Zendaya, the 24-year-old reigning Emmy winner for her lead performance in “Euphoria,” didn’t just dip her toe in producing last year; she jumped in fully — during a pandemic — and got behind (and in front of) Sam Levinson’s “Malcolm & Marie.”
“The overarching theme, or the biggest word I could use to describe my feelings, recently more than ever, is ‘gratitude,’” she says by video call.
“Like, waking up and being grateful for my job, for the people that I get to work with, for my family, for my friends. So, if there’s anything [‘Malcolm & Marie’] is about, it’s about what happens when you fail to acknowledge or appreciate the people that make life worth living and that make it possible for us to do what we do.”
Zendaya willed the movie into being when it became clear the new season of “Euphoria,” the HBO drama created by “Malcolm & Marie” writer-director-producer Levinson, had run into the brick wall of COVID-19.
“We were shut down literally the day before we were supposed to start shooting,” she says. “A couple months in, I was like, ‘Is there a world where you [Levinson] wrote something for me and we just shot it in my house?’”
His first ideas were in the “psychological thriller-horror world,” which she says she’ll “save for later.”
“Then he calls me and says, ‘Z, what if we just did two people in one house, like a relationship piece? A filmmaker comes home from the premiere of his movie, and he’s forgotten to thank his partner, and they argue about it the whole night, and then, I don’t know, one of them turns off the light, and they go to bed, and you don’t really know the state of their relationship.’ ”
Zendaya and John David Washington in a scene from “Malcolm & Marie.”
And that’s pretty much it. “Malcolm & Marie” is a tiny, black and white passion project for the actress-producer, Levinson and actor-producer John David Washington. Both actors were intimately involved in the development of the characters, the relationship and the dialogue. Zendaya describes hours-long phone conversations on an almost-daily basis, discussing new pages and ideas. As a result, she says, there’s some of each of them in both title characters.
“There’s conversations that I’ve had with Sam that reflect a little bit in things that Malcolm says about his creativity and being boxed in, specifically being a Black creative that feels like there’s a certain lens their work is looked through — those kinds of things,” she says, then quickly adds, laughing, “None of us share Malcolm’s hysteria and his biggest issue: His inability to not make it about himself, his inability to look at himself from the outside.”
When asked where Marie and Zendaya meet and diverge, Levinson said by email, “Z would never take the amount of s— that Marie takes from Malcolm in the film. But there’s an inner strength and clarity and confidence that Marie possesses that is very indicative of who [Zendaya] is … Marie was always written to be a quintessential male character in her control and stoicism, and I think Z’s ability to modulate that while maintaining an emotional openness was quite striking.”
And though the couple’s long, dark night of the soul gets awfully dark, Zendaya says, “I personally think the movie’s really funny.
“For people who watch it alone, I understand how it can feel really intense. But I’ve been able to watch it with my family a couple times; it’s different watching it with other people, how they react to the characters and how they interact — talking to the screen like, ‘Don’t do that!’ or ‘Why’d you do that?’ or ‘You messed up now!’”
Writer/Director Sam Levinson of “Malcolm & Marie” on Netflix.
Apart from the emotional brinksmanship that dominates the film, “Malcolm & Marie” is also permeated by a critique of criticism — principally in a lengthy diatribe by Malcolm that is easy to read as Levinson attempting revenge on real-world critics who have not enjoyed his work, including a specific one from the Los Angeles Times. Zendaya protests it’s not about that.
“There’s some validity to what Malcolm says,” says Zendaya. “But I think the rant serves as, other than comedic relief, a greater peek inside how their relationship works. How many times has he gone on these rants? “It’s funny, because people assume that Malcolm is Sam, but Marie is also Sam. Sam is like, ‘I’ve never gotten a review as wonderful as the one that Malcolm received!’ He’s just not receiving the praise the way he wants to receive it.
Zendaya, John David Washington, and director Sam Levinson on the Carmel set of “Malcolm & Marie.”
“And at the end of that, Marie actually agrees with the critic and goes even a step further and says, ‘Her issue with you as a filmmaker is my issue with you as a partner. You take it too far.’ This whole thing is an extension of his narcissism, and because he can’t receive that criticism from this random person, but also not from her, he’s unable to be better, a better partner.”
For her part, Zendaya is striving to be better at more things. The production team, about 22 people in all, created a pandemic bubble up at “a ranch-type thing” in Carmel. She says they followed strict COVID safety protocols, but the virus was only one of her fears as she took on such a wide-ranging role behind the scenes.
“I’m putting my own money into it. I’m producing something, so I’m putting myself out there in a much more vulnerable position than I’ve ever been in. It was terrifying in that sense, but I was so grateful and happy to be there, and to be doing it with people that I appreciated,” she says.
“I woke up every day just so excited to go work on the script, go rehearse it with everyone, run my lines. I’m doing my own hair and makeup, I’m bringing my extra clothes for set decoration. And, of course, we had tough days. It was exhausting sometimes. When you’re yelling or crying all night, sleeping all day and then doing it again, it can definitely be exhausting. But it was so fulfilling and so worth it.”
Zendaya and John David Washington in “Malcolm & Marie.”
(Dominic Miller / Netflix)
Levinson said of his coproducer, “She was instrumental every step of the way, from her feedback on pages and throughout the script, to cofinancing, to shooting, to editing, to marketing. It’s very rare that the [Producers Guild of America] will award five PGA Marks. They really investigate the work done, and she did the work.”
Zendaya says stepping up in that way helped her grow. “I think it helped me to have a little bit more confidence in myself in the things I want to make, having more of a voice,” she says from the set of the “Spider-Man” sequel in Atlanta. “I’ve always been kind of nervous to make things, because I don’t want to mess up. I’m just very self-critical. I want to make good work, and I want people to be able to connect with it. I’m very grateful for collaborators such as Sam that have always valued my contributions.”
Then she adds, with a laugh: “He is not like Malcolm in that.”