Zendaya tells EW about the evolution of MJ, the hazards of challenging Tom Holland to air hockey, and which ‘90s pop-culture icon inspired her character
Zendaya has a mace. Not the kind you spray, but the kind you swing — if, say, you’re an extra on the fields of Winterfell, or a high school student abroad who just happens to be visiting a medieval museum when something supernatural attacks, and you grab the closest weapon-y thing you can find.
Dressed far from her own much-documented personal style in an unassuming Henley and jeans, the 22-year-old actress sat down with EW last August on the London set of Spider-Man: Far From Home to talk about the evolution of MJ, the hazards of challenging Tom Holland to air hockey, and which ‘90s pop-culture icon inspired her character.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When you came on for Far From Home, did you get to read the script in full?
ZENDAYA: Well we do, but it changes so much that you don’t know what’s gonna happen.
Because of course certain things in Avengers: Endgame can effect what happens here. Did they have to fill you in and then swear you to secrecy?
Not necessarily! I mean, you can kind of gather context clues from the script obviously, but the only thing that’s difficult is you can only read a full script if you are in a Sony or Marvel space and they can control it, so whatever they would send me, things that were key to Endgame or any type of spoiler would be blacked out.
So it’s kind of like looking at the Mueller report.
[Laughs] Yeah, essentially.
Your MJ has definitely developed a different vibe than the more traditional Mary Jane we’re used to. Was that really clear from the beginning as well?
Well I always knew that she would be MJ at the end of the day, she’s just Marvel cinematic’s version of what she would look like in this universe. So she’s the MJ of the MCU, if that makes any sense. [Director] Jon [Watt] wanted to create something that was modern and different but still pay tribute to the original, and also spoke I think to the awkwardness of teenage life — just allowing for different kind of characters, especially female ones, to be seen on screen.
There weren’t really any rules. I think in the first movie we don’t really know much about her, she’s kind of mysterious. And once we find out she’s MJ, we kind of know where the relationship will go in the future with her and Peter, but it’s really sweet because she kind of has this guard up — this defense mechanism where she feels like you have to tell the truth all the time, even if it hurts your relationships.
She just does it, which is kind of her thing, and I think it’s cool because we’re in a world full of people who don’t tell the truth anymore. But the fact that she’s a bit of an outcast and Peter’s a bit of an outcast and they find comfort and kind of feel seen with each other, I think that’s something really special and definitely lucky.
Were you familiar with her? You weren’t even born yet when that was on MTV in the mid-’90s.
It’s just kind of a pop culture thing, you know? Jon actually gave the cast a list of ‘80s teenage coming-of-age movies, which I think has a lot of inspiration for him. He definitely knew who MJ was when I came in, which is nice. He handpicked the books that I read and they all have a meaning. He handpicked the T-shirt with Joan of Arc [that I wear in a scene] which was kind of a nice homage to my Met Ball outfit that year.
What’s funny is I think this character is me dialed-up, just on level 10. Me all the way. I think I agree with a lot of things she says and a lot of her thinking. I just think she’s dope, and when you feel that way about your character you have a lot of fun playing her. I just wish I read as much as she did! I wish I was as smart as she is. [Laughs]
Anyone who’s friends with Peter Parker will probably be in danger at some point, but it never seems like you’re just there to be rescued.
Yeah, the cool thing is, obviously my character’s not a superhero but she’s very smart, she’s always watching so she always knows what’s going on before anyone else does. I didn’t really have to demand anything, it was already in the script. Jon was very perceptive and very much wanted her to be her own person, not just waiting for Spidey to come and do whatever Spidey needed to do.
This sort of wrecking ball thing with the spikes you have in the scene I watched you shoot, what it is called?
It’s a mace. I’ve never lugged a mace around for no reason in anything I’d participated in before. [Laughs] No, it’s really fun and sweet because MJ’s doing the best she can trying to help out, and it allows her to have a little bad-ass moment. They actually added it to my toy — you know, the Funko pop thing, they have the mace and fans are gonna be like, “Why does she have a mace?”
But all the kids [on this class trip to Europe] are being put out of their comfort zone. They’re in a different places and different countries and they’re only, what, 16 years old, and figuring things out in a really awkward time in their life. Putting them in all these crazy situations and then adding all the crazy things that keep happening around them, it’s been really cool.
When I spoke to Tom Holland, he talked a lot about improvising his lines. Do you do that as well here?
My character doesn’t trip over words — she’s usually very calculated in the things she says so she rarely makes mistakes, whereas Peter’s like [stuttering] “uh, eu, euh,” he’s constantly kind of tripping and able to go on the fly. Everything MJ says is very intentional so it’s much harder to go off the cuff.
What was your take on the romance here, and how it develops?
It’s cool because it doesn’t feel pushed at all. It’s not like we start and they’re just together and it happens and they’re in love. It’s more of a natural progression of a 16-year-old’s relationship where you have a crush on somebody.
Maybe there’s someone you suddenly see differently, like “Whoa what is this? I’ve always seen you as a friend, and now I have real feelings and this is weird,” which we’ve all discovered and been through before. And with that comes a lot of awkwardness and a lot of funny moments, just living in the realism of being a teenager and feeling these feelings for the first time.
Your Lip Sync Battle with Tom in 2017 is pretty legendary. Was there ever a rematch on set?
Oh no no no. But we are very competitive with everything just because of that. I feel like now I have to beat him in everything else in life because that specific moment happened. There was air hockey for sure, while we were working on the movie. I’m trying to think of other things. I don’t know… I need to pick more fights with him obviously. [Laughs]
Tom says he’s definitely in this film series for the long haul. Do you feel the same way?
As long as we have Jon at the head, because he understands and has created such a beautiful Spider-Man world, then yeah for sure. The possibilities are endless.