Lucy Ewen talks to Zendaya, the former Disney Channel star, about the dark side of teenage life in the hard-hitting new drama Euphoria.
Zendaya wants older generations to show more compassion towards today's youth.
"[They] think you have everything at your fingertips. 'Things are so much easier for you!' But it kind of makes things somewhat harder, you know?"
Zendaya gives a haunting performance in the provoking new series Euphoria, a fresh take on the coming-of-age narrative that exposes the dark underbelly of teen life.
"It's about being a little less quick to judge what this generation is going through and to listen. Be like, 'Okay, what's going on, let's talk about it', instead of let's just make a decision about why the young people are doing what they're doing. These 'millennials are ruining everything'."
In Euphoria, Zendaya plays 17-year-old Rue Bennett, an addict fresh from rehab and trying to make sense of her future in a teenage landscape of drugs, sex, social media and the internet.
Based on an Israeli series of the same name and executive produced by Drake, it's created, written and directed by Sam Levinson (Assassination Nation). For Levinson, this story is a deeply painful and personal one. For years, he battled crippling anxiety and a serious drug addiction, his own experiences reimagined through Rue.
Euphoria will shock many, but Levinson highlights a crisis facing young people today. It's a series about addiction and exploration, but it's also about the difficulty teens have articulating and expressing their feelings.
"There are all these charges laid against this generation. They didn't create this world, it was actually built by the previous generation. I can't imagine the pressure on young people to have this constant, never-ending contest of 'likes' and how you have to form a sense of self in relation to a persona that you're creating online," he says.
"There's a reason why anxiety levels are higher, depression is higher, self-harm is higher. It has to do with the pressure that we put on ourselves, on one another, the judgment of it and the inability to talk about it as something that's legitimate and real."
Euphoria is an edgy departure for 22-year-old Zendaya, a former Disney Channel star who's developed an extraordinary bond with Levinson during this process.
"I can only understand how Rue's brain works to a certain extent. That's why I have to lean on Sam because they're his stories. I'm lucky enough to have someone that trusts me with their story and will allow me to be inside their brain. He's pretty open with it all," she says.
Telling that story has been an emotional experience for Levinson, with one scene, in particular, drawing a profound response from the director, after he called on Zendaya to improvise a fight scene with her on-screen mother.
"As someone who was a drug addict for many years, then got clean and had a very tumultuous relationship with my mother, who I love dearly, the place they went that day, it was one of those moments where they had that argument and the entire crew just dispersed. You could see the sound mixer was crying, props were crying.
"I went up into my office and just started bawling because Z and Nika [King] were able to tap into the real chaos and violence that is born out of drug addiction, in a way that I hadn't really seen on screen. It was so real to me that it genuinely freaked me out," Levinson says.
Zendaya's personal experiences are farther removed from those of Sam and Rue, in part thanks to growing up inside the Disney bubble.
"There's a lot of things I had to be hyper-protective of, being in the public eye. I've always had an awareness of that. I had a lot of weight on my shoulders that doesn't usually happen to a young person. Though my experiences are different, the emotions are real. There are certain things I can't do because I'm going to be held far more accountable than my friends, but it doesn't mean they [drugs] weren't around me."
With fame comes Zendaya's 56 million plus Instagram followers, which isn't necessarily a blessing.
"I try not to think about followers on Instagram but that's a lot of people that check in and care about your life. I have gone down that rabbit hole of checking a picture if I've posted it and you have this overwhelmingly anxiety to want to delete it and get rid of it. It's anxiety added to my life that I didn't have before. I can only imagine what it's like for someone who's not in my position," she says.
"Everybody deals with life the way they need to deal with it and you can't judge it. That's the one thing this show really emphasises. You can't assume why people are making the bad decisions they've made, but you'll find out why. Everybody is dealing with stuff, so have a bit of compassion because you just don't know."
When: Available on Neon from Monday, and SoHo from next Friday.