Hunter Schafer On 'Sweet' Zendaya, Finding 'Euphoria', And Dominic Fike Relationship
Photographs by Paola Kudacki; Styling by Carolina Orrico
On the busy restaurant floor of a Manhattan boutique hotel, no one seems to be aware that a Hollywood star has entered the room. Hunter Schafer – make-up free and hair pulled back, dressed in an understated heather-grey sweater, tracksuit bottoms and trainers – is walking towards me with an earnest wave and a generous smile. Everyone around us is oblivious as we embrace and settle into our seats for lunch and our interview, one of her last stops before a night flight back to her home in Los Angeles.
A former New Yorker, Schafer relocated to the West Coast when she got the role as Jules Vaughn in HBO’s Euphoria, to be closer to the studio. But she’s in town for a few days of work. ‘I love being in New York. I love my community here. Being in Los Angeles has made me more keen to protect those long-term relationships and friendships I made in that time,’ she says, in between bites of gourmet Brussels sprouts and sips of coffee. We first met during these New York years, when I was writing a piece on changemakers. She was then an 18-year-old model and an emerging name in the fight for trans rights. Six years on, she still has the endearingly calm nature that I remember, though much else has changed.
Schafer, who has just turned 24, is one of the stars of the hottest ensemble cast on television, with a slate of big movie releases on the way. She can’t go anywhere without the gaze of her adoring fans. ‘It depends on the setting, but I get recognised pretty much every day,’ she says. ‘I used to get really dressed up. I still love doing that. But I know that now comes with more attention. So I’ve learned to keep it a little more low-key.’
Her new-found recognisability is, of course, down to the wild popularity of Euphoria. The show, masterminded by Sam Levinson, is a disturbing and raw depiction of young people at the apex of teenagehood, dealing with dizzying highs and the lowest of lows. First released in 2019, it was a breakout success. Its cast, made up of young actors in the infancy of their careers – Zendaya, Sydney Sweeney, Alexa Demie, Maude Apatow, Storm Reid and Jacob Elordi – were catapulted to global fame.
‘From the airing of the first episode to my first million followers on Instagram, it was, like, a month,’ Schafer says (she now has 6.8 million). ‘It was a huge adjustment, for sure. Nobody really knew if the show was going to hit like that, you know? It’s strange, because I thought it would kind of level off after season one, but season two felt like it doubled in size.’ She credits Levinson with guiding her through the vertigo inducing experience of fame. ‘I always say Sam has been my biggest teacher, my acting school. I had to wing it and learn as I go, which is hard in front of millions of people.’ The most-recognised of the cast, and its lead, mononym Zendaya, became not only a best friend to Schafer but an anchor as they navigated the show’s monumental success. ‘There’s a lot of real-life learning that’s going on alongside our characters.
It’s a very involved relationship to play. [In real life] we are so close and we have a very sweet, soft, loving friendship,’ she says. I ask her about the biggest shift in her day-to-day. ‘The social change. That’s been pretty disorientating. But it’s also things like the financial side of things. That side of my life has changed greatly and it’s been amazing, but it’s also been so important I channel that into things and people I care about,’ she says.
One such project is her quiet backing of her friend, the designer Gogo Graham, whose collection showed at New York Fashion Week for AW22. ‘She is so talented and does everything herself. She needed hair and make-up teams and a venue, and I was so happy to support. It was such a great group of people. It was all trans folks. Just magic!’
Rather than film and television, Hunter originally had her sights set on art and fashion. Born in Trenton, New Jersey, she settled in North Carolina with her parents and younger siblings at nine. Much like her on-screen character in Euphoria, Schafer knew she wanted to transition from a young age. Her Presbyterian-minister father and mother were supportive. She was an early contributor to Tavi Gevinson’s Noughties blogging site Rookie and was offered a place to study fashion design at Central Saint Martins, a course she planned to fund with her modelling jobs. Then life sent her on a different path.
