Emmy-winning Euphoria Returns to HBO

Emmy-winner Zendaya discusses Rue's relapse and road to redemption in season two of HBO's unflinching teen drama

Emmy-winner Zendaya discusses Rue’s relapse and road to redemption in season two of HBO’s unflinching teen drama

A show about sex, drugs and the kind of tormented teenaged existence any parent would shudder to think their child is experiencing, was perhaps the last thing fans of Zendaya expected as a next step for the former Disney Channel actress. But the now-25-year-old says that when it came to taking on the role of Rue, a Southern California teenager struggling with mental health problems and drug addiction, she really had no choice. “I just felt like I had to do it,” she reflects. “I felt very connected and emotionally invested in Rue. When I met [creator Sam Levinson], I was drawn to the story that he was telling and how honest it was.”

Though the experience of watching Rue and her classmates tackle various obstacles in their lives can often be described as stressful, the story that Levinson was telling was, to Zendaya, a thing of wonder. “All those preconceived notions about what I was supposed to do just went out the window, because I was really just focused on what emotionally felt like the right decision,” she explains. “I thought it was a beautiful story.”

Unfortunately, we are currently deep in the trenches of that story and as we pick back up, the state of Rue is hardly one of triumph. At the end of season one, which aired back in 2019, Rue had relapsed after a three-month sobriety she had largely been sticking to in order to stay together with her girlfriend Jules (Hunter Schafer). When season two gets going, and Rue now finds companionship in new friend Elliot (Dominic Fike), she appears to have zero interest in living a life without recreational drugs.

As we have witnessed since the beginning of the series, Rue’s managing of said recreation is not without consequences. “This season she goes to the bottom,” Zendaya teases. “When we get midway through, that’s when rock bottom hits, and that’s where it became extremely painful for all of us to watch what Rue goes through. To portray her going through it hurt me.”

The actress remembers approaching Levinson when Rue’s downward spiral started to feel endless. “Like, ‘She can’t stay here. We can’t leave her here,’” the actress recalls. “I always felt that Rue would be OK because if Rue was a version of Sam, and Sam is who he is and was able to take all that pain and turn it into this beautiful television show many years later, then Rue was going to be OK. But I think we all wanted to see that happen on the screen. We wanted to actually see a sense of hope throughout this show because it goes to such an extreme low for her.”

If the first part of this sophomore season seems bleak, rest assured that the tide eventually has to turn, not just for Rue but for her cohorts as well. “A massive theme in this show—other than redemption and that we are not the worst mistakes we ever made—is the concept of hope, that there is something beautiful at the end. We deserve happy endings,” says Zendaya. “We deserve the good things in our life, no matter the mistakes we’ve made.”

For the actress, who since her days at Disney has gone on to star in sci-fi blockbuster Dune, is currently heading up the Spider-Man franchise with real-life boyfriend Tom Holland and in 2020 won an Emmy for her work on Euphoria, the HBO series has been one of extreme professional growth. “It’s a very difficult show to do and can be quite painful, obviously, because I think your body doesn’t know that any of it is not real, even if your mind does. But what’s really special is the fact that we’re in a really safe environment. I always felt very safe and protected to do my best work. And I knew that I could go to the places I needed to go because I had the support.”

The actress believes that the smash-hit drama, in all its darkness, helps viewers articulate issues they may relate to, even if they haven’t quite been able to identify them, and serves to humanize addiction. “If you can love Rue, then you can love someone that you know that is struggling with the same thing, and maybe have a greater understanding for the pain that they’re facing that is often out of their control,” she says. “It’s my hope for people watching that they still see her as a person worthy of their love and worthy of their time—and that we still see the good in her, even if she can’t see it in herself.”

Euphoria airs Sundays at 8 p.m. & 11 p.m. on HBO Canada