Zendaya made history Sunday night becoming the youngest actress to win the Emmy for outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama series for her turn as Rue in Sam Levinson’s Euphoria on HBO.
“Euphoria” starts inside the head of teenage addict Rue (Zendaya) and never fully leaves. Even as episodes start to focus on other characters, Rue’s sardonic voiceover never leaves, making it clear that no matter whose story she’s telling, her perspective is the one holding them all together. As she stalks around her bleached hometown, dragging her feet through every punishing day, Rue acts as a reluctant tour guide for her audience. She guides us through her tangled thoughts, feelings, furious fears and desperate hopes.
She’s not happy to be there on our screen, where we can see every beautiful, rotting piece of her. Sometimes she even takes the opportunity of the spotlight to glare right back at us, daring us to blink. By the final episode, in which Rue relapses and collapses into a fugue state, I felt I knew her so well I could practically feel the burning of her pain in my own chest.
Though written with vicious precision by Sam Levinson, Rue’s only as effective as she is because Zendaya is so incredibly good at portraying her. When Rue’s a jerk, Zendaya lets her be one without softening her edges.
When Rue’s afraid, Zendaya lets her practiced smirk fall just enough to let you know it. The character could have been — and sometimes is — a mess of clichéd teenaged angst. Instead, Zendaya digs into every corner of her gnarled psyche to find the terrified kid hiding in the shadows.
The show wouldn’t work a fraction as well without an actor who could bring that kind of nuance to its emotional center, a task Zendaya takes on with palpable care and incredible verve.
She was definitely up against stiff competition with Killing Eve’s Jodie Comer and Sandra Oh, Ozark’s Laura Linney, The Crown’s Olivia Colman and The Morning Show’s Jennifer Aniston. When Zendaya’s name was announced as the winner, the actress and her family — and her fellow nominees — could be seen celebrating with joy from their remote location.
“It means so much to me,” Zendaya said during her virtual backstage interview (her family at that point was standing to the side, trying to contain their excitement). “Every single woman in that category I obviously admire immensely.”
She added, “Just to be mentioned in the category at all was something — and just to have them support me really filled my heart.”
Zendaya admits she almost shed a tear when she was honored with the Emmy — but the waterworks didn’t fully turn on. “I don’t usually cry,” she said. “I got through it without letting it take over completely. It was obviously a very emotional moment and I still can’t believe it myself — it’s pretty crazy.”
Her win marks a joyful moment during an uncertain and complicated time in history, but Zendaya sends out nothing but love to combat all that darkness. “I’m just grateful for moments like this — where we can have joy and wrap our arms around loved ones and tell each other we love each other,” she said. “It’s moments like this we have to hold on to and cherish.
Zendaya said that what was special about Rue in Euphoria is that she is a “full, whole human being” who is layered and complicated. “As the show goes on, we are also able to empathize with addiction, what it looks like, what it does to a family.”
She continued to say that the show makes us understand Rue and still root for her despite her mistakes. “We understand what’s going on through her head; we understand how she views the world and everything that happens to her and we’re able to empathize with her as a character which is a beautiful thing.”
“For me, I’ve always been very grateful for all the people who connect to Rue or feel that, through the show, they are able to attach words or find themselves within a scene or a moment where they otherwise felt alone” to have that feeling that there are people that feel what [Rue] feels is huge and very important…she’s very important to me.”
This breakdown, like so many other “Euphoria” scenes, could have curdled if a less able actor had tackled it. But Zendaya throws herself so wholly into it that Rue feels real enough that she might as well be banging down the fourth wall. Pair this kind of splashy performance with the quiet moments in between — most especially when Rue realizes she’s falling in love with her best friend Jules (Hunter Schaefer) — and Zendaya’s Rue becomes one of the most finely-tuned portrayal on television. It’s only right that the Academy recognized it as such.