Zendaya on ‘Malcolm & Marie’ and That Toxic Relationship
When Zendaya began producing Malcolm & Marie, the Netflix drama she starred in with John David Washington, she never thought it would generate both strong criticism and enthusiasm for the awards season.
The widespread interest shouldn’t come as a surprise: last year, the 24-year-old became the youngest ever winner of an Emmy for Best Actress for her gripping performance as Rue, a struggling teen addict on HBO’s drama series Euphoria. She is now ready for a Critics Choice Award for Malcolm & Marie.
After production of the second season of “Euphoria” was suspended because of the pandemic, Zendaya and the show’s creator, Sam Levinson, wanted to see if they could make a film while the quarantine was in last year. The result was “Malcolm & Marie,” which was filmed in just two weeks by a 22-strong cast and crew (most of whom were working on “Euphoria”) in a house in Northern California that was doubled for Malibu.
“You know, it’s funny if you told us there was going to be a conversation, you know, awards or whatever, that’s crazy! We only found out together, “said Zendaya.
In the film, written and directed by Levinson, a filmmaker named Malcolm (Washington) and his girlfriend Marie (Zendaya) get into a nightly argument after its premiere. Her sometimes abusive, monologue-heavy back and forth includes, among other things, that he forgets to thank her for her contributions to his project, which is about a recovering addict like Marie.
The film’s script was largely postponed, sparking multiple discussions on social media about the age gap between the stars (Washington is 36), a black character story written by a white filmmaker, and the characters’ toxic romance .
“None of us who made the film think they’re in a healthy relationship, you know what I mean?” Zendaya said. “I think it was to explore these insecurities and these dark things about ourselves that I think relationships can get out of us at times.”
The actress, who also produced the film, spoke via video from Atlanta, where she is filming the next “Spider-Man,” about reactions to the film and her hopes of becoming a filmmaker who creates more roles for black women. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
What was the driving force that ultimately motivated you to produce and star in a film during the pandemic?
I think it’s often forgotten because we obviously got to sell it to Netflix, but it really started out as this very, very little thing that we did.
And it was my first time not really having my 9 through 5 [consistent schedule]I’ve had since I was 13 years old. The last project I technically did before “Euphoria” was “KC Undercover”. [that Disney Channel series ended a few months before the HBO show was given the green light]. It was my first time without being – because I never had to know who I am without my job.
I would talk to Sam a lot, and I itched to be creative in any way and get my purpose back. And I thought: what if we just shoot something, you, me and Marcell? [Rév, the cinematographer who worked on the movie and also on “Euphoria”]? And if there was a world where we could do something that we were proud of and that we could sell and hopefully all pay and in that way take care of our crew, that would be the ultimate success goal for all of us.
The film has been criticized for depicting toxic relationships and Sam Levinson writes about a black couple as white men. Was there room for you and John David Washington to work together and make contributions on various aspects of the Black experience?
Yes of course. What is interesting is that I think our agency has been removed a bit. As if this were just some kind of Sam spitting things through us without realizing that we’re not just actors, we’re PGA-marked co-funders and producers. You can only get these if you actually do the job.
I think it also mirrors a bit of Marie’s plight strangely enough, doesn’t it? It’s like Marie saying the whole movie [Malcolm’s film] is mine too. But in real life we have the credit, that’s ours, and John David, me and Sam all own this movie. It’s not like it belongs to anyone else and I was just poured into it. He wrote it for us too, and I think if you want to write something you have to have the experience of [Black] Character you write. I thought a lot of conversations with Sam came through.
There has also been a lot of debate about the age difference. But it feels like the difference fits the context of the film. How do you deal with certain expectations that are placed on you as a former child actor?
It’s interesting that something like this happened because my parents are about 13 years apart. But I also try to look at myself from the outside and I realize that I’ve been playing a teenager since I was a teenager. I still play a 17 year old on TV and in movies. I’m grateful my black isn’t cracking so I can keep doing this.
Some people grew up with me, they see me on Disney Channel, I’m like their little sister or their best friend. And I’m grateful for that. I’m Marie’s age and I think the dynamic, her age difference, is part of her story: she met him when she was in recovery [at] 20 years old. She never really loved anyone or thought someone loved her the way he did. And that plays into their frustrations [about] She’s not getting the approval she deserves, and she may unwrap something [about] She is young and vulnerable. From the outside I totally understood because I play teenagers, but I’m an adult.
Is there something that you hope people referring to parts of the movie will take away?
There is no specific message. It’s more of a piece to open a dialogue. You are the fly on the wall. You observe the code dependency, narcissism, the ups and downs of something that has a lot of toxicity in it. It triggers in different ways for different people because they are connected to different parts of the characters. If there is anything to be changed, it is this idea of gratitude [for] People in our lives who make it possible to do what we do. For any young person who has any kind of relationship and something like toxicity or whatever may be the case, I think understanding your worth is a big deal.
Whose idea was it to pick wrapped macaroni and cheese as a nighttime snack that Marie cooks when they get home?
She has an immense amount of control and a need for control. And I think she knows that she’ll just stall. I will make [him] some mild mac and cheese. And I’m not doing it because I love him. I do it because I’m upset and waiting for him to ask me why. Mac and cheese were just the classic thing that is in every pantry. So yeah, Sam wrote that in there.
I noticed on your social networks that you are posting some photos that you have taken. Are you professionally interested in photography or cinematography?
Very. I would like to be able to become a filmmaker. I don’t know when that will happen. Sam always says I’ll give you a year until you stage something, and I mean, all right, that means you have a year to teach me. So I don’t know what that looks like personally, but I really enjoyed being a producer. And I enjoy the idea of hopefully one day being able to do the things that I want to see, the roles that I want to see for black women. That would be exciting and one of my goals.
Do you have interesting habits or new activities that you developed or started during the pandemic?
I got a piano so I could teach myself. Sometimes I still sit down, not home right now, but I’ll try to look up the YouTube video of a song I like and see if I can learn. Hunter [Schafer, her “Euphoria” castmate]who is closest to me is an amazing artist. Before I went to Atlanta, she bought me a sketchbook and a watercolor paint. I’ll feel if it’s not like the Mona Lisa I’m going down on myself. So the whole thing with this slash sketchbook is doing something. Don’t try to control it.