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Up to the Challenge

With two new film roles that promise to push her career in a different direction, plus her status as one of the faces of her generation, Zendaya continues to set the bar high.

In a rapidly evolving cultural landscape, where social consciousness and individual identity sit at the forefront of the way celebrities and influencers present themselves, Zendaya has found, perhaps unwittingly, a reputation not just as one of the most sought-after multitalented forces— across acting, modeling and music—in a crowded entertainment market, but also an inspiration and emblematic figure for Generation Z.

Zendaya’s influence is immediately discernible in her choice of acting roles. Through a portrayal of characters like MJ in the Spider-Man series, Rue in the critically acclaimed television series Euphoria, through to the upcoming love triangle issues of Tashi in Challengers and, of course, the return of the enigmatic warrior Chani in the Dune sequel, the California-born, Golden Globe and Emmy winner has consistently gravitated toward characters who exude complexity, independence and a sense of agency, often with an ability to smile and surprise.

Sure enough, in most of these roles we find rebellion and authenticity, imitating—you might say—the core values of a generation sometimes disenchanted by the traditional molds, and hungry for new representation.

While to some Zendaya may be just another actress enthused by the potential of the platform she finds herself perched upon, in truth she is so much more: a person who truly believes in the power of artistry and advocacy, and whose projects are not mere entertainment; they are reflective narratives, and she is a modern generational ambassador for a cultural paradigm that continues to evolve.

And when she’s not fueling Gen Z’s demand for openness, inclusivity and realness across social media, or working with clothing brands with an insistence on inclusivity in sizes and models, or opening dialogue with fans about anxiety and self-acceptance, she is making superb cinema.

Zendaya spoke to use about her two latest movies, what she looks for in a role and how people her age are making the world a more honest place.

You’re really beginning to hit your stride now, aren’t you? What motivates you to be a better actor?
As an artist, my ultimate goal is to create a profound impact through my work. I strive to produce art that moves people, that touches their hearts in ways they may not have expected.
So my work is always a natural progression of that, where I can not only talk to people, but make them think in different ways as well.

Does that perspective influence the types of roles that you choose or gravitate toward?
I’ve always been drawn to storytelling and different characters—it’s a passion that runs deep within me. From a young age, I found myself captivated by the magic of weaving narratives and inhabiting the lives of diverse individuals.
The ability to transform into someone else and bring their story to life is nothing short of extraordinary. It’s a profound experience that allows me to delve into the depths of human emotions and explore the intricacies of the human condition. 

Do you prefer a good character or a good storyline?
That’s a good question! I think the truth is you can only really feel satisfied when you finish a project and know you have experienced both. When you have one without the other, it is a shame—a missed opportunity.
Everything has to start with the story, though. When we immerse ourselves in a well-crafted narrative, we embark on a shared journey with the characters, experiencing their triumphs and tribulations.
We all have a story in us, and we all know the power of storytelling—as something magical that can transcend boundaries and bring us closer together as human beings. It has the remarkable power to bridge gaps, fostering empathy and understanding.

So, Dune: Part Two is here after a bit of a wait. What was it like to work on this film?
We had an absolute dream of a director in Denis Villeneuve, a beautiful cast with Florence Pugh, Timothée Chalamet, Austin Butler and many more. I’m very lucky to be able to be a part of it and I’ve felt like that since the first movie. I really feel like we’re all fortunate to be doing this. This is a true ensemble cast: I feel like a small piece of something so, so massive.

We’re going to see a lot more of you in this sequel, aren’t we?
Yes, we will see my character Chani a lot more than in the first movie, and that evolution reflects everything I want of myself and my career—to always be growing and feeling as if I am moving forward.
My involvement in the first film was no more than about a week’s work, so being able to experience so much more for the sequel, to appreciate exactly what was happening in various areas of the set and be a part of it in a much bigger way, gave me so much gratitude, made me thankful, and I was so excited. Chani has got such an awesome story and we’re all really proud of it—nobody more so than me.
In this sequel, her presence extends beyond mere dreams, and delving deeper into my character was a remarkable journey. The first film offered me just a glimpse into her essence, but now, she feels like an extension of me.

What was it like having a relationship in space?
Crafting this romance amid immense suffering, tension, chaos and portraying the struggle of two young individuals forced to mature under intense pressure—while also fighting for their people—was an exceptionally unique and meaningful experience.
Trying to figure out flirting in this future world was very funny, as well as interesting. We had to really think about how people in a world with so much new technology and different ways of living would show they like each other.
It was a cool challenge to imagine this new kind of romance. It was amusing because we were all puzzled, just like the characters. This unfamiliar concept was as new to us as it was to them.
We had to embrace the awkwardness and discomfort of it all. I found myself wondering, “Does Chani ever feel awkward or embarrassed? Is that something she experiences? Does she even understand what that feels like?” It was a process of accepting these uncertain elements and exploring them in the character’s context.

And yet all that thought was crammed into another tight schedule, right?
Correct. On set, there was this sense of, “Alright, we’ve arrived, but we only have about an hour to nail this.” So, each day we revisited the scene, accumulating a few hours over several days.
Every revisit allowed us to sleep on it, reflect and return with fresh ideas and perspectives. This iterative process enriched our approach.

