LONDON: Six minutes with Zendaya is worth a jet plane to London. Articulate, poised, interesting and interested, at 22-years-old the actress is wise beyond her years and bold in both her sartorial exploits and opinions on race and gender. Life should be lived at your fullest expression, is her motto.

As a young black woman in Hollywood, however, Zendaya has been an unfortunate fervent reminder that racism still exists in very cruel forms. In 2015 – in a now notorious incident – the ex-Disney star made her Oscars debut in Vivienne Westwood, adorned in Chopard jewellery and dreadlocks. E! News anchor Giuliana Rancic made a comment on air that Zendaya’s African-American hair appeared as though it would smell of “patouli oil. Or weed”, a wildly racial slur.

“In my opinion, it does come down to situations where people are saying ignorant things – or you can tell people aren’t educated about some things – and you do have that education and therefore that ability, in a sense, to help them,” Zendaya told GRAZIA at the time (she had just wrapped filming Beyoncé’s Lemonade, an album visual which represented multigenerational black girl issues). “Being aggressive and saying the first thing that comes to mind – I know that feeling, I know what it’s like to say hurtful things and then just go off. But it’s always more powerful when you think about it and use the brain you have.”

As Kate Leaver steps into the interview today, another saga has just hit the internet. People are divided over whether Zendaya, a black woman, can play Ariel, The Little Mermaid. This September, The Greatest Showman actress lends her voice to the animation adventure Smallfoot, a film, ironically, about acceptance. Take it away…

GRAZIA: What main message ARE YOU HOPING people will take from this movie?

ZENDAYA: “Honestly there’s so many. And that’s the good part, everybody can come away with a great takeaway. Whether it be acceptance or searching for the truth or following your heart. I mean, there’s a million things you could say and I think as long as people leave inspired and maybe wanting to learn a little bit more about something, then that’s the most important thing.”

GRAZIA: There is a lot about truth and integrity in your film Smallfoot. How important is it those values are instilled in people these days?

ZENDAYA: “Super important. It’s just important for us all to just follow – I know this is such a corny line – but follow what’s in your heart. You need to really go with what feels right and if something’s sitting heavy on your heart or your chest or you see something that’s wrong or something that hurts you, it’s definitely important to act upon those things and do what you feel is the right thing. As long as your leading with good intentions and a kind heart, and trying to do the right thing, which I think these characters are often trying to do, then that’s the most important thing that they can do. And to ask questions about things. Ask people questions and learn about things that don’t necessarily have to do with your little bubble. You have to pop your bubble to experience things about other people.”

GRAZIA: What drew you towards animation and this character?

ZENDAYA: “I enjoy the fact that this yeti village has kind of just decided what she should be and her role should be. They have touted her almost the princess of the town. She’s supposed to be the stonekeeper’s daughter which means she’s not allowed to question anything that her father says or question anything at all. But in actuality, she’s literally founded this group that does nothing but literally ask questions. So to me, I think that’s cool. I have felt –  and I think everybody has felt at some point – that there is an ideal of what we’re meant to be like and who we really are. It’s important we follow the who-you-really-are side and allow yourself to be defined only by yourself.”

GRAZIA: You try to inspire and educate people through your online platform, what’s your feelings about your own social media approach?

ZENDAYA: “I try my best to be responsible with it. I’ve done my best also to not get too wrapped up in it because I love it. Just like anybody else my age – I totally post and look at other profiles – but it is really important to just take a break. People suggest taking a social media cleanse and its true! Sometimes you just need to enjoy the things that are in front of you. I think we’ve all had those moments where we’re at dinner we’re on our phones and we think, ‘What are we doing?’. It’s a double edge sword. You can find positivity in both. You can be on social media and do it for the right reasons and then also just enjoy real life.”

GRAZIA: The internet can be a really cruel place. How do you protect yourself from that?

ZENDAYA: “In my profession, it kind of comes with the territory. I try to focus on the positive – oh my gosh, these corny lines I’m spewing today! – but it’s true. And at the end of the day, it always outweighs the negative. When you put everything into perspective, it’s not that bad.”

GRAZIA: How important is it to you that we have diversity in casting?

ZENDAYA: “In general, in Hollywood its important. It’s important for people to be able to see themselves in characters. I think it’s something that we’re working towards and we should continue to strive for more inclusiveness in all kinds of roles. As time goes on, it’s becoming more normalised and it should be.”

Smallfoot is currently showing in Australian cinemas.

THIS ARTICLE APPEARED ORIGINALLY IN THE SEPTEMBER EDITION OF GRAZIA MAGAZINE AUSTRALIA.

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