Zendaya on the pressure of being a young Black woman in Hollywood: 'I have a heavy responsibility on my shoulders'

Taryn Ryder
Writer, Yahoo Entertainment

Zendaya is only 23, but she’s acutely aware that the world is watching her every move — and what that means. The Euphoria star joined Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston, Janelle Monáe, Helena Bonham Carter and Rose Byrne for the Hollywood Reporter’s Drama Actress Roundtable, where she discussed the pressure that comes with being a role model for her young fans. 

Zendaya got her big break at age 13 on the Disney Channel’s Shake It Up, which is a very different audience from those who are tuning into HBO’s Euphoria. The actress admitted she has “a heavy responsibility” on her shoulders when asked if she grapples with what her fanbase can handle and how it impacts her choices. 

“I have a heavy responsibility on my shoulders, but I’m appreciative for that because with that there’s a lot of good that I can do and I know who is watching,” the Spider-Man: Homecoming star shared. “Now more than ever, specifically with Black Lives Matter and everything, I feel an obligation to make sure that I’m aware and putting out the right things and in line with organizers and people who are on the ground.”

Zendaya says she feels “constant” pressure not to make a mistake being a Disney star and young Black woman in Hollywood. (Reuters)

Unlike many Disney stars, Zendaya was able to avoid the inevitable pitfall of becoming tabloid fodder for bad behavior. She also avoided being typecast. (Just watch her as teenage drug addict Rue Bennett in Euphoria.) Zendaya explained that before signing on to the HBO show she worried about her next move.

“I think, like a lot of artists, I’m my biggest critic, so some of it was internal — not wanting to make a mistake or worrying that maybe I didn’t have the room to make a mistake and wanting to make the right next move. But I also wanted to prove myself,” she noted. “When Euphoria came along, I was very grateful because all those fears melted away and I felt like it was something that I had to be a part of. So the fear became just, like, push yourself. If you go to work and you’re scared, that’s a good thing. You should be worried about whether you can do it.”

When asked what she meant when she said “not wanting to make a mistake,” Zendaya acknowledged there’s both personal and professional pressure on her not to make a misstep.

“It's a constant thing. Being a young Disney actor, that’s one level, being a young Black woman is one level, and then being very hard on myself is another level. It’s also just a personal fear,” she explained. “I want to do a good job, and sometimes that can cause you to be fearful of things. But I will say that there’s something that happens when a special character comes along, for me at least, and those fears melt away. They don’t come back until it starts airing, which is when I started to get a little scared again. But now I’m excited to go back because the motivation is to work harder and become a better actress. I just want to get better.”

Zendaya has earned critical acclaim playing Rue, which may not have happened if her agents didn’t have a clear directive of what she was looking for. The actress previously told her representatives to just get her in an audition room, even if a role she wanted wasn’t written for a Black woman. (There was “no description” for Rue’s character.) While the actress said that’s “absolutely” still the case, she wanted to acknowledge her own privilege. 

“I also think it’s important being a light-skinned woman to recognize my privilege in that sense as well and make sure that I’m not taking up space where I don’t need to,” she notes.

“I think that’s been a choice for myself. Our creator [Sam Levinson] wrote Rue based off his own experiences with addiction, and he is a white man, so Rue could have been that. Rue had no description,” Zendaya revealed. She said her “ultimate goal” is to make room for more Black people in the entertainment industry.

“I’m very grateful, and hopefully I’ll be in a space like these ladies where I can create things and make space for women who look like me and women who don’t look like me,” she added. “That’s the ultimate goal, to make room, [because] for a lot of Black creatives, it’s not a lack of talent but a lack of opportunity.”

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