Since the age of 14, Zendaya has been showing off her moves on the Disney Channel — first as an aspiring dancer in “Shake It Up” and then as a math whiz and karate black belt turned teenage spy in “K.C. Undercover.” (She’s a pop star, too.)
Now, at 21, she’s soaring into adulthood as a trapeze artist extraordinaire in “The Greatest Showman,” Michael Gracey’s movie musical about P.T. Barnum, opening Wednesday, Dec. 20.
With cotton-candy-hued curls, Zendaya flies through the rafters — while singing, no less — as Anne Wheeler, coaxed by an impoverished Barnum (Hugh Jackman) into joining the circus that will catapult him to stardom. Her beauty in motion also captivates Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron), a high-society playwright hired by Barnum to lend him an air of respectability.
“You want it to happen, but you know that it can’t happen, and that was exciting to me,” Zendaya said of the love story that drew her to the feature film, her second, after “Spider-Man: Homecoming.”
“There were a lot of opportunities that came my way that would not have been the right choice — the low-hanging fruit, doing things just because it’s a thing to do,” she said about entering this next phase of her career. “But I wanted to do quality projects, cool things that made me excited, and I didn’t care if I only had one line. Saying no is as important as saying yes.”
Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Were you terrified of twirling 40 feet in the air?
A lot of times we’re hooked up to wires. When I first did my trapeze, I had been training on another rig that I had gotten very used to, and I had a net. Then when I showed up to set, the rigs were 15 feet taller and there was no net, and that freaked me out. But you know what? I did it.
Did you do anything special to land the role of Anne?
At the time, [the composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul] were up and coming. They hadn’t done “La La Land” yet. They played me a couple of the songs, including the one [“Rewrite the Stars”] that I would sing with Zac. And I asked: “Hey, is it cool if I record my own voice on the record? I want to show you guys what I can do.” So I played it for the director, and Michael loved it, and I had a really great reading with Zac.
How did you and Zac learn to trust each other?
On the first day, they harnessed us together and lifted us into the air, so we had to quite literally start holding each other’s weight and lifting each other up. We became a team very, very quickly.
And then you had to sing together on top of all that. I take it you recorded the soundtrack first and then lip synced.
Yeah, I don’t think anybody wants to hear what we sound like while we’re swinging from these crazy harnesses and slamming into each other.
Nothing crazy. Zac and I would compare our little battle wounds, and the next day we’d be taped up and smell like Tiger Balm, but you just keep going.
And how was Hugh Jackman?
He’s just so cool, so nice. He works so hard, and the amazing thing is to be at that success level and still be the person that he is. That’s gold right there.
Season 3 of “K.C. Undercover,” which is currently airing, will be your last hurrah on the Disney Channel. You famously made some strong demands before accepting the role.
The only reason I wanted to come back to the Disney Channel is because there was a lack of diversity at that time. There weren’t any leads or families of color, and I felt like that was something that needed to happen. And I thought the idea of a girl doing a “guy role” was really important. Young women are able to look at the screen and see that they can be anything, that they can do it all. A little boy can look up to a girl and say, “I want to be like this girl.” And that’s awesome.
You’ve become a role model for 46 million Instagram followers. How does that kind of responsibility feel?
It feels great. Of course, I’m human, so there are times where I get stressed like anybody else. But at the end of the day, I try to look at it as a very positive thing, as a gift. I have millions of people who look to me for guidance, and I try to be the best me so that I can try to get them to be the best of themselves.
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