What did you take from others on set?
So much. I always try to take advice from every actor I meet and work with, as that’s one of the big ways you can improve in your profession.
The idea is that, yes, I’m excited and in awe of those amazing people, I listen intently to the guidance and kindness that they’re showing me and then, hopefully, I interpret that the right way to not only help the project we’re all working on at the time, but also the future ones I am involved in.
I felt I was part of the first movie but, at times, not integrated fully into the whole story. This one felt very different.

That’s quite a mature and almost veteran way to look at things…
It’s the way I can improve what I do—to take a mature view but also to appreciate I am still learning and building knowledge. You can’t fail to do that around the likes of Denis [Villeneuve] and all of the other cast members, like Javier [Bardem], Josh [Brolin], Stellan [Skarsgård], and others; and besides, I never want to be that person to get above my station.

Moving on to Challengers, this movie tackles sports, success, failure and a love triangle.
The intensity of the subject matter is something that comes through later in the movie. It starts off light-hearted and fun, but much like life itself, there are darker turns, and I loved that complexity and contrast between what a viewer expects and what he or she actually gets.
Again, as far as character development goes, it’s another role that absolutely challenged me— no pun intended—and I am proud of it. It’s a solid transition toward more mature, adult roles and a step into a new phase of my career.

To do the role, you must have been comfortable with the content, but is it true that you don’t agree exactly with the way Tashi chooses to live her life?
Yeah, I would tend to say that. I have to admit that I’m still grappling with her choices. We delved deep into her psychology, trying to understand her actions. Although, for me it was crucial that she remained unapologetic in her complexity. We all should. We are all our own decisions and actions.

Were you surprised by the script—a tennis player turned coach who ends up pushing her husband forward against an old love rival?
Often, roles featuring chaotic, powerful characters are not offered to actors who look like me. So, whenever I have a chance to portray such a multifaceted character, I’m definitely going to seize it!

Did it also help that Luca Guadagnino was the director?
I guess so. Luca has a unique talent for capturing sensuality and longing. There’s a lot conveyed in mere looks. The way he builds tension without immediate resolution really adds to the story’s depth.

These projects all feel like a very definite style separation from Euphoria, don’t they?
Yes, intentionally so. I wanted to shift away from that massive part of my life and my acting career. I believe you must change, evolve and seek different directions if you are to actually grow, so it was always going to be a new route I took.

Euphoria obviously catered to a younger audience too.
Sure, although there are certainly some issues and talking points within Euphoria that can be identified with anyone of a certain age or familiarity, to be honest. It’s not—life that is—an easy ride for anybody, but I’m very glad it exists as a piece and of course I am thrilled to be involved in it.
There are some dark moments and sensitive ideas in Euphoria and the idea behind the project was to help the viewer relate to those, even perhaps if that same person may not want to face them. As with a lot of the things I want to be involved in, the design is not just entertainment, but to hopefully provide a stimulus for people who may have gone through anything similar.

So you don’t see yourself as an actor who only plays parts that appeal to one type of audience?
I don’t tend to pigeonhole so much these days when it comes to the demographic for my films or the way I want to speak to a certain audience.
I don’t liken my talent to just one audience or one age group, because storytelling is ubiquitous—it doesn’t care if you’re female or male, old or young. I believe my generation has authenticity and honesty, and I feel this is something social media has given us as much as anything else. We are the generation who found a voice through technology, where perhaps in the past that sector of society was branded with the idea of not knowing enough, or knowing too little. You can only prove something by playing it out, and I think we have done that.

Photo by Matt Baron

Do you think that being transparent helps?
Transparency isn’t always honesty, but it’s a clearer route to honesty than I think we had in the past, when it was very easy to hide or conceal the truth.
I feel, as a society, we are more configured to expect scrutiny, candidness and accountability in our actions, because you can’t get away with much now. And I think this situation has both advantages and disadvantages for life.

Do you think the world could do with a bit more honesty?
I am glad at least that I am in an industry that values realism. I mean, so much of film and drama is just a representation of real life.
I have come to firmly believe in the paramount importance of honesty and vulnerability in my craft. It’s important we take the time to delve deep into psyche, understanding, fear, desire and motivations.
I think young people today are very adept at talking about feelings and emotions. I know from my parents and other elders that outside the family circle this was never something that went on in the past.
I believe the unlocking of honesty as regards to how we feel about life and ourselves, and the expressing of vulnerability, is so important. The way young people speak about mental health is inspiring—we have a generation who are almost proud to express their failings.
This is wonderful to see as well as troubling when you realize how many people are severely impacted by the challenges of modern life; but this is the way we live.

Obviously, you’ve mentioned social media and how it has affected the way people speak and express both themselves and their lives online.
Social media drives everything. Certainly, the way we market film, TV, music—it is stunning to see how much it has changed over the years.
And yet there is a large part of me that loved the organic route to film when I was first getting interested in the industry at the start of the millennium.
We are in a system where we’ve always been driven by the power of marketing, but I feel now representation in media is not just a matter of entertainment—it holds immense power and significance in shaping societal norms, perceptions and aspirations.

And that change can be so powerful.
Of course—by leveraging visibility and platform, individuals can create a ripple effect, inspiring others to join in the fight for greater representation and social justice.

How can the more recognized outlets learn from the way influencers and younger people connect with others, such as how they get consume news and information?
I would say by actively working toward a more inclusive media landscape, we can create a society where everyone, regardless of their background, feels seen, valued and empowered.
We have that in other industries, and although so much of media is politicized, it can always be better off for a cross-section of speakers and values that reflect society as a whole.