Seeing Red: Zendaya to the Extreme

Seeing Red: Zendaya to the Extreme

Story by Vrinda Jagota / Photography by Isaac West / Styling by Law RoachJun 03, 2019

Zendaya speaks in a cool monotone so collected you almost overlook the trauma she's outlining, which she says is the definitive end to her happiness. She tells you that she was crushed by her mother's cervix so matter-of-factly that it takes a few seconds to register that she's describing... birth. It's all part of the monologue that begins Euphoria, the new HBO drama that sees Zendaya starring in what is undoubtedly her most challenging role yet. In character as a 17-year-old named Rue, Zendaya speaks candidly about her experiences with anxiety and depression, and we watch her navigate a mental health system in which adults, sometimes condescending, sometimes well-meaning, but generally uninformed, don't have the tools to help her.

Elsewhere in the pilot, we learn more about Rue (some spoilers ahead): that the high school student was born three days after 9/11 — another source, perhaps, of ingrained trauma — that her father died of illness when she was a kid, and that, when we meet her, she has just gotten out of rehab and has quickly started using drugs again.

Clothing: Genny, Hat: Eugenia Kim

Rue, it turns out, is far from the only one dealing with complex challenges. Across 55 minutes, the episode is a blazing mishmash of high-drama vignettes, featuring dozens of teenage characters (played by rising stars like Hunter Schafer, The Kissing Booth's Jacob Elordi, Barbie Ferreira, Sydney Sweeney, Maude Apatow and more), all of whom seem to be navigating dating, sex, drug use and mental health issues.

Euphoria, which is executive-produced by Drake and based on a 2012 Israeli teen soap of the same name, has inky cinematography, camera angles that occasionally distort and warp to create a sense of disorientation not unlike a drug trip, and an incredibly fast pace. There are around 100 scenes per episode, a choice that's meant to mirror the short attention spans of young people who have grown accustomed to nonstop smartphone use.

Suit: Chanel, Earrings: Rodarte, Shoes: Christian Louboutin

On the phone from Jordan, where she's filming the upcoming remake of Dune, Zendaya discusses whether it was difficult to accurately capture all of these complex and overlapping experiences of people her age, and if the show's plotlines felt shocking to her.

"The show to me is not that shocking. What is shocking is that we're not used to seeing [young people's experiences portrayed] so viscerally and so honestly."

"The show to me is not that shocking. I know a lot of 17-year-olds that are going through this," the 22-year-old actress tells me, adding, "We're not more shocking than things that have happened in Game of Thrones. What is shocking is that we're not used to seeing [young people's experiences portrayed] so viscerally and so honestly."

Dress: Emporio Armani, Bodysuit: No. 21, Shoes: Rick Owens

Even if there are lots of 17-year-olds having the kinds of experiences depicted in Euphoria, that group surely doesn't include the kinds of 17-year-olds featured in Zendaya's previous onscreen milieu: Disney. The actress got her start playing wholesome teens on Disney shows Shake It Up and K.C. Undercover. As an executive producer for the latter, Zendaya got to take on a more active role in the show's creative vision, and, in an interview for Vogue last year, she said she insisted that the show feature a family of color; that her character, who was an undercover spy, be as smart and talented as any male characters on Disney; and that the show's name be changed. (Of the original title — Super Awesome Katy — she quipped, "Do I look like a Katy to you?")

The post-Disney transition has historically been a tricky one for young actors and actresses to navigate. Many former stars have addressed the fact that Disney expects its actors to have a squeaky-clean image well into their teens and twenties, which can feel infantilizing and make it hard to land adult roles later on. Zendaya's former Shake It Up co-star, Bella Thorne, has said that she was expected to speak in a higher pitch to seem younger than she was, and Selena Gomez has similarly noted that working for the network often left her feeling immense pressure to be "the good girl."

