zendaya malcolm & marie
Credit: Instagram / @zendaya

After her standout performance in Euphoria’s first season as Rue, a troubled teen with a drug addiction, which resulted in her becoming the youngest person to ever with the Emmy for Best Actress for a Drama Series, Zendaya’s new project has a lot of hype around it – so much so that it after a huge bidding war, it was sold to Netflix for $30m USD on the promo alone.

Filmed completely in quarantine in just a two-week period, Malcolm & Marie tells the story of a couple, Marie, played by Zendaya, and Malcolm, played by John David Washington, who spend an evening discussing their past relationships as they await critics’ responses to Malcolm’s new film. 

But ahead of its release, with nothing but a black and white trailer to go off, Malcolm & Marie is already causing controversy. On Twitter, people noted that they take issue with Zendaya and Washington’s 12-year age difference – it was filmed while Washington was 35, and Zendaya 23 – saying that it speaks to a wider issue when it comes to castings in Hollywood. 

“My criticism of the film is that Zendaya could’ve gotten a male costar HER age,” one person wrote. “John almost 40 years old. It’s tiring for me…”

“I really hope people realise that no one is saying Zendaya is a bad actress or person for that movie,” another noted. “But that the practice of casting younger actresses with men that are older than them is a symptom of bigger problem in Hollywood.”

Acknowledging the backlash, Zendaya told E!’s Daily Pop that she understands why people have trouble seeing her as an adult given they “grew up with me as a child.”

“I’ve played a 16-year-old since I was 16,” she said, referencing her Disney Channel shows Shake It Up and K.C. Undercover. “You have to remember people also grew up with me as a child.”

“It’s like watching, I guess, your younger sibling — now they’re grown, and you’re not ready for it,” she continued. “It’s hard for people to wrap [their heads] around the idea that I am grown in real life, even though I do play a teenager on television still,” she added, referring to Euphoria. 

Earlier this week, during an interview with Carey Mulligan for Variety’s Actors on Actors, Zendaya also admitted that while she is “grateful” for her “Disney kid” roots, she’s been wary of taking risks because of her connection to that realm. 

“I’ve always felt that I could bring things to the table: that I could be creative and free to try things, and put out bad ideas,” she said. “Because of the Disney kid thing, I get scared of that kind of thing.” She continued, “[Disney Channel is] where I started, and I learned so much from that experience. It’s just kind of been this slow progression, and I am happy that it’s all been to prove it to myself and not to anybody else.”

As for Washington, he seems just as unbothered by the Malcolm & Marie backlash, telling Variety in an interview earlier this month that he “wasn’t concerned” about it. “She is a woman,” Washington said of Zendaya. “People are going to see in this film how much of a woman she is.”

Credit: Getty

“She has far more experience than I do in the industry,” he explained. “I’ve only been in it for seven years. She’s been in it longer, so I’m learning from her. I’m the rookie. I was leaning on her for a lot. What I’m really excited for people to see when the film is released – they’re going to see how mature she is in this role.”

Others on Twitter noted that while there is an age gap between the co-stars, Zendaya is older than Margot Robbie was (22) when she played Leonardo DiCaprio’s wife on The Wolf of Wall Street and older than Kiera Knightley was in Pride & Prejudice (20). Plus, given Zendaya was the one to pull the whole movie together – calling Euphoria creator Sam Levinson to bring him on board and joining the production team as executive producer – she likely had a huge role in the casting of Washington and feels just fine to be starring alongside him. Either way, we know where we’ll be on February 5th: glued to Netflix watching Malcolm & Marie.