Slave Play writer Jeremy O. Harris sees theater in Sam Levinson’s Malcolm & Marie, starring Zendaya and John David Washington.
Jeremy O. Harris
When I was reading the script for Malcolm & Marie for the very first time, I was annoyed. Pissed off. This was when I was in a period of quarantine, in which I couldn’t conceive of anything to write; there were no ideas that felt tangible enough to put on a piece of paper. I wondered, What the fuck? Why did this come out of Sam Levinson and not me? It speaks to a quality that I’ve seen in Sam for the decade or more that we’ve been friends: He’s one the best listeners I know. He remembers conversations we had when I was 22 and brings them up in conversation at my 31st birthday party. I see echoes of moments we’ve shared together in Malcolm & Marie.When the film opens, it’s the biggest night of Malcolm’s life. He’s just premiered his latest film, a gripping portrait of a woman living through addiction and recovery, to a rapturous Hollywood reception. Caught up in the moment, he carelessly forgets to thank his partner, Marie, whose own past closely mirrors that of his fictional protagonist. By the time the two arrive back at the elegant Malibu compound where they are staying, the thoughtless slight has started them down an emotionally harrowing path. Over the span of an evening, the young lovers rage at one another as a series of painful revelations forces them toward a romantic reckoning.It’s so amazing to see something that feels so complete, so significant. It’s part of a lineage of movies from the time when movie stars were movie stars. This film came together during the pandemic, on a limited set in Carmel, California, over the course of a month and a half. To take these two young titans, John David Washington and Zendaya, and bring them together as Malcolm and Marie is the kind of thing I want to applaud, because that belief and trust in your collaborators is so rare. I think that’s a testament to Sam as a filmmaker and to the space he’s created where one has the privilege to experiment. Watching what Zendaya, John David, and Sam built together as creatives, as producers, as artists, it’s so in line with theater. And as a theater-maker myself, it was an exhilarating journey to watch.
I spoke to Zendaya, John David, and Sam about their exceptional experience making Malcolm & Marie.Jeremy O. Harris: This film is such an insane feat. Zendaya, Sam, leading up to this, you two were working on the TV series Euphoria. COVID happened. The set was closed. We were all quarantined in our houses wondering what to do. You guys decided to make Malcolm & Marie. How did that happen?
Everybody has a claim and an ownership in our film because they did the work.”
Levinson: Z was like, “Who’s playing Malcolm?” and I said, “The only person I can think of is John David Washington.” Now, I didn’t know John David Washington well, but I knew his sister, Katia Washington, who’s a producer. She’s also a producer on Malcolm & Marie. So I knew enough to cold call John David. I had the first 10 or 15 pages written, and I read it aloud to him. He was like, “This sounds great. I’m excited to see where it goes.” I knew then that I had to really fucking write this thing, because I was essentially asking John David to go from doing the biggest movie of the year with Tenet to doing the smallest movie of the year. I was a little nervous, but I knew that if we had a great crew — our Euphoria crew — and two unbelievably gifted actors — like Frazier and Ali, round-for-round, heavyweight titans — that we would be good.Zendaya: When it came down to, O.K., he’s written enough to talk to J.D. about it, that was also nerve-racking. What if J.D. doesn’t like it? What if he doesn’t want to be involved? There are all these fears that come along with wanting to create something from scratch. Things might not work out, you can mess up, it can fail, it can fall apart — and I’m terrified of that. I don’t know if it’s just who I am as a person, if it’s the Virgo in me, but I’m absolutely terrified of not doing the absolute best I can do. I believed so much in this idea and in wanting to challenge myself not just as an actress, but as a businesswoman and as a creative, putting my own money into something and learning what it takes to put a production together. The fact that we were all able to have equity in the movie, that’s unheard of. It’s really deconstructing or recreating how films are financed and how films are made. Everybody has a claim and an ownership in our film because they did the work.
Harris: J.D., you didn’t have the familial relationship with Sam that Z has. What made you look at the script and say that after Tenet you wanted to do this?
Washington: It’s interesting. I was coming off of a project where the physicality of the character was what led me into the psyche, into his emotional beats — it wasn’t the words, necessarily. When I got the call from Sam, I couldn’t believe what I heard. It’s such a wonderful feeling to know that the words will guide you, the words are going to take you on the journey. I did my background work, I did my preparation and all the character study stuff, but really I didn’t have to force anything. The words led me. So many different things in my body and my spirit just woke up at the prospect of saying these words, getting these feelings out.
I found something very personal in Sam’s writing. It was so lived in.”
John David Washington
Harris: Z, you are stepping out of the realm of the teenager. Now you’re playing parts that are in line with a Brigitte Bardot or a Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones.
Zendaya: I’ve played a teenager since I was a teenager, literally since I was 13 years old. Marie was one of the first parts where I’ve been able to obviously play a woman, be grown. That pushed me in a big way. So did having that creative partnership, having J.D. opposite me, and leveling up to match him in different ways. For instance, if his version of Malcolm’s attack is one way, then I have to figure out what my version of Marie’s is. Often, the solution was found in not saying anything at all, or in being very quiet with the way she presented her ideas, or maybe in antagonizing Malcolm and knowing he doesn’t really know what she’s planning. That was interesting to me, finding those dynamics. They have to build, they have to go up and down. It was about finding that unpredictable emotional rollercoaster between these two characters.
Watch Malcolm & Marie
on Netflix now.