Features and Columns · Movies · TV

Zendaya and the Extraordinary Evolution of Celebrity

The ‘Euphoria’ and ‘Spider-Man’ star has graced our screens since childhood, but her subversion of her own famous image makes her résumé so delightful.
Zendaya filmography Euphoria Hbo
By  · Published on March 25th, 2021

Welcome to Filmographies, a column for completists. Every edition brings a working actor’s resumé into focus as we learn about what makes them so compelling. In this entry, we spotlight the filmography of Zendaya.

Zendaya is an entertainer in every sense of the word. The erstwhile Disney Channel mainstay has cultivated one of the most sensational onscreen careers of the 2010s, moving seamlessly from the machinations of the Mouse House towards equally coveted, if more mature, acting roles as an adult.

In the past, Filmographies has covered a couple of actors with their own version of mega mainstream success. However, celebrity status in and of itself has long been built into the foundation of Zendaya’s performances, given that a large portion of her career spotlighted the star’s very own poise and charisma.

Many of Zendaya’s early professional credits put her front and center plainly as herself, while Disney-fied fictional roles utilized her exceptional singing and dancing skills to create larger-than-life personalities. But what’s even more compelling about Zendaya’s résumé is that although she very much embodies and embraces the term “triple threat,” her brand of success evolves with so much precision and intention that it allows her to break free from it, too.

Shake It Up (2010-2013)

Zendaya’s initial break arrived in one of the Disney Channel’s sparkly tween sitcoms. In Shake It Up, she plays Rocky Blue, one of two precocious girls who land their dream job as professional dancers on their favorite eponymous TV program. Simultaneously, Rocky and her best friend, CeCe (Bella Thorne), navigate varying misfortunes in their regular lives that could impede their presence on Shake It Up! Chicago, taking their families and friends along for a ride of saccharine self-discovery.

The three-season Shake It Up operates in the vein of Disney Channel crowd-pleasers such as Hannah Montana and Sonny with a Chance — flagship shows that propelled their respective stars, Miley Cyrus and Demi Lovato, to the forefront of kids’ minds everywhere. Yet, while sitcoms like these are generally a dime a dozen in Disney’s back catalog, Zendaya showcases an affinity for spectacle that goes beyond classic cute kid appeal.

Although Shake It Up tends to classify Rocky as CeCe’s sidekick, I beg to differ. Audiences see her evolve from an awkward, skittish brainiac to a confident, composed dancer who stands up for what she believes in. This is all due to Zendaya’s wholehearted espousal of the show’s borderline slapstick tendencies as well as its genuine relationship arcs.

Zendaya certainly holds her own as a dancer as well, having begun her career as part of an Oakland dance troupe when she was eight. Furthermore, she and Thorne foster naturalistic onscreen chemistry with one another that highlights their individual quirks. They are each other’s linchpins when portraying their respective sweet and sassy archetypes, easily playing off and sometimes even adopting each other’s supposedly opposing traits. Rocky and CeCe are ultimately fuller characters because of Zendaya and Thorne’s easygoing performances.

Frenemies (2012)

This pair-up reasserts itself in other Disney Channel projects, albeit in a much smaller amount. The anthology movie Frenemies banks on Zendaya and Thorne as recognizable bookends for narrative segments featuring fellow up-and-coming stars Nick Robinson and Stefanie Scott.

The Shake It Up duo gets a portion of the movie to call their own, too. This time, they play aspiring fashion bloggers. Once again, Zendaya and Thorne lean into their strengths and personalities — the former being on the wordier side of their joint web venture with the latter focusing on styling the outfits they post.

Unfortunately, not enough time is afforded to either actress to really explore this dynamic in the movie. To Zendaya’s credit, she makes her character very likable with the right balance of flustered nerves and headstrong determination. Still, there is little reason to invest in her role in Frenemies unless you’re already a Shake It Up fan.

A.N.T. Farm (2012)

Perhaps dedicating an entire section of this column to one of Zendaya’s smallest roles comes across as an odd decision. But her guest appearance in A.N.T. Farm is noticeably enjoyable because it exhibits a potential villainous streak that I’d love to see more of.

A.N.T. Farm tells the story of an eleven-year-old musical prodigy attending a school for gifted kids. Zendaya makes an appearance in the show’s second season as a famous actress named Sequoia researching her next big movie role at the institute. This requires her to tail the aforementioned protagonist and study her every action, although it slowly seems like Sequoia is trying to steal the latter’s identity entirely.

Mostly, this guest spot works well due to its meta nature, considering that Zendaya was by then a couple of seasons into Shake It Up. Her onscreen endeavors were in tandem with the release of her very first single, too. Zendaya’s celebrity bubble bolsters the appeal of this random little side character, which is further amplified by her gleeful depiction of the age-old stereotype of entitled fame. Zendaya’s role in A.N.T. Farm is one of her most outrageous, and it adds further intrigue to her body of her work.

