Not only is HBO’s Euphoria arguably the buzziest show of the summer (if not the entire year), it recently got renewed for a season 2 and still has several episodes to go in its first season. The show is also breaking records for HBO, mainly due to its presence on digital and streaming platforms.
The Zendaya-led series, from Sam Levinson, follows a group of high school students as they navigate a minefield of drugs, sex, identity, trauma, social media, love and friendship.Rue Bennet is a 17-year-old fresh from rehab due to drug addiction, who's struggling to make sense of her future. Her life changes dramatically when she meets Jules Vaughn (Hunter Schafer), a girl who recently moved to town following her parents’ divorce, and like Rue is searching for where she belongs.
Storm Reid and Zendaya in 'Euphoria.' (Photo: HBO)
Ahead of Sunday’s episode, which will open with the backstory of first-year college football standout Christopher McKay, the actor who plays McKay, Algee Smith, spoke with Shadow And Act about what we’ll learn from the episode, his feelings on the controversy leading up to the series’ premiere, any reservations he had about the project, and what surprises to expect for the rest of the season:
What can we expect from this episode that will center primarily on McKay and his backstory?
You can see a lot of McKay tapping into his feelings and you’ll see his story unfold. You’ll see a lot of vulnerability, you’ll see his relationship with his dad, you’ll see why he acts out in a certain way, even with Cassie, and even feeling insecure about certain things. The relationship between him and his dad, that’s where a lot of the things stem from.
What drew you to this story and this script, especially coming in as a recast?
First and foremost, [it was just] timing and everything. What the show is talking about...it’s very relevant in how we live right now. A lot of my generation is going through some of these things. I wanted to be a part of something that is the truth and also something that people can relate to. But also the storyline is just crazy. It may be the craziest thing I’ve done as an actor outside of it being true.
Were you hesitant at all about taking on the project?
I did have a couple of reservations because I didn’t know how it was going to be received. When I read the script...you really don’t know how it’s going to be shot when you read the script. When I was looking at it I was like I’m not sure, but I was excited about it and my excitement outweighed the uncertainty.
Euphoria got so much publicity before it even premiered due to all the press the show received for having controversial and explicit content. How did this make you feel, as an actor on the series, knowing so many people had opinions about the show before it even aired?
So, I’m not gonna lie. For me, it made it better, because when people have these conversations, whether it’s a good or bad conversation, they’re talking. For us, it was a talking point and we know the focus and the foundation of the show, which is not just to glorify drugs, or glorify 30 penises [laughs] or whatever. But we do that stuff for a reason because it actually plays a part in the story. For me, having people drawn in and already having conversations before it airs, that’s amazing, because it gives people that don’t know about it [a chance] to hear about it and check it out for themselves.
Algee Smith as McKay in this week's episode of 'Euphoria' (Photo: Eddy Chen/HBO)
Your character McKay is very polarizing in the Euphoria fandom. We at Shadow And Act live-tweet the show each week and people are always asking “Where are McKay’s friends?” “Where are the Black people in his life?” [laughs] What do you think about the public’s perception of the character and do you think it'll change with this episode?
[Laughs] I do agree, you know. It’s very interesting to see people’s takes on the show because as I’m watching, I’m thinking some of the same things they are thinking, looking at myself playing the character from the outside in. And I think people’s perception will change because even when you think a character is falling behind, they’re [the writers] going to ramp it up and you’ll be like “Wow, I didn’t expect this coming.” I think a lot of people will be surprised to see the range that McKay has and where this goes.
So, have you seen any of the fan theories?
Wait, wait, wait. Explain these to me!
OK, so there are two popular fan theories among fans right now. One of them is that Rue is dead, that’s the most predominant and popular one, although it has lost steam lately.
And another is that Rue may be hallucinating a lot of what we see between her and Jules since she’s sort-of her replacement drug.
