(Photo: David Needleman)
Answering the door at her Brooklyn apartment, singer-actress Zendaya could easily be mistaken for any other young urbanite. Wearing black sweats, a hoodie and no makeup, the 20-year-old Disney star wrangles her miniature schnauzer, Noon. The only celeb tipoffs are the platinum-set diamond necklace and the Rolex dangling from her wrist. And the sweeping seventh-story view of the Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan skyline. "I don't live-live here," she explains, gesturing to the sparse furnishings. "I'm just living here for the next five months while I shoot The Greatest Showman." It's a role that finds her playing a risk-taking trapeze artist opposite Hugh Jackman's P.T. Barnum ("I love musicals, and this one's like we're putting on a big Broadway production."). But before that one hits the big screen on Christmas Day 2017 comes her biggest break to date: the female lead in Sony's Spider-Man: Homecoming. Whether or not she's Mary Jane Watson, a much-debated point among fanboys, she's remaining coy ("You'll find out. It's funny to watch the guessing game.").
In 2010, the Oakland native got her acting start on Disney Channel's Shake It Up alongside Bella Thorne. That led to starring roles in the network's original movies Frenemies and Zapped. Even as a teen, the one-named wonder was thinking about her brand and has since released a self-titled debut album, a book (Between U and Me: How to Rock Your Tween Years With Style and Confidence) and now a fashion line and app. She currently stars on the Disney Channel sitcom K.C. Undercover, which was recently renewed for a third season. All the while, she attended Oak Park High School in Ventura County ("Basically a school on set"). But as the child of two teachers, Zendaya isn't one to shirk her studies, though she likes to mix in a Hollywood flavor (she did a high-school presentation on the science behind Interstellar). In fact, she was just like any other high school kid, albeit one who could afford a Rolex "It was hilarious because I was a 16-year-old from Oakland whose parents are teachers and never had anything like that before in my life when I bought it," she says.
As for mixing sweatpants with diamonds? "I've always wanted to be a girl who works out in diamonds, so yeah. I've become that person (Laughs.)" In addition to her eclectic look, Zendaya chatted with THR about fame, the pitfalls of being a Disney child star and why she doesn't trust Hollywood.
There's a long history of Disney child stars going off the tracks. How did you stay normal?
Everybody's normal. The only difference is they're living out what would happen to a normal teenager in front of everybody, which is hard because you have people judging you before you even know who you are yet.
What did you think of Spiderman as a kid?
I'm not going to lie and tell you I was this comic book geek or anything because I wasn't. But when I got older, Spiderman became my favorite . When the Tobey Maguire [Spiderman movies] came out, I was still too young to really enjoy it. But when the [Andrew Garfield] revamp came out, I was like 16, and I went on my first date, and it was [2012's The Amazing] Spider-Man, and I was obsessed with it. Spiderman is always the coolest because he didn't come from money. He wasn't born with his superpower. It kind of just happens to him and he's just a kid, and he's just trying to balance living life and being a teenager and like hormones and problems and issues while also like doing the most outrageous things. He's always been the most relatable.
What did you make of the fan controversy over you perhaps playing an African-American Mary Jane?
People are going to react over anything. But nothing [about who she is playing] is fact. It's like, you guys are just making shit up at this point and then reacting to it. Whenever we were on set, one of us gets some random character name [on the call sheet]. [Bloggers were] like, "Oh they must be so and so." And we just crack up about it, because it's like, "Whatever you want to think. You'll find out." It's funny to watch the guessing game. But of course there's going to be outrage over that because for some reason some people just aren't ready. I'm like, "I don't know what America you live in, but from what I see when I walk outside my streets of New York right now, I see lots of diversity and I see the real world and it's beautiful, and that's what should be reflected and that's what is reflected so you're just going to have to get over it."
Is your character - whoever she may be - romantically involved with Peter Parker?
No [laughs]. My character is not romantic. My character is like very dry, awkward, intellectual and because she's so smart, she just feels like she doesn't need to talk to people, like "My brain is so far ahead of you that you're just not really on my level." So she comes off very weird. But to me, she is very cool because she's deep. She's always thinking about something, always reading. I like that. And I also like that I don't really have to do anything for hair and makeup. I just get to walk in and walk out.
Did you have advice for Tom on how to handle all the attention?
I was like, "Bro, are you ready? Like, do you know what's about to happen?" And he's like, "I don't know, man, if I'm ready." I'm like, "It's about to be crazy." His life is about to change dramatically, more than my life is about to change because I've already been in the public eye. For me, will it be heightened? Yes, but it's not anything that I wouldn't expect or have seen before. I just get to watch and be like, "I told you."
What's the most extreme fan behavior you've seen so far?
When I was in London, my fans found out where I was. They'd be out there every day and I'd come down and talk to them. By the third day, it was 100 kids. I said, "Guys, I'm not from here, so can you show me around?" So I went in a mob, walking around London. It was so cool.
What are some movies over the last couple years that you really liked?
I was really obsessed with Interstellar. I made everybody go with me. I took like my parents. And one of my all-time favorite movies is Ryan Coogler's Fruitvale Station. That's my home. Those are my BART stations. That's my Whole Foods they were at. My mom worked at Fruitvale Elementary School. My school got shut down for a few days because there were riots, and people were breaking windows because they were outraged that something would happen like that in our community.
Who are some directors you would love to work with?
There's like [Quentin] Tarantino. You want those [Steven] Spielbergs. But I'd love to work with up-and-coming people who maybe haven't done a huge movie before or maybe did some cool indie stuff because I think that that is exciting when you start off with them young, and they're getting into it and you create a bond. With Jon [Watts], obviously Spider-Man is his first really big thing. And I'm doing Greatest Showman with Michael Gracey, and this is his first big thing. They just have a great attitude and they're so excited.
What's the higher priority at this point in your career, acting or singing?
I don't think I have a higher priority. It just depends on what I'm working on at the time. Like right now I'm doing my acting, but also I just had a studio session out here in New York, and then I also had a meeting all yesterday for my clothing line. It's just like fitting in things where I can.
How would you describe your sensibility on social media platforms?
I like to post selfies and fun things that I'm working on. But recently my Snapchat has become like a history class. I have become an African-American history professor. I thought, "People are going to be so irritated." A lot of kids don't even learn some of this stuff in school. Like how is it that some of my fans are learning more about black history on my Snapchat in second increments than in school? I feel like if you have a platform, it's your obligation to talk about how you feel. To me there's no excuse to be ignorant anymore. Everything is at your fingertips. You can't pretend like you're not seeing innocent black men being killed. We have videos, and they're circulating all over the internet. Or you can't pretend you're not understanding things about politics or hearing what people are saying who are our presidential candidates. It's an interesting time. And I feel like it's allowing us millennials to really take over.
What has surprised you most about working in Hollywood?
It's very controlling and weird and manipulative. People want to take from you. People lie. To people in Hollywood, [lying] is like drinking coffee, it's crazy.
A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.