Her style is on point. Her humor is subtle. And in Euphoria she can break your heart with a look. Zendaya puts the Z in
Gen Z, and she’s just begun to take flight.
Zendaya and I are walking through a scruffy park in North Hollywood. There’s a gravel path, some sunburned patches of grass struggling to be green, and a 7-11 across the street. The neighborhood is neither hip nor exclusive — not Highland Park, not Brentwood. And it’s not exactly where you would expect to find one of the hottest actors in town. The reason we’re here has to do with the leash in her hand, at the end of which is a miniature schnauzer called Noon. (Who clearly thinks, given the dense squirrel population, that this is the best place to be in Los Angeles, if not the world.) The Euphoria star is telling me what it’s like to play a drug addict. She says it’s easy.
I’m skeptical. I imagine that certain scenes, like one where she’s screaming obscenities at a drug dealer who is refusing to give her opioids while she is in withdrawal, might have been a little tough. Her take is different. “Somehow Rue [her character in the HBO series] felt very natural to me. She didn’t feel like a huge — watch it, that looks funny.” Zendaya points to a mud puddle directly in my path. My powder-pink shoes and I are eternally grateful. She picks back up where she left off: “Rue just seemed so much like me,” she says. Even though much of the inspiration for Rue comes from Euphoria creator Sam Levinson’s own experiences of getting sober, Zendaya says it’s their matching idiosyncrasies — she calls him her long-lost twin — that enable her to easily adopt the role. “Sam and I are so similar — the way we talk, the foods we like,” she says. “We like Cool Ranch Doritos and lemon-lime Gatorade. We find ourselves sitting the same way.” Zendaya is rapidly scrolling through her camera roll — she wants me to understand, and to understand, I’d have to see this photo.
Since our plan was to go for a canine walk on a hot summer afternoon, I dressed casually, but Zendaya has outdone me, in an oversize basic white tee, black joggers, and
simple white Reeboks. She hasn’t bothered to wear sunglasses, which wouldn’t be out of place — we’re in a city crawling with paparazzi, and it’s squintingly sunny out. She also hasn’t bothered to put on makeup, which is just as well because she has the poreless, supple skin of a newborn and high cheekbones that are visibly gleaming. This last part is not genetic — it’s lip balm she dabbed onto her face because it felt dry. Her usually dark hair is auburn today, rippling into the kind of imperfect waves that take stylists hours to create.
She has found the photo. It’s a picture someone snapped of her and Levinson on the Euphoria set, sitting side by side, leaning back and crossing their legs in exactly the same way. At the center of a show that explores controversial topics (drug abuse, partner abuse, homophobia, transphobia, sexual exploitation, death, grief, and peer humiliation, to name a few), Zendaya manages to be, by turns, funny, vulnerable, flawed, authentic, hardened, and hopeful.
It makes sense that she’s most at home in front of a camera. She’s been in the public eye modeling, singing, and acting since she was old enough to flash a smile at a camera. Zendaya was a child model and got her first starring role at 14 on Disney Channel’s Shake it Up series. Along the way to playing Rue in Euphoria and MJ in Marvel’s most recent Spider-Man series, she flirted with pop stardom.
“There’s a layer of personal life that I think actors get that music artists don’t. They have no character to hide behind, so they have to be very open. [As actors] we get a little bit of a separation.”
“I still love making music, and I still get to do it through acting a lot of times, and being able to work on the finale song for Euphoria was fun.” She pauses. “There’s a layer of personal life that I think actors get that music artists don’t. They have no character to hide behind, so they have to be very open. [As actors] we get a little bit of a separation,” she says. She admits that social media has made this line a little blurry — she does feel pressure to post — but all in all, she can retain a sense of identity beyond her roles.
This tension between revealing and concealing is one that Zendaya is particularly sensitive to. We’ve moved to one of her f
avorite restaurants, a dark, moody Thai place that’s completely empty. She likes the food (even the appetizers are served in heaping portions), and the non-nosy clientele. The seats are low, roomy benches, and she sits with her legs splayed out, so a now-sleepy Noon can tuck himself snugly between her legs. I’ve asked her whether there is anything her fans would be surprised to know about her, and the answer is at once perplexing and the most honest thing she could say. “I think my fans pretty much understand me. They know I don’t leave my house, they know that I’m lazy, they know that I’m pretty open but also pretty private. I think we have, in a weird way, a pretty close relationship. My fans get me for sure.”
Of course, Zendaya is an internationally recognized celebrity who can likely claim more devotees than most NFL teams. The level of privacy she can hope for is limited at best. In fact, our afternoon together has been a master class in hiding in plain sight and/or avoiding crowds: Both the park and restaurant we visited were in a low-key part of Los Angeles, near her mother’s home, and we went to both at off-peak hours. She chalks up her
no-makeup, ultracasual look to her laid-back attitude. And she is laid-back. When she finds out I planned to take an Uber from the park to the restaurant, she invites me to “hop in” to the backseat of her Range Rover. But her cool also helps her to blend in — not one person takes notice of her the entire time we are together except our server, who asks to take a picture so she can show her son. “Sure,” Zendaya says, scooting over so the server can sidle up next to her for a photo.
Incognito skills notwithstanding, I suspect it’s not merely hiding behind characters that appeal to her; it’s living vicariously through them. “It was written in the script that Rue had this big hoodie. You can tell when she’s having a good day or feels good because her hoodie is not covering her entirely, and then when she’s not feeling it, she’s basically hiding in this giant hoodie.” Zendaya could really use a hoodie like that too. But perhaps I’m missing the meaning. “When I was 11, my grandfather passed, and we had all his old clothes,” she says. “I thought it would be cool if we made [it clear that] the hoodie was Rue’s [late] dad’s hoodie. [I wanted to capture] that attachment that you have to inanimate objects when somebody passes.”
