In March, when the world stopped, Zendaya, a mononymous fashion icon and the busiest young star in Hollywood, had nowhere to go and nothing waiting for her. So she decided to try her hand at painting watercolors.
“This is some real corny shit, but I started this,” says Zendaya, holding a sketchbook up to her laptop camera. “It's a journal or art-book thing that my friend Hunter [Schafer] from Euphoria got me, actually. My new thing for myself is to try not to be so damn controlling all the time and just paint. Just whatever the f**k comes out, that's what comes out.”
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She flips the book open to show me her first painting. It is…a watercolor figure of a naked, faceless woman who looks like she's on fire. Her body is curvy, with Coke-bottle dimensions. Her skin is mauve and striking, and she's surrounded by a yellow-gold amber. There's a suggestion of a neck, but there's nothing where her head would normally be, disintegrating from the shoulders up into a smolder of flames.
“She's a little fire lady,” Zendaya explains calmly. “That's kind of the thing, right? I don't know where this is going to go, but I'm going to just do it and see what happens.”
Between the generation of Disney Channel fans, the Marvel devotees, the Euphoria evangelists—and between the runway shows, magazine covers, and talk show interviews—it's hard to think of anyone as omnipresent in Hollywood as Zendaya Maree Stoermer Coleman. (She dropped the rest from her stage name early in her career because she thought it sounded cool, like Prince.) (She was right.) It's nighttime in Atlanta, where she's calling from. She's been living there while filming the next Spider-Man movie, renting a house, socializing within a small circle that includes her assistant and her costars. She's grateful to be working again. In early spring she was getting ready to film the second season of Euphoria—the neon-dunked HBO drama about a half-dozen confused high schoolers—when the rug was pulled out from under her and the show's return was pushed back a year. And Dune, the sci-fi epic she costars in with Timothée Chalamet, got pushed tentatively to this October. In the Before Time, when she'd finish her other gigs—The Greatest Showman, the first Tom Holland Spider-Man film—she could return to her day job on the Disney Channel show K.C. Undercover, on which she played a teenage spy. But this year was different. “It was the first time since I was 13 that I didn't go back to something,” Zendaya says, her head resting in her hands. “There was no structure.”
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Few people emerged from the vacuum of 2020—its loneliness, its unpredictability—unscathed. When the pandemic first hit, we all grieved for the busyness of our old lives, the small habits and regularities that felt essential to how we lived. For Zendaya, the moment prompted a lot of soul-searching and attempts to carve out an identity beyond her vocation, and she's still not entirely sure what she's discovered. “It was my first time just being like, ‘Okay, who am I without this?’ ” she explains. “Which is a very scary thing to confront and work through, because I don't really know Zendaya outside of the Zendaya who works. I didn't realize how much my job and my art were a part of my identity as a human.”
She has always felt a deep connection to her characters—especially Rue, the recovering teenage drug addict in Euphoria that won Zendaya an Emmy last September. She was eager to jump back into Rue's Chuck Taylors, even though playing her, she says, requires inhabiting “not a super-happy headspace.” During the first few months of lockdown, Zendaya would often call up Euphoria creator Sam Levinson “to shoot the shit.” (“It's like, ‘Well, what happened today?’ ‘Well, I woke up, and that's it. I've pretty much been in bed all day.’ ”) They would talk for hours, every other day or so, venting about the world or “what was in our hearts at the time or whatever.” She considered taking piano lessons, or maybe picking up a new language. They talked about what the future of Euphoria could look like once it was safe to return to set.
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Then, a few months into those talks, Zendaya had a thought: What if we were able to make a movie within the confines of quarantine? What does that look like? Is it even possible? She didn't have a log line in mind; Levinson didn't have anything written, and it wasn't like there was a script lying around. She was simply an actor looking for work, thinking out loud on the phone with her close friend who happened to be a director.
Levinson at first suggested a twisty meta-Disney thriller. “I was just on the pavement outside in my backyard because I didn't have outdoor furniture yet, talking to Sam,” recalls Zendaya. “He's like, ‘What if we did something almost like a horror movie where you've lost it because you still think you're on K.C. Undercover? You could be in the house like dah, dah, dah, and you're still stuck being this Disney Channel actress, and people are like, ‘No. You're not K.C. [anymore].’ ”
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Zendaya was unmoved, but she still heard him out. “You just have to let him go through his process,” she says, laughing.