‘It was my [modelling] agency that told me about the audition for Euphoria,’ she says. ‘I think every trans girl at the time got the call. They asked me to come in for a reading, but I wasn’t looking for it.’
With the pandemic throwing off the filming schedule and the long-awaited third season still some time away, Schafer has had the opportunity to delve into her first movie roles. There’s her upcoming horror film, Cuckoo, in which her character Gretchen moves to a resort with her family in Germany before she encounters a strange woman and a chilling conspiracy. ‘When I first started reading scripts, people just wanted to send me a lot of roles like Jules or about how I identify. I got a little scared of getting stuck in the same sort of role over and over again,’ she says. ‘I’ve been pretty intentional about making sure everything feels a step away from the other and a little bit different.’
Schafer also stars in The Lobster and The Favourite director Yorgos Lanthimos’ upcoming film AND, which also has Emma Stone and Willem Dafoe in the cast, though she modestly plays it down. ‘It’s a little cameo, like two scenes. It’s cool though, and it’s great to be in there. We’d never met before but [Lanthimos] had seen Euphoria and was keeping my name around in case a part came up. So, when it did, I flew down to the set in New Orleans immediately.’
From indie to blockbuster, she ends the year with a part in the next instalment of the Hunger Games franchise, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, alongside Viola Davis, Jason Schwartzman and Peter Dinklage, which will no doubt appeal to her already devoted Euphoria audience.
With more and more eyes on her blossoming career, Schafer has quickly become a red-carpet darling, making impressions with her daring and sophisticated sense of style. Prada took notice early, signing her to a multi-year deal that has seen her walk the runway and feature in campaigns across accessories and clothing. ‘I met [Miuccia Prada] when I walked Miu Miu,’ Hunter says. ‘But we’ve now formed a relationship and she’s incredibly cool.’
The beauty world has also been orbiting the young star. Her new role, as Mugler’s spokesperson for its perfume Mugler Angel Elixir, is the perfect example. Based on the iconic 1990s original (the scent broke boundaries as the world’s first gourmand perfume, thanks to its praline-and-chocolate base), Elixir has been modernised with a vanilla infusion and woody undertones. Schafer is thrilled with the pairing. ‘I was so honoured to be asked. I had walked a few shows for Casey [Cadwallader, Mugler’s creative director] and then, when they told me about this opportunity and the treatment for the commercial, I was so down.’
As a longtime fashion follower, her own line might not be too far off. ‘I am always looking for opportunities and want to segue into it and make it right,’ she says. ‘I am not sure I even have the time for a line right now,’ she laughs, ‘but perhaps a collaboration with someone.’
There’s a relentless creative urge at play here – as a talented artist, she also expresses a desire to spend more time painting. ‘I am going to get a studio and maybe do an art show. I’ve been reduced to my sketchbook, but I am bringing it everywhere. I miss the bigger projects that I used to work on, rather than the doodles and watercolours I do now.’
As her life speeds up, Schafer seems preoccupied with slowing things down. ‘I am trying to make an effort to not get lost in the sauce of all this stuff, because you can kind of get swept up in it,’ she says. She finds a sense of grounding in her relationship with actor and fellow Euphoria star Dominic Fike. While she isn’t open to sharing all the intimate details, she describes the sense of stability the relationship has provided. ‘I think we are able to be a safety net for one another. I feel like I’ve been learning a lot about the effort it takes to upkeep it. Because it does, you know, especially in our world. But, to me, it’s deeply worth it.’
As we finish our conversation, Schafer is preparing to head to the Brooklyn Museum to see the Mugler retrospective before a quick race to JFK airport. As her suitcases are hurried to a waiting car by her team, we talk about how much can change in a relatively short amount of time. ‘I still don’t know how I got here,’ she says, as I list off her accomplishments: prime-time actor, fashion muse and, now, future big-screen star.
While the circumstances around her may have changed, Hunter’s artistic spirit remains – and, coupled with her new star power, there is no doubt she’ll be a force for good in Hollywood and beyond. Not a world away from the girl I met all those years ago.
This interview features in the April issue of ELLE.
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