Growing up in Oakland, Calif., Zendaya knew from an early age that she wanted to be an actress. But her contributions to Hollywood aren’t limited to starring in the Disney Channel sitcom “K.C. Undercover,” where she portrays a savant daughter in a family of spies. She also produces the show, has emerged as a millennial fashion icon, sings, dances (as seen on “Dancing With the Stars”) and manufactures her own line of clothes for young people.
Branching out into movies was more daunting. “There were a lot of opportunities that weren’t really what I wanted to do,” says Zendaya, who is 20. “I think a lot of people look at me in a certain way because I’ve been on the Disney Channel a long time.”
Indeed, it’s hard out there for a Disney star. Many of them, in a hurry to grow up too fast, crash and burn, while others hit puberty and vanish. So when it came time for Zendaya to choose a big-screen adventure, she had to be careful. “I would much rather have one line in a great movie than be the lead of a s—-y one,” she says. “I wanted to wait for the right thing.”
|Zoey Grossman for Variety|
She found it with “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” the Sony Pictures tentpole that has grossed more than $630 million worldwide, proving that Zendaya is the rare child actress with crossover appeal. Although her role as Michelle isn’t large, she stuck the landing, as a math-team nerd who is more concerned about activism than boys. And this winter, she’ll bolster her screen credits by playing a trapeze artist in “The Greatest Showman,” the Oscar-bait musical starring Hugh Jackman.
“I’m so happy I got to put her in my movie early, before she becomes the biggest actress in Hollywood,” says “Homecoming” director Jon Watts.
When she submitted herself on tape last year, Zendaya received only vague instructions. “Everything was super secretive,” she says. “I wasn’t supposed to know that it was ‘Spider-Man.’ But I have good agents. I found out, and I was like, ‘Hell yeah, I want to be part of that.’” She didn’t wear any makeup to her audition to connect with her character’s age. “When I was 15, I wasn’t allowed to wear makeup in school,” she explains.
She had to perform a chemistry read with Tom Holland, aka the new Peter Parker. “He says when we first met it was super awkward because he went for a handshake and I went for a hug,” she says. “But I don’t remember that. I thought it was cool.” She had one concern after walking through the door. “I was worried because he’s so much shorter than me,” she says. “I was like, ‘Damn it! It’s going to be weird because I’m super tall.’ But then we ended up doing the audition sitting. So that was good.”
She still wasn’t convinced she’d get the job. “A lot of time, the thought process of an actor of color is ‘I’m going to go and give it my best shot, but they are probably not going to go with an actor of color for this,’” says Zendaya, who is biracial. “We all think it. I didn’t know they were going to switch up the characters and really cast the best people for the roles, instead of what’s most like the comic book. I think that was the coolest part for me, knowing they embraced the diversity.”
Even when she received the call, Zendaya didn’t know what part was hers. “It was nice to play a character who wasn’t a damsel in distress but actually very smart, quirky, different and outspoken,” she says about Michelle. To get her in the right mind-set, Watts suggested Daria — the lovable high school pariah from the MTV show of the ’90s — as a model. “I don’t think she knew what that was,” Watts says, laughing about his young cast’s cultural reference points. “What’s ‘Ferris Bueller’? We’re 19.”
Zendaya recently had to endure a dangerous chase through the streets of Los Angeles. This wasn’t for a role — an aggressive paparazzo was trailing her after she was spotted in a car with Holland. “We tried to do this whole maneuver,” says Zendaya, who chronicled the experience on Snapchat. “This guy was being super dangerous, driving through a busy intersection, doing a U-turn, driving on the side of the freeway to catch up to us — the side where you’re not supposed to drive because there’s no lane. I was like, ‘This is nuts.’”
|“When I left Disney, there weren’t any families of color on the channel. I thought that was a big reason why I wanted to come back. I think I’ve successfully made a show that not only allows for representation but sees girls in a powerful and strong position.”|
There have been tabloid reports that she and Holland are an item, which she dismisses as a rumor. “We are friends.” So there’s no romance? “No,” she says firmly. “He’s a great dude. He’s literally one of my best friends. This past how many months we’ve had to do press tours together. There’s very few people that will understand what that’s like at 20 years old.”
It takes chutzpah to anoint yourself as a single-named superstar — just ask Madonna. When she was 12, Zendaya’s manager suggested that she follow suit. “Yeah, like Beyonce?” she remembers asking. She’s maintained a good head on her shoulders, while avoiding scandals that have plagued other child stars, because of her upbringing. “I tried to watch how everybody else did it, and I tried to do my own thing,” she says. “And just staying true to who I am. If I’m not feeling it, it’s not going to happen.”
She describes a normal middle-class upbringing in Oakland, her dad working as a gym teacher and her mom as a local theater stage manager who brought Shakespeare into her life. “I have great parents who are both educators,” she says. “If I weren’t doing this, I’d probably be a teacher.”
Even as she rose to prominence on her first Disney Channel series, “Shake It Up!,” from 2010 to 2013, she stayed grounded. She only agreed to do “K.C. Undercover,” which launched in 2015, if Disney made her a producer. “When I left Disney, there weren’t any families of color on the channel,” she says. “I thought that was a big reason why I wanted to come back. I think I’ve successfully made a show that not only allows for representation but sees girls in a powerful and strong position.”
|Zendaya in (clockwise, from upper left) “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” “Lip Sync Battle” and “K.C. Undercover.”|
Her fashion line Daya by Zendaya demonstrates her eye for decision-making. She had three requirements. First, the clothes had to be affordable. Second, they had to be made in an assortment of sizes. “I don’t think thicker, curvier women should have to shop on a different section on my page or feel excluded,” she says. And finally, she wanted all garments to be gender neutral. “When you go on my site, there’s no men’s or women’s section,” she says. “Who am I to tell somebody they can’t wear something because it has a label on it?”
As for her next act, Zendaya had to wait patiently for the offer in “The Greatest Showman.” To convince producers she was right, she belted out a song from the soundtrack (a duet she’d eventually sing with Zac Efron) in a recording studio set up in her home. “I was really putting in all the extra work,” she says. “I wanted them to hear that I could sing.”
Then she had to learn how to fly, as a trapeze artist. “Now mind you, I have no muscle tone, no upper body strength,” she confesses. “I don’t work out ever. I just have a metabolism and look like I’m in shape.” She started to enroll in a daily aerial boot camp. “It was extremely scary,” she says about her first day of work. “I actually got to be on the real rig; it was 10 to 15 feet taller, and there was no net. I was like, ‘What am I doing?’” She went for it, proving that she didn’t need Spider-Man to rescue her. Zendaya is soaring all by herself.
Watch behind-the-scenes footage from Zendaya’s Variety cover shoot below as part of “Uncovered” presented by H&M.