Even over the medium of Zoom, Hunter Schafer’s wild and enchanting energy instantly permeates the airwaves, as we meet to chat just before Christmas. “What time is it there? Oh, laaaaaate,” she draws, before gushing, “Oh wow, oh gosh, who is this?!” as my dog walks across the screen. It’s 7pm, and it’s hard not to be spellbound by her.
This could be, in part, because of the impressive array of credentials that we are here to discuss. At the age of 22, Schafer has already starred in one of HBO’s hit breakout shows: 2019’s Euphoria, which was her debut acting role; she shares joint lead with Emmy-winning actor Zendaya. As a model, Schafer’s walked up and down many runways, and recently became the face of Shiseido. She’s also a talented artist in her own right. And, when she was still a high-school student, she acted as a plaintiff against the state of North Carolina, resulting in trans people being able to use a bathroom of their choosing.
Growing up in North Carolina, Schafer never considered herself a performer – she wanted to go to New York to study art (she had a place at London’s Central Saint Martins, too), which she would fund by modeling. Like many people who have grown up in a small town, a city like New York – or London or LA – acted like a beacon; a place to find a like-minded community. It is notable, then, that Schafer’s big acting break meant returning to a small town, albeit a fictional one, and partly reliving that life.
“It blows my MIND that I got paid to try ACTING. Just to give it a shot. They took a CHANCE on me”
Euphoria, which was created and written by Sam Levinson, follows a group of teenagers navigating the world: sex, addiction, friendships, love, trauma, abuse, sexuality and identity are all themes tackled by the show. Once she had accepted the role, Schafer worked with Levinson on developing her character, Jules Vaughn, who is a captivating newcomer to East Highland High School.
Like most of the characters, Jules does not have an easy ride through the show. “A lot of her spirals line up with Sam’s and my spirals,” Schafer says of using the experience to process parts of her own life. “I know that not every show functions like this, but Sam is so collaborative, open and encouraging. Working on this character has been the most cathartic artistic experience I’ve ever had.”
But TV sets can be difficult places to work. Behind the camera, tens of people are watching as you allow yourself to be vulnerable and emotional, or as you shoot an intimate sex scene. Schafer seems to have taken this in her stride, though. “All of those experiences have taught me so much, even if they were terrifying,” she says. “But it’s good to get out of your comfort zone. It blows my mind that I got paid to try acting. Just to give it a shot. They took a chance on me.”
The chance more than paid off. During lockdown, Levinson wrote two special episodes that bridge the end of season one and the start of season two – a visual post-script to the emotional ending that left viewers in a mixed state of disbelief, shock and tears. In addition to co-writing one of these episodes, Schafer also co-produced it. “During quarantine, [Sam and I would] call each other and chat shit and throw ideas around. We started writing a different script and then that got put aside,” she says. “He was tossing around certain ideas and for some reason Jules was trending on Twitter. That helped us cement what we did in the end. I helped write the final script and was there for preproduction and helped to plan out the shots and storyboard it. All that influenced the performance because I knew the script on this whole other level.”
Lockdown, it seems for Schafer, has been pretty busy. “I’m living out of a suitcase right now and I’m not mad at it,” she laughs. She started and dropped several writing projects. “I just didn’t sleep and then that work fell in on itself.” She then packed up the LA apartment she was renting next to the Euphoria studio and drove back to North Carolina.
“It’s been an interesting year for mental health. Everyone’s been forced to sit with themselves and confront a lot of stuff. Personally, that’s not something I’ve ever done before and this year really forced me to do that. That was really the bulk of my quarantine journey,” she smiles, “confronting stuff and using work as a pretty large coping mechanism.”
Like Jules, Schafer transitioned in high school but, back then, trans people were largely an anomaly in pop culture, particularly in TV and film. Relegated to tragic story arcs, or being side-lined, there were not many roles around for trans actors. Now, being part of something as joyful and sad, nuanced and complex as Euphoria must have been quite an exhilarating experience. How did she feel when it was first released?
“I don’t think I should be a SPOKESPERSON for any community! But, as far as the INDIVIDUAL and emotional, nothing gets me more than having a MOMENT with another T girl”
“The first couple of weeks when the show came out were a little scary – because I don’t think people knew what it was,” reflects Schafer. “But, by the end, people resonated with it and would message me and say that they felt seen or [that they] could come out or think about something in a certain way, and that is pretty special.”
At the age of 17, Schafer challenged the state of North Carolina in federal court over a law that would mean trans people had to use public bathrooms that aligned with their assigned sex at birth. It was repealed, no doubt partly thanks to Schafer’s input. But it wasn’t and isn’t necessarily her objective to be a spokesperson for trans people.
“I don’t think I should be a spokesperson for any community! But, as far as the individual and emotional, nothing gets me more than having a moment with another T girl. I’m like… [she emits a long squeak]. There is a wavelength that is special and important. Whenever I see another T girl or a pair of lesbians, I’m like, ‘Yes!’ It’s a good feeling to know that you are not singular.”
Talking publicly about anything that is trans-related can often become politicized, but that is far from the most human form of discussion. “I am far more interested in talking about it in something like the [Euphoria special] episode because it takes a more philosophical approach to transness and queerness and because it’s more emotional and abstract. I think that is more relevant,” Schafer says.
“I don’t often WEAR a lot of makeup, but WHEN I do, I like to have FUN with it”
On the show, Jules’ style is colorful and chaotic, with big, bold slashes of makeup paired with minuscule skirts and wedge-soled sneakers. Today, Schafer is dressed rather more demurely in a simple Breton top, her blonde hair scraped back and a bridge piercing at the top of her nose. During Euphoria’s development, she says she would excitedly send costume designer Heidi Bivens mood boards of dreamy, pixie-esque outfits – ie, how she wished she’d dressed in high school.
Schafer recently signed a contract with Shiseido as a global ambassador. “I think they have such a cool take on being artistic with the way you apply makeup. I don’t often wear a lot of makeup, but when I do, I like to have fun with it,” says Schafer. The role has also led to her evolving and reflecting on what makes her feel beautiful. “I honestly feel like a different person compared to how I felt at the start of this year,” she says, brightly.
So, as one very strange year ends and another begins, where does Schafer – with so many possibilities at her fingertips – see herself going from here? Living out of a suitcase, picking her creative outlets: she is the definition of keeping it moving, of millennial fluidity. “I don’t know where I will go next!” she proclaims. “We are supposed to start filming season two, which makes me happy. Ever since Euphoria, it’s been go, go, go. I’ve been trying to make it be stable, [to] have a career. I want to keep writing and working on my own practices, but other than that it feels very up in the air. I genuinely don’t know what’s going on.”
She pauses for a second as someone knocks on her door. “You feel like you should be doing something or being productive and sometimes, you know, it’s important just to let yourself exist.”
First Time with Hunter Schafer
From her earliest memories experimenting with art and makeup to her first connections with music and meeting the Euphoria cast, Hunter Schafer shares some of her most significant milestones…