The next idea was something more pared down, with ambitions closer to a Cassavetes chamber piece. Something intimate and ugly and romantic. She recounts Levinson's informal pitch: “ ‘What if I just stripped everything away? There's no gimmick, no anything. What does that look like? What if it's just a relationship piece? What if it's just two people, one's upset because the other one didn't thank them for something, and they're in one place? And that's all it is.’ ”
Zendaya was intrigued, and Levinson started writing.
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The script would turn into Malcolm & Marie, a stunning black-and-white film about a beautiful couple trapped in a beautiful home as they attempt to exorcise their relationship's demons, and it showcases what makes Zendaya such a dynamic force. In some ways the film—which they managed to shoot in two weeks and which costars John David Washington—is an inversion of the vibrant sprawl of Euphoria. The whole thing takes place in a single location—a labyrinthine house in Los Angeles—and is essentially the argument scenes in Blue Valentine or Eyes Wide Shut, stretched out and shapeless, over an hour and 45 minutes. The script is excruciating in its clarity: Here is an unhappy couple, stewing instead of celebrating, on what should be a happy, glamorous night. Malcolm is handsome and a promising up-and-coming director. On the night of his movie premiere, after thanking his agents, his actors, and his collaborators, he forgets to thank his long-term girlfriend, Marie, played by Zendaya, and the fuse is lit from there.
Levinson knew that his film would rise or fall on the connection between the two actors at the story's center—and that finding Zendaya's male counterpart wouldn't be simple. “Zendaya is such a formidable force as a person and an actor, that it was really difficult to imagine who could go twelve rounds with her,” Levinson explains in an email. “She could snap most actors like a twig.”
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Not only does Washington, 36, hold his own, but he shimmies so vibrantly in his first scene that the movie could float on that high alone. (“I didn't want an actor that had a boyish sensibility,” Levinson notes, “because I think it just inevitably makes the relationship feel a bit more flimsy.”) In the initial shot, the couple comes home and Malcolm is still buzzing from the adrenaline of being feted as the most important man in the room. Marie is, for some reason, icy—sleepy, or bored, or possibly annoyed. For her it's squeeze-out-of-this-lustrous-gown o'clock, but he's drunk-hungry. She boils a pot of water for instant mac and cheese.
The simmer that follows is agonizing, with two heavyweight actors at the height of their powers. He whines about a critic who compared him to Spike Lee and Barry Jenkins: Why can't the ‘Los Angeles Times’ consider a Black man against a director like William Wyler, maestro of both melodramas like ‘Mrs. Miniver’ and epics like ‘Ben-Hur’? He's painfully oblivious to her annoyance—familiar territory to anyone who's ever been in love—and playfully grabs her ass and drops to his knees to take a bite of her backside. She adds powdered cheese to his food. Marie's subtle facial expressions suggest she hasn't bought into his hype; soon it will become clear that she is acrimoniously, inextricably bound to it. He's used her life, her histories with men and trauma and addiction, to write his script and build his career. Being an uncomfortable muse is one thing; feeling robbed of your own life, of your own history, is something else entirely. They fight, no holds barred, through the night—over his authorship versus her ownership, what he's taken versus what she's owed. They trade verbal blows with toxic precision. (When I asked Washington about Malcolm and Marie's relationship, he described the couple as “so damn romantic”—which is, frankly, nuts.)
It feels curious, then, that while audiences are spending the pandemic returning to escapist comfort food like The Office, Zendaya has instead gravitated to the rawest, most emotionally rigorous role of her career yet. She is excellent in Euphoria, but Rue is part of a bigger picture; Malcolm & Marie is just her and Washington, in the kitchen, on the couch, in the bedroom, on the patio, lighting their lives on fire. Rue spends her time on the show trying to evade emotions, to slide past them, to feel ashamed if she lashes out. Marie is a complete 180, someone who wants to cut the bullshit. She's not chatty, but she's willing to say whatever it takes until she feels like she's been heard. “[Marie] gave me an opportunity to use these words in a way,” Zendaya says when I wonder aloud what drew her to the role. “I don't yell. I'm not a very argumentative person, but it's nice to just release shit and be able to—” she pauses here to consider what she actually means. “I don't know… I guess emote would be the word? To just use her as this vessel to just get shit out that maybe I had pent up or hadn't said.”
As a kid growing up in Oakland—long before she was thrown into the Disney machine and made it her own—Zendaya was so notoriously shy that her parents sought counsel on how to manage her affliction. As an adult, she says, she's gotten better about speaking her mind: “With my family and friends, I can go back and forth on a topic for no reason. I'm not actually winning anything here, but I like to go back and forth just to make sure that my point is heard, make sure my point has gotten across, which is similar, in many ways, to Marie.”
