There were no studio execs looking on, no makeup department and craft services consisted of snacks everyone brought to share. But there was a (minimal) film crew, and two longtime collaborators: the actor Zendaya and "Euphoria" writer-director Sam Levinson.
Together, in the middle of a pandemic, the pair made the film “Malcolm & Marie,” which chronicles a tumultuous night in the life of a couple in the film industry. It has sparked awards show buzz, praise and criticism.
Zendaya, 24, who not only acted in the film but also produced and helped finance it, told The Hollywood Reporter making the film helped her process the tumultuous last year of the pandemic and also connected her back to acting.
“I felt like in a huge way this movie helped me retap into myself and find myself again,” she said, saying being on set helped to remind herself that “this is what I’m here for. This is what brings me joy, this is what fulfills me.”
"I could have a little bit of power..."
This wasn't the first time the former-Disney star felt empowered by her work. Back in 2013, she helped create the Disney series "K.C. Undercover." During her new interview with The Hollywood Reporter, she reflected on that moment when she did something on her own terms.
"That was my first time realizing that I could have a little bit of power and request things that I wanted," Zendaya said. "It was hugely important to me that it was a Black family being showcased. I just thought that that was important from the Disney Channel, considering that I know I watched it as a kid, and what I connected to the most was 'That's So Raven.'"
She added, "I think it's always important for kids to see themselves reflected on the screen, and when you're making child programming you have a little bit of an extra responsibility there."
This isn't the first time she has opened up about this defining moment in her career. She talked taking on the title role of K.C. Cooper, a confident tech wiz who is trained in martial arts, during an interview with the Seattle Times back in 2017.
"The only reason I wanted to come back to the Disney Channel is because there was a lack of diversity at that time," she said. "There weren't any leads or families of color, and I felt like that was something that needed to happen. And I thought the idea of a girl doing a 'guy role' was really important. Young women are able to look at the screen and see that they can be anything, that they can do it all. A little boy can look up to a girl and say, 'I want to be like this girl.' And that's awesome."
“This is as indie as a film gets”
Zendaya said in order to channel the right emotion into her character Marie in "Malcom & Marie," she considered her own difficulties during the pandemic, a time, she said, when she didn’t feel like herself. Admitting she “wasn’t doing very well” helped her open up on screen.
“We were able to have a little bit more fun once I could tap into a moment that felt tough for me to admit,” she said. “Nobody wants to say that you feel like something's wrong, and, 'I don’t know what’s wrong with me.'”
Once she was able to tap into those emotions, Zendaya used her character of Marie as a catalyst to let some things out. “And I think I needed it,” she said.
Zendaya, who didn’t leave the house for 40 days at the beginning of the pandemic, was stuck inside at home (like all of us), and would call Levinson to talk about ideas. “I just wanted to be experimental and creative,” she said.
The pair made the film with a skeleton crew, and it has already generated Academy Award buzz and been nominated for a Critics Choice Award. The film was made with about two dozen people and under strict health and safety guidelines.
“This is as indie as a film gets,” Zendaya joked, saying she did much of the production on her own (except for sewing, which, she says, she’s not very good at). She did her own hair and makeup.
“The motivation behind this film was to get our crew back to work and hopefully get everybody paid in a time where nobody was making any money,” she said. That, she did accomplish: the film sold to Netflix for $30 million, and Zendaya made sure the crew were given shares.
In addition to the film being nominated for a Critics Choice Award, Zendaya herself will receive the SeeHer Award, which recognizes women who “push boundaries, defy stereotypes and acknowledge the importance of authentic portrayals of women across the entertainment landscape.” The awards show is Sunday.