Zendaya swishes into Malcolm & Marie in a lamé evening gown slit up to there, arriving home from her boyfriend’s film premiere. She’s pissed but trying to hide it as she angrily takes pulls from a lit cigarette. Over the movie’s runtime, Zendaya’s Marie both lashes out at Malcolm (John David Washington) and loves on him, as layer upon layer of the lives she’s lived are pulled back.
It’s easily the most adult role Zendaya, 24, has taken on thus far. And though some have raised an eyebrow at the age different between the leads — she’s 12 years his junior — Zendaya chalks it up to nobody having actually seen her play a grownup until now.
“I’ve only played teenagers on television. I think people often forget that I’m grown,” Zendaya tells ET’s Lauren Zima. “A lot of people have grown up with me, so I get that to a degree. But I am a grownup. Believe it or not, I am a grown woman. And so is Marie.”
She’s referring to her beginnings as a Disney Kid on Shake It Up, which went off the air in 2013. She’s since starred as the teenage love interest in Marvel’s Spider-Man franchise and a high schooler grappling with addiction in HBO’s Euphoria, for which she won an Emmy.
But Marie was written specifically for her by Euphoria writer-director Sam Levinson, allowing Zendaya to explore facets of herself onscreen for the first time. “It’s been a special opportunity to play a character that was not only written for me but written to me,” she says. “Sam wrote it not only as a challenge for me, but also to the woman he is able to see grow in front of him.”
The drama in Malcolm & Marie begins when Malcolm finally prods Marie to tell him what’s wrong: He forgot to thank her at the premiere. As they go back and forth about that, each unearths any number of past grievances and resentments they have with the other, going for the throat and saying things that not even they are sure they’ll be able to come back from.
“It speaks to her incredible ability — this God given gift of performing — because she’s such a beautiful person, just a great person, a genuine person, that she can snap into Marie and say some things that are kind of hurtful,” Washington laughs. “I caught myself actually watching [her] instead of participating, which you never should do in fear that you’re going to break her character, but she was always in it. I’m just inspired by her.”
Malcolm & Marie came as both Zendaya and Levinson found themselves in quarantine, not working for the first time in years. Production on Euphoria‘s sophomore season had been delayed due to the pandemic, but both wondered if there was a way to still create in the meantime. So, Levinson began writing, taking an inciting incident from his own life — forgetting to thank his wife at a movie premiere — and exploring it on the page. (In real life, “We only talked about it on the car ride home,” he says. “It wasn’t a major fight.”)
He knew COVID restrictions would mean there could be no large set pieces or crowded scenes. It could be two humans and the drama they bring with them, so that initial slight gives way to arguments about love and art, bringing up issues of trust and worth and integrity often at the other’s expense. “I would try to dig each character into a hole that felt completely inescapable, and then try to dig them out the next day.”
With about 65 pages of the script written, Levinson headed into workshop sessions with his two actors and cinematographer Marcell Rév. “I don’t think I really knew what the movie was about at that time,” Levinson admits. They figured it out together, going through the material he’d written while discussing their past relationships — romantic relationships, yes, but also relationships to art and the creative process. “We talked about hip-hop a lot,” Washington recalls. “We talked about love for what we do, movies we love, things that inspire us, stories of what happens at some of these industry parties.”
“Those special conversations not only bled into the characters, they bled into the script and also into our performances,” says Zendaya. “It allowed for all of us to connect on a deeper level. And we all just had a trust and a safety to really go for it.”
“The day before shooting, I dropped another 30 pages on their laps,” Levinson says.
The film was shot over 14 days at one location — the Caterpillar House in Carmel, California — under strict COVID-era safety protocols. Malcolm & Marie was one of the first productions amid the pandemic, requiring the team to consult with doctors on how to make a movie without putting the cast and crew at risk. “The number one thing is that people were safe,” Zendaya says. (Both Zendaya and Washington served as producers on the film.)
“We just didn’t want to take any chances,” Levinson adds. Still, “I don’t think any of us got a good night sleep until at least three weeks after wrapping.”
Malcolm & Marie’s unprecedented journey to the screen is nearly complete, set for a streaming debut on Netflix on Friday. Early responses have proven polarizing, receiving a critical drubbing together with buzzing of awards season potential, particularly for Zendaya’s performance. Both she and Washington have other aspirations.
“A huge aspect of this film is appreciating the ones that we love and who make it possible to do what we do. And we don’t do that enough,” Zendaya ponders. “I think it’s so, so important, so if people can do their own thank you speeches in real life and go find someone they love and go, ‘You know what, I love you. Thank you for all that you bring into my life and into my world,’ that will be the goal.”
“I just hope people see the movie and feel something,” Washington says. “Hate it or love it, you feel something.”
Malcolm & Marie is streaming on Netflix on Feb. 4.
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