Regardless of genre, film and television are mediums designed to entertain. But they are also vehicles to create emotional engagement with stories. And it’s one thing to feel connected; another entirely to see yourself reflected in a character that doesn’t just share your physical attributes, but also your experiences, your culture and your lifestyle. No matter where it comes from, representation matters. And for Zendaya, the first time she saw herself reflected on screen was on the very network that would later launch her own successful career.
“I was a huge fan of That’s So Raven as a kid,” Zendaya says, of the moment she first felt seen through television. She laughs. “I don’t know—maybe I was destined to be on Disney Channel. But I did love me some Disney Channel!”
Some seven years after That’s So Raven premiered, Zendaya was starring as Rocky Blue in Disney Channel’s teen hit Shake It Up. It was the spark that lit the wildfire of her career as a triple threat. She went on to appear in other Disney Channel shows like Frenemies, Zapped and K.C. Undercover, before graduating to an appearance on Dancing with the Stars and reaching mainstream audiences in Fox’s surprise megahit The Greatest Showman and Marvel’s rebooted Spider-Man franchise.
But her role as Rue in Euphoria, which has earned Zendaya her first Emmy nomination, marks a turning point. A recovering drug addict reckless in her life choices, Rue is a representation of a narrative we seldom see, and a type of role that presented a different challenge for Zendaya.
It was the show’s creator, Sam Levinson, who called with the good news on the day the nominations were announced. Zendaya was woken up by his call, and knew the news must have been important to prompt such an early ring. Then came the flurry of texts, emails and phone calls from well-wishers. “I was like, ‘This is just too much for me to mostly handle right now… I need to go back to sleep.’ So, I did,” she laughs.
Weeks later, the news still hasn’t quite sunken in. “It’s like one of those out-of-body things, where it’s like, is this even really happening to me?” she marvels. “It still feels very, very surreal. I don’t know if it will feel like it’s real life. ‘This isn’t happening to me. This is happening to somebody else.’”
Levinson’s HBO series has garnered critical acclaim across the board, and although it shines a light on the modern teen, it leans on narratives about addiction and mental health. Although it is a teen drama, it is on HBO, so Zendaya points out that people should know what they are getting into. There’s drugs, sex, and storylines that are not typical from your regular teen series. Even so, Levinson balances the grittiness of what we see on screen with the show’s central themes. For Zendaya, it is her job to bring his vision and this world to life.
“My job is to tell stories,” she says, “and I definitely don’t think that Euphoria is meant as a guide to tell people to follow a moral high ground of any sort, or what the right thing and the wrong thing is to do. That’s definitely not what our show is here for. It’s really just to tell stories, and hopefully somebody out there can connect to it and see themselves within it.”
Rue’s journey on screen is crazy and wild as it is intimate and emotional. Zendaya lived with Rue and the other Euphoria characters for seven months of her life and she admits that it was “very strange” to step back into her own life after being immersed in this teen hyper-reality.
“I’ve learned so much from playing Rue,” she says. “I feel very honored to be able to be her, because of how personal the story is for Sam. Him trusting me with that really means a lot to me. I care a lot about Rue. She’s important to me.”
She and Rue are not exactly alike. For one, as a teen actress, Zendaya didn’t have a typical teenage experience, nor did she attend a regular high school. She did however see the typical high school experience through the lens of some her friends. And although the show is a teen drama, the narrative is very much an exploration of the human condition. Playing Rue gave Zendaya an understanding of addiction and an empathy for those struggling.
“I think that Rue is able to make a lot of mistakes, but we still root for her,” she says. “We still want her to be okay and make the right decision because we understand her, and we hear her. We get to hear her thoughts and we get to hear about her manic-depressive episodes from a perspective that I don’t think has ever been told on television. I feel like Sam was able to articulate a lot of feelings that I think a lot of people out there maybe have, but don’t know how to articulate.”
Zendaya doesn’t share Rue’s emotional personality, and although it was difficult for her, she found it cathartic to live out different emotional states. “Playing her as a character has opened me up in a lot of different ways and exposed a lot of things and emotions,” she explains. “A role like that requires you to be a lot more open and a lot rawer with your emotions. If you aren’t, it won’t work.”
That said, playing Rue has changed part of Zendaya. “I guess I have softened a little bit,” she confesses. “I’m more emotionally connected. I’ve learned more about people, empathy, and understanding by playing her.”
The drama has also sparked a need in Zendaya to learn more about work behind the camera. During production, she became more and more interested in cinematography. “I was always just so blown away by it every day,” she says. “I just love to sit there and watch them set up the shots and do these incredible things with the camera. Figure out how everything would look.”
Directing appeals to her. “I just love the process. I’m so fascinated by the whole thing. I’m just lucky to be in a space where those questions are welcomed and invited. In this space, I can learn. So, I do.”
She’s also proud of how Euphoria has advanced representation on screen. She recalls a time when a trans girl approached her and praised the show for its representation of the trans community via her co-star Hunter Schafer. She immediately called Schafer to connect the two girls and was on the verge of tears to see that representation does in fact matter.
“For her, that meant everything,” Zendaya says. “I felt so honored to be able to facilitate them being able to have a conversation together and her being able to meet Hunter, even over the phone, it was very special and that meant a lot to me. I just got to be a piece of it.”
Euphoria adds fuel to the fire of the need for diverse stories from different races, gender identities and other underrepresented voices. Zendaya sees that there are many inclusive stories to be told and cites the old adage, “If you can see it, you can achieve it,” when it comes to authentic representation.
“I think that that’s what’s good about Euphoria is it makes other people feel less alone in their experiences,” she says. “It makes them know that they’re not the only person dealing with what they’re dealing with. For example, Episode 7 is a manic-depressive episode. That’s what she’s dealing with. And really understanding that from Sam’s perspective was beautiful.”
She punctuates the sentiment: “When it comes to Euphoria, it’s just people being able to have empathy for others and to take a second to understand that everybody’s dealing with battles that we could not know anything about.”