I first met Zendaya in 2016 when we were in line, waiting to do an Instagrammable moment at an awards show. As I watched her break through the prop they had in the photo booth, I remember automatically feeling proud of her Black girl fierceness and joy. She was so present and bold. We recently reconnected during the national rebellion against police terror, when she invited me to take over her Instagram. In our first conversation, she made it clear that she wanted people to hear from me directly. She wanted her millions of followers to understand this movement. Honestly, I was honored and grateful for her generosity. What I've learned about Zendaya in this short period of time is that she always champions the most vulnerable, and she doesn't pretend to be something she is not. During our hour-long interview, she kept reminding me that she sees herself as a creative first. The idea of being called an activist felt too big because it is a responsibility she doesn't take lightly. Zendaya is the kind of grounded you wish all of your friends could be like. She is honest and specific about what she sees as important and necessary for all Black folks. She is making such an impact in the world for so many people — young people in particular — as she leads the way with vulnerability and transparency, showing up unapologetically as her full self.
VIDEO: Behind The Scenes at Zendaya's September Issue Cover Shoot
PATRISSE CULLORS: My first question for you is: How are you doing? So many things have happened, between COVID-19 and the uprisings. You've been working a lot too.
ZENDAYA: I genuinely don't know how I'm doing. [laughs] It's been an interesting few months, to say the least. But I've been trying to remain not just positive but grateful. I'm grateful for my health and for the fact that I can quarantine safely. I know that I'll be OK financially once this is over, but for a lot of people that isn't the case. So anytime I start complaining, I just stop.
PC: I think many of us have been feeling like that too.
Z: It's been tough to stay creative and motivated [during this time] because there are so many things that can take you down emotionally. And then, of course, everything that has happened [following the death of George Floyd] has been devastating. I didn't know what I could do to help. And that's when I reach out to people like you. Because at the end of the day, I'm just an actress, you know? And I don't pretend to be anything other than that. If I don't know something, then I ask people who are actually on the front lines doing the work. I'm up in the bleachers, not on the field. So I always think, "How can I cheer you on and be a part of something greater than myself?"
PC: As someone who's in this work and really trying to figure out what is possible and what is needed, I love that. What do you feel most hopeful about right now?
Z: I think this is a new chapter for me. There are a lot of people learning how to be creative during this time and learning how to take a leap while doing it safely in quarantine. It was interesting to experience that with my film Malcolm & Marie, and I'm really proud of that. I also have so many beautiful projects to look forward to. How the world is going to be able to see them, I don't really know. But that's when it's time to get even more innovative and figure out how we are going to exist in this industry with this new world.
PC: That's all we can do, honestly. I know there are a lot of people who learned to cook in quarantine. Did you teach yourself anything new?
Z: I painted for a week, and then I tried working out for a week, but I burned out on both very quickly. I did buy a piano in an attempt to learn how to play, though. I've taught myself one song so far. It's a song I wrote that is only three chords, so not that exciting, but I can play it. [laughs]
PC: Oh, I think that's dope! Have you been watching or listening to anything in particular?
Z: I love quite a few songs on Chloe x Halle's new album, Ungodly Hour. Those ladies are incredible. I stan. I also smashed through a lot of TV shows. I would do a season in a day. I'm not going to have anything left to watch! [laughs] But I wanted to stay in a happy vibe, so I also watched a lot of animated movies and funny YouTube compilations of people falling down. Keeping it light!
PC: Who or what inspires you the most right now?
Z: Well, you're actually one of the people who are inspiring me. I can't imagine the immense pressure you carry. And you carry it so gracefully. You always have a smile on your face. If I were under half of that emotional stress, nobody would hear from me. So that courageousness and selflessness, I admire. Sometimes I'm inspired by moments too, like a good conversation with my grandmother. In quarantine, you have to hold on to the sweet little things.
PC: You and I have both opened up about having anxiety, and I think it's so important to share how we're coping with it. How are you're managing stress in these times?
Z: My anxiety first started when I was younger and I had to take a test at school. I remember panicking, and my teacher had to walk me out of the room and say, "Calm down, deep breaths." I don't think it really came up again until I was about 16, when I was working and there was a project I had turned down. That was kind of my first time dealing with the internet, and it made me feel sick. I deleted everything and stayed in my room. Live performing really gave me anxiety too. I think a lot of it stems from the pressure I put on myself, wanting to do my best and not make a mistake. I definitely don't have it under control yet. I don't have the key, so if anybody does, let me know! I do find that talking about it is helpful, and that can often mean calling my mom in the middle of the night. Sometimes I make her sleep on the phone with me like a frickin' baby. [laughs]
PC: You're turning 24 in September. Do you ever just get to be, like, a 24-year-old?
Z: I obviously didn't have the typical high school and college experience and get to do things like prom. And, you know, I could be sad about it. But then, a lot of kids didn't get to live their dreams at 12. So I'm very lucky in a lot of ways. I try not to say, "I didn't get a normal life," because this is my normal. It's all I've ever known, and I'm grateful that I have a wonderful support system and that I'm not too detached from reality. I like to think so, at least. [laughs] There is a responsibility that's different for me, though. I have to think about things that an average 24-year-old wouldn't be thinking about. And a lot of people are watching, so I can't necessarily make the same kind of mistakes that people make in their 20s and just forget about it. So now I'm trying to learn to not be afraid of making those mistakes and how to put myself out there more.
