilities. I’m there every step of the way, even through editing, and that’s really, really special. You don’t usually get that kind of hands-on experience, and everybody is different with how they choose to produce. It’s a labor of love for all of us.
How collaborative are you in building out the stories for the characters, especially Rue’s?
It’s super collaborative. This season had so many iterations because it had been so long [since season one]. Through quarantine, [with the in-between episodes,] we were like, “We want to make something, and we can revisit these characters,” and we felt like there were a lot of stories that we didn’t get to tell. So we did that, and then from there, it opened up a whole new way of looking at Euphoria. Just with the way those episodes moved, it allowed us to give a little bit more time and [get] a little bit more inside the characters. When the second season came around, I think we were a little bit influenced by that. But also, we had conversations about Rue, and it’s changed a million times. I’ve talked about how the ending of the season was supposed to be very different. Sam and I talked on the phone after getting a chunk of episode five done, and we both felt that what we needed — what we felt a lot of people in the world needed, or at least anybody who relates to Rue — was a hopeful ending. We needed something positive to hold on to in this Euphoria universe, and it was important to find a way to drive it back to love and forgiveness and friendship and end the season with this hopeful note of her finally being ready to embark on her sobriety journey and choosing herself for the first time. That was a major change, and that happened midway through the season.
What was a goal or a theme that you felt you wanted to explore with this season while you were producing it?
It wasn’t our initial intention to go, “We need a hopeful show.” We went into the season just wanting to have really thoughtful storytelling, and there was always this “Rue-run” episode, is what we always called it, that existed in all the versions of the season. I was afraid of the episode, to be honest, because I felt like it was such an undertaking. I wanted to do it justice because it’s going to be a very painful thing to watch. I think that’s why even in the beginning of the first few episodes, Rue is not super prominent. Because at the time of those first few episodes, she’s just trying to skate by, pretending to be a functional addict. She doesn’t want people to notice her, because [if] they notice her, then they would know something’s wrong. We were cool with that because we knew episode five was coming, which was going to be this moment where all of it came to a head in a really painful way. Originally, we knew that was going to be rock bottom, but I don’t know if we knew that she was ready to take the step to change. Because from what I’ve learned, and from talking to Sam, dealing with addiction is different for everybody. Maybe your sobriety journey starts or it might start many times, but it’s different for everyone. Sometimes, for a family that’s dealing with that, you can do everything in the world, but it’s really up to the person to make that decision for themselves. We found that it was a really beautiful thing that Lexi’s play is the thing that inspires her — the idea that art can save a life. Rue was able to see herself and not hate herself. I think for a moment that maybe she feels worth having forgiveness, and that moment is solidified when you see her for the first time get up and walk away from Jules, which is a really difficult decision for her to make. That moment of saying, “I love you, but I can’t do this right now.” That was a big step for Rue, and it shows that there’s actually some change happening in her.
What was the most challenging episode from a producing standpoint?
I think episode five. The good thing about it was that it was one of the episodes that didn’t change as much, so I had a little bit more time to come to terms with, like, “OK, I’m going to have to do it.” It was like ripping a Band-Aid off. It’s funny: The day I left for the Venice Film Festival was the day that we did the Jolly Rancher scene, and then the day I came home from the Dune press tour, it was the day I did the intervention scene. I’m actually glad that I had this other thing happening in my life at the time, because it forced me to not psych myself out. I just landed, and I was like, “I don’t know what time zone I’m in, but we’re going to jump right into it!”
From a producer standpoint, the more difficult part came with the ending because of the set pieces and figuring out how to shoot this and find the narrative of real life mixing with the make-believe and also memories. Sometimes we thought to ourselves, “Is this really the play? Is it a reflection of what all the characters want to see or what they’re taking from it in a literal sense?” Then, trying to figure out the transitions between literal set pieces and how it’s going to flow into everybody’s narrative and making sure each character had some emotional connection in this play while also blending it with all their memories — finding a way to make all of that make sense was crazy. There were times, too, where our airdate got moved up. I literally had to go to Sam’s house on the weekend to help motivate him to write a scene that we were going to shoot that week. It was difficult to find a way to settle it in hope and that new idea, because the whole thing changed in our heads from where we thought we were going to land. It ended up being really beautiful. It was definitely touch-and-go there for a while. We’re like, “How are we going to make this make sense?” Because in my head, it makes sense, but I can’t sit here and explain this to everybody who watches the episode. It has to be digestible, and you have to understand the heart and the emotionality of it.
What are you as a producer and an actor hoping to see in season three?
I think it’ll be exciting to explore the characters out of high school. I want to see what Rue looks like in her sobriety journey, how chaotic that might look. But also with all the characters, in the sense where they’re trying to figure out what to do with their lives when high school is over and what kind of people they want to be. What was special about this season was that we got to dive into [the other characters] in a much deeper sense. I think we can do that again with the third season. There’s so much talent, you want to make sure everybody has the chance to have that.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.