Zendaya wanted to work. But because the world was in lockdown due to the pandemic, she knew that the start of the second season of her HBO drama series “Euphoria” was delayed. So, the 24-year-old (the youngest woman to ever win the Best Drama Actress Emmy for her role as a recovering teen drug addict) frequently talked to the series’ creator/executive producer/writer/director Sam Levinson. During one of the conversations, the concept of shooting something during quarantine was discussed. And that is how “Malcolm & Marie” was born.
Though Netflix isn’t releasing the romantic drama until Feb. 5, there has already been a lot of awards discussion for the two-character chamber piece starring Zendaya and John David Washington as a young couple whose relationship is at the crossroads. Malcolm and Marie return from the premiere of his latest movie and as they wait for the reviews to appear, she brings up the fact that he thanked everyone at the event except for her. She wanted him to recognize her especially since the character in the film, a young woman battling drug problems, was inspired by her. As the evening progresses, they fight and make up only to argue again.
Zendaya, Washington, Levinson and moderator singer/actress Janelle Monae recently chatted about the film which was the first feature that was written, financed and filmed in black-and-white in secret early last summer adhering to strict COVID-19 protocol.
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The actress recalled that Levinson came up with a lot of ideas before they agreed on “Malcolm & Marie.” “He called me on one of my many conversations during quarantine,” she noted. “And he’s like ‘I think I got one.’ I was like, ‘Alright, what is it Sam? Let me hear.’ You know I’m bracing myself at this point. You never known what you’re going to get with Sam.” So, he told her about doing a film with just two people in one location. “We should shoot it in black and white,” he told Zendaya. “We don’t really know where their relationship is by the end of it. We don’t know if they are going to be together, not be together. They just turn off the light and go to bed.”
Zendaya was excited with the premise. “I said, ‘You got me. Go for it. Let’s do this.’ And the next day, Levinson had about 15 pages written. Levinson likes to read his scripts aloud, so he read her the script pages. “He didn’t notice at the time, but I was recording him because I felt he already captured what Marie was supposed to sound like. I wanted to get the first version of that. And then we talked about it for hours.”
Levinson, the son of Oscar-winner Barry Levinson (“Rain Man”), quickly thought of Washington when he was writing the script. “The only person I could hear was John David Washington,” said Levinson. “I knew JD a little through his sister, Katia Washington, who is also a producer on this film. I knew him well enough that I could cold call him and just sort of, you know, pitched him the idea.” And also asked him if he could put some money into the low-budget film (both Zendaya and Washington are producers on the film.) “I knew that JD as a good person. I knew Z was a good person and I had a feeling that they were going to get along.”
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Washington, the son of Denzel Washington, recalled being excited when he saw Levinson’s number pop up on his phone. He had long wanted to work with him. “He didn’t have to read me, sell me or anything. I’m a fan. I’m a fan boy.” But when Levinson began performing the characters for Washington over the phone, the actor, best known for 2018’s “BlacKkKlansman” and 2020’s “Tenet,” became nervous.
“I started to get worried,” noted Washington. “I was rocking and started getting up and walking back and forth while he was talking. ‘Cause I’m like I don’t hear any stage direction. I’m hearing all dialogue for like 10 pages on end.” And he was worried about the fact that he was so different than Malcolm. “This is such a departure from who I am, how I deal with confrontation.” Though it was scary for Washington, he told Levinson, “I’m definitely in.”
When they got to the shooting location, they began to work-shop the piece. While Zendaya, Washington, Levinson and cinematographer Marcell Rev were quarantining together they got to “live with the material and dig into it in a way that I never have had that kind of time to live with something,” said Zendaya.
To get that space to create and feel safe trying out things was freeing for the actress.“I mean there was a time where I played something a certain way and Sam came and said ‘Nah, I don’t think that’s right.’ I was like ‘You know what? I think I’m right. But I am going to give you a couple of takes of what you want. ‘ Then I did it his way a few times and it wasn’t right. “He came back and said, ‘You know what? Go back to what you were doing. I’m giving you that.”’
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