If Zendaya’s grandfather inspired Rue’s hoodie, it was her grandmother who inspired her second collection in collaboration with Tommy Hilfiger, Tommy x Zendaya. The mix of ’70s-esque tailored women’s suiting (high-waisted trousers, sweater vests, sharp blazers) and more bohemian items (flowy skirts, tie-neck blouses, and swing dresses) was an homage to fashions her grandmother wore during that era. She was also motivated by the
diversity of body types in her family tree to stipulate that the lines she works on also come in plus sizes, something, she says, Tommy Hilfiger had not previously done for runway collections. “That was my thing — I’m not going to make clothes my sister or my niece or any of the women in my family can’t wear,” she says. “A lot of the clothes were for tall people too. For my mom, this is the first time that she can wear pants and not get them altered — she’s six feet four.”
More broadly, Zendaya says she wanted to pay homage to “the working woman, especially in the time where women were taking over in different
career facets, becoming CEOs, becoming bosses, and taking over in that sense.” I ask her whether she has a take on pay equity as addressed in Michelle Williams’s speech at the Emmy Awards ceremony in September. Zendaya presses her brows. “I don’t have enough information,” she says finally. “I just started reading my own damn contracts not that long ago, so I don’t know. I have to be more aware and know a little bit more to even figure out what [the root issue is] and how to fix it. I think it’s about accountability for sure.” I wonder if Zendaya is much more self-aware than the average 23-year-old, or if this is simply what it’s like to be a standard-issue Gen Z Homo sapiens. As someone squarely in the millennial category, I wonder at her vulnerability where my contemporaries would show hubris — or resort to memetic comedy. Speaking of which, another thing that surprises me about meeting Zendaya in person is how funny she is. How like her onscreen selves, in that specific respect: MJ’s deadpan humor and Rue’s wry delivery are Zendaya, through and through.
“It was a
celebration of the women who opened the door for me. Without what these women did in this fashion landscape, without Beverly Johnson, the first black woman to have a [American] Vogue cover, my Vogue cover doesn’t exist,” Zendaya says. “It’s saying thank you, and it’s also putting it in our minds that that’s what we have to continue to do. That’s the only way that doors are going to continue to be open — if we keep inviting people that look like us, and other people who don’t look like us, to come through the door,” she says.
Naturally, Zendaya’s aspirations for inclusion extend
beyond fashion and into the entertainment world. Things she thinks we need more of in Hollywood: coming-of-age stories with black leads that “can be funny and can be about their awkward moments,
and puberty, and all that stuff,” she says. See also: sci-fi with a black lead. “A little girl who can, I don’t know, control the weather, or can talk to aliens. Just some fun shit.”
Media representation is one thing that is in her wheelhouse, but there is much more she wishes she had some answers to:
climate change and its deniers. Children in cages at the border. Police brutality. She recalls the time when she was alone in an Atlanta hotel room, in tears and growing panicked after the shooting of Philando Castile. Castile’s was the latest name on the growing list of African American men and boys who have lost their lives in police shootings. “It [felt like they] happened back to back to back. I just started crying. My dad had gone out to get some food, and I was immediately like, ‘Where is he? Is he okay?’ I’m worried about my dad. My dad is a 60-something-year-old man, and I’m worried about my dad,” she says. (Zendaya’s father is African American, and her mother has German roots.) “And then I started thinking about my brothers, and I’m just like, What can I do? How do I stop this? I’m terrified.” I’m sitting on the other side of the table, letting it all sink in. I spent nearly every second watching Euphoria wishing for Rue and Jules (played by Hunter Schafer, a trans model and actor) that their wide-eyed yet world-weary characters didn’t have to live in that dark, sad place, with its predators and hurt feelings and drugs and loss. But here I am, with Zendaya, and the cruel trick is that she and I and everyone around us are living in a world that’s just a sized-up version of the one in Euphoria, whether we choose to see it or not.
Zendaya is taking this better than I am. She has done this before. “There’s literally injustice happening every second. It’s intense and it’s overwhelming, and I think a lot of young people are feeling that,” she says. “But what do we do about it? All I can say is try to find a balance between doing the work and still not letting it destroy you as a person and destroy your hope and faith in humanity,” she says.
But I think Zendaya does have the answer — or at least one that works for her: “It’s allowing yourself to be angry enough to want to be motivated to do something, but not to where it breaks you down,” she says.
I ask what’s next for Zendaya. In her ideal world, it would involve the LSAT: “[I’d study] law or something, not to practice, just to be able to read my own contracts,” she says. And certainly camera work: “I’ve become obsessed with cinematography because of Euphoria. I definitely want to learn more about that,” she says. And possibly fresh ink: “I love tattoos. But I don’t want any,” Zendaya says. After a beat, she offers one exception. “Hunter and I want to get ‘rules’ tattooed on our [inner] lip. So we might do that.”
Then again, it might be all of the above. After all, “You can’t do it all” is one of Zendaya’s least favorite sayings. “It makes me mad. I don’t like the idea that you have to box yourself in or stay in one lane. Why wouldn’t I want to try to make the most of my talents and my gifts while I can?” I hope she’s right. But most of all, I hope she never loses her sense that what is wrong with the world can be righted. “I want to be a part of the change,” she says. “It’s important that creatives of all races, if they have an opportunity or platform, use it to make room for other people.”
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