When HBO’s Euphoria landed on our screens in 2019, it did that rare thing that a good show is wont to do: made the entire cast famous, almost overnight, and none more so than Hunter Schafer.
It was the 21-year-old’s first-ever acting role, and Schafer’s portrayal of Jules was another rare thing: a trans actor playing a trans role.
But while Schafer was new to acting, they were not new to the spotlight. She’s modelled for fashion houses including Dior, Miu Miu, Calvin Klein and Vera Wang; met Hilary Clinton in 2017, when she was named one of Teen Vogue’s 21 under 21; and in the same year was a plaintiff in an ACLU lawsuit against an anti-trans bathroom bill in North Carolina.
Speaking on North Carolina public radio at the time, Hunter said: “I do like people to know that I’m not a cis girl because that’s not something that I am or feel like I am. I’m proud to be a trans person.”
Born in 1999 in Trenton, New Jersey, Schafer’s parents moved around between New Jersey and Arizona before settling in Raleigh, North Carolina. Their parents are Katy and Mac, who is a pastor. Schafer has three younger siblings, two sisters and a brother.
Schafer came out as trans while in high school and has described transitioning at a public school as “a pretty intense experience”. It was this that led to her involvement with the ACLU lawsuit against North Carolina’s anti-trans bathroom bill, which repealed a law that banned trans students from using the bathroom matching their gender.
Writing for i-D at the time, Schafer said: “As a transgender teenager who grew up in North Carolina, navigating bathrooms on my own was an extremely difficult journey, particularly at public school. In early high school (during a more primary stage in my transition), I felt safer using the women’s restroom and locker room.
“But I was often met with compromises, like being told to use a staff bathroom or the men’s room, which was basically a sentence to eternally hold it in.
“I felt like an outlaw every time I had to pee, as if I this natural bodily function were some unforgivable act.”
While Schafer called herself a trans woman as a teen, she’s since said that having learned more about the Western gender binary and the spectrum of gender, that she’s “let go of the idea that I need to do the one or the other — and just let myself be”.
In 2019, they told Dazed in 2019 (as part of the “Identities” special that also featured whistleblower and trans woman Chelsea Manning, trans model Finn Buchanan and intersex advocate Tatenda Ngwaru) that their sexuality is “closer to what you might call a lesbian”.
Partly because they were a plaintiff in the ACLU lawsuit and partly because most trans people, especially those in the public eye, tend to be described as activists, Schafer was then described as an activist. But while the label fit comfortably for a while, it’s not one she uses now; this is something she thoughtfully explained in a New York Times interview in 2019.
“When I think of an activist, I think of a community organiser who is working every day and directly with community members, and making it a job to take care of and speak up for a community in some way,” Schafer said.
“So as an actor and an artist whose primary focus is making artwork or world-building, I don’t think I fall into that category.
“There might have been a point in my career where, because people have been telling me I’m an activist, I took on that label. But in retrospect, I don’t think that’s what I am — or what I’ve been — just because I’m vocal about my identity sometimes.”
After graduating high school in 2017, Schafer moved to New York and began modelling. They had plans to study fashion design at Central Saint Martins in London when their agent got in touch – would Schafer audition for an HBO show called Euphoria?
Schafer said she was “mildly interested” in acting but hadn’t thought she’d be pursuing it seriously. “I gave it a shot,” they said, “then I just kept going back in and getting more of the scripts and eventually started to fall in love with my character.”
Euphoria catapulted Schafer to fame – though not, to the disgust of fans, to an Emmy nomination. Her snub was part of a wider pattern that blighted the Emmy nomination announcement last year, which saw 11 acting nods given to members of the LGBT+ community but many trans talents ignored, including Schafer and the Black and Latinx cast members of Pose.
hunter schafer not getting an emmy nomination for euphoria because the academy is transphobic is my villain origin story pic.twitter.com/kfOU9i1qEJ
— abi (@makatibak) July 28, 2020
While Euphoria has now ended, Schafer and co-star Zendaya have remained firm friends. The pair are so close that when a trans fan of the show met Zendaya in 2019, she ended up facetiming Schafer so that the fan could have a chance to talk to them.
“Zendaya facetimed Hunter because the girl is trans and said Hunter was an inspiration to her through Euphoria and Zendaya wanted to connect the two of them so she could tell Hunter herself,” said a tweet showing a video of it happening.
The video shows the fan in tears, repeating how she “has to be dreaming” and it “can’t be real”.
A Capricorn, natch, Schafer turned 21 on 31 December, 2020.
Fans can next catch them in a special one-off episode of Euphoria on 24 January.