HBO Max’s new, Lena Dunham-produced dramedy Genera+ion is an honest depiction of high school in the time of apps. Offering a lighter, more awkward depiction of those hormone-drenched years than its channel-mate Euphoria, Gener+ion promises to stay truer to the high school experience — assisted by the fact that Zelda Barnz, co-creator and writer of the show alongside her father Daniel Barnz, is still a teenager herself at only nineteen years old.
Zelda is adamant that her world reflect reality, depicting characters of different backgrounds as they stumble through discoveries about their lives and sexualities. One such character is Nathan, depicted by Uly Schlesinger. Nathan is aware of his attraction to boys, but his sexuality clashes with his conservative family, including a twin sister from whom he starts to keep secrets. On top of that, he must face his own confusion about his concurrent attraction to girls.
Genera+ion is Schlesinger’s breakout, having previously featured in minor roles on projects like The Sinner and Divorce. In this exclusive interview, he tells Schön! he was excited to play and develop such a fraught and original character amongst a cast of equally complex roles. Read on to learn more about Uly and Genera+ion.
You recently moved from New York to Los Angeles. What’s the biggest difference between the two coasts for you?
It’s hard to say, honestly. I feel like since I’ve only really been in L.A. during the pandemic, I don’t really know what the real L.A. is like. Though I will say you really can’t beat the weather here, even though I do miss the snow and rain sometimes.
Back in Rhode Island, you started acting in high school. How did you know acting was what you wanted to do for a living?
I’m not sure when it clicked really, but I will always remember my first time being on a stage in a high school production of Antigone as Soldier #2 (one of my most prized roles), and that feeling was intoxicating. It’s just too much fun to get to play pretend and put yourself in these situations that you’d never normally find yourself in. And honestly, I never expected to be doing this as a living. I just knew I wanted to keep chasing that feeling.
How does the high school you attended compare to the high school in Genera+ion?
I went to a very very small high school where everyone knew each other, so I feel like I never really got that traditional experience that the high school in Genera+ion depicts. I think I would’ve liked a little more anonymity.
How did you hear about Genera+ion? What were your first thoughts about the show and your character Nathan?
I got a tape for it a long time back through my agent. I remember being struck by how natural the dialogue felt; it wasn’t anything flashy or overtly dramatised. It was just so real. I was particularly excited to read such an authentic bisexual character — that wasn’t something I had seen much on TV before.
The viewer gets to see Nathan internally struggling. But to other characters on the show who only get glimpses of him, he can be kind of a jerk. Is he a teenage anti-hero or just a teenager stumbling through life?
I think he’s just like any other teenager, just really trying to make it through the world the best he can. He’s got all these expectations of who he should be that have been placed upon him by his family and by society, and I think he kind of builds up these walls and uses his dry humour as a defense mechanism. He’s a kind soul at heart.
Nathan’s primary emotion seems to be confusion — about his sexuality, his family. How do you make sure Nathan’s scenes also maintain the comedic, light-hearted aspects of the show?
Honestly, I feel like the script does most of the work for me! That’s one of my favourite things about the show; it flows so naturally between these kind of tragic and intense emotional moments and these incredibly hilarious and ridiculous ones. I think it reflects real life, particularly being a teenager. I know at least for me, there were so many times in high school where I would be laughing at something so stupid with my friends and then crying 20 minutes later about something that probably wasn’t even that serious. Everything is just so heightened when you’re at that age.
What’s it like acting in an ensemble cast? Are there any anxieties or traits you highlight to distinguish Nathan from others?
I really feel so incredibly blessed and lucky to be part of such an astounding cast. It really feels like one big family, and everyone is so unbelievably talented, and I think that’s really pushed me to be better every day. I don’t really feel the need to try and heighten anything to distinguish Nathan from the others; every character is so raw and unique and truthful that I feel like they all stand out on their own.
The cool thing about Genera+ion is how many different, overlapping relationships each character has with other characters. For you, which relationships were the easiest and hardest to establish?
I think the hardest to establish at first was Nathan’s relationship to his twin sister Naomi. I hadn’t ever had any kind of family dynamic like that, and certainly not something as specific as being a twin. But once we got into the flow, it was so incredibly fun to explore that with Chloe. The easiest was probably Nathan’s best friend Riley. As soon as I met Chase we just really hit it off and the dynamic was so fun to play around with; she’s a real gift to work with, and she makes it very easy for me.
There’s something about the show that suggests Gen Z is thinking about the next generation, even as they’re just coming into their own. Would you agree with this sentiment? How do you think this influences your thinking in your day-to-day life?
Yeah, I’d say so. I feel like I’m in a bit of a weird place being somewhere in between millennial and Gen Z. I’ve never really felt like I quite fit into either one. But I will say Gen Z does an incredible job of trying to give the world a better future, and I try to carry that same sentiment with me. If I’m not trying to leave this world a better place than how I came into it, what am I doing really?
Zelda and Daniel Barnz, the creators and writers of Genera+ion, have talked in depth about how creating the show was a big learning experience. What were some things you learned about the industry while creating Genera+ion? Or was filming through COVID too much of an anomaly to say?
It certainly was an anomaly to some degree, but I think I learned so much about myself as an artist and creator throughout filming. I’ve never gotten the chance to be with a character or project this long, and it’s been a pretty special process to say the least. I feel like I learn something new every day on set, honestly.
Getting your career started during the streaming and social media boom — does that overwhelm or excite you?
Oh, it terrifies me. I’d prefer to remain completely anonymous if it were up to me. I’m not really a fan of being in the spotlight. But it does create a kind of anxious excitement, so I suppose a bit of both.
What are some future projects you want to get involved in?
Anything, really. I just love to act and create. Though I have always wanted to play a part in a movie or show or something where I have to learn some kind of crazy skill that I would normally never know. It’s always exciting to me to really just throw myself into a world I know nothing about.
Genera+ion is currently streaming on HBO Max.
direction, photography + editing. Mynxii White
production. James Kristofik
fashion. Raina Silberstein
talent. Uly Schlesinger
grooming. Sonia Lee @ Exclusive Artists using Kevin Murphy
key lighting design. Tyler Hollingsworth
special thanks. Broadway Theatre Group, Ramin Delijani
words. Dayoung Lee