PC: I think quarantine, especially for creatives, has forced us all to think about our work differently. What was it like shooting Malcolm & Marie during that time?
Z: It was an incredible experience. I'd been talking to Sam [Levinson, the creator of Euphoria] often during the quarantine. Sometimes he'd just call to shoot the shit and chat about life. And eventually I said to him, "I need to do something creative." So we bounced ideas back and forth, and then he started writing. Sam reached out to John David [Washington] about wanting to be a part of the project, so we fronted our own money and put it together ourselves. Our crew was a very small group of people who are also from Euphoria. And the No. 1 thing was safety. Everyone had to quarantine and get tested in order to shoot in isolation. We created our own little bubble and made sure that once we were in, we couldn't leave. We were able to workshop and rehearse together — it was very much like a play. I did my own hair and makeup and dressed in my own clothes. And then we shot in black and white on film, so we'll see how it turns out. I think we were able to create something really special. And I'm grateful that we learned how to do it on our own.
PC: Since Euphoria filming is delayed, are you missing your character, Rue? How are you feeling about having that part of your life on pause?
Z: I do miss Rue. She's like my little sister in a lot of ways. And going back to that character is a home base for me. There is a beautiful second season that has been written, but in order to do it the way we want to do it, we need to wait until it's safer. There is an idea to do a couple of bridge episodes that can be shot safely but aren't necessarily part of Season 2. So, hopefully, we will be able to do those in the coming months. I can't wait.
PC: I'm also excited about your upcoming film Dune. I just saw the trailer, and you look fierce.
Z: Dune was incredible. I wasn't in it very much, so when I was watching the trailer, I was like, "Oh my gosh!" I called Timothée [Chalamet, who stars in it] and said, "Dude! You should be proud." It is a big deal to even be a small part of something with such a massive cast. And I love sci-fi stuff too. It's fun to escape into another world.
PC: You were also recently invited to become a member of the Academy's Oscar voting committee, right? We spent almost three years with #OscarsSoWhite, so I think it's very good of them to be reevaluating who is represented and who gets to vote.
Z: Yes! It happened when we were working on the set of Malcom & Marie. John David, [producer] Ashley Levinson, and I all got the news. And we were like, "The Oscars! That's a big deal!" So we will see how it all works.
PC: We have to talk fashion next because you wore some incredible pieces for this cover shoot. You also had an all-Black team around you. Was that the first time you ever experienced that?
Z: I've always had a Black stylist and Black hair and makeup artists. But we were able to work with two talented young Black photographers on this shoot too. We're actually around the same age, so it was cool to be with my peers and have an opportunity to show what we can do. There are also so many Black designers people don't know about, so having an opportunity where they can be in InStyle and get the love they deserve is really special. I hope people are like, "Oh, I like that dress!" And then go support them.
PC: I want to ask you about your activism. What do you want to say to the young people who look up to you around this moment of Black Lives Matter? What feels important for you to share with them?
Z: I have always hesitated to use the word "activist" for myself. That is a lifestyle. That is a choice every day to be doing the work and devoting your life to a cause. And I don't feel I am deserving of the title. There are a lot of words that better describe what I do. I'm an actress, but I'm also just a person who has a heart and wants to do the right thing. I care about human beings, so this time is very hard to talk about. It's painful. I remember when I was with my dad in Atlanta shooting the first Spider-Man movie, and it was around the time that the murders of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling happened. I was extremely emotional, and I remember thinking about my dad, who was out picking up food at the time. And I started worrying and calling him like, "Are you OK?" I didn't want him to go out and do anything. But my dad is a 65-year-old Black man. He's been on this planet a long time, so he knows what he knows. But I still had that fear, and that scared me.
PC: You've always been honest about sharing how you feel, and how you have been present around these moments has really mattered to your fans. When I took over your Instagram, it was incredible to watch people interact and ask questions. That felt hopeful for me because there are so many new voices and new connections being made, and we need that right now.
Z: For me, it's important not to entirely give up hope and faith in humanity. A lot of young people feel like the system has never worked for them, so why should they even bother? If there is anything positive that has come out of this time, it's that I feel a little bit of hope too. There are changes happening. I'm so inspired by my peers and their commitment. My niece is going into high school, and when I see her Instagram posts and the things she's talking about, it's really special. She is only 15, and we can have a dialogue about what's happening. So clearly there is hope in the youth. That makes me want to keep going. And more than anything, I just want to tell people that your voice does matter. The little things do matter. And continue to use your emotions. They are sometimes considered a weakness, but in this time they are very powerful.
Patrisse Cullors is the co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement. A young-adult edition of her New York Times best-selling book, When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, which she co-wrote with Asha Bandele, will be published on September 22.
Photographs by AB+DM for The Only Agency. Styling by Law Roach for The Only Agency. Hair by Larry Sims for Forward Artists. Makeup by Sheika Daley for Six K. Production: Kelsey Stevens Productions.
For more stories like this, pick up the September issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Aug. 21.