The Beautiful Struggle: How Zendaya, John David Washington, and Sam Levinson Crafted Netflix's 'Malcolm & Marie'

'Euphoria' creator Sam Levinson & 'Malcolm & Marie' stars Zendaya & John David Washington talk about upcoming Netflix film, critics, & AWARDS SZN buzz.

Malcolm & Marie

Image via Netflix

Malcolm & Marie

Netflix's Malcolm & Marie, which comes from the mind of Euphoria creator Sam Levinson, is a true product of the quarantine that was produced and shot across the country due to the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. The film, which features dynamic performances from Euphoria star (and recent Emmys history-maker) Zendaya and Tenet's Protagonist John David Washingon, was conceived and shot in the downtime that the Euphoria cast and crew was hit with because of the aforementioned pandemic; they actually were about to start working on Season 2 of the HBO series when the quarantine was first instated. Levinson initially had other "meta" ideas about what he and Zendaya could have worked on, but ultimately came up with the genesis of a contained look into the intense love and unbridled hate that Malcolm and Marie express throughout this film.

"I think it was a bit unusual in the sense that I knew what the inciting incident was," Levinson explains duhurring a recent interview with Complex when asked about the script taking roughly a week to write, "a filmmaker forgets to thank his partner at a movie premiere. And also the inception of the idea was, can we go make something safely? Can we get our Euphoria family back to work? Can we tell a story that's engaging with just the bare minimum: two actors, one house, one location, essentially one scene? So I just started writing, and in some ways, it's kind of like a Socratic dialogue in a way. It's like Malcolm comes out, he's talking about a bunch of stuff, and Marie just starts kind of digging at it and seeing how true it is, and then it flips. There's no three acts. There's no structure to it. It's just two people trying to dig deeper and get at the heart of what's bothering them. And so because of that, it just kind of flowed in that way. I just tried to dig each character into a hole that felt impossible to get out of and then see if I could do it the next day."

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Before a limited press screening of Malcolm & Marie, the film was beautifully described as a dance. That sentiment is spot on; Zendaya and Washington take each other through a whirlwind of emotions, matching energies that flow from vigorous passion to total disdain. Their complicated relationship and seeming need to spell out what drives them crazy (both good crazy and bad crazy) about each other, is the movement back and forth over the course of the film. Levinson's right; there isn't a three-act structure, but you can't help but feel like you're watching a play. The very nature of Malcolm & Marie being this intimate, bare bones look at a relationship in peril, coupled with the real-world situation surrounding its shoot, gives us, at the very least, an older Hollywood vibe. It also helped that both Zendaya and Washington were free to improvise and ad-lib on the script Sam provided.

"I think what was beautiful about this process is they both act in the film," Levinson shares, "but they were also full producers in this movie and in this process. When we first got up to Carmel to quarantine, I probably had, like, 65 pages of the script, so not the whole thing, because I didn't necessarily know what it was about [or] where it was going to go. So they sort of put it up on their feet. We're rehearsing it. We're talking it out, and then it started to come a little bit clearer into view. And out of that process and the conversations that we had, I wrote the next 30 pages.

"There's always that stuff that happens on set where there's a certain life and a messiness to it," Levinson continues, "and there's ad-libs that just are gorgeous and brilliant or add to the weight of it. I think I always want to capture as much of that as possible, because that's what gives the piece life and urgency. You can write what you want to write as a sort of framework, but I always love when an actor just diverts a little bit, takes a word, adds another thing, flips the lines around."

Malcolm & Marie

How do these things affect the actors in place? In the trailer for Malcolm & Marie, you see both Zendaya and Washington screaming at each other, hurling a number of barbs at each other, piercing their on-screen counterparts like daggers in the chest. Even for acclaimed actors, starring in films and shows that are large parts of the cultural zeitgeist, that has to sting a little, right?

"Well, here's the thing," Zendaya explains. "John David, anyone who has the privilege of meeting this wonderful man, I think can know that he is such a beautiful spirit and a lovely kind person. And I think that it is infectious when you meet him. So it's impossible not to like him and not to love him. So, with that being said, it's very clear to distinguish John David and Malcolm. They are very, very different people. And I can see when Malcolm takes over and I can see where John David comes back."

Washington agreed, speaking on having to go to those darker places to bring forth the performances that have the AWARDS SZN prognosticators buzzing. "It was an exercise of self-evaluation and examination. I was able to find some answers of [the] questions that I didn't even formulate to myself until those moments. I don't want to get too personal, but there [were] a couple of moments that were very, very personal."

"With that being said," Zendaya continues, "it's a beautiful thing to watch and a beautiful scene partner to have. We can go into these dark spaces and deal with these really tough things and go hard on each other. But also even after that, even though there's like, this competitive spirit, like, 'OK, you did that; alright, here I go.' But there's also this sense of support and respect for each other's work and craft. We always made sure we checked in with each other between those moments, and I really value that 'cause it's not always easy to do what we do. I'm grateful that I had someone that I felt safe to go to those spaces with. We created this set that really felt safe. It felt safe with everyone."

Malcolm & Marie

Wrapped in these very personal, very real emotions and scenes is a film that takes aim at the world of film criticism, and how politics and race and the social issues of the day can play into how films are talked about. It's also the section I kind of hope some of the aforementioned ad-libs came in. There's a lot of truth and humor in the thoughts creatives like Malcolm may have to work through after taking in a review—even if it's not particularly scathing. That said, one thing that's been immediately apparent has been the push for Zendaya and Washington to be in the Oscars conversation. For years, there's been a myth about the Oscars particularly loving movies about the world of movies, so Malcolm & Marie should be a shoo-in for nominations, right? Zendaya, who hasbeengetting all of the acclaim regarding her work in Malcolm & Marie, keeps it real when asked about how she reacts to this kind of AWARDS SZN talk, and the critical review space in general.

"I'll back away a little bit, 'cause I get nervous. Also it's a new thing; it's a relatively new experience for me. It was really Euphoria that was kind of my first time dealing with that. It's kind of like a new process to kind of deal with. When I first was doing Euphoria, it was nerve-wracking because we had just wrapped, so it felt like it was coming out and it was still ours. I was like, 'Oh my gosh, I was just crying the other day and now it's on the screen and people are seeing it, oh my God. And they have stuff to say about it.' I was still so emotionally connected to Rue that I felt like anything that they said about Rue was like, attacking my little sister or something. I got nervous and I got scared for her. I wanted to protect her or something.

"I'm learning as I go," Zendaya admits, "and I think film critique is so important to our industry to really analyze what it is that we do and look at it on deeper levels. I think we all have a respect for it, and with that being said, I definitely am learning how not to approach it because I definitely am not going to be the Malcolm. You know what I mean? I think you have to have a healthy balance. You [have] to respect it and look into it, but you also can't let it control you and completely take over your existence. So [I'm] just finding a healthy balance as I kind of am new to it."

It will be interesting to see what the court of public opinion has to say when Malcolm & Marie hits theaters on Jan. 29 (ahead of its Feb. 5 Netflix release). One things for certain: Zendaya and Washington definitely brought it for this project, and once the world is on the other side of this pandemic, we'll be able to truly see what these two can do after enduring the quarantine and each other's darker, more personal demons while crafting Malcolm & Marie.

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