Zendaya stars as Rue Bennett in HBO’s Euphoria, which has just been renewed for a third season. The role earned the actress an Emmy award for Outstanding Lead Actress In A Drama Series. She also serves as an executive producer. The following interview will include spoilers for episode 2×05, “Stand Still Like the Hummingbird.”
Amidst the intertwining lives in the town of East Highland, 17 year old Rue (Zendaya) must find hope while balancing the pressures of love, loss, and addiction.
I had the chance to speak with Zendaya about the powerful opening sequence of the episode, her relationship with fans, and getting into the mindset of Rue. Read my exclusive interview below for our conversation.
I have not felt this affected by an episode of television in a really long time. You delivered such an incredible performance. The opening sequence especially was unreal to watch. Can you talk about filming those scenes between Rue, Gia, and Leslie?
Zendaya: Oh, man. Yeah, it was tough, to say the least. I think it was a very painful experience because I care about Rue as though she’s a real person. I do feel that she represents so many real people, and so many people have connected to her and I care about those people too; to see her in this deep pain is scary and I don’t particularly enjoy that, you know? I knew that the scene was coming for a while because I mean, it’s one of the few episodes that kind of was always going to happen. There was always going to be just an entire episode of Rue burning her life to the ground and when I would have to do it, I just didn’t know.
But yeah, I mean, it was tough. I was kicking down doors, I still got a scar on my leg and got big ass bruises all over my arms but beyond the physical, I think your brain might know that it’s not real, but your body doesn’t always know so I’m living with Rue and her pain. I don’t like knowing when you can’t stop something from happening, but you’re watching it happen and there’s nothing to do about it. It’s like when she’s being volatile to the ones she loves, we didn’t want to shy away from the ugliness of the situation because she’s also going through withdrawal. Her mind, body, spirit, everything is completely unraveling and I think the normal filters are gone. I think there’s a certain level of volatility and a certain level of unpredictability from her that we don’t know. It feels very dangerous and scary when we watch her because we don’t if she’s going to do something, then immediately regret it, be in pain about it, and then all of a sudden go to something else. We don’t know if she’s gonna throw something, hit someone, cry, or run away and I think that that’s deeply true to an experience of that nature. I think it was important for us to just kind of let it unfold in the most painful way possible because it is painful. It’s painful to those who deal with it and it’s painful to the ones who love the people who are going through it, not knowing what to do and not knowing how to help, if they’re doing the right thing, or what the right thing is even to do.
It’s important to know that addiction affects more than just the person in the midst of it. It affects their family members. Her little sister is scared of her, her mother is doing the best she can, and I didn’t quite enjoy having to scream crazy things at the people that I love. Thankfully, they’re very understanding of the process. We have a beautiful set and crew of people, Sam, Marcell, all of the beautiful, obviously, actors and actresses I get to be beside, who just created a space that’s like, as soon as we’re done, we check in with each other, “are you okay?” We do that because you feel like you have to, but yeah, it’s a tough one. But I think it’s important in so many ways like I said because my hope at least is if we can get through this with Rue, if we can still love her after this, if we can see the pain inside and understand empathy for all the things that she’s going through right now. I mean, like I said or like Ali said better, this is a degenerative disease and we don’t really treat it that way.
I mean, it’s been criminalized and people often dehumanize, and I think it’s important to bring humanity into the experience of addiction and what it does to people. She has certain emotional disorders. I mean, there’s so much pain, there’s loss, and it’s all just kind of coming forward. Also remembering again, withdrawal, going through the physical pain of what that feels like and the fear of what that’s going to feel like for her. So yeah, I think she’s completely lost control, but my hope is that again, people can go with her to the rock bottom and still root for her. To me, hope and a light at the end of the tunnel is important for her and her story.
You wrote this note to your fans before the new season aired, which you also did for the series premiere, saying, “Take care of yourself and know that either way you are still loved and I can still feel your support,” which I thought was so beautiful and important. The relationship that you have with your fans is so special. I’ve personally grown up watching you in all your different projects and I’ve just been in awe of your work. What is it like for you to see the fan support not only for the character and show but your performance?
Oh, man, it blows me away, because it can be very difficult. I mean, when you’re so close to a project you put so much into it, but also when you care about characters so much because like I said, I know what she means to so many people who have been so open with their parallels to Rue’s story, their experience of addiction, loss, mental illness, whatever the case may be, and people have been so open with me about that. So she means so much to me throughout this process. Also, it’s like when you’re doing the show, you have to be very open and very emotional a lot of the time. Even like I was talking about earlier, we have beautiful moments where we get to go write with Labrinth, we wrote the song for episode four. That was such an emotional experience, just writing that and we got to write something else for a character that happens later, but it’s like every aspect of it is so personal, so it can be very difficult to let it go and let other people in the world have it.
So I’m very grateful for the love and respect for kind of the process of it, even though it can be hard, but also my intention, I think, as an artist or as somebody who has the privilege of playing Rue is never just to get people to watch it. That’s not the point of why I do this. The point is because I get to be a storyteller and I get to hopefully help other people heal through a character, feel less alone through a character, or maybe put words to an experience that otherwise they don’t have the words for or the understanding. My hope is somebody says, “that’s me,” “that was me 10 years ago,” “if she could do it, I can,” “wow, I’m not the only person that’s thinking these things,” or “wow, I didn’t know how to explain this. Can you watch this so you know how I feel because I don’t know how to tell you?” There are so many hopes I have for it and that can be at people’s own pace. Although people watching it is great, it’s not the intention. It’s not the point of what I do.
The point of I what do, I say, is storytelling, connection, human experience, empathy, and all of those good things. So, it’s at people’s own time. Also, it’s important to remember that everybody’s healing process is different, something that might be good for them right now isn’t good for someone else right now, to go at your own pace, and to know what you’re getting into because although the show is funny and can have a lot of humor and levity, it can also be very painful and very personal. So, I just want people to know before they get into it and to make that decision to engage in the art form when they feel that it’s best for them.
I can’t imagine the emotional and mental toll that it takes to play a character like Rue. After already doing so for season one, did you do anything different for season two when it came to getting back into the mindset of the character?
It’s funny cause Rue never leaves me, Rue is more like the few characters that don’t. Sometimes when you find a new character, you have to relearn how they walk, how they talk, and how they move. It’s really interesting with Rue that she just kind of lives inside me, she doesn’t go away. She kind of like goes somewhere else for a little bit and I can like bring her forward, let her kind of do her thing, and I don’t feel like I’m searching for her. I don’t know, maybe it’s because I’ve gotten to be with her for so long and kind of live with her as a character for so long that it’s just like, I can do the Rue face or whatever the case might be. She’s still very much close to my heart in that way where I don’t have to kind of go searching for her. It’s also weird because we’re so similar, but we’re so incredibly different. It’s pretty wild. I see so much of myself in her, but then I also could not be further from her. I think maybe that’s why, maybe she feels like a little sister, a version of myself, or whatever but I do feel connected to her in a way that the emotional tentacles never really like pull away.