Zendaya On Winning An Emmy In Lockdown And Dance Parties With Timothée Chalamet

Styling by Law Roach, Photographs by Micaiah Carter
·13-min read
Photo credit: Micaiah Carter
Photo credit: Micaiah Carter

From ELLE

She's made the almost-impossible transition from bubblegum Disney star to award-winning actor, is seen as a darling of the fashion world and has become a powerful voice for an entire generation. How has she done it, and can she keep it up? Her Dune co-star and close friend Timothée Chalamet finds out.

When Zendaya was announced as the winner of the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series – awarded for her performance in HBO’s Euphoria – during the Emmy Awards broadcast in September, audiences were treated to a glimpse of the 24-year-old’s home, as well as an unexpectedly emotional response. ‘This is pretty crazy – I don’t really cry,’ she said, brushing aside her hair and dabbing her tears. Behind her sat her family and team, screaming joyfully. It was a scene tailor-made for 2020 – uncanny and semi-apocalyptic, thanks to the hazmat-suited presenter (just out of frame) who delivered the statuette. Zendaya recalls the moment when her friend Timothée Chalamet calls from France for an exclusive interview with ELLE – although she jokingly admits she worried that her family’s long celebration might cue the dreaded awards-show cutoff music.

Zendaya and Chalamet met on the set of Dune, the latest feature film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel about a feudal intergalactic empire of the distant future. (Originally due in cinemas in December, its release has now been pushed into 2021 due to Covid-19.) Zendaya’s character, Chani, a warrior from the planet Arrakis – home to the Fremen and the only known source of a highly coveted, awareness-enhancing drug known as ‘spice’ – is initially wary of Chalamet’s Paul Atreides, the heir to an aristocratic family who’s been tasked with taking over her home planet, but the two eventually become close. Even though the book was published in 1965 and the film was shot in pre-pandemic 2019, audiences may notice parallels to our current reality – Arrakis’ harsh climate and giant sandworms, perhaps, versus our own heatwaves and flying ants. But Zendaya remains optimistic. She closed out her Emmy acceptance speech acknowledging that, while Euphoria, with its gritty depictions of teen sex, drugs and trauma, might not always be a shining example, ‘there is hope in the young people’.

Photo credit: Micaiah Carter
Photo credit: Micaiah Carter

Timothée Chalamet: We haven’t talked since you won your Emmy. Congrats!

Zendaya: Thanks, man. I appreciate it. Pretty nuts. It was a crazy moment.

TC: Since the show was virtual, how did it work? Did you know in advance that you were going to win?

Z: No.

TC: You didn’t? So how did they get the award there so quickly?

Z: There were these people in hazmat suits that went to the nominees’ houses with awards. So basically, if you won, you’d grab it quickly from them and have it. If you didn’t win, they just take it away with them and leave.

TC: Oh, sh*t. [Laughs.] So you got to keep yours!

Z: Yeah. Yeah. I got to keep mine. [My assistant] Darnell [Appling] was actually the one who handed it to me.

TC: Oh, so that’s it. Well, I’m so happy for you. I was screaming over here when I saw it! When you had just gotten the nomination, I remember us talking about what it was going to be like in this environment, not having an in-person ceremony. But you killed it!

Z: Thanks, man. I was nervous about the possibility of having to get up and speak. So I was like, ‘OK, let me just write down a few little bullet points.’ Usually I would just go up there and say what’s in my heart, but everybody was like, ‘No, I think you should definitely write something down.’ But then I worried maybe that’s bad luck to have something prepared because, it’s like, I don’t know…

TC: You didn’t want to jinx it.

Z: Yeah, exactly. So the day of, I just wrote a little thing down to have just in case. And that was helpful. I was very nervous, but I’m glad my family was there.

TC: It looked like a sweet moment, full of love.

Z: It absolutely was. Everybody was there, screaming, as my family does! We are a very loud family, and I was worried that they were going to be screaming for too long. And the little clock would start ticking, and I’d be like, ‘Ah, thank you.’ And then it would be over.

TC: And the guy in the hazmat suit would come in and take it away.

Z: Exactly.

TC: What was it like to get all glammed up and then not leave the house?

Z: That was all right with me. I got to feel all fancy and put on this beautiful custom [Giorgio Armani Privé] gown and do my hair and make-up and then just be with my family in the living room, which was actually quite nice.

TC: Very wholesome.

Z: Yeah, it was great. And we got to take pictures in the house, so I knew I would be happy with them.

TC: You got photo approval.

Z: Yeah, there was none of the usual ‘Ah, I hate that picture’ that’s suddenly circulating everywhere. So it wasn’t bad. It actually worked really smoothly the way they virtually transitioned people over to different media outlets. They really had it all figured out.

TC: Maybe we’ll end up having Zoom ceremonies forever.

Z: Yeah. I mean, it’s a new world.

TC: In your speech, you said that there’s hope in the young people, and it seemed hope was a big part of a message that you were trying to get across. In the past year, what has given you hope? And what does hope mean to you?

Z: Well, my intention there was really just to be honest, because it feels like a very hopeless time, specifically in the US. I know a lot of my peers feel enraged and exhausted and tired of living and growing up in a system that feels like it wasn’t built for us. At this moment in time, it is hard to find joy and beauty in things, and I really think that is important. Right now, we as Black people need to embrace joy and not let it be taken away from us.

Photo credit: Micaiah Carter
Photo credit: Micaiah Carter

TC: How do you embrace joy in your own life?

Z: I experience moments of joy when I’m able to create art and be involved in projects that I connect to deeply, whether it be Euphoria or Malcolm & Marie, the movie I shot during quarantine with [Euphoria creator] Sam Levinson. Another thing that gives me joy is seeing people’s responses to my work. With Euphoria, it’s been incredibly moving to see how people connected to what Sam has written. I’ve heard so many beautiful stories about addiction and recovery, and that brings me hope.

