Film Critic Simran Bains gives an overview of Zendaya’s illustrious career, identifying the actor as a powerful star talent

Written by Simran Bains

Before she served up tennis balls and fierceness in Challengers (2024), Zendaya Maree Stoermer Coleman, better known as Zendaya, debuted her acting career as a Disney Channel star over a decade ago, anchoring the successful sitcoms Shake it Up! And K.C Undercover under her belt in the 2010s. The tween idol was a triple threat, featuring as a runner up on Dancing with the Stars in 2013, and releasing her hit debut song Replay in the same year. But Zendaya ascended the ranks of a typical child star in 2015, when at only eighteen-years-old, she made the transition from actor to producer of her second and final Disney instalment. Embodying high-school spy K.C and pioneering diversity on Disney Channel, she tells The Seattle Times, ‘there weren’t any leads or families of colour, and I felt like that was something that needed to happen.’

Zendaya was destined for her future role as producer

As a trailblazer before her time, Zendaya was destined for her future role as producer. Four years later, she sheds her Disney skin and returns to television screens as an executive producer and the leading role of HBO’s Euphoria, portraying Rue Bennett, a charming yet manipulative high-school teen battling drug addiction. The sudden and drastic leap from a cookie cutter Disney star to the raw, tragic portrayal of a young addict exemplifies Zendaya’s impressive versatility as an actress. Her most notable performance in the show opens in the fifth episode of Euphoria’s second season, ‘Stand Still Like a Hummingbird,’ which depicts a manic Rue heatedly contending with her mother (Nika King) and sister (Storm Reid) over the whereabouts of her drug stash. Zendaya reflects on this scene as ‘so intense and scary to tackle, and obviously something that would be incredibly emotionally taxing, but also physically taxing,’ revealing a poignant layer to her talent that viewers of the young actress had yet to witness. Her raw, emotional performance consequently earned Zendaya two Primetime Emmys for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series in 2020 and 2022, making her the youngest two-time Emmy award winner in history, at just 25-years-old.

During this emotional endeavour, Zendaya web-slings onto the big screen as Michelle (M.J) Jones in Sony and Marvel Studio’s rebooted Spider-Man (2017-) franchise. A much more light-hearted role than Rue, Michelle is the socially-reclused love interest of Peter Parker (Tom Holland), who gains more prevalence as Peter’s beloved confidante across the three movies. As their on-screen romance develops, Holland and Zendaya begin their private relationship off-screen, which is rumoured to have started before the release of Spider-Man Homecoming in 2016, but was ultimately publicised after cosy paparazzi pictures surfaced of the pair in 2021. While the besotted Spider-Man co-stars, referred to by adoring fans as ‘Tomdaya’, opt to keep most of their relationship off the web, they have been romantically-linked ever since, with Holland fulfilling mandatory boyfriend duties by accompanying Zendaya to her movie premieres, and gushing about her in his Instagram posts, making us all wish we had a superhero boyfriend of our own.

By this point in her career, Zendaya has catapulted herself into Hollywood stardom, and trades the crime-fighting streets of New York for endless stretches of desert in Denis Villeneuve’s screen adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novel, Dune (2021). However, her role as Chani was limited to a measly seven minutes of screentime. This disappointed her eager fans, after the countless number of appearances Zendaya made in press events and premieres promised a more significant feature from the Spider-Man actress in her new movie. Zendaya makes her largely-anticipated and more dominant return as Chani in Dune: Part-Two (2024), alongside co-stars Timothée Chalamet, Austin Butler, and Florence Pugh. In Herbert’s novels, Chani is depicted as the passive and faithful companion to Paul (Chalamet), standing back and enabling him to colonise her homeland of Arrakis, and ignite a holy war. But Villeneuve challenges this narrative by positioning Zendaya’s character as sceptical of Paul and his power throughout. Chani eventually emerges as the film’s true hero due to her open condemnation of Paul’s actions, executed by Zendaya’s fierce, open-hearted performance, and thus critics rightly label Dune: Part Two Zendaya’s Movie.

Zendaya’s fierce, open-hearted performance [makes] Dune: Part Two Zendaya’s Movie

2024 proves to be Zendaya’s year following Dune, and after her latest movie, Challengers, smashed the box office in late April. The film depicts the interweaving, multifaceted lives of Tashi, a former tennis player-turned-coach, her husband and personal tennis project, Art (Mike Faist), and her ex-boyfriend slash failed tennis player, Patrick (Josh O’Connor) on the tennis court. As producer and lead of the film, Zendaya’s romantic sports drama once more serves as a demonstration of her all-rounder talent, as she embodies the role of a complicated, occasionally unlikeable (yet undeniably compelling) player, coach, wife and mother, wrapped up in one. Zendaya describes Tashi to British Vogue as ‘a different being that comes into me – my own Sasha Fierce,’ suggesting that Challengers becomes an outlet for another of Zendaya’s vast assortment of alter egos to step onto the court, and keep audiences on the edge of their seats.

From dancing on Disney to portraying Spider-Man’s girlfriend, a drug-addicted teen and a headstrong tennis coach, Zendaya has proved that at just 27-years-old, she is one of the fastest-growing actresses of our generation. This past decade has only marked the beginning of Zendaya’s prosperous acting career, and we look forward to the cinematic universe she steps into next.

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