This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes writer-director Sam Levinson and actress Zendaya, star of Levinson's new film for Netflix "Malcolm and Marie." The film follows a couple for one night as they navigate the ups and downs of their combustible relationship. In their conversation, Levinson talks about subverting gender stereotypes with the roles of Marie, played by Zendaya, and Malcolm, played by John David Washington. Zendaya discusses how her silence in the early part of the film sets up the power dynamics for the rest of the film. And she says that even months after completing the film, she still doesn’t know whose side she’s on.
The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.
KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the home edition. I'm Elvis Mitchell. My guests today are Sam Levinson, writer-director of the new Netflix film "Malcom and Marie" and its star Zendaya. Z, between playing Rue and now Marie, you are playing a couple of characters who are kind of in the present and not really there at the same time. Basically these are people with two states of mind simultaneously. She's waiting a long time to speak, and there's a part of her that seems to be present, but also looking at herself at the same time.
Sam Levinson: It might in some way mirror our working relationship in the sense that as I got to know Z through shooting "Euphoria," I realized how just unbelievably talented she is at everything. And so I think there's something so fascinating about that as a character where Marie comes in, and she's in this amazing dress, and you can't really read her; you don't know what she's thinking. Slowly throughout the course of the movie, she unfolds until you realize that she is the true kind of center of the universe in terms of this film.
Zendaya: Me and Sam, it's interesting, because every time we get to talk to different people who've seen the movie, we learn more about it. We were actually talking about this yesterday. I think this movie was made in just the sheer pursuit of wanting to try things and wanting to see what we can do and how creative we can be. It's been interesting to see different people's takeaways and what they noticed within the material that I think sometimes we maybe weren't as aware of, or had our own different opinion of what that might have looked like. So it is fascinating to think about.
I always thought that Marie, coming into that house, always felt that she knew exactly how she wanted the night to play out. Sam and I talked in the beginning about the character and about how we saw her, and I think one of the things that was interesting is we always talked about her being a little bit unpredictable. You never really know what she's thinking, and that helps the overall suspense and intention that helped us sustain however long of just two people talking in a house, because you never really know what Marie is going to do or what she's going to say. And I think there's something about that is interesting.
In the beginning, my thought about Marie was she knew that she was going to start an argument. She didn't know how long it was going to go or what it was going to turn into, but something was going to be said that night. She's just waiting for him to notice that something's wrong. And even when she says, you know, I don't want to fight I don't want to talk about it, you know, bull----. Yeah, she does.
I guess I'm a bit different from her in that regard. I found it difficult to transition from: okay, well, now she's sad and now she's angry so quickly, and I know there's one part where she goes from literally crying to screaming at him and I always was like, how is that gonna read? But that is the character.
KCRW: There's a scene that encapsulates what we're talking about, which is the love scene when "In a Sentimental Mood" is playing. It's an intensely physical scene, obviously, but it's almost like Marie is standing over it, commenting on it, commenting on Malcolm's life, on her life, what his future life is going to be like without her.
Levinson: I think this is the first time that we're actually looking at the film from an outside perspective and trying to unpack it. When I sat down to write it, we didn't have any of the bells and whistles of production. So it was like, can we tell a story with two characters in this house? And I essentially just wrote this strange, Socratic dialogue between the two with no structure, or act breaks or anything, but I wanted to make sure that there was always a tension to the piece that could keep people engaged. Marie, not being forthright about how she feels at the beginning, gives an unease to Malcolm's whole celebration within the house, where he's toasting imaginary people and talking about how well his film was received, and you know that something's coming.
I agree with Z that she knows where it's going to go; she knows they're going to get into a fight. But I think she's waiting; she's plotting for the right moment, she wants him to ask, and then she'll finally reveal it. But she also doesn't want to give away all of her cards.
KCRW: When you have people walk into a house looking that glamorous, and one of them isn't speaking, the other is kind of all over the place, you're already creating a kind of tension, because we want to hear what they're going to be like when they relax. You said there were no act breaks, but it's really like the act breaks come when there are these emotional shifts.
Levinson: Absolutely, and I think that's just the nature of the process of writing it, which was: I would write during the day, and then I'd call Z, and I'd read it to her aloud on the phone. And I'd always wanted to leave her with a cliffhanger, like, wait, how's Marie gonna get out of this? And I'd go, well, just wait, just wait. I think part of it was how can we dig these characters into a hole, and then find our way out in the next scene? And that was really the entire structure of the movie.
KCRW: Z, what was it like for you to not speak for so long of the movie? And, when you do speak, it's just responses, you're not really having a conversation.
Zendaya: I think a lot is being said in that beginning part, and I think a lot of Malcolm's rants don't just serve as hearing what he's saying, but also as devices to better understand how their relationship works. And so when they come in, even though she's not saying anything, we clearly see two people had two very different nights. One had a good night. One is drinking; one is not drinking. Why isn't she drinking? Why is she making him food? OK, so it's a celebratory night for him. OK, she looks kind of upset. Why? Why is she not celebrating with him? She's outside smoking, and not paying any attention yet to the fact that the person who he just spent this night with, clearly seems to have something wrong, I think just tells you so much about how maybe their relationship works.