Clothing: Genny, Hat: Eugenia Kim

For her part, Zendaya has acknowledged these difficulties and, in an interview with her friend Yara Shahidi in Glamour, said, "Having a Disney past sometimes makes it difficult for people to take you seriously." Since leaving the network, she has been choosing her roles carefully and thinking long term about where she wants her career to go. "I'm in the phase of learning and watching and trying to absorb as much as I can," she says. Recently, she starred in The Greatest Showman and Spider-Man: Homecoming, and she'll be seen in the latter's sequel, Spider-Man: Far From Home, next month.

"You're still going to have that doubt, 'Wait, can I do it?'"

It was after filming wrapped on The Greatest Showman and Spider-Man that Zendaya found herself with a chunk of free time — the first time off she'd had since she was 13. A few roles had fallen through or not worked out when she got the script for Euphoria, which she connected with right away. "I fell in love with who Rue was," Zendaya recalls. "It felt special because I don't like to read scripts, and for me to read through it faster than anything I've ever read before, obviously I connected with it somehow." Though this role would be Zendaya's grittiest one yet, writer and showrunner Sam Levinson knew from the beginning she could handle it. "Sam Levinson told me, 'You were on my vision board' and I thought, 'You're joking.' There's no way he saw anything I did in the past and thought, 'Hmm, that girl could potentially play me,'" Zendaya says, continuing, "The character Rue is basically him and his life experiences. I felt so worried about proving myself. It was very scary."

Dress: Emporio Armani, Bodysuit: No. 21, Shoes: Rick Owens

On set shooting the show, Zendaya remembers feeling a mixed bag of emotions. "I finally felt like I was doing something that I could push myself [with]. But always you're still going to have that doubt, and [I'm] still in my head, like, Wait, can I do it?"

The fact that Euphoria's plot is based largely on director Sam Levinson's own life experiences gives the show a crucial layer of authenticity and urgency, and Zendaya says she prepared for her role by speaking with, and learning extensively from, Levinson. "When you're tackling something like addiction, it's important to have someone there who has struggled with it, who can write and talk about it. There's only so much I can understand about it without going through it," she says.

Dress: Giambattista Valli, Tights: Wolford, Shoes: Pleaser

In the process of playing Rue, Zendaya says she has come to feel deeply connected to the character despite their many differences. "When I do the voiceovers, it sounds like me, obviously, but it doesn't sound like me," she says. "I can kind of feel when she takes over and does her thing, in the corniest actor way possible. I fall into her, and she falls into me." Most importantly, she feels a need for Rue to be OK. "I want her to do well in life," she says. "I always say there's hope for Rue, [and] you know she's going to be alright because Sam is alright. That means she's going to go on to do good things in her life."

But when we meet Rue, it's far from clear she'll be OK any time soon. As we watch her self-medicate with cocaine to blur her internal pain, it's hard not to think about the recent influx of studies surrounding the rates of anxiety and depression among young people. NBC writes that Gen Z is the loneliest ever, and Time adds that 90% of the generation feels stressed out. One common culprit for this phenomenon that's often mentioned in these studies is social media. While it's rightfully cited as creating unrealistic expectations of how happy our friends and acquaintances are, leading to stress and unhappiness when we feel like we don't measure up, at the same time, it remains a tool that Gen Z, like their older peers, uses as a lifeline to connect with others, educate themselves and seek help.

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Thanks to changes wrought by the Internet and social media, young people are much more educated about and fluent in conversations about race, mental health, body image issues and consent than any generation before them has been. Throughout Euphoria, social media is shown at times as a way of building community and finding sexual and romantic intimacy — even when it's via practices that older generations might find horrifying. In one particularly memorable scene, Rue adamantly defends the practice of sexting. "Nudes are the currency of love, so stop shaming us," she says. "Shame the assholes who create password-protected online directories of naked underage girls."

"How can I make the change, how can I add more voices?"

While Rue might speak stridently about sexting, Zendaya talks with much more nuance and compassion when it comes to the amount of anxiety and dread depicted in Euphoria and how she, and other people her age, deal with their own anxieties and talk about mental health issues specifically. "I think definitely there's been, at least amongst my peers, a certain [emphasis] on not just mental health but self-care and opening up to other experiences," she says. "That, in turn, makes you feel like you're not alone if you are dealing with it. It makes you feel heard and not so isolated."

