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When Euphoria was forced to postpone production last March due to COVID-19, creator Sam Levinson promptly asked HBO: "Well, can we make a movie?" He'd been deep into daily season 2 discussions with his star, Zendaya, who'd soon net a surprise Emmy win. The creative juices were flowing. They weren't ready to stop.
The resulting film, Malcolm & Marie, wasn't backed by Euphoria's home network, and it came together in secret while the rest of Hollywood shut down. One of the only projects to start and complete production in the early days of the outbreak, the movie began with Levinson and Zendaya bouncing ideas off each other until he had 10 pages of a first draft. The scene: A director forgot to thank his wife at his film's big premiere, which they've just come home from celebrating. (Levinson actually did this, and still feels guilty about it.) The ensuing story was inspired by "films that were contained, yet had dealt with relationships and how we relate to one another inside of an enclosed space," says Levinson, 36, "which felt apt, given the circumstances of the pandemic."
Compared with Euphoria's Rue, Marie "encapsulated more of who I know [Zendaya] to be," Levinson continues. "This confident, tough woman who was a little bit of a fighter. She's got opinions; she's funny, charismatic, radiant." Zendaya approved. "This was definitely a special departure from anything that I've been part of," the actress, 24, says.
Then came Levinson's next question: "Who can go toe-to-toe with her?" He thought of the man who would soon be at the center of the movie industry's most high-profile, high-stakes pandemic-era gamble: John David Washington. "I was a little nervous because I was acutely aware of the fact that he was in the biggest film of the year, and I was about to ask him to be in the smallest film of the year," Levinson says of the Tenet star.
"I had concerns — and not about the pandemic," Washington, 36, says of signing on to the project. "I was at such a low. I'm thinking this movie I had, a movie that was supposed to come out at a certain date, a movie I was very proud of — if the movie was ever going to come out! And here's this opportunity to escape my reality."
Malcolm & Marie follows the couple over a tumultuous night of arguments, revelations, and passion. Two people, one location — easy enough for a COVID-safe shoot, right? But bare-bones as it may have been, options were limited. "We had to find a place where we could shoot without permits," says Levinson, who produced the film with Euphoria collaborators Ashley Levinson (his wife) and Kevin Turen. "The only place really in California at that time that you didn't need a permit to shoot on private property was Carmel. So it had to be in Carmel."
The rules for the actors were as straightforward as they were strict. "We got tested before we left for Carmel, we got tested when we got there," says Washington. For 12 days in June, "nobody left the Carmel Valley estate, the lodging. I [thought]: If nobody leaves, we should be pretty good, because we're basically the only people there."
Nearly everyone on the skeleton crew needed to wear multiple hats. "I was doing my own hair and makeup, and we didn't have all the things you would usually have," Zendaya recalls. "No ADs, or schedules, or script supervisors... There were times when Sam was writing as we were going."
There was one other complication. "We didn't really have a third act," Zendaya deadpans. "[We] were figuring it out as we went. Watching Sam type away, I've never experienced anything like that, as far as being so inside the process, literally rewriting scenes with Sam in the middle of shooting."
Adds Washington, "I'm looking at the way Sam and Zendaya work and they're like one person. It was very intimidating. I felt myself trying to play catch up the entire time."
For her part, Zendaya appreciated everything Washington brought as a scene partner. "He's so talented and detail-oriented and asks all these incredible questions. Both of us in this way, we're competitive and hardworking, but also very supportive, wanting each other to win and do well. And I think that was so special because you can do a scene and feel like you're being cheered on, but you're also being pushed to do better. Because of the level that your creative partner is going." She then says with a laugh, "He would do his stuff, and I'd be like, 'Oh s---, well now I better bring it.'"
As Malcolm and Marie tear each other apart, Levinson and the actors mine deep truths about identity, artistry, and love. "There were some triggering things that were happening to me, in the physicality of some of those scenes, that were a bit overwhelming and worked as therapy almost," Washington says. "I had some breakthroughs, honestly. [I'll be] appreciative of Sam for that for the rest of my life." Adds Zendaya: "That process of living inside something all the way through, and being able to be a part of it in every single way, can be equally exciting and terrifying. It's a big undertaking, to believe in yourself in that way, and it can be scary."
One of the driving forces for Levinson and Zendaya was being able to employ and empower their Euphoria crew while the rest of Hollywood was on lockdown. Nearly everyone on the film's set was from the HBO drama and had been out of work. In the spirit of Malcolm & Marie, which is about acknowledging those who help you tell a story, Levinson "wanted to create what we hope is a new paradigm for how films are structured, and how all the people involved in it can have ownership."
In that sense, at least, the film has already earned a very happy ending: Netflix bought Malcolm & Marie for a reported $30 million in September, just three months after cameras started rolling, setting a Feb. 5 release date. And as Hollywood gets back to work and adjusts to whatever the new normal is, Malcolm & Marie may just wind up leading by example. "I felt like the entire industry was watching us," Washington admits. Fortunately, they pulled it off.
To read more on Malcolm & Marie, order the February issue of Entertainment Weekly or find it on newsstands beginning Jan. 22. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.