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Zendaya and John David Washington talk making intimate 'Malcolm & Marie' during the coronavirus pand

By: Ethan Alter

Like New York City, Hollywood is a town that (almost) never sleeps. But the American film industry's headquarters came to a sudden halt one year ago when the coronavirus pandemic first reached U.S. shores. The COVID-19 outbreak delayed major movie releases and shut down all active film and TV productions as producers, directors and actors wrestled with how to safely get back to work.

One of the first productions to crack the code was Malcolm & Marie, Netflix's new black-and-white drama from Euphoria collaborators Zendaya and Sam Levinson. After the Emmy-winning show was forced to curtail shooting on Season 2 in March, the duo shifted their focus to making a one-off project that could creatively and financially benefit the show's extended crew.

That project became Malcolm & Marie, which was filmed in secret over the summer at an isolated house in Carmel, Calif. "It was a very scary time for the world," Zendaya tells Yahoo Entertainment about the choice to move ahead with the film — which premieres on Netflix on Feb. 5 — only a few months into the pandemic. "We wanted to make this movie, but we first and foremost wanted to make it safely." (Watch our video interviews above.)

When Levinson started writing the script, health officials were still trying to understand and communicate the science behind COVID-19. Still, a few things were becoming apparent right away, including the need for social distancing, quarantining and mask-wearing, and he broke the story of Malcolm & Marie with those specific restrictions in mind. "We wanted to use the restrictions of COVID as a challenge in terms of storytelling," he says of the film, which stars Zendaya and John David Washington as the title characters — a Hollywood power couple whose relationship threatens to unravel over the course of one long night. "Could we tell a story that's emotionally engaging and has tension with two actors and one house?"

Behind the scenes, Levinson and the producing team — including Zendaya and Washington — established strict protocols that included a limited on-set crew, regular COVID tests and mandatory quarantine periods. That caution was particularly imperative as Levinson's script required the starts to shoot a number of intimate scenes during a time when the general public was regularly reminded to be wary of close contact with others. "Intimate scenes scare me in general — I'm terrible with those," Washington says, laughing. "But I felt extremly confident about working [on this film] during the pandemic because of protocol that was set. I knew we were in great hands."

In a way, Levinson couldn't have picked a better time to shoot. In the months after Malcolm & Marie wrapped production, the gears started turning on other shows and movies, including blockbusters like Jurassic World: Dominion and The Batman. But both of those movies experienced additional shutdowns following on-set COVID outbreaks, and in recent months Los Angeles itself has become one of the major epicenters of the pandemic. "I'd be scared to go to work right now," admits Levinson, who is hoping to resume production on Euphoria in March. "But it's just one of those things where I think we're going to be battling with it for awhile."

Speaking of blockbusters, Zendaya is currently back on set filming Marvel and Sony's third Spider-Man movie opposite Tom Holland. Asked whether her co-stars ask her for quarantine etiquette advice, the actress just laughs. "It is very different," she says about going from Macolm & Marie's small set to the massive Marvel Cinematic Universe. "On this film, everybody's doing seven different jobs. [Spider-Man] is a very different kind of expeirence in the sense that there's a lot going on, but they still manage to keep it safe. I'm grateful to be back at work."

Malcolm & Marie premieres Friday, Feb. 5 on Netflix.