In 2020, then–24-year-old Zendaya became the youngest person to win an Emmy in the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series category after she wowed critics and fans alike with her performance as Rue in the HBO drama Euphoria.
And last month, the actor told Vanity Fair that she was “overwhelmed” to have been nominated for four more Emmys following the second season of the show, which premiered earlier this year.
So there is no doubt that Zendaya has proven herself in the grueling role as a 17-year-old girl who is struggling with drug addiction following the death of her father.
The star has put her heart and soul into her performances for the TV series, and previously said that filming had left her with physical scars and bruises in addition to the mental toll that the difficult scenes had taken.
And while it may be impossible for fans of Euphoria to imagine anybody else as Rue, the show’s casting director, Jennifer Venditti, recently revealed that the role almost went to a first-time actor whom her team had scouted on the street.
In an interview with Variety published on Monday, Venditti said that the unknown woman had recovered from drug addiction herself, giving her “a similar trajectory [to] Rue.”
However, she and showrunner Sam Levinson had concerns that the project would prove to be too difficult for the actor and that she wouldn’t be able to “handle” filming the show.
“There was a young woman who had been street scouted by my team who was a magical person and had a similar trajectory as Rue and had come around to the other side,” Venditti told the publication in reference to Rue’s struggles with drug addiction.
“But with a TV show, it can be many years [of work]. We all loved her, but when we went through the rigor of the process, we didn’t know if she could handle what it would take in terms of stamina,” Venditti went on.
Venditti put the actor in touch with a coach to see if they could help her process the “emotional weight” of the project, but she and Levinson decided that she ultimately wasn’t ready.
“It’s so interesting. A polar opposite. Because here’s Zendaya, who has none of the life experiences of Rue, who was able to dig into her toolbox and access it in such a beautiful way,” she concluded.
The anecdote has divided people online, with some criticizing Venditti and Levinson for casting an already established star instead of giving another young actor their big break.
“What a weird thing to talk about,” one person tweeted in response to the article. “I feel like it's strange to say ‘we street scouted a young actor who overcame addiction and was perfect for the role but then we gave it to zendaya instead,’ like, just keep that in the archives it's like you're rubbing their nose in it.”
Another agreed: “Thinking about how this could have been a life-changing role for the actor and could have probably really helped things a lot financially but the creative team decided to go with a celebrity who already was successful. Not hating on Zendaya or her performance but it's just weird.”
One more echoed: “So a first-time actor with similar experiences to the character who’s career could’ve been made on the show, was given to someone who’s already extremely rich and privileged with an already-made career? Zendaya did incredible but this is just odd to me.”
“This is such an odd story to share when you didn’t actually go with the unknown actor,” someone else wrote. “Instead you’re just bragging about leaving a recovered addict to obscurity and condescendingly saying ‘amazingly, she couldn’t handle it, unlike Zendaya!’”
However, the discourse has sparked backlash, with others arguing that it would have been exploitative to put an amateur actor in a potentially triggering situation.
“I do not think this is a bad look,” one person wrote on a Reddit forum. “It just sounds as if they tried to go one way with whoever was going to play Rue, but ultimately found that Zendaya was better prepared to handle the emotional complexities of the character.”
“And based on the material the show handles, casting someone who was very similar to Rue could have been really destructive for an upcoming actress. Rue needed to be played by someone with more training,” they added.
“Yes, I imagine that it would be very triggering for anyone who'd ever dealt with addiction to have to stimulate drug use for their job,” a second user agreed. “It sounds like both the girl and the production team came to the conclusion that being in that environment would not be good for her, even if the drugs and booze were fake.”
Another person wrote: “100%. In what world is ‘she had incredible talent but at the end we were worried it would hurt her mentally so we had to look out for her mental health and say no’ a BAD thing?? goodness y’all.”
“Honestly I think it might have been for the best. Street scouting means that she didn't seek out an audition and maybe wasn't an actor even,” someone else commented. “Why make someone relive possible trauma by making them basically reenact their worst time? It would have been exploitative.”
This rings particularly true for Season 2, Episode 5 of the show, which saw Rue try to escape an intervention from her friends and family after they discovered that she’d relapsed and was taking drugs again.
Zendaya admitted that she was worried about shooting the dramatic episode due to the toll it’d take on her both physically and mentally.
“I was scared to tackle it because I didn't want to see Rue like that, or have to go through that. Your body is a person, it doesn't know that what you're doing is not real,” she told Elle Australia. “My brain can say 'ok I'm pretending' but when I'm doing it, my body and my heart don't know that it's not real.”
“It wasn't always easy,” she added. “I’m screaming in the face of people I care about. It's not fun, so I appreciate the safe environment that I had to do that.”
Elsewhere in Venditti’s interview, she told Variety that model Hunter Schafer originally turned down the role of Jules.
“I reached out to her agent and they originally passed. [The actor] had to be open to any kind of sexual situations. So imagine that you were not really thinking of acting, and someone brings an opportunity with possible nudity,” she said.
“I was like, ‘Can we just meet?’ Obviously, I’d respect her decision if that was something that, ultimately, she wasn’t comfortable with. But I didn’t feel comfortable just not having a discussion about it to see what her thoughts were and to explain what it was,” Venditti added.
Venditti also put Schafer in touch with an acting coach, and she ended up getting the part after auditioning opposite the unknown actor that they were going to cast as Rue.
And while the street scouting didn’t quite go to plan for the role of Rue, a then–18-year-old Angus Cloud was successful when he was approached by a casting agent while walking down the street.