Zendaya: ‘I didn’t understand acting. I just was obsessed with it’

Zendaya: 'I think there are aspects of my life where maybe I felt overlooked or not appreciated for something that I’ve put so much into'.  Photograph: Chantal Anderson/New York Times
From Disney via the Marvel universe to HBO’s Euphoria, Zendaya has done a lot of growing up on screen. But for her new film, Malcolm & Marie, the Californian star is tapping into her theatrical beginnings

There was a very modern kerfuffle last year when Zendaya, arguably the most luminous new star in Constellation Hollywood, won an Emmy for her performance as a recovering drug addict in HBO’s Euphoria. Everyone was elated. We saw her celebrate at home with all her pals. The “social” went wild. “Biggest upset: Zendaya wins Emmys 2020 over Jennifer Aniston, Laura Linney,” the New York Post announced.

Well, we are where we are. Twitter then exploded with people objecting to the imagined suggestion that anybody was “upset” by the win. “No one’s upset,” one wrote. “I wasn’t upset,” wrote another. The paper had great fun with the phrase “amateur linguists” in a follow-up story.

None of this matters. But it did confirm the level of affection that exists for the young Californian. Emerging as a teenage star of the Disney series Shake It Up, she went on to light up The Greatest Showman and bring new energy to “MJ” in Spider-Man: Homecoming.

Zendaya and John David Washington in Malcolm & Marie
Zendaya and John David Washington in Malcolm & Marie
Zendaya and John David Washington in Malcolm & Marie
Zendaya and John David Washington in Malcolm & Marie

Now, she’s breaking out with an intriguing two-hander called Malcolm & Marie. Written and directed by Sam Levinson – creator of Euphoria – the monochrome Netflix release, conceived and shot during lockdown, follows a vainglorious director and his misused girlfriend as they squabble after a successful premiere. John David Washington is the pretentious Malcolm. Zendaya is electric as Marie. The monologues are there to be chewed and neither actor leaves any vowel unmasticated. Marie’s anger at not being mentioned in her boyfriend’s speech triggers the fight. Greater outrages follow.

“Yeah, as dialogue goes, there are a lot of words in there,” she tells me. “But I knew what we were creating from the beginning. Because Sam was writing this after me saying: ‘Hey, can we do something in my house?’ He had this basic structure. Two people come home. She’s upset because he forgets to thank her. Chaos ensues.” (The film did not, alas, end up being shot in her house.)

Dizzying ascent

If you have been following Zendaya’s dizzying ascent, you will not be surprised to hear that she is a consummate professional. Dressed in a white thing with gold spangly bits down the side, she engages volubly, meandering across surrounding territory with youthful vigour. I can’t quite see her making the mistakes Marie seems to have made. That character gives too much to her partner and, her own career now in tatters, struggles to regain emotional and professional terrain. This could be an awful delusion, but Zendaya seems more in charge.

My mom worked at the California Shakespeare Theater since I was a kid. So I really fell in love with acting because of actors I got to see on stage every day since I was two. It was my life

“That’s interesting, because Maria and I are very similar in a lot of ways and also extremely different,” she says. “I didn’t realise how many similarities we had until I got in there. I think, in a lot of ways, these characters that I get to create with Sam end up being a version of both of us.”

Raised in Oakland, Zendaya Maree Stoermer Coleman – mom is white, dad is African-American – suffered from crippling shyness as a child. She first took steps towards the footlights at the California Shakespeare Theater in neighbouring Orinda. That experience nudged her into modelling work and, her self-consciousness now under control, a berth at Disney Towers. Shake It Up, a teen sitcom set backstage at a Chicago TV show, was an immediate hit and led to her becoming the youngest-ever competitor on Dancing with the Stars (she finished second to someone called Kellie Pickler in the final).

“There is something theatre-like about it,” Zendaya says of Malcolm & Marie. “And that’s where I learned. I learned about my love for acting from the stage. My mom worked at the California Shakespeare Theater since I was a kid. So I really fell in love with acting because of actors I got to see on stage every day since I was two. It was my life. And I just was obsessed with what they were doing. I didn’t really understand it. All that said, this felt like a full-circle moment for me.”

Inspiration

Marie’s career is much more up and down. Despite being inspiration for the central character, she was not cast in her boyfriend’s movie. As Malcolm & Marie progresses, we learn of substance abuse and related mental health issues. 

