A being arrives on planet Earth to investigate the ruins of a cliffside home in Malibu. Silver reflective orbs levitate around her. A pair of hawks swarms the mountains in the distance. Shimmering and statuesque, she stands, arms outstretched, face toward the warmth of the sun.
This mythical, alien figure is embodied by someone who is larger than life in her own right: Zendaya. The actress has had a whirlwind year, appearing in Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Dune and in her third Spider-Man film, and stepping back into the shoes of Rue, the teenage addict on Euphoria, for the HBO series’ highly anticipated second season. But here, she poses for a still image, waving her arms up and around her for photographer Jack Davison, with direction from Villeneuve.
As Villeneuve conceptualized this shoot, he was inspired by David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth. He thought about a vulnerable creature landing on our planet, wanting to learn about humanity, and witnessing the morally decrepit state of the world and our politics. But it was time, not space, that really caught Villeneuve’s imagination. He tried to envision the site in Malibu—an unfinished architectural project by Frank Lloyd Wright’s grandson Eric Lloyd Wright—“a bit like the way we look at Greece right now, a Greek temple,” he explains, just before the shoot. “Imagine visiting that house in Malibu from 2,000 years in the future, what it would look like, and the emotion we would have regarding our own world.”
In Villeneuve’s Dune, which was nominated for 10 Oscars, including for Best Picture, Zendaya also plays a character from an imaginary time and place. She is Chani Kynes, a member of the Fremen, a blue-eyed race of people who occupy Arrakis, an inhospitable, sun-scorched planet where giant sand worms slither just under the desert surface, ready to attack at any moment. The Quebecois director first encountered the French editions of Frank Herbert’s Dune novels as a young teen. He was instantly mesmerized by the blue-eyed man on one of the covers, then read every book in the Dune series and became a “Herbert aficionado,” he says, revisiting the volumes over and over again for years. The story and its themes—coming of age, grappling with global politics, trusting your unconscious motivations and dreams—became a guiding principle in his work as a filmmaker. “It’s a very strangely written book—very dense, very poetic,” Villeneuve says.
Whether he is working on a crime thriller (2013’s Prisoners), a family immigration drama adapted from a play (2010’s Incendies), or an alien invasion epic (Arrival, which won him a slew of awards in 2016), Villeneuve’s films share a common theme: humanity. “What will make a story relevant is if you believe in the characters, and if they are real beings having real human responses,” Villeneuve says. “People will believe in Arrakis if they believe in Zendaya. And Zendaya killed it. When we turned on the camera and she started to behave as Chani, I saw the birth of the character.” Villeneuve’s ability to create characters with depth, even in a blockbuster production, is precisely what attracted Zendaya to the project. “Walking in other people’s shoes is my job,” she says. “So when you have this beautiful meeting of escapism, other realms, dimensions, planets, futurist times, but then you can also exist as a human being who’s just going through life and trying to survive and exist…” She trails off. “It’s so hard to find the heart in something really, really massive. And there’s no person better at that than Denis.”
Schiaparelli Haute Couture dress.
Christopher Kane dress; Bulgari earrings.
Burberry top and leggings.
Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello bustier top.
Still, Zendaya was nervous to take on the role, given that science fiction series with massive fandoms come with impossibly high audience expectations. She had already experienced some of that anxiety when she joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe as MJ in Spider-Man, opposite Tom Holland. She also had a slight concern when she walked into the audition room with her costar, Timothée Chalamet: “I had just gotten my wisdom teeth taken out. My biggest fear was that my mouth would be vile, and then I would have to do a scene with Timothée where we have to be really close, and he would smell my possible dry socket breath,” she jokes. Needless to say both the surgery and the audition were successful without any complications.
The world of Dune felt eerily familiar to Zendaya when she first started reading the book, but she couldn’t quite figure out why. When she mentioned this to her mother, her mother informed her that Zendaya’s grandfather had been a fan who proudly displayed all of Herbert’s Dune novels in his home. “It’s obviously such a rich text, but it’s so much more than just a book to a lot of people; it’s a whole world that they’ve been able to escape to for years,” she says. A second installment of the film will be released in October 2023 and will feature much more of Zendaya, to the delight of fans who were very vocal about their disappointment with her seven minutes of screen time in part one.
Despite Dune’s multimillion-dollar budget, Zendaya says the project was “very much in the spirit of an indie film,” which she credits to the way in which Villeneuve operates, encouraging experimentation. “As a Virgo, I hate not being in control of things, and spontaneity is difficult for me in real life,” Zendaya tells me. “It’s funny, because that’s why I love acting so much. It’s the one space in which I can feel safe being spontaneous, because I’m not myself; I’m someone else. There are no consequences.” Villeneuve, who started out working on documentaries for the National Film Board of Canada, credits those earlier experiences for his ability to direct on the fly, even when building a world as fantastical as Dune’s. “I learned to approach reality with a camera, and to use a camera in the context of improvisation,” he says. “A sci-fi movie is very different from a documentary, but there’s still a sacred space that I’m trying to protect.”
Valentino custom catsuit.
Courrèges halter top.
Back on planet Earth, where the sun is beginning to set, Villeneuve tinkers with a small mirror, manipulating the light for Davison, as the photographer yells out directions to Zendaya. A generator operated by a handful of camera assistants gives the illusion of heat waves emanating from the sandy ground, though in reality we are all shivering as the January wind whips around us. Villeneuve’s delight in the process is evident. “Zendaya has shot maybe 10,000 covers of magazines. It’s something I’ve never done,” he says, laughing. “I’m approaching this with a lot of humility. My expectation about it is just to have, frankly, creative fun.”
Before we know it, nearly all of us, myself included, are getting involved with the production, tossing glinting orbs into the air for a shot, or holding on to a prop to form a shadow. As the day wanes, Davison sets up some miniature latticed pillars, which appear life-size when Zendaya poses a few feet beyond them. Her stylist, Law Roach, dutifully guides the actress from setup to setup, dressing her in ethereal, sculptural looks. Zendaya, a trained hip-hop dancer since she was 8, is in constant motion. “Almost done!” Villeneuve shouts to the actress as Davison requests that she “bend her face toward the light and give a little spin” for the camera. “I am just going to keep moving, keep giving you shapes,” Zendaya shouts back.
“One of my favorite things about cinema,” Villeneuve says, “is when everybody starts to dance and create poetry with a camera. It deeply moves me and gives sense to my life. The language of cinema is by far the most powerful way to tell a story. You hypnotize people, and you bring them into a world, into emotions. Music can do that in some ways too, but there’s something about cinema that is, for me, unbeatable.”
Burberry top and leggings.
Schiaparelli Haute Couture dress with circular headpiece and arm hoops.
Hair by Antoinette Hill for TRESemmé at Mastermind Management Group; makeup by Raoúl Alejandre at Opus Beauty; manicure by Marisa Carmichael for Dior Vernis at Forward Artists. Set design by Nicholas Des Jardins at Streeters. Produced by Wes Olson at Connect the Dots; production coordinator: Zack Higginbottom at Connect the Dots; photo assistants: Zac Jones, Austin Durant, Aliana Turkel; lab: the Icon Los Angeles; retouching: DTouch London; fashion assistants: Justin Ramirez, Birta Epstein; production assistants: Gina York, Tchad Cousins, Kein Milledge, Khari Cousins; set assistant: Joshua Clark Puklavetz; tailor: Erica Fromdahl.