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“This is as indie as a film gets,” says the actress Zendaya as we record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s Awards Chatter podcast and discuss Malcolm & Marie, the Sam Levinson-written and -directed film for which she is nominated for the best actress Critics Choice Award, with a best actress Oscar nomination quite possibly on the horizon.
The film, which chronicles a couple’s fight on the night the man forgets to thank the woman at the premiere of a film he wrote and directed based on her life, was entirely conceived of, written, shot (under strict safety guidelines) and edited during the pandemic, on a shoestring budget largely provided by its principal talent, whose investment subsequently paid off when Netflix bought the film for $30 million.
“We didn’t have craft services,” says its 24-year-old leading lady with a chuckle. “We had some snacks that we brought that we were trying to ration. We were just figuring it out on our own. But it was a very special experience.” Now, she adds, “It’s just crazy to think about it being a real thing, because it was just our little thing that we did.”
* * * You can listen to the episode here. Excerpts of the conversation appear below.
Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Lorne Michaels, Barbra Streisand, George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, Gal Gadot, Warren Beatty, Angelina Jolie, Snoop Dogg, Jessica Chastain, Stephen Colbert, Reese Witherspoon, Aaron Sorkin, Margot Robbie, Ryan Reynolds, Nicole Kidman, Denzel Washington, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Matthew McConaughey, Kate Winslet, Jimmy Kimmel, Natalie Portman, Chadwick Boseman, Jennifer Lopez, Elton John, Judi Dench, Quincy Jones, Jane Fonda, Tom Hanks, Amy Schumer, Justin Timberlake, Elisabeth Moss, RuPaul, Rachel Brosnahan, Jimmy Fallon, Kris Jenner, Michael Moore, Emilia Clarke, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Helen Mirren, Tyler Perry, Sally Field, Spike Lee, Lady Gaga, J.J. Abrams, Emma Stone, Al Pacino, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Jerry Seinfeld, Dolly Parton, Will Smith, Kerry Washington, Sacha Baron Cohen, Carol Burnett, Norman Lear, Keira Knightley, David Letterman, Sophia Loren, Hugh Jackman, Melissa McCarthy, Chris Evans, Carey Mulligan, Seth MacFarlane, Amy Adams, Ben Affleck, Julia Roberts, Jake Gyllenhaal, Glenn Close, Will Ferrell, Cate Blanchett, Sacha Baron Cohen, Greta Gerwig, Conan O’Brien, Jodie Foster & Kevin Hart.
* * *
Zendaya Maree Coleman was born on Sept. 1, 1996, to two Oakland schoolteachers. Her father is Black, her mother is white, and she grew up first attending a predominantly white private school and then moving to a predominantly black public school, never feeling entirely at home in either. A shy child, she found refuge at the Bay Area’s celebrated California Shakespeare Theater, where her mother worked in the summers, tagging along and observing the creative people who brought stories to life. “I just loved it up there,” she remembers. “I could watch the plays over, and over, and over, and over and over again. It was ridiculous. I don’t think any eight-year-old, 10-year-old, whatever, has ever watched as many Shakespeare or Oscar Wilde plays as I have, or as many times as I have.”
The youngster slowly but surely came out of her shell, landing acting roles of her own in local theatrical companies, modeling in catalogues for spending money and eventually going out on professional auditions down in Los Angeles. One, when she was 13, was for a Disney Channel sitcom pilot called Shake It Up. She landed one of its two leading parts; the pilot was ordered to series; her father quit his job and moved with her to L.A.; and the general public — or at least a certain demographic of it — quickly got to know and love Bella Thorne and Zendaya (who dropped the rest of her name at the suggestion of a manager).
Shake It Up ran from 2010 through 2013, a period during which Zendaya also wrote a book, landed a record deal and appeared on other Disney programs, ascending to full-fledged child stardom. When that show ended, the Disney Channel desperately wanted to create another for her — but the teenager held out for certain terms, to which the network eventually acquiesced. “That was my first time realizing that I could have a little bit of power and request things that I wanted,” she says. “It was hugely important to me that it was a Black family being showcased. I just thought that that was important from the Disney Channel, considering that I know I watched it as a kid, and what I connected to the most was That’s So Raven. I think it’s always important for kids to see themselves reflected on the screen, and when you’re making child programming you have a little bit of an extra responsibility there.”
K.C. Undercover ran on the network from 2015 through 2018, by which time its star was entering her twenties. During hiatuses from the show, she had begun to break into the world of movies, joining the Marvel family’s reboot of the Spider-Man franchise in 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming and 2019’s Spider-Man: Far from Home, and playing the female lead in the 2017 breakout hit musical The Greatest Showman. When K.C. Undercover finally ended, she found herself at a daunting crossroads — for a short time. “I didn’t want to go too far too quick,” she says. “I didn’t want to jump too fast.”
But jump she did. Sixteen months after K.C. Undercover went off the air, Euphoria — an HBO drama series created by Levinson in which Zendaya stars as Rue, a teenage recovering drug addict struggling to find her place in the world — went on the air. What made Levinson, a white filmmaker almost 12 years Zendaya’s senior, think of her, a girl with a squeaky-clean image (she says she has never tried alcohol or drugs), for a part that is largely based on his own youthful struggles? “I’m still confused about that,” she acknowledges. “I still don’t know.”
The process of learning how to play Rue bonded Zendaya and Levinson (who calls her “Z”). “I really had to lean heavily on Sam, who’s extremely open and honest about his experiences,” she explains. But she also emphasizes that addiction is only one aspect of the character: “I feel very connected to Rue about a lot of different things. For me, it’s about empathy.”
Last fall, in recognition of her work on the show’s eight-episode first season, and in the biggest and best upset of the night, she became the youngest-ever winner of the best actress in a drama series Emmy, beating the likes of Jennifer Aniston, Olivia Colman, Jodie Comer, Laura Linney and Sandra Oh. “I still can’t wrap my mind around it,” she admits, adding, “I’m very grateful for Euphoria and for Rue and for the entire experience. It really allowed me to open myself up to so many things and emotionally tap into things that I just didn’t know were there.”
Zendaya had not acted for a full year, and was itching to return to work on Euphoria, when COVID-19 derailed her and the entire world’s plans. “We got shut down the day before we were about to start shooting,” she remembers. She didn’t even leave her home for the pandemic’s first 40 days, but quickly began calling Levinson to try to figure out how they could continue being creative during the shutdown. After bouncing a lot of ideas off of each other, he decided to write a two-hander film, with her to play its female lead, that could be shot with a small crew in a safe space.
The result is Malcolm & Marie. Marie is also Zendaya’s middle name (only spelled Maree), which may not be a coincidence, the actress says: “She was written for me, but she was also written to the woman that I am and to the woman that I’m becoming, in the sense that I do have an argumentative, tough spirit to me, as well.” The characters of Malcolm and Marie feature “pieces of ourselves,” she says in reference to herself, her costar John David Washington and Levinson, noting, “It served for all of us as a real catharsis.”
With accolades pouring in for Euphoria and Malcolm & Marie, with Denis Villeneuve‘s remake of Dune in which she stars opposite Timothee Chalamet in the can and with a third Spider-Man film currently being shot, Zendaya is as busy as ever — not that she’s complaining. “I love my job,” she gushes. “I’m so grateful for it.”
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