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The role was exciting because it offered something more than the passive girlfriend or an accessory in someone else's narrative. In the prior year, Zendaya received a ton of job offers, but nothing meaty was coming in. “It's not necessarily that any of [the scripts] were bad or something like that,” she says. “I just felt like a lot of the roles that I was reading, specifically female roles, were just like, I could have played them all as the same person and it wouldn't have mattered, if that makes sense.” Or, to put it differently: None of them challenged her. “The best way to describe it is just like, they'd usually serve the purpose of helping the male character get to where they need to go, do what they need to do. They don't really have an arc of their own,” she says. “And they usually feel very one-dimensional in the sense that there's not a lot of layers to them, meaning they all seem very kind of like the same person over and over and over again. It would have been great and it would have been fine, but I wouldn't have grown at all.”
That last part is what's most important to her. There is an unknowable quality to Marie, and by extension Zendaya, but also a delightful playfulness that showcases the actress's range. In one memorably sweet scene, she puts on a “white voice” to tease her boyfriend about all his new white indie fans, the kind who would likely try to seek him out on Letterboxd. (Malcolm, as a character, is literally the Tisch student you'd never want to text back.) But the movie is arguably at its most revealing when the characters vocalize their insecurities as Black creatives navigating white corporate Hollywood—what it feels like to miss out on a job or on your moment. “Those conversations are definitely conversations that Sam and I have had,” she says, “because a lot of it was inspired by feelings of limitation for Black creatives that are not put on other people. And what that looks like, and what that feels like as a creative, when you just want to make art.”
The entire film was made during night shoots with a nimble crew of Euphoria collaborators. They'd quarantined together in a bubble and rehearsed in parking lots, but there was one frustrating night on set when Zendaya couldn't get herself to where Marie required her to go. “Sam came in, and usually what he does is he sits with me,” she says. “He'll just come in. We have a groove and a process that we do, same from Euphoria, and we carry that over. He sits with me, and we just talk. Everybody knows the process, everybody's just quiet, and everybody's so supportive, which I appreciate. Because I feel like shit, just making people wait on me to get emotional.”
The tenor of frustration rises in her voice as she recounts this. She sounds like a decades-older veteran, irked by a normal limitation: Sometimes, on some days, things just don't come together. “If I'm gonna be 100 percent honest,” Levinson says, “when we first started working together on Euphoria, the thing she struggled the most with was giving herself permission to be emotionally vulnerable in a scene. I don't fault her for that. When you get to the level she's at in her career, you have to simultaneously have thick skin as an individual while also being emotionally open as an actor. It's a real mindf**k, and I don't envy it.”
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He goes on: “She's very protective, rightfully so. And if she doesn't nail something or feel it on take one, she has a tendency to get very self-critical, which only further inhibits the release of emotion. So throughout the first year of Euphoria, we spent a lot of time trying to break down those barriers.” On that particular night, they rescheduled the scene for later. When they tried again the next day, and those emotional barriers finally broke down, Zendaya was transcendent: As Marie, she talked in menacing tones about what relapsing would feel like, what caving in to the darkness would mean for herself, Malcolm's script, their relationship. The material is raw and sensitive, and Zendaya wielded it with an almost malevolent unpredictability. She flashes a knife to make her point; Washington basically recoils watching her.
Zendaya's friend and Euphoria costar Hunter Schafer finds herself constantly in awe: “She is like a force, and I feel so lucky to be learning how to act next to her, as she's so experienced in a lot of ways. I think the show pushes us to keep learning about ourselves as actors. Because it's always—it's just constantly pushing us to go further and go harder, and she feels really committed to that.”
The thrill and the energy that she derives from that commitment, Zendaya says, have become vital to her. Which is why lockdown hit her as hard as it did. “I feel most like myself when I'm working,” she says, growing quieter. “I felt like, when I wasn't working, my powers had gone away, and I was like, ‘Who the f**k—’ I didn't really know who I was and what makes me happy. What do I like to do? What else do I do? What is my value? What is my purpose now?”
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Last September, surrounded by her family and broadcasting live from an appropriately at-home ceremony, Zendaya became the youngest woman to ever win an Emmy for outstanding lead actress in a drama. That night, she slept with the statuette by her bed. “Not even gonna lie!” she says. “It was just nice to roll over and see her. She was pretty. Just beautiful. Glowing!”