Wow, OK. That’s very interesting, bro. I mean...I’ve seen the Rue one...the one where she’s dead and is narrating from the grave. That one is crazy. This is the first time I’m hearing of the other, but for me, it’s exciting to see people’s perception. And you know, I’m not even sure. [laughs] The fact that people are taking it in and digesting it that much that they are creating their own stories to it is literally amazing. I didn’t even see it that way, so for them to see it that way, that’s cool. I think anytime you have that type of engagement, it’s always good. We’re seeing conversations about that, we’re seeing conversations about real people having drug addictions that are finding healing from the show...we are seeing all of this which is great.
Not only can Euphoria be very dark at times, of course, its very, very risque. Were you sort of anxious about your family members and friends watching?
It depends on which family member you’re talking about! [laughs] To be honest, my mom sent out a text to all of my family before it aired and she was like, “I’m just letting you guys know there is a lot of graphic nudity.” And at first, my grandma was like, “I’m gonna check it out.” And now, she’s hooked on the show, bro. I know if my grandma is hooked on it, then everyone else in the family will be OK. We’re good.
The cast and characters of this show are very diverse in any which way that you look at it. However, so far, we haven’t seen the subject of race come up yet. Will it come up soon and if not, do you hope it does?
I think the fact that we tackle so many issues, why not? I would love to see that. I would love to see it tackled. Every episode is just a new issue being tackled. I would love to see that happen, whichever way Sam [Levinson] wants to do that I would love to see that explored because that’s also something that’s very relevant just like everything else we’re talking about.
Earlier, I mentioned the stories that broke about the show ahead of its debut. A lot of your castmates have mentioned having the intimacy coordinator on set for those types of scenes. How was that experience and how does it impact what we see on screen?
With the intimacy coordinator, that helped out a lot. There were a lot of times that me and Syd [Sydney Sweeney] would do the best we could in preparing for it, but having the coordinator on set she would say to the director, “I think my actors have done enough, they’ve done it enough times.” And having them there, they pay more attention to the little details of the actors. Not to say that the directors don’t, but without the coordinator, I don’t think [the scenes] would have went the same way, because she made sure we were so good and were comfortable with each other.
Algee Smith and Sydney Sweeney in 'Euphoria.' (Photo: HBO)
How would you convince someone to watch the show who may be hesitant to watch based upon misinformation that they have heard about it? How would you pitch it to them?
My thing is always, truth is always good whenever it’s presented, no matter at what time. It’s just a mirror reflecting on what society's going through. There are a lot of parents who don’t know what their kids are going through and kids who don’t know what their parents are going through. This show can bring understanding in just the way parents can approach kids, how kids can approach parents, how friends can approach friends and that communication.
What is your boldest prediction for Season 2?
Man, I don’t know! I’ve been talking to people that watch the show and people that tapped in and we’re talking about that because it’s already so crazy, I don’t know where else you can go. I’m going to talk to the writers and ask them because I don’t even know. The show starts on such a high, it’s like...where do you go from there? So I’m even interested to see where it goes.
And what can we expect from the rest of this season?
It just gets more intense. You’ll see certain relationships that you didn’t know were as heavy get a lot heavier. But yeah….like…[sighs]...I can’t say what I want to say, but I know you’ll be really shocked. You almost had me, bro. You almost got it out of me. [laughs]
Now when I’m watching the remainder of the episodes, I’m going to keep second-guessing myself if I’m noticing what you’re talking about.
Like, “You’re talking about this?” When you see it, you’ll know what I’m talking about, and then we can have another conversation then and backtrack [laughs]. I will say for this week, a lot of people should tune in. Especially people that feel a certain way about my character, because you’ll see some things that will shock you.
Euphoria airs Sundays on HBO. The latest episodes of the show are streaming on HBO NOW. Other titles on HBO NOW include 2 Dope Queens, Ballers, BlacKkKlansman, Confirmation, Random Acts of Flyness, The Hate U Give, The Defiant Ones, The Wire, Native Son, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and more.