TC: What else brings you hope these days?

Z: I find hope in my peers, the people who are out there on the streets doing the work – people I admire and I go to for advice and information on what’s happening, so that I can make sure I’m using my platform in the most strategic way I can to help. There is so much hope in young people, and when I say young people, I do mean myself – people my own age – but I also mean younger. These really young kids are so smart and have such a clear understanding and plan for how they want this world to change. Even my little nieces! They are so aware and, I mean, I can take credit for some of that, because I’ve been schooling them. But they also have their own point of view. We have discussions about [the world]. They know what’s up, and they want to be part of that change.

TC: Over the course of your career, you’ve given a lot of people hope and joy. I saw some montages on Instagram of all the work you have done over the past decade, and it was really moving. Rue Bennett, the character you play on Euphoria, has connected with so many people. And we’ve talked a lot about engagement, putting that voice forward. Speaking of which, you’ve been all over trying to get people registered to vote.

Z: Yeah, yeah. Sh*t, I mean, all you can do is encourage people and help share information.

TC: Absolutely. So in Dune, our characters are up against horrible odds in a cruel science fiction world set in the distant future. What was shooting this film like for you?

Z: Oh, man. I had a great fricking time. I felt like such a badass, just wearing that suit and walking around on these beautiful rock formations. It felt cool and so exciting to be part of the magic.

TC: What was your favourite thing we did on break from shooting?

Z: I guess it was the dance parties that I hosted in my room.

TC: There was a super legit f*cking wrap party at the end there. We were there with some of the cast, and then Javier [Bardem] came in and we were all dancing. You have Polaroids of that moment, right? That was a full-on dance party. OK, so we’re going to do a hard right, serious transition here. Tell me about shooting Malcolm & Marie in quarantine with Sam Levinson. To my understanding, before anybody was really shooting anything in quarantine, you guys did it very safely. You obviously have an amazing creative relationship with him.

Photo credit: Micaiah Carter
Photo credit: Micaiah Carter

Z: Sam is like family to me. I talk to him almost every day and night. Sometimes we talk about Euphoria, and sometimes we just talk about life or whatever. So we got this idea that we could do a movie in quarantine safely with a small number of people. We used some crew members from Euphoria who didn’t have a job because filming had stopped. I was fascinated with the idea of shooting a film with just two characters. [John David Washington and Zendaya play the titular roles.] It was like a play. It was challenging for all of us, because it was shot in just one space. We all had to quarantine together, and there were a million Covid-19 tests and nobody was able to leave the property that we were staying on. But that was great, in some ways, because it allowed us to workshop and really dig into the material while we were there.

TC: Yeah, I know when I was talking to you in that period, I could hear how full of creative inspiration you were in that controlled environment. I can imagine, from an acting perspective, that it was fulfilling. There are a lot of big movies out there, but these kinds of very intimate acting opportunities can be harder to come by.

Z: It was an actor’s dream. But it was also a little nerve-racking. When you have an idea, and you’re putting your own money into it – I mean, I was literally using my own clothes on set and doing my own hair and make-up – it’s hard not to get a little bit insecure. Like, ‘Oh my gosh, am I really doing this?’ It was one of the first times I just went for something, and I’m so grateful and proud of it. Working with Sam, obviously, and Marcell [Rév, Euphoria’s cinematographer] was really special, but then John David Washington is just so brilliant and such a wonderful person. I can’t wait for you guys to meet. I don’t know if you have already?

TC: I’ve crossed paths with him a couple of times. Man, that guy is so talented. I’m so inspired by what he’s done in BlacKkKlansman and Tenet. His acting, but also just his physicality in Tenet, the way he moves across the space. And now, even the bits you showed me with Malcolm & Marie. He’s really one of the great actors of our time. So exciting that you guys were able to do that. And your relationship with Sam – man, it’s something special.

Photo credit: Micaiah Carter
Photo credit: Micaiah Carter

Z: Yeah, he’s cool. Like I said, I’m lucky I’ve been able to work with cool people such as yourself. I’m grateful that you’ve all ended up being really wonderful people who became my friends.

TC: The shooting for season two of Euphoria may not start until early 2021, but I know that you guys shot a bridge episode in that safe environment. But that second season is happening, right? And can you say anything about the second season, or where Rue is heading without giving too much away?

Z: I can’t really say too much about the in-between episodes, but I’m excited for people to see them. We’re doing a little Christmas special to check in with everybody on Euphoria, until we can get back to [the full production], which probably won’t happen until after I get back from filming the next Spider-Man movie, which is pretty soon.

TC: Well, it sounds like you’re staying busy, but what are you most looking forward to when things get back to normal? What’s the one thing you haven’t been able to do in the past six months that’s number one on your to-do list once it’s deemed safe?

Z: I don’t know – I think that things are going to stay different for quite a long time. We’re probably going to have a new normal to keep people safe and healthy, which I’m totally down for. I mean, I love travelling. I don’t feel super-safe travelling all over the place quite yet, but I can’t wait to get back to it. I love being able to visit different places. I think that’s one of the beautiful parts of our job. Any time I go on either a press tour or travel for work – which is really the main reason why I travel – I try to find as many museums and educational tours as I can. Some people think it’s boring, but I absolutely love it. You get all this information, and you go home and you start telling people random things like, ‘Did you know that this was built and…’ I just love having random facts. So, yeah, I miss travelling, for sure. Luckily I’ve been able to work, so I’m grateful for that, being able to work safely. I do miss being able to actually go to the movies. But, you know what? All of that can wait.

Euphoria is available on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV

ELLE's December issue hits newsstands on November 10, 2020.

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