The actress shares her hopes, dreams and innermost sentiments, ahead of the her second big-screen outing
Fresh off the back of the summer hit Spider-Man: Homecoming, 21-year-old rising movie star Zendaya Coleman is set to sing her heart out in the upcoming film The Greatest Showman. The original musical film, which premieres on Christmas Day, traces the journey of American businessman PT Barnum, founder of the famous traveling Barnum & Bailey Circus. Zendaya stars as one of the film’s female leads, alongside big names like Zac Efron, Hugh Jackman and Michelle Williams.
The aspiring but grounded actress has come a long way from her early days of acting, modeling and dancing in her hometown of Oakland, California. She’d turned to the arts as a way to overcome shyness and grow her confidence, and started performing with a children’s dance group called Future Shock. She attracted the attention of a talent manager at the age of 13 and landed the role of Rocky Blue in the Disney Channel sitcom Shake It Up — an opportunity that prompted her move to Los Angeles.
By 2014, Zendaya had her own Disney Channel series, KC Undercover, now in its third season. She’s also come into her own as a multi-hyphenate personality, with recording artist and fashion designer — she launched her clothing line Daya by Zendaya in 2016 — added to her name. But when we catch up with her for a quick chat, it’s her appearance in The Greatest Showman that gets her most excited.
“The Greatest Showman is very different from Spider-Man: Homecoming,” says Zendaya. “My characters are entirely different — I was the awkward, nerdy school girl [in Spider-Man], but here I take on the role of Anne, an amazing, confident trapeze artist, who performs feats of flying through the air.”
In this short but illuminating interview, Zendaya offers tidbits on how she prepared for her second film role, shares her thoughts on the future and reveals a maturity not often seen in stars her age.
Tell us about your journey to Hollywood.
My road to Hollywood began with auditions. I already knew my calling. My dad began taking me back and forth between Oakland and Los Angeles, on a teacher’s pay. My mom, on the other hand, stayed back in Oakland and worked two jobs. She made cuts on our living expenses — we lived in an apartment — and it was tough on all of us. In that time, I was growing up and becoming a woman, and being introduced to the industry with my dad by my side. He didn’t know a thing about hair, make-up and most of what I was dealing with!
It was an interesting transition into where I am now. It took a while for me to get to the point where I could afford to have all my family living together — my mom, dad and me — in a house. It’s made me appreciative of everything I have and am able to do.
Where does your confidence come from?
I have to give a lot of credit to my parents. Both of them are teachers, so I grew up with two very smart people, who made education very important to me. Growing up, they were real and honest with me. This connection and honesty that I’ve had with my parents has helped me. You often hear tragic stories of how the parents of some young teen stars keep their children out of the loop of things. And these kids, they wake up one day and realize they have no money, or they realize that they have no idea how to run their careers. My parents were different. They wanted to involve me in my business, so that I could make decisions. Because at the end of the day, my current choices affect the rest of my life. Also, I’m just an old soul, I guess.
In The Greatest Showman, you not only sing, you also get on a trapeze. What was the experience like?
It was scary but thrilling. Michael Gracey, the director, called me a few weeks before I headed out to New York to do the film to tell me that he wanted to use me in every shot, and that I had to start working out. From day one, I was training every day, so that I could be strong enough to grab onto bars and things like that. That was before we started on actual trapeze training. On my first go on the trapeze, I thought, “What am I doing?” Then I just let go and went for it.
I found it fun and liberating — I had the feeling that I was soaring through the air. That’s what most trapeze artists say, too, that it’s the closest thing to flying. I really enjoyed myself in training and wanted to go and get better at it.
What was it like acting across Zac Efron, who plays your love interest?
He’s done a lot of musicals; he’s literally the boss. But outside of that, he’s a really great person and work partner. We dangled from ropes together and he was able to pick me up and throw me this way, lift me that way — it was a great partnership. We were a team. We’d psych each other up after takes, to get each other ready to do it again.
Along with singing and acting, you also dabble in fashion. Tell us more about that.
I’m influenced by style and fashion. It’s more than just being about the clothes. It’s an emotional experience with the garments; I’ve been allowed to try things and get outside of my comfort zone. I’ve been able to stop caring about what people think of me. I’ve found empowerment in wearing whatever I want.
For a young person, you’re quite socially aware. What are your biggest concerns and what things would you like to change?
There are a lot of things that I wish I could change. The list would go on forever. But one thing that’s so important is investing in young people. There’s so much promise in today’s youth, in our awareness, sense of unity and open-mindedness. Honing in on that and growing it is so important.
I also want other young people to be well-informed, to have opportunities to work together and love each other. I know that is such a broad statement, but it’s what I feel. Young people are beginning to be more open, conscious and forward-thinking. If the older generation can support that, then that could be something really beautiful. The youth will always be my focus.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
I want to continue to do projects that make me feel creative, fulfilled and excited. I’ve never been driven by money or fame. If that were the case then I would’ve taken on some really stupid projects. I would much rather say one line in an incredible movie than be the lead of a crappy one.
What else are you looking forward to doing in the future?
Not over-planning and forcing myself to fit in have been working for me so far. But there are things that I wish to achieve. I just don’t want to be fixed on how I’m going to do it, or decide how my life has to be. At the end of the day, anything can happen and it can change my entire perspective on life. My goal is to be happy and sane, and to enjoy what I’m doing.
Photo by Tinseltown / shutterstock.com
This story first appeared in the October 2017 issue of Smile magazine.