Sunday night’s episode of “Euphoria,” in which Lexi’s school play sent shock waves through both the auditorium on screen and the series’ fan base at home, was filled with stunning moments and set pieces, but none was as shocking or gleefully entertaining as the musical number at the story’s climax. Set to the ‘80s pop staple “Holding Out for a Hero,” it’s a vigorously homoerotic extravaganza in which a fictionalized surrogate for the show’s deeply conflicted Nate romps among thrusting, grinding, and glistening men in skimpy attire.
Choreographer Ryan Heffington, who spoke to IndieWire following the episode’s premiere, remembered that the description of the scene in the original script was fairly brief. “There was a lot of massaging and body oil,” Heffington said with a laugh, adding that it was nevertheless “thrilling to read because it was clear that I’d finally get to go balls to the wall and create something really absurd, funny, and artistic.”
The audacity of the scene brought Heffington back to his roots, and he was excited by the opportunity. “This is what I used to do in the clubs,” he recalled. “We used to strip, we used to throw food at people, we used to tap dance, we were in drag — in a club, there are no rules. And I feel like ‘Euphoria’ is an extension of that.” Heffington added that his starting point for the number was always its ridiculousness. “The humor was a strong foundation for the piece. We knew it would be over the top and heavily homoerotic.” The choreographer observed, however, that the story the dance was telling was expressing something a little more serious: Nate’s internalized homophobia. “We were portraying a fraction of Nate’s psyche, and this was perhaps a grand fantasy of his: being in a locker room, surrounded by men rubbing each other, pissing on each other…maybe the ultimate queer teenage boy fantasy.”
Actor Austin Abrams got to act out that fantasy as Ethan Lewis, the classmate who plays Nate in the play, and he and Heffington worked together to bring out the scene’s exuberance for both the character in the play and Abrams as a performer. “I really wanted him to evoke the energy of being a hormone-filled young man,” the choreographer said. “I used the mad scientist as a model and told him to run around like he was rabid. The idea was to create an artistic, elevated portrayal of what it feels like when you’re in high school and your brain sinks down into your crotch and you’re erect 23 hours of the day.”
Eddy Chen / HBO
Heffington also collaborated closely with production designer Jason Baldwin Stewart, director of photography Marcel Rev, and costume designer Heidi Bivens to create a fully integrated piece of filmmaking in which each element would complement and feed off of the others. “There are a lot of conversations with the production designer,” he explained. “We talk about the stage surface — if the guys can slide on it, if there’s oil on it, if it’s safe. Same thing with the costume designer: Can the dancers slide, can they wear knee pads, what kinds of shoes work on the floor? If they’re topless are they oiled up or is that dangerous? In this case it actually was, so we used water.”
“Of course, everything goes through Sam,” Heffington added, referring to writer-director and series creator Sam Levinson. “I proposed the idea of a punching bag that would come down onto the stage looking like a penis, and he loved it and said, ‘Let’s get that made.’ Then I asked if we could make the workout bench spin for an overhead shot, and he said yes to that too.”
Heffington noted that Levinson’s open, collaborative approach facilitated not only his best work but that of everyone on the set, as ideas were encouraged from every member of the cast and crew. “Everyone gave me a lot of space as a choreographer to help them find the best ways to really sell this number,” he said, noting that many of the camera angles he envisioned during rehearsal found their way on screen.
For Heffington, the experience on the “Holding Out for a Hero” number capped off an extraordinary year in which he also choreographed director Lin-Manuel Miranda’s film of Jonathan Larson’s “Tick Tick Boom” and appeared onscreen in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza.”
“It feels fantastic,” he said when asked about being involved with several works at the center of the cultural conversation. “I’ve had a great career and I’m excited that it’s still going, honestly. It feels like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”