When Zendaya’s name rang out as the winner of the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series award for her performance in HBO’s Euphoria during the Emmy Awards broadcast this past September, audiences were treated to Zoom-like reaction shots from her fellow nominees before the screen landed on the 24-year-old actress, the youngest recipient of that award in Emmys history. “This is pretty crazy—I don’t really cry,” the Lancôme ambassador said then, brushing aside the bangs of her expertly tousled updo and dabbing a smoky black-lined eye. Behind her sat her family and team, screaming joyfully. Zendaya recalls the moment fondly when her friend Timothée Chalamet calls from France for an exclusive interview with ELLE—although she laughingly admits she worried her family’s long celebration might cue the dreaded awards-show cutoff music.
Zendaya and Chalamet became close on the set of Dune, a feature film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel about a feudal intergalactic empire of the distant future. (The movie, which was originally slated to be released this month, was bumped to 2021 due to COVID-19.) In the film, Zendaya’s character, Chani, a warrior from the planet Arrakis, 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 form a tight bond. Even though the book was published in 1965 and the film shot in pre-pandemic 2019, audiences may notice parallels to our current reality—Arrakis’s harsh climate and giant sandworms, perhaps, versus our own smoke-clogged orange skies and “murder hornets.” Zendaya can’t predict what viewers will take away from the film, or even what the world will look like tomorrow, but she 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.”
Read more about what makes Zendaya hopeful—and the wild dance parties she hosted in her room for the cast of Dune—in her conversation with Chalamet.
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.
Since the show was virtual, how did it work? Did you know in advance that you were going to win?
You didn’t. So how did they get the award there so quickly?
There were these people in hazmat suits that went around to all 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’d just take it with them and leave.
Oh, shit. [Laughs] So you got to keep yours!
Yeah. Yeah. I got to keep mine. [My assistant] Darnell [Appling] was actually the one who handed it to me.
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!
Thanks, man. I was nervous about the possibility of having to get up and speak. So I was like, “Okay, 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…
You didn’t want to jinx it.
Yeah, exactly. So the day of, I just wrote a little thing down to have just in case. And that was very helpful. I was very nervous, but I’m glad my family was there.
It looked like a sweet moment, full of love.
It absolutely was. Everybody was there and 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.
And the guy in the hazmat suit would come in and take it away.
What was it like to get all glammed up and then not leave the house?
That was all right with me. I got to feel all fancy and put on this beautiful custom [Armani Privé] gown and do my hair and makeup and then just be with my family in the living room, which was actually quite nice.
Yeah, it was great. And we got to take pictures in the house, so I knew I would be happy with them.
You got photo approval.
Yeah, there was none of the usual “Ah, I hate that picture” that is 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.
Maybe we’ll end up having Zoom ceremonies forever.
Yeah. I mean, it’s a new world.
In your speech, you said that there’s hope in the young people, and it seemed as if hope was a big part of the message you were trying to get across. What in the past year has given you hope? And what does hope mean to you?
Well, my intention there was really just to be honest, because it feels like a very hopeless time, specifically in this country. 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.
How do you embrace joy in your own life?
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.
What else brings you hope these days?
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.
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 last decade, and it was really moving. Rue, 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 spoke to Michelle Obama yesterday, didn’t you?
And you’ve been all over trying to get people registered to vote.
Yeah, yeah. Shit, I mean, all you can do is encourage people and help share information.
Absolutely. So in Dune, our characters are up against horrible odds in a cruel sci-fi world set in the distant future. What was shooting this film like for you?
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.
What was your favorite thing we did on break from shooting?
I guess it was the dance parties that I hosted in my room.
There was a super legit fucking wrap party at the end there. We were with some of the cast, and then Javier [Bardem] came in and we were all dancing.
Javier popped in, yeah.
You have Polaroids of that moment, right? That was a full-on dance party. Okay, 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.
Sam is like family to me. I talk to him almost every day and night, every other day. Sometimes we talk about Euphoria, and sometimes we just talk about life or current events or whatever. So we got this idea that we could do a movie in quarantine safely with a very small number of people. We used some crew members from Euphoria who obviously didn’t have a job because filming had stopped. I was fascinated with this 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. Being quarantined together was great in some ways, because it allowed us to workshop and really dig into the material while we were there.
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 really fulfilling. There are a lot of big movies out there, but these kinds of very intimate acting opportunities can be harder to come by.
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 makeup—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.
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 BlacKkKlansmanand 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.
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.
The shooting for season two of Euphoria may not start until early 2021, but I know 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?
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.
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?
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 traveling. I don’t feel super-safe traveling 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. Anytime 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 traveling 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.
Hair by Kim Kimble for Kim Kimble Haircare; Makeup by Sheika Daley at sixk.la; Set Design by David Browne; Produced by Ben Bonnet at Westy Productions.
This article originally appeared in the December 2020 issue.