Zapped (2014)

Zapped notably invites change in Zendaya’s filmography — incremental though that shift may be at first. She steps into the shoes of Zoey Stevens, an average sixteen-year-old who must adjust to living with a new family after her mother remarries. Gaining a loud, ebullient stepdad and three overbearing stepbrothers overnight makes for a tough transition for Zoey. That is until she discovers an app that can control the minds of the boys in her life.

The premise is just as abrupt to witness as it is to summarize. In true Disney Channel Original Movie form, Zapped leverages its lead’s inherent likability in a coming-of-age story with an extravagant flourish in the name of levity. Sadly, this film demonstrates that such an inclusion can be shoehorned and thus obtrusive.

Luckily, Zendaya is adorable in every sense of the word in the movie without coming across as annoyingly flawless. She ensures that Zapped’s emotional beats still work with its weird technology-related plot, fleshing out Zoey’s wistfulness and ethical questioning from the film’s underwritten part. What could’ve easily distracted audiences from a grounded relatable performance thankfully has no match for her empathetic magnetism.

K.C. Undercover (2015-2018)

Zendaya’s final form during her Disney Channel years culminates in a superhero role of sorts at the helm of her own show. She adopts the mantle of a full-fledged teenage spy in K.C. Undercover as the lead of the same name.

The three-season series follows its protagonist as she juggles life-threatening responsibilities as part of a covert crime-fighting family alongside daily dilemmas in her personal life. K.C. Cooper succeeds at this, though, since she just seems to be good at everything. Her prowess in activities like martial arts and basketball complement her witty, intelligent, and suitably social persona, making her appear almost too infallible.

Regardless, as Zendaya plays dress-up and kicks ass, she equally effectively personifies K.C.’s less desirable characteristics. There is an arrogant and judgmental side to the character that festers amid those first-rate mental and physical capabilities. As expected, this Mouse House production tends to gloss over those moments of uncertainty, but she excels in portraying the pockets of normalcy that the character experiences among K.C.’s interpersonal relationships.

In the same way that Zendaya’s A.N.T. Farm role utilizes her status as Disney Channel elite to boost its effectiveness, K.C. Undercover banks on the gracefulness and self-possession that she had been continuing to cultivate since her initial stardom. Notably, the interim years between the premieres of both of Zendaya’s Disney Channel series saw her blossom as a singer and dancer. Intertwining the aplomb of her burgeoning celebrity emboldens her to morph beyond the roles of her past.

Black-ish (2015)

Zendaya’s appearance in the family comedy Black-ish may be yet another minor guest spot, but it feels vital to her process of breaking away from her Disney Channel roots. In general, the long-running series chronicles the lives of the Johnsons, an upper-middle-class African-American family living, struggling, and thriving in their predominantly white neighborhood.

Zendaya portrays Rasheida, a friend of the oldest Johnson daughter, Zoey (Yara Shahidi), in the second season episode “Daddy’s Day.” When the Johnson patriarch Dre (Anthony Anderson) grapples with earning his children’s affection, he creates the eponymous holiday to reclaim a supposedly overlooked Father’s Day. However, while Zoey refuses to participate in such bonding efforts, Rasheida — whose arc involves an absent father of her own — eagerly takes up the duties in Dre’s desired father-daughter dynamic.

Black-ish marks a pre-eminent mellower turn for Zendaya, continuing to facilitate her organic shift towards more true-to-life fare. She still plays an agreeable “chosen one” type of character — in this case, she represents an “ideal” daughter — but for the first time, she adds someone expressly ordinary to her filmography.

The MCU’s Spider-Man (2017-present)

Nothing beats the publicity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, though. Zendaya’s key role in Spider-Man: Homecoming, which was later expanded on for its sequel Spider-Man: Far From Home, put her on the map in an entirely new fashion.

In Spider-Man: Homecoming, she was initially teased simply as Michelle, a smart-mouthed, highly observant loner who attends high school with Peter Parker (Tom Holland). Makeupless and dressed in unassuming attire, the character mostly hangs about on the fringes of the film. She silently watches Peter and his friends but is also often ready with a sarcastic quip aimed at students and teachers alike.

Despite Michelle’s largely unaffected demeanor, Zendaya memorably makes every hilarious intonation count. The mystery of her cynical allure then gives way to the perfectly sensible revelation that she is, in fact, embodying the MCU’s version of Spider-Man’s iconic paramour, MJ Watson. A giant personality such as hers demands a part so beloved.

In Spider-Man: Far From Home, Zendaya infuses Michelle with a cheeky personality and warm softness that elevates her beyond the status of a standard love interest. The detached persona that we see in the Spidey origin story organically unravels in this sequel thanks to Zendaya’s chemistry with Holland as well. The actress ends up being Spider-Man: Far From Home’s secret weapon due to her open-hearted portrayal of Michelle’s self-sufficiency, kindness, and bravery.

Next Page
Pages: 1 2

Related Topics: ,

Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)