Zendaya is a true movie star – why won’t Hollywood let her be great?

She’s one of the finest young actors around, but so far only TV’s ‘Euphoria’ has let Zendaya showcase the depth of her talent. Otherwise popping up for just seven minutes in ‘Dune’ and spending most of the Spider-Man franchise on the sidelines, she more than warrants a film all to herself, writes Adam White

Saturday 08 January 2022 12:51
<p>Zendaya in (from left) ‘Malcolm & Marie’, ‘Euphoria’, ‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’ and ‘Dune'</p>

Zendaya in (from left) ‘Malcolm & Marie’, ‘Euphoria’, ‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’ and ‘Dune'

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When Zendaya spent most of October flying around the world to promote a movie she’s barely in, I kept thinking of something Sienna Miller once said. “You’re so leaned on as a woman to promote a film by doing magazine covers, by what you wear on red carpets,” the British actor told a newspaper in 2017. “They rely on that so heavily that you really should be compensated sometimes more than your male co-stars for what you’re asked to do.”

Certainly, there was a disconnect between Zendaya’s importance to the Dune press tour and her limited presence in the movie itself. The actor is one of the most popular and most photographed young women on the planet, her on-camera talent and funny, glamorous off-screen personality – along with her almost unbearably cute relationship with her Spider-Man co-star Tom Holland – making her a valuable Hollywood power player. But despite the movie-star wattage she radiates, movies have yet to grasp her potential. Promoting them? She’s fundamental. In them? Not so much. Instead, the only medium to use Zendaya to her fullest has been television, which has always been kindest to her: first on her star-making Disney sitcom Shake It Up, then as the runner-up on the 2013 series of Dancing with the Stars (though she may want to pretend that didn’t happen). But despite now being one of the most exciting young actors around, she still hasn’t been allowed to flourish on the big screen. What’s taking so long?

For her work in the HBO/Sky Atlantic series Euphoria – which returns for its second season on Monday – the 25-year-old became the youngest person to ever win the Best Actress Emmy Award. And deservedly so. She is remarkable in this hyper-stylised yet richly complex teen drama about addiction, sexuality and coming of age. Zendaya is Rue, a vulnerable addict traumatised by her past. She seems forever on the precipice of joy. Yes, she’s fallen for the new girl in school (Hunter Schafer), but then there’s the insurmountable fear of actually going all in. If you’re so used to self-loathing, nothing is scarier than someone telling you they love you.

Zendaya’s performance captures all of Rue’s pains and contradictions. Best of all, though, is how effortlessly she conveys the weight of addiction. When Rue is high or desperate for drugs, she seems as if she’s being pulled to the ground by an invisible force, her face distorted into a kind of deflated balloon. She chews at her mouth and crumples her features; her voice shifts from a deep drawl to a child-like squeal. Often it happens within the same moment – most notably in season one when Rue begs her dealer for a fix through his front door. With a simple crack in her voice, Zendaya manages to somehow drain Rue of her teenage exuberance while still making her seem heartbreakingly young. Laconic angst is very much her currency.

Films are yet to catch up with her, though. True, there was Netflix’s filmed-in-lockdown two-hander Malcolm & Marie, but even she wasn’t enough to compensate for writer/director Sam Levinson’s whiny, portentous script. If it were less annoying, it could have been her shot at an Oscar. Or the kind of movie that balances out her fleeting appearances in blockbusters. Thanks to these high-profile parts – Dune, Spider-Man: No Way Home and her voiceover role as Lola Bunny in Space Jam 2 – she became the highest-grossing female actor of 2021, those three films so far earning nearly $1.5bn (£1.1bn) in total. But compare her movie career to those of her Spider-Man predecessors Emma Stone and Kirsten Dunst, and she hasn’t yet had that big, well-received actor’s showcase – her Easy A or her Marie Antoinette.

Indeed, her role in Dune became something of a meme, once everyone realised she had nothing to do in it. Readers of Frank Herbert’s source material will have been aware that her character – the blue-eyed Fremen warrior Chani – isn’t much more than a cipher until the second half of the novel, which will be adapted for Dune Part Two in 2023. But it was funny to discover that, despite receiving equal face-time to Dune lead Timothée Chalamet on the film’s promotional trail, Zendaya quite literally has about 20 lines. And, as pointed out by numerous outraged headlines published upon release, she’s in just seven minutes of a 156-minute film.

Zendaya as Rue in season one of ‘Euphoria’

She’s a once-in-a-generation talent, though; far bigger in star quality than the movie roles she’s been handed so far. Even in something as loud and insufferably glitzy as the Hugh Jackman musical The Greatest Showman – in which she played a lovestruck acrobat who falls for Zac Efron – she stands out, overpowering the A-listers around her because of that natural charisma.

With Euphoria, Zendaya has already achieved the previously unthinkable: getting the typically stuffy Emmys to pay attention to a series about camgirls, sexual abuse and teens on fentanyl. She has a Ronnie Spector biopic in the works, one that would chart the iconic singer’s turbulent marriage to convicted murderer and one-time mega-producer Phil Spector. If things go as they should, it will be the film that finally synchronises Zendaya the movie star with Zendaya the red-carpet fixture. And no one will be watching her movies after months of seeing her promote them and asking: “Where the hell is she?”

‘Euphoria’ season two will be released weekly from 10 January on Sky Atlantic and streaming service NOW

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