“As far as how this relates to me in real life, I have a different relationship with the industry than she has,” Zendaya says of Marie. “That is something I also had to understand when I was going into this, because there are certain insecurities that she has. There are certain things that she feels like she hasn’t done yet. Maybe I haven’t come up against that.”

She is gathering momentum now. If you think Marie’s monologues are lengthy, then you haven’t heard Zendaya herself in action.

Zendaya in Euphoria. Photograph: Eddy Chen/HBO
Zendaya in Euphoria. Photograph: Eddy Chen/HBO
Zendaya and Tom Holland in Spider-Man: Far from Home. Photograph: Jay Maidment/Sony Pictures
Zendaya and Tom Holland in Spider-Man: Far from Home. Photograph: Jay Maidment/Sony Pictures

“She wasn’t cast,” she says. “I have the opposite situation here. I’m a producer on this. I’m making it happen. My experiences are in the movie, but I’m also a producer. So that’s fun. I feel great about it. So it’s a very, very different experience than what I think Maria is going through. But I can understand and sympathise with where she’s at. If there is anything to take from the movie it is to appreciate the people around you. Not just say ‘thank you’. But make sure everyone has a seat at the table. We made sure everyone has a seat at the table.”

Zendaya does go some way to admitting that it hasn’t been all plain sailing. How could it be otherwise? Life has no rehearsals.

“I think there are aspects of my life where maybe I felt overlooked or not appreciated for something that I’ve put so much into. And often that’s a relationship,” she says.

Malcolm & Marie has already had head-spinningly divergent reviews. Not every critic was onside with Levinson’s effort to ventriloquise the black experience in Hollywood through Washington’s character. As the white son of director Barry Levinson – Oscar winner for Rain Man – the rising filmmaker can’t pretend to have first-hand experience of those struggles. But no reviewer has had anything bad to say about Zendaya or John David Washington (Denzel’s son could trade a few stories about second-generation traumas with his director). He extracts maximum humour from Malcolm’s excesses. She peers down her nose like a much younger, much hipper Maggie Smith. Give them a few decades and they could take a crack at Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.

‘Soaking’

“I had already started to understand the dialogue,” she says of the rapid shoot. “It was soaking into my brain a little bit because I was part of every step along the way as he was writing. When you get to be that close to it, it doesn’t feel like you’re delivering a script and that you have to learn lines. I was kind of learning them as he was writing them. I got to be that closely involved.”

There is more to come from Zendaya this year – maybe. It must now seem a geological aeon since she shot her role as Chani, spouse to Timothée Chalamet’s Paul Atreides, in the upcoming take on Frank Herbert’s Dune. That film was originally scheduled for release last Christmas, but, following Covid disturbances, it was pushed back an entire year. Yuletide should also deliver the second, currently untitled sequel to Spider-Man: Homecoming – a mass of meta-textual chicanes by some accounts – but that does require filming to continue throughout the early part of this year (such activities are still happening, believe it or not).   

Zendaya: ‘I think there are aspects of my life where maybe I felt overlooked or not appreciated for something that I’ve put so much into.’ Photograph: Chantal Anderson/New York Times
Zendaya: ‘I think there are aspects of my life where maybe I felt overlooked or not appreciated for something that I’ve put so much into.’ Photograph: Chantal Anderson/New York Times

With that confusion in mind, Malcolm & Marie feels all the more like an unexpected gift. The picture is certain to figure as a key chapter in the career of an unstoppable star. Euphoria, a brilliant, busy ensemble piece that has accumulated a massive following, tackles grim themes, but, like the two Spider-Man films, it remains anchored in late adolescence. We know she can dance. We know she can quip. Her MJ is the most charming presence in the Marvel films. Levinson’s elegant indulgence now offers her the opportunity to stretch aggressively into adulthood. She could hardly be grabbing the opportunity with greater enthusiasm.

 “So I don’t know... there are so many things to talk about with this movie,” she says, easing down a gear. “And I could probably ramble about it for a long time. But, um, yeah... I hope that answers some questions.”

One more thing. Variety magazine currently has her just within their predictions for an Oscar nomination in the best actress category (fifth out of five). As it stands, it would not be an “upset” if she got the nod. So the stans can relax.

Malcolm & Marie is on Netflix from February 5th