The actress speaks to Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors about activism, anxiety, and why her teenage niece gives her hope.
By Patrisse Cullors
I first met Zendaya in 2016 when we were in line, waiting to do an Instagrammable moment at an awards show. As I watched her break through the prop they had in the photo booth, I remember automatically feeling proud of her Black girl fierceness and joy. She was so present and bold. We recently reconnected during the national rebellion against police terror, when she invited me to take over her Instagram. In our first conversation, she made it clear that she wanted people to hear from me directly. She wanted her millions of followers to understand this movement. Honestly, I was honored and grateful for her generosity. What I’ve learned about Zendaya in this short period of time is that she always champions the most vulnerable, and she doesn’t pretend to be something she is not. During our hour-long interview, she kept reminding me that she sees herself as a creative first. The idea of being called an activist felt too big because it is a responsibility she doesn’t take lightly. Zendaya is the kind of grounded you wish all of your friends could be like. She is honest and specific about what she sees as important and necessary for all Black folks. She is making such an impact in the world for so many people — young people in particular — as she leads the way with vulnerability and transparency, showing up unapologetically as her full self.
PATRISSE CULLORS: My first question for you is: How are you doing? So many things have happened, between COVID-19 and the uprisings. You’ve been working a lot too.
ZENDAYA: I genuinely don’t know how I’m doing. [laughs] It’s been an interesting few months, to say the least. But I’ve been trying to remain not just positive but grateful. I’m grateful for my health and for the fact that I can quarantine safely. I know that I’ll be OK financially once this is over, but for a lot of people that isn’t the case. So anytime I start complaining, I just stop.
PC: I think many of us have been feeling like that too.
Z: It’s been tough to stay creative and motivated [during this time] because there are so many things that can take you down emotionally. And then, of course, everything that has happened [following the death of George Floyd] has been devastating. I didn’t know what I could do to help. And that’s when I reach out to people like you. Because at the end of the day, I’m just an actress, you know? And I don’t pretend to be anything other than that. If I don’t know something, then I ask people who are actually on the front lines doing the work. I’m up in the bleachers, not on the field. So I always think, “How can I cheer you on and be a part of something greater than myself?”
PC: As someone who’s in this work and really trying to figure out what is possible and what is needed, I love that. What do you feel most hopeful about right now?
Z: I think this is a new chapter for me. There are a lot of people learning how to be creative during this time and learning how to take a leap while doing it safely in quarantine. It was interesting to experience that with my film Malcolm & Marie, and I’m really proud of that. I also have so many beautiful projects to look forward to. How the world is going to be able to see them, I don’t really know. But that’s when it’s time to get even more innovative and figure out how we are going to exist in this industry with this new world.
PC: That’s all we can do, honestly. I know there are a lot of people who learned to cook in quarantine. Did you teach yourself anything new?
Z: I painted for a week, and then I tried working out for a week, but I burned out on both very quickly. I did buy a piano in an attempt to learn how to play, though. I’ve taught myself one song so far. It’s a song I wrote that is only three chords, so not that exciting, but I can play it. [laughs]
PC: Oh, I think that’s dope! Have you been watching or listening to anything in particular?
Z: I love quite a few songs on Chloe x Halle’s new album, Ungodly Hour. Those ladies are incredible. I stan. I also smashed through a lot of TV shows. I would do a season in a day. I’m not going to have anything left to watch! [laughs] But I wanted to stay in a happy vibe, so I also watched a lot of animated movies and funny YouTube compilations of people falling down. Keeping it light!
PC: Who or what inspires you the most right now?
Z: Well, you’re actually one of the people who are inspiring me. I can’t imagine the immense pressure you carry. And you carry it so gracefully. You always have a smile on your face. If I were under half of that emotional stress, nobody would hear from me. So that courageousness and selflessness, I admire. Sometimes I’m inspired by moments too, like a good conversation with my grandmother. In quarantine, you have to hold on to the sweet little things.
PC: You and I have both opened up about having anxiety, and I think it’s so important to share how we’re coping with it. How are you’re managing stress in these times?
Z: My anxiety first started when I was younger and I had to take a test at school. I remember panicking, and my teacher had to walk me out of the room and say, “Calm down, deep breaths.” I don’t think it really came up again until I was about 16, when I was working and there was a project I had turned down. That was kind of my first time dealing with the internet, and it made me feel sick. I deleted everything and stayed in my room. Live performing really gave me anxiety too. I think a lot of it stems from the pressure I put on myself, wanting to do my best and not make a mistake. I definitely don’t have it under control yet. I don’t have the key, so if anybody does, let me know! I do find that talking about it is helpful, and that can often mean calling my mom in the middle of the night. Sometimes I make her sleep on the phone with me like a frickin’ baby. [laughs]