​ Zendaya

Can Zendaya make the leap from tween idol to Hollywood heavyweight?

Author: Editors Desk, Andrew Pulver Source: The Guardian
April 26, 2024 at 09:53
Zendaya at the Dune: Part Two premiere in London, 15 February 2024. Photograph: Samir Hussein/WireImage
Zendaya at the Dune: Part Two premiere in London, 15 February 2024. Photograph: Samir Hussein/WireImage

The 27-year-old American actor has gone from the Disney channel to new classy arthouse threesome drama Challengers, via a massive blockbuster and a hot-button TV series. So can she convince as an Oscar contender?

Actor-model-producer Zendaya Coleman – universally known mononymously, without her last name – has never been short of attention, but it feels as if the 27-year-old has arrived at a breakthrough moment. With the tennis romance Challengers arriving in cinemas, in which she is the central focus, the sci-fi blockbuster Dune: Part Two still reeling in audiences, and acting as the simultaneous cover star of two separate editions of Vogue magazine – the British and the American – Zendaya appears to have achieved a new level.

Her career has so far specialised in an impressively high number of attention-grabbing moments, including appearing in a spectacularly bizarre metallic silver “robot suit” at the premiere of Dune: Part Two earlier this year, and the Challengers trailer release in June 2023, with its sexually suggestive premise of a threeway love affair.

Challengers, however, represents something of a high-stakes career re-calibration; co-starring Josh O’Connor and Mike Faist and directed by Italian auteur Luca Guadagnino, Zendaya is using it to transition into mature, dramatic roles while not abandoning the teen and tween audience that constitute the bulk of her fanbase.

She appears as aware of this as anyone else, telling Variety: “I’ve been playing 16-year-olds since I was 16 … So it was nice to play a character that was not a child any more. Ultimately, it felt like the right time for a character like this.”


Zendaya and Tom Holland in Spider Man: No Way Home.
Zendaya and Tom Holland in Spider-Man: No Way Home. Photograph: Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Acting, however, is the day job. After she was cast in a small but pivotal role in Spider-Man: Homecoming in 2017, the first of the Holland-led “reboot”, her real breakthrough was on the small screen in the HBO series Euphoria, which premiered in 2019. Through its radical positioning in hot-button topics – including drug use, gender identity and sexuality – the show won a considerable following and a series of high-profile acting awards for Zendaya, two Emmys and a Golden Globe among them. Then came her second Spider-Man film, No Way Home, for which she was promoted to the role of Peter Parker’s girlfriend, and whose frenzied reception no doubt gained momentum through rumours – since confirmed – of an offscreen relationship between her and Holland.


Mike Faist, Zendaya and Jack O’Connor in Challengers.
Mike Faist, Zendaya and Jack O’Connor in Challengers. Photograph: Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

Film critic Anna Smith, host of the Girls on Film podcast, says that her connection to younger audiences has been at the heart of her appeal. “She’s been in hit series and films that viewers have related to, and they may have been at a key stage in their development while watching them – this can leave a really significant psychological impact, the screen stars of our tweens and teens can stay with us for ever.”

Following Spider-Man, Zendaya proved her blockbuster chops with the two Dune films, and – after her Euphoria acclaim – felt able to move into more character focused film-making. The lockdown project Malcolm & Marie, written and directed by Euphoria creator Sam Levinson, gave her a substantial role opposite John David Washington, and she followed this up by for Challengers with Guadagnino on board as director. With Guadagnino’s previous record in turning Hollywood teen idol Timothée Chalamet into a serious dramatic actor – through gay romance Call Me By Your Name and cannibal romance Bones and All – bracketing herself with the Italian auteur looked like a very astute move. Unfortunately the rigours of lockdown interfered with Challengers’ rollout, and it was pulled from the highly prestigious opening gala of the Venice film festival after it became apparent a press tour was not possible, meaning its cinema release was delayed and awards-season momentum halted. Whether it can regain this momentum for the 2025 Oscars remains to be seen.

While Smith doesn’t proclaim herself Challengers’ biggest admirer – “I didn’t feel the script did her or any of the characters justice” – she suggests that Zendaya has the wherewithal to maintain her industry position. “I think she’s smart and talented enough to keep going up – though I would like to see her in projects that show more of her talent than this does. She’s also proven herself to be a smart businesswoman who clearly wants to stay in the industry for a long time.”

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