Suit: Chanel, Earrings: Rodarte, Shoes: Christian Louboutin

Every assertion Zendaya makes is carefully qualified. "I tweet things like, 'Hey, go take care of yourself and check in on your friends,'" she says. "You can tell that to people all you want, but that doesn't mean they're actually going to be able to do it. A lot of people say you should try yoga or you should try [other specific things]. Some of those things just don't work sometimes. For me it's all about putting things in perspective. My brain always goes to the worst possible scenario, so sometimes I don't actually enjoy how big and exciting things are. I did the Tommy Hilfiger show and it was a huge success, but I couldn't enjoy it until weeks after because I was so impossibly stressed about what people thought about it. Sometimes I feel amazing for a long time and then it hits you, and it's like, This is rising. I can't describe it. I feel awful. And then you gotta figure out how to get over it, and then everything's great again. I highly recommend going to a therapist if you can. If that's something that is possible for you."

She mentions the Tommy Hilfiger collaboration, called Tommy x Zendaya, casually, but it was a remarkable show featuring all Black models ranging in age from 18 to 70 and including legends like Pat Cleveland, Beverly Johnson, Veronica Webb and Grace Jones, who appeared in the grand finale. Indeed, she has accomplished a remarkable amount in the last few years. Not only has she become a rising fashion icon — look no further than any of her red carpet appearances over the past few years — but she's also written a memoir and released music, including a self-titled album in 2013. She says that while she's enjoyed singing and hopes to one day write songs for other people, she's choosing to focus on acting for now, in part because she finds that she doesn't have enough agency in the music industry.

Clothing: Genny, Hat: Eugenia Kim

"I think the [music] industry takes a little bit of passion away from you," Zendaya says. "It sucks you dry a little bit. What I thought I wanted, it's not what I want anymore, [especially] when I think about what I had to deal with in the music industry." She reiterates that after her experience making music, "If anyone asks my number one advice, for [the entertainment] industry in general but mostly the music industry, it's look over those contracts, every single word, and don't sign anything that isn't worth it to you. You are worth more than they will say that you are."

"Don't sign anything that isn't worth it to you. You are worth more than they will say that you are."

These days, inspired in part by Euphoria's Levinson, she's asking herself big questions about what the trajectory of her career will look like long term. "What kind of stories do I want to tell? What kind of opportunities can I give? How can I make the change, how can I add more voices? Am I going to want to direct, am I going to want to write it?" she asks herself.

Dress: Emporio Armani, Bodysuit: No. 21, Shoes: Rick Owens

These kinds of broad questions don't always have immediate answers. The act of asking them, of knowing there are new and exciting stories you want to tell, is a pivotal part of the process. Zendaya's work already shows a burning desire to engage thoughtfully and critically with every industry she's a part of. She's reached a point where she's no longer waiting for permission or for anyone else to do things the way she does. She tells me, "There's this misconstrued idea that once you make it, there's only room for yourself. I disagree. Once you're able to make room for yourself, you try to make as many freakin' rooms as you can. I'm still in the beginning of my career and I don't have all the power in the world, because at the end of the day, a lot of the power still lies with people who have been making stuff since before I was born, who are one narrative and one color. Now, it's just about getting to that point where I can do that on my own. If I wait for things to happen, they might not ever happen."

Dress: Giambattista Valli, Tights: Wolford, Shoes: Pleaser

Story: Vrinda Jagota
Photography: Isaac West
Styling: Law Roach
Photography Assistant: Darlington Panton
Styling Assistant: John Martin
Hair: Larry Sims
Makeup: Sheika Daley
Nails: Kimmie Kyees
Tailoring: Oxana Sumenko
Digital Tech: Maria Troncoso Gibbs
Set Design: Daniel Horowitz
Set Assistants: Graham Collins and Ashton Leach

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