Director Levinson, Actress Zendaya Discuss Netflix's 'Malcom & Marie'
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Without the coronavirus pandemic, "Malcolm & Marie" wouldn't exist. The Netflix film was written and directed by Sam Levinson and stars Zendaya as Marie and John David Washington as Malcolm. Levinson and Zendaya were already working together on the HBO drama series "Euphoria." They came up with "Malcolm & Marie" when the pandemic forced the film industry to shut down.
ZENDAYA: It came from this want to stay creative between both of us, but also this want to maybe also get our crew back to work.
MARTIN: The production had to be minimal, so Levinson kept it simple. "Malcolm & Marie" is the story of one couple on one night in one house having one huge fight. Malcolm, like Levinson, is a filmmaker, and the mistake he made to trigger the fight is something Levinson has some experience with.
SAM LEVINSON: There was a point in my life where I had forgot to thank my wife, Ash...
MARTIN: Yes, I read about this, yes (laughter).
LEVINSON: ...At a premiere. And we had a very calm conversation about it on the ride home and made up before we walked in the front door. But it seemed like an interesting way into this relationship, especially if the character of Malcolm made a movie that used her experiences and then simultaneously didn't give her credit for it. It felt like a good way to kind of investigate the sort of power imbalances, fiction versus reality, filmmaking, relationships, love, partnership, collaboration. And that's what became really exciting.
MARTIN: Zendaya, who is Marie revealed to be through this epic battle?
ZENDAYA: (Laughter) I mean, it's - the fun thing, I think, about this movie and about the characters is in a lot of ways, I think, all of us can find ourselves in both of them. Marie, I think, has a need for control and ultimately is very clear about her feelings - very clear articulating what it is that bothers her and has no problem with running directly into the conflict and never stutters. You know, she doesn't trip over her words 'cause she knows exactly what she's going to say. And I think that was really interesting to experiment with. And also, you know, this is technically my first time really playing a woman my own age. And I think that is also reflective of that.
MARTIN: Yeah. We've been talking about the relationship between Malcolm and Marie and the centerpiece of this fight. But there are layers to this movie, right? And one of the layers is an indictment of the gatekeepers in Hollywood, who are largely white and male, and the stories they do or do not greenlight and how the media distorts the art.
LEVINSON: It's about two things, which is - I think his struggle as an artist and as a filmmaker is to not be defined or boxed in. And I think that that's a universal struggle that a lot of artists feel. But what's particular to what he's feeling is how predominantly white critics critique his work through the lens of his identity - that he's a Black filmmaker, that this is a Black story - but simultaneously fail to look at their own work and critique their own work through the lens of identity. The humorous part of all of it, though, is what he's so enraged about is a fantastic, glowing review.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MALCOLM & MARIE")
ZENDAYA: (As Marie) She did call it a genuine masterwork.
JOHN DAVID WASHINGTON: (As Malcolm) I don't give a [expletive]. Unlike her, at least I'm consistent. You can't hang everything on identity. You can't say that I brilliantly subverted this trope 'cause I'm Black but I fell into this one because I'm a man. Identities are constantly shifting. Does the male gaze exist if the filmmaker's gay and not straight - and to what degree? I mean, what if they're asexual? What if they're transitioning and you don't even know it? You can only look back at things and wonder what the [expletive] it all means.
LEVINSON: And it's a window into, I think, his insecurity as an artist and how kind of raw it feels and also just his pure kind of mania and egotism.
MARTIN: The movie is clearly a commentary about race and Hollywood and relationship. I mean, at the core, these are two people who I think truly love each other. But the toxicity that seeps in in this dance that they do - I guess I'm wondering, is there something central out of that that you're trying to communicate about the nature of love?
ZENDAYA: It's interesting. You know, I think also what always kind of is funny about that long rant - and I think the purpose of it, too, other than, you know, there's a lot of validity to what Malcolm says - is that at the end of it, she says to him, you know, it's interesting because her critique of you as a filmmaker - her problems with you as a filmmaker is my problem with you as a partner.
MARTIN: Mmm hmm.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MALCOLM & MARIE")
WASHINGTON: (As Malcolm) Which is what?
ZENDAYA: (As Marie) That I'm with you - I haven't walked out. I'm not wondering what other movies are playing. You know, I got you. I'm on your side. And then you just got to take [expletive] too far.
WASHINGTON: (As Malcolm) Come on.
ZENDAYA: (As Marie) No. And we're in a fight - OK? - maybe the worst fight we've ever been in. But instead of just making your point and saying it's not about you, it's an amalgamation of a bunch of different people, you got to revel in. You've got to twist the knife and put images in my head that you and I both know will never [expletive] leave me.
WASHINGTON: (As Malcolm) What?
ZENDAYA: (As Marie) Keke (ph)
WASHINGTON: (As Malcolm) Oh.
ZENDAYA: (As Marie) Keke.
And I think it goes back to this idea of not being acknowledged, which is, I think - to me, if there's anything to take from this movie - and I don't think you're supposed to leave feeling like there is a clear, like, this is what the political messaging behind what our movie says, you know. But one of those main things, if there's anything to leave with, is this sense of gratitude, which I think also played a big, big, big role in how we actually made this film in the sense that our crew got back in on this film, in the sense that I am - I'm a producer; I'm a financier; I'm a creative partner; I'm an actor. I have a seat at the table in the same way that John David does, in the same way that Sam does and the same that everybody else does - this idea that you have to acknowledge and appreciate the work of the people that are around you. So it's kind of ironic that the film kind of explores when you fail to do that.
And I think the overall - at least for me - language of love is we forget to just say thank you. We forget to acknowledge the people that we love and appreciate and need, really, you know. So I think the overall message to me has always been gratitude for all of it and make sure that you talk to those people and you say thank you and you give people the credit that they deserve.
MARTIN: The film is called "Malcolm & Marie." It's directed by Sam Levinson, stars Zendaya alongside John David Washington. Zendaya and Sam, thank you. It was so great to talk to you.
LEVINSON: Thank you so much.
ZENDAYA: Of course.
(SOUNDBITE OF DUKE ELLINGTON'S "IN A SENTIMENTAL MOOD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.