Her reluctance to accept praise comes through when I ask her what winning the Emmy means to her. At first she deflects: The trophy is hers, it sits on her piano in her home, but it feels like it belongs to Euphoria. She couldn't have done it without Sam, without the cast, without Rue, without HBO and A24—she thanks everyone short of the early inventor of the motion-picture camera. “In a lot of ways it feels like proving something to myself personally, yeah, but I feel like, I feel good about it for all of us,” says Zendaya. “It feels like recognition that maybe we aren't just like that little crazy show with the crazy kids, you know what I mean? To me, it's like Mean Girls, when [Lindsay Lohan] breaks the crown. She's like, ‘This is for you.’ ”
I have to push back a bit on this point. Like, this is a big f**king deal! Like the headline-of-your-obituary big f**king deal. It's not some plastic crown they gave you on prom night.
“Yeah, for sure. Obviously…” She pauses. “I don't know, I don't know! It is just—it's very cool. And I think to an extent it does help a little bit in the sense of maybe creating or getting the things that I want to get.” She seems to have an eye on the future, on a long career, on the different paths unfolding before her. The threshold for “making it” as a young actor can change all the time; starlets are always rising and falling in America. A golden statuette helps stabilize. It creates new leverage.
“What I appreciate the most about working with Z is that there's no ego and no bullshit,” Levinson says. “It's about the work and how to make the work better. She's also not myopic or unaware, and I think we share a similar degree of self-criticism, where we look at the work we've done and we discuss in brutal, painful f**king detail what we could have done better. I feel like that's the key to longevity and growth as an artist: to keep learning, keep searching, and keep trying to do better. f**k a victory lap.”
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After a recent magazine-cover shoot, Zendaya liked how the photos had come out, so she kindly asked the photographer about the camera that had been used and decided to buy the same one. “I've been buying a shit ton of cameras,” she says. “I don't really know what I'm doing, but I'm trying to learn how to use them, trying to take a lot of pictures and just shoot a lot of shit until it looks right, to figure out what the f**k I'm doing.”
She scoured the internet and eventually found a seller on a camera-trading site. Zendaya started messaging him, posing as her assistant, Darnell, and they agreed to meet at a Baskin-Robbins. When Z and Darnell pulled into the parking lot, she texted the guy and sent Darnell out to go pick up the camera.
As the seller was leaving, however, he spotted Z waiting in the car, and she did a little wave. Turns out, he was a huge fan. “He texted me thinking it was Darnell, like, ‘Oh, my gosh—I love Euphoria!” she says. Zendaya, still pretending to be her own assistant, promised to pass the message along…to herself.
As a movie star, as a 20-something, she says she's still trying to overcome the childhood shyness that used to define her. “In this industry, I had to learn how to do small talk and stuff, because I guess I would kind of come off cold to people because I didn't really know how to start conversation,” she says. “I remember my stylist was like, ‘You come off kind of cold. People think you're mean because you don't talk,’ when really I just was too nervous.”
Now she's learning how to navigate her anxiety and her simultaneous desire to be in control of every impulse. She's still growing into a more fully realized version of herself, both as an artist and as a person, and learning how to manage expectations. Part of that is just being in your early 20s: Feeling pushed and pulled in a million different directions. Feeling the pressure to make every prediction, or projection, about you—whether it's from your parents, your peers, your friends—feel real.
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But few people are as famous, as ambitious, as Marvel-movie big, as Zendaya, who chooses mostly to keep private the hard work of growing into herself. Years ago, as a Disney Channel star, it seemed like she was intent on building her own mini empire, making every extension of her brand consumable. Today her objectives are narrower, with a focus on longevity. At the top of the list is figuring out who she is when she isn't in someone else's head. “I played this card-game thing recently, We're Not Really Strangers, or whatever it's called,” she says. “One of the questions was ‘What's a random compliment that strangers give you that makes you feel good?’
“For me, it's when people say that their kids watched me. They just say, ‘We're really proud of you, girl. We're proud of you. Keep doing what you're doing. I see you.’ I'm just like”—and here, Zendaya conjures up a genuine, gleeful squeal—“ ‘Aw, thank you!’
“I feel like everyone at that moment becomes my auntie, and I'm just like, ‘Oh, my God, I want to make you proud.’ You know? But that stuff really means a lot to me. I think…that me wanting to control everything is just not wanting to f**k up. Not wanting to let anybody down.”
We both go quiet for a second or two, sitting with the observation. Even a million supportive aunties have plenty of expectations. Knowing what you want out of yourself is one thing. Knowing how you are—when your life is an endless bounce from one movie set to another—is something else entirely, especially when you're only 24 and skimming the surface of what you can accomplish in Hollywood.
That's…a lot, I finally reply. I need to exhale.
“Helloooo!” she says with a laugh. “And that's why we talk to therapists. That's important.”
Therapy is for another day, though. Tomorrow, Zendaya has to go back to work.
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