HBO's first foray into teen drama, Euphoria, is full of intense moments as its narrator, Rue — played by Zendaya in her most emotionally nuanced role yet — battles substance abuse issues and mental illness. Zendaya improvised one such scene to create a moment that felt as authentic as possible.
In the first episode of Euphoria, Rue gets back from rehab, where she spent the summer following a drug overdose. Rue has "no intention" of staying clean despite faking a drug test with her friend's urine to show her mom otherwise. Rue's continued issues with drugs causes a ton of tension in her family, and in a future episode of the series, leads to a particularly harrowing fight between Rue and her mom Leslie, played by actress Nika King.
At the Euphoria junket earlier this month, Zendaya and creator Sam Levinson explained this fight was one of the most emotionally charged scenes to film for the first season of Euphoria.
"There was this specific situation where there was a fight scene between [Rue and Rue’s mom Leslie] that wasn’t scripted. It just said one line [of stage direction]: ‘Rue and her mom have a fight.’ So I’m thinking, okay, I’ll slam the door, or whatever, but this isn’t what Sam had in mind. He wanted us to improv the scene," Zendaya explains to Refinery29. "He said, ‘I want you guys to go at one another’s necks. Just go, as hard as you want to go. If she goes hard, you go harder.’ Now, being a very calm person who doesn’t argue, who doesn’t [scream], I would never say those kinds of things. I don’t care how mad I am, I would never say certain things to my parent, or anybody. It’s not who I am. So, having to put myself in that kind of situation and say and do those things, that was one day when I felt sick. I was like, I was going to vomit, I was lightheaded."
Levinson, who based much of Rue's experience on his struggles with addiction and mental health, adds that it was a particularly draining moment for him as well.
"On the third take, our [director of photography] was shooting handheld, Z was coming at Nika with a piece of glass, and our DP hit the back wall of the set and the camera cut out. [The scene] just stopped, and everyone just went silent," says Levinson, the show's creator. "I went upstairs to my office and I sat down. I’m very even-keeled on set. I don’t really get rocked by anything. But, I walked into my office and I burst into tears, because whatever it was, Z and Nika had tapped into that real, ugly volatility of addiction — the violence and physicality of it — in a way that I hadn’t seen before onscreen. For seven minutes, it brought back too much."
Despite the emotional aftermath, Levinson insists that this difficult moment was ultimately good.
"It's all cathartic," he reveals. "We’re all using our individual abilities as writers or actors or DPs or props to work our own shit out, our own traumas. We use our own traumas and wield them as weapons. That’s the beauty of storytelling, of making TV; it’s collaborative in a lot of ways."
That may have been one of the more challenging work days for Zendaya, but on Euphoria, nearly all the characters boast similarly disturbing scenes of different natures. Whether the audience will find these moments as cathartic as the people behind the scenes, we'll have to see.
Euphoria airs on HBO Sunday at 10 p.m. ET.