I love sometimes not having any dialogue at all. I think that was one of my favorite parts about "Euphoria" was the fact that most of it was voiceover, not because I just don't like learning lines. I actually really enjoy learning lines, but there's so much that can be said without words. Sam and I both loved finding those moments with Rue where something would happen, or she would be thinking about something and you would just hold on her and see an entire mood shift or a train of thought or whatever it may be pass through her without any words at all.
KCRW: Sam, one of the things I think about with your work is people trying to find a way to work out their anxiety and their fear, and how they verbalize that, and you have this interesting balance where you've cast Zendaya so often as an observer to this.
Levinson: I like the idea of anxiety as a genre that I think I'm always trying to play with, and that I think is just a direct result of just having too much anxiety in life that I need to put it into something, or else it's unbearable, and also try to find the peace from the anxiety. I think I maybe do that through Z's character. Also Z's a very calm and even keeled person in general, and I'm sometimes quite envious of her stability, and since I'm usually writing parts of myself, and putting them into characters that she's playing, it feels just like a good healthy balance.
Zendaya: I often say that both Rue and Marie are equal parts Sam and myself, but they're entirely different characters. Marie has the words for what she's feeling. Rue hasn't gotten that far. She can't explain anything that's going on inside of her, but Marie can quite eloquently say exactly how she feels, and she has no fear in doing that.
Sam would write 10 to 15 pages, and he'd call me after. I ended up recording all of those conversations that we had because I wanted to capture exactly the way Sam was reading Marie, the first time he was reading her, because it just felt very, very sure of herself. I would play that over and over again, and it helped me not only memorize my lines, but memorize that cadence, which I felt was just kind of perfect. And so when we're putting it up on its feet, I'm in a dress for the first half of the movie, and then for the rest of it, which was also a conversation that all of us had, I'm wearing underwear and a tank top, which was a personal choice. I wanted to stay that way. Sam was like are you sure? And I was like, no, I want to have this fight this way in purpose. I felt like it gave me an extra kind of challenge to have a toughness with absolutely no armor on at all.
KCRW: I don't mean to equate these characters, Rue and Marie, but she [Marie] has a real sense of control because she's had to fight to get to where she is.
Zendaya: Exactly. It's interesting, because Malcolm ends up saying that to her: it's about control. And I think at the end of the day, it plays into a fear that we all have in a different way just of wanting to be needed, or wanting to be wanted or needed by somebody, that fear of abandonment or not being good enough. Her need for control stems from her plethora of insecurities that she doesn't allow to be shown.
A lot of times, we get the feedback that Malcolm is so horrible. He's this villain, and you know, he is, to a degree, but she is manipulative in her own way. And she is manipulating the situation how she wants it, too. And I think that's why their relationship is so conflicting for me. Even now, I can't really tell if they're good for each other or not. I go back and forth every day, you know, it's like, I want them together. And then I'm like, no, absolutely not. This is not how relationships should be.
KCRW: The act breaks are really about the changing emotional states these characters have. And the real power comes for me in Marie's ability to get Malcolm into her state.
Levinson: You know, just from an outside perspective, watching these two, I was fascinated by the idea that they could fix this whole evening if they just happened to be in sync, but they never are. When Marie comes out of the bath and she sits down next to to Malcolm and you can see that she kind of wants to put this to rest, I just imagine this scene of: she's looking at him, hoping that he looks at her and they can both laugh at the sort of absurdity of the song in the moment, but they just keep missing each other's cues.
I agree with Z in the sense that I don't know how I feel about their relationship. There's days in which I love them and days which I don't. But I also think part of the dynamic of it that I was interested in exploring was flipping the normal gender roles of the characters where Marie has a little bit more of what you would think of as a quintessentially male stoicism. Malcolm, on the other hand, is a bit more emotional-slash-hysterical in that stereotypical female way.
KCRW: Z, you're talking about going back and forth between how you feel about these characters' relationship, and how you feel about these characters. So today, given where we are, how do you feel about them now?
Zendaya: I still don't know. I still have no idea. I think that's the beauty of it. Sometimes, I'm like, you know, there's no no one better for them than each other. There's something about the chaos that just works for them. And then I'm like, no, this is not how you're supposed to have a relationship. Like, this is not how people are supposed to function together; this is not healthy, you know? What I'm so proud of is that it's a dialogue that really never ends. I get excited when I show it to my friends and family. And they're like, my gosh, that was a lot to process, and they want to watch it again and pick up more the second time.
That's I think the reason we all do what we do is because we want people to think about it, when they leave, we want people to have these discussions with their loved ones and hopefully leave feeling like they need to go say thank you to somebody or just show their appreciation for the people in their lives. Hopefully that's what comes out of it. But yeah, I'm still undecided. But I think that's a good thing.
KCRW: Wow, if you can show this movie to your family more than once, that means you have a very healthy family. Sam, let me ask you. How do you feel about these guys today because in effect, they're both you.
Levinson: I'm with Z on this. I can't ever take sides with characters because it's just not how I look at the world. It's not how I look at people. I can always sort of understand where someone's coming from, and if I don't understand that, I want to understand. Ultimately, you know, I'm not a relationship counselor, so I can't make any suggestions as to what they should do. But I think what Z said was really beautiful, which is I think that every person has someone in their life that they're extremely grateful for. And the acknowledgement of that person is, I think, integral to the way we communicate. That's ultimately all I really care about is that we see human beings for who they are, in all of their complexity and with all their flaws and all their beauty.