When Maude Apatow was much younger, she’d go to Target and scan the shelves, looking for romance novels with nice cover art. Not those kinds of romance novels, nothing too inappropriate, but books with storylines not necessarily written for a child whose age had not yet reached double digits. Back then, Apatow read anything and everything—and the flavor of the day just so happened to be stories about love.
She was also a venerable fiction writer in her own right. She’d pluck whichever story looked nicest off the rack and read it cover to cover. Then, she would emulate the topics covered in those books. In the fourth grade, she wrote a long story about a woman who was dying of cancer, left her husband, and had a fling that turned into a brand new relationship during her final days.
“My teacher was like, ‘What on earth?!,’” Apatow, speaking from her parents’ house in New York City, tells me over the phone on a recent afternoon. She’s had a proclivity for writing fiction all her life, but since her first film credit at the age of 10 (she starred in the 2007 comedy Knocked Up, directed by her dad Judd Apatow, and starring her real-life mom Leslie Mann as her mom in the movie), Apatow has mostly been known for her acting. She has gone on to star opposite Pete Davidson in The King of Staten Island, made cameos on Girls, and appeared in the Netflix miniseries Hollywood. But far and away, her breakout moment came when she landed a role on HBO Max hit Euphoria, which has transformed the way fans spend their Sunday nights (when the second season debuted on January 9, 2.4 million total viewers tuned in, breaking the network’s record for highest total viewership for a digital premiere since its launch in 2020).
As Lexi Howard, Apatow plays the former best friend of Rue Bennett (Zendaya), and the younger sister of Cassie Howard (Sydney Sweeney). The first season of Euphoria sees Lexi as a bit player—a goody two-shoes swept up in a world of manipulation, extortion, drugs, sex, crime, and skin-baring fashions. But as soon as the first episode of the second season aired, it became clear Lexi’s part will take center stage; she and Fezco, the drug dealer with an enormous heart played by Angus Cloud, engage in a flirtatious and deeply emotional conversation at a New Year’s Eve party that signals the start of a romantic arc between them. And in tonight’s latest episode, another Lexi-centric storyline emerges, one that connects to Apatow in more ways than one.
Halfway through episode three, Lexi practically runs through her high school’s hallways, approaching the vice principal with a request to put on a play she’s been writing. Prim and proper, wearing an ivory button-down blouse with a scalloped Peter Pan collar, she bursts with childlike excitement when he nonchalantly replies, “Sure.” A montage that depicts Lexi as the writer, director, and creator of a project called This is Life appears onscreen, while Rue’s voice narrates: “She was an observer. That’s who she was.”
It’s an uncanny moment in which life imitates art: Apatow’s ambition to write and direct movies, plays, and television series suddenly puts Lexi’s own dreams into focus. On the phone, the self-described theater nerd (her favorite musical is Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George) tells me that while writing her entire life, she once briefly considered becoming a journalist. (“But then I realized I wasn’t good at that,” she says with a jittery chortle.) She started to take the craft much more seriously while she was in school at Northwestern University. There, she met a friend who became her writing partner, and even after she left school (just before snagging her role in Euphoria), they have continued to work together. During the pandemic, they’d hop on Zoom with one another and flesh out ideas. These days, they visit one another’s apartments for writing sessions. “We’ll sit for days and weeks and just write all day,” she recalls. “I think we have good energy together. Once we get going, we power through.” It’s proven to be a fruitful practice: Apatow sold her first script over the summer, and is now in the development phase for the project.
If hearing about Apatow’s productivity makes you feel bad about vegging out on your couch during the pandemic instead of working on your own magnum opus, don’t worry—the actress makes it clear she still spent plenty of time at home watching RuPaul’s Drag Race. (She’s a superfan, she explains: “I’ll probably watch the new episode right after we get off the phone,” she admits.) Binging reality television ended up benefitting Apatow in the end—during episode three’s Lexi-in-charge montage, there is a fictional imagining of what Lexi would say during a behind-the-scenes, confessional-style interview about her play. “We improvised that whole sequence, the day of,” Apatow reveals. “Sam [Levinson] did not tell me beforehand what was happening—he threw me into it, knowing that I’d probably freak out if I did know [ahead of time]. It was so fun. We sat in the bedroom—the whole crew was in the scene—and we were just cracking up.”
From behind the camera, Levinson, Euphoria’s series creator, shouted lines for Apatow to recite. Among them was an eerily meta one that made it into the final cut: “Sidekicks are usually the more sensitive, smarter, more compelling characters, but for some reason they just get overlooked,” Lexi says of her idea for writing a play based on her own life, which centers 16-year-old Grace, who “lives in the shadow of her older sister, Hallie.” “But the story isn’t about Hallie,” Lexi goes on. “That’s been done before. And I was like, TV show! The sidekick is the lead.”
It may seem like a hint toward the direction for the rest of Euphoria’s season, but it also feels like a subtle nod to Apatow’s own reality. Has she ever considered herself a sidekick in real life?
“I don’t know if I’ve ever even thought about myself in that way,” she answers. “Or if I have, like, main character energy. I definitely am similar to Lexi in the way that I feel like I’m always judging what I’m saying. I get anxious as I’m talking. I feel like I’ve gotten better with that as I’ve gotten older, even though it happens still. But when I think about Lexi, it’s a way, way more extreme version of that. She actually can’t speak because of it.”
“Do you hate interviews?” I ask. She emits nervous laughter in response.
“I’ve definitely gotten better at not hating interviews,” Apatow adds. “It’s hard to talk about yourself that much. And it’s so hard not to acknowledge every three seconds that it’s weird that you’re talking about yourself that much. I think it’s always weird to talk about acting, too; it’s so easy to come off like you’re taking yourself too seriously. But I think maybe I’m a little too much of the opposite. I’m too self-deprecating. I’ve been trying not to do that!” More nervous laughter.
Ever since the pandemic began, Apatow says she’s been working on this facet of herself. “Recently, I’ve tried to think of it not as a negative trait, but as a positive. I think I just care a lot and I’m a very sensitive person. Everything affects me deeply, and I get, I don’t know, overwhelmed. My mom is like that,” she tells me. “I’ve got a weird chip on my shoulder. I’m always like, ah, gotta prove ’em wrong! My dad’s like, ‘Who are they? Who are you talking about?’ But no one in my life has ever not supported me. I don’t think it comes from anything outside of my weird neurosis. So I’m learning how to be kinder to myself.”
Part of that process, Apatow says, involves treating herself like she would treat her own child. “I read something about being a good parent to yourself,” she says. “If you’re constantly criticizing yourself in your head, it does affect you. I’m still working on being aware of that negative self talk, and breaking that cycle.” For a moment, those self-deprecating chuckles that came from her end of the phone cease—perhaps, to allow the 9-year-old girl shopping for romance novels in Target to step into the spotlight.
Hair by David Von Cannon; Makeup by Romy Soleimani; Special thanks to The Jane Hotel and The Old Rose NYC.