The cheesy Netflix rom-com franchise ‘The Kissing Booth’ may have catapulted Elordi into the spotlight, but it’s his impressive career pivot in Sam Levinson’s grungy adult drama ‘Euphoria’ that will keep him there, writes Maanya Sachdeva
No one could have predicted Jacob Elordi’s Hollywood trajectory. Here was a guy, all perfect bone structure and brooding eyes, who went from fronting the interminable Netflix sap-fest The Kissing Booth to playing the vile “emotional terrorist” of Sam Levinson’s gritty drama Euphoria within a year. Vince Marcello’s rom-com received disastrous reviews but became one of the streamer’s top titles when it was released in 2018, prompting Netflix to release second and third instalments in 2020 and 2021. These did little to change critics’ opinion of the franchise, and would likely have typecast Elordi as yet another mushy romance lead. Fortunately for the young Australian actor, the world was already high on Euphoria by the time he reprised his role in The Kissing Booth sequel and threequel.
The R-rated HBO show chronicles the intertwined lives of a group of 17-year-olds as they navigate sexuality, gender dysphoria, self harm, depression, and addiction. It is unnerving, intoxicating, and revealing. Euphoria was released in June 2019 and found instant critical and commercial success. The show was renewed for a second season less than a month after its premiere, Zendaya became the youngest recipient of an Emmy award for her performance as its drug-addled protagonist Rue Bennett, and Elordi earned himself a second shot at stardom. As the show’s totem of toxic masculinity and white privilege, Nate Jacobs is among Euphoria’s most hated characters – making relative newcomer Elordi’s decision to play it a revelation.
Season one laid the groundwork for Nate’s terrible behaviour; his acute daddy issues have turned the Abercrombie model-esque high-school senior into a chest-thumping, hyper-aggressive, manipulative boyfriend to Maddy (Alexa Demie) – his on-again, off-again girlfriend. Over the first eight episodes of Euphoria, Nate catfishes then blackmails his new trans classmate Jules (Hunter Schaffer), assaults Maddy, and then dodges consequent assault charges by pinning the blame on unsuspecting 22-year-old Tyler – whose drunken hook-up with Maddy lands him in hospital with a broken neck, reeling from Nate’s threat of statutory rape charges. Nate continues wreaking havoc without consequence – until season two’s recently aired premiere episode, when friendly neighbourhood drug dealer Fezco beats him to pulp at the turn of a new year.
Euphoria doesn’t allow fans to savour the image of Nate’s bloodied face for too long. He’s worse than ever in episode two, tormenting his newfound love interest Cassie (Sydney Sweeney) into keeping their illicit hookup a secret from her best friend Maddy. “How will you ever look Maddy in the eyes again?” Nate asks as he looks up at Cassie, cruelly meddling with her mind while performing oral sex on her. Elsewhere, Maddy begins to worry Nate’s attention has shifted from her, while former masked Internet dominatrix Kat (Barbie Fereirra) obsesses over her lack of attraction towards doting boyfriend Ethan (Austin Abrams). Through them, Euphoria mocks the feminine urge to pursue the bad boy – despite all the red flags – and Nate is the set-up of Levinson’s premise. Intermittently, the all-star quarterback teases redemption but only so his prey will let their guard down. But there’s no saving Nate, viewers realise, as Cassie tries desperately to win his affection but ends up humiliated instead.
Since The Kissing Booth was first released, Elordi has repeatedly distanced himself from the teen movie franchise – from admitting he hasn’t watched The Kissing Booth 2 to confirming he was done with Noah Flynn-style characters. He calls his role in Euphoria a shot at redemption. “It’s almost like righting my wrongs a little bit,” the actor explained, “because [my] character in The Kissing Booth is awful and it’s never really explained.” At various points in the franchise films, Noah normalises rape culture, struggles to address his intense anger issues, and is both controlling and patronising. Nearly 15,000 respondents agreed with Elordi, voting Noah Flynn the worst teen movie boyfriend ever – ahead of late Heath Ledger’s Patrick Verona (10 Things I Hate About You) and Robert Pattinson as Edward Cullen in the Twilight franchise – in a 2021 survey by The Tab.
Elordi has also addressed the seemingly “bold” decision to steer his fledgling career in a sinister direction after The Kissing Booth. During an interview, the actor theorised that committing to risky roles is only deemed brave because the actor may lose his celebrity if things go south. True, a single rom-com franchise does not a celebrity make, but two back-to-back flops and Elordi might not have had the opportunity to come back for a third. Perhaps his decision to pivot from every teenybopper’s problematic wet dream to a complex character like Nate Jacobs is rooted less in a quest for celebrity and more in his desire to do meaningful work while he can get it. Maybe he was simply slinking in the shadows of The Kissing Booth while waiting for the spotlight to shine on his acting chops – not his abs.