How Netflix’s ‘Malcolm & Marie’ Actually Gets Relationship Fights Right

John David Washington and Zendaya reflect on the do’s and absolute don’ts of arguing with your lover, both on- and off-screen

Photo: Netflix

The Covid-19 lockdown might have ended some Hollywood productions, but it gave rise to others — and we have Zendaya to thank for one of the first. While so many of us were baking bread and watching comfort-food television, the actress hit up Sam Levinson, the creator of her Emmy-winning series Euphoria. “I knew I wasn’t leaving the house,” she says. “I also knew I had to work.”

The result, Malcolm & Marie, co-starring John David Washington and shot at the famed Caterpillar House in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, over the course of two weeks last summer, isn’t just one of Netflix’s most thought-provoking movies in a long time. It’s also a remarkably real-feeling portrayal of how couples handle conflict.

Viewers meet the couple returning home one night after a screening of filmmaker Malcolm’s (Washington) latest project. He’s raucous and triumphant; his girlfriend, Marie (Zendaya), just wants to cook him boxed mac and cheese and go to bed. She’s obviously pissed. When he finally gets her to reveal the source of her anger, they’re off to the races, trading barbs, low-blow revelations, profanities, and intermittent affection. The movie is, essentially, a 90-minute lover’s spat between two people who are both awful and perfect for one another. Whether it’s a portrait of love or dysfunction — or both — is your call to make.

You won’t know where you stand until the end credits roll, and even then you may feel unresolved. Equal parts uncomfortable, intriguing, and infuriating, Zendaya and Washington’s performances don’t allow you to take a breath or move your eyes away for a single beat. Before Malcolm & Marie hits the streaming platform in early February, LEVEL spoke with Levinson and the actors behind the titular couple about how they approached their roles — and how they quarrel in real life.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

LEVEL: Is Malcolm a villain?

John David Washington: A villain?! No, no. Wait, no.

Maybe not a villain. At the very least an antihero. He says some things to Marie that you just can’t take back.

Zendaya: It’s interesting that you think that way. When I read the script, I immediately thought “everyone’s gonna hate Marie.”

Why?

Zendaya: She talks about how she cheated on him. So, I thought, how is she ever going to come back from this?

From my vantage point, Marie having cheated on Malcolm doesn’t make her a villain. I sympathized with her.

Zendaya: I get that. This is a relationship that has sacred things that should not be used as a weapon in argument — and they both ignore that. So as we’re watching, as the audience, it creates this anxiety that someone is going to say something that they’re never going to be able to recover from.

Which one of you has lived a night like this? You can’t act this well, playing this level of intensity, without having lived it.

Zendaya and John David Washington: [Nervous laughter]

I’m waiting.

Zendaya: Um. For me, it comes from a lot of different places.

Washington: I’ll go with that as well.

Sobriety is like a whole character in this film. I’ve been sober for 10 years, so it made me uncomfortable to see Malcolm drinking heavily and arguing with Marie, who is sober.

Sam Levinson: l’m also in recovery—I’ve been clean for 17 years now or something. It’s a constant underlying anxiety in my life and in relationships and stuff. And I think that that’s what gives this film a certain unease: It might get dark, it might get bad.

And with Marie not drinking, she doesn’t have the luxury of knocking the edge off. John David, did this occur to you? And how would you handle this in real life?

Washington: Yeah, he came from the event already on a pretty high level. He plays that James Brown song in the opening. And he’s lit. He’s in a celebratory moment and he’s not aware of anything else. Definitely not anyone’s sobriety. That’s not me. At all. But I know that guy. Those arguments that go way too far often have substance stuff layered there. He’s also anxious. Which is why he’s so up and in her face. And the minute he can’t find her —

He’s completely terrified that something’s happened to her.

Washington: Exactly. He throws all of these receipts in her face. And yet, he also feels responsible for much of it.

It’s complicated.

Washington: Wait. One second. Are people gonna hate me after they see this movie?

Zendaya: [Laughs]

No. But people might hate Malcolm.

Washington: I need to make it clear. I am not Malcolm. At all. My motto is “Shalom in the home.” Period.

We all argue. Maybe not to this level. But it can’t always be “Shalom in the home.”

Washington: Imma be out here getting canceled.

It’s interesting that we’re talking about getting canceled for a fictional character. That doesn’t really happen.

Washington: Anything’s possible.

Question for both of you: Let’s say you watch these 90 minutes like I just did. And one of the characters, Malcolm or Marie, is your child, friend, or parent. Do you want them to be together?

Zendaya: We had a lot of these talks. Marie, to me, is pushing the argument, throwing fuel on the fire. She walks in, ready to start an argument. She knows what triggers him and she pushes his buttons over and over. She knows exactly what buttons to push. She ignites the fire and she kind of likes it. If we’re trying to say who’s worse, I’m so interested to see where people fall on either side.

“There will be something in this film you can relate to. Maybe you don’t fight and argue like Malcolm and Marie. But maybe you know the vulnerability that they each show.”

Do we want these two to be together?

Zendaya: I’m rooting for them. I hope they can figure their stuff out, but I don’t know if they stay together. I hope they do. You know, I think it’s complicated and they need to make a decision that is best for each, because there are certainly aspects of this relationship that are not healthy at all. Malcolm and Marie need some therapy.

Washington: This is where it will get interesting. If we’ve done our job, you’ll feel strongly one way or another. Will anyone walk away not invested?

Definitely not.

Zendaya: In real life, we try to live in a nonjudgemental space. And we look at these characters as so bad for each other. And yet, there’s something about them together that we can relate to. There’s something about them together. People can watch this film and say, I would never go that far or dig that deep into someone that I love. But are we sure?

Washington: There will be something in this film you can relate to. Maybe you don’t fight and argue like Malcolm and Marie. But maybe you know the vulnerability that they each show. Maybe you feel intensity toward your work the way Malcolm does or anxiety about your work the way Marie does. We all have our thing. It’s just that Malcolm and Marie handle their stressors in a particular way.

Zendaya: Also, Malcolm and Marie never scream over each other. Even with the intensity of the argument, they each speak their piece fully. I don’t know who argues that way — I do not. But they do allow each other that grace. Maybe they’re good for each other but only creatively. Or maybe it just is what it is. Sometimes you bring to a relationship exactly who and what you are — fully. You have to figure out if it’s worth saving.

In addition to this sweeping choreographed arguing, Malcolm has a physicality that’s interesting. John David, do you kick your leg out or pretend to fence invisible opponents when you’re in the middle of an argument?

Washington: I don’t know where that came from! I didn’t even realize I was doing it until I saw it. I was able to remove myself as the producer and all of that stuff. And just be Malcolm. Turns out Malcolm has some interesting hand motions when he’s in an argument.

Levinson: J.D. arrived with a physicality that was so unusual and it was such a fascinating use of space and it’s something that you don’t normally see on film anymore. I had to pull back and just let him go.

The number of times the word “fuck” is used in this film is insane.

Zendaya and John David Washington: [Laughs]

But it doesn’t feel stale or overdone. Both of you must use “fuck” a lot when you’re arguing.

Zendaya: The f-word is like uh and ah for me. That comes from my role on Euphoria. It’s impossible to break out of it. But yeah, it’s a word you need. But you have to use it right.

Washington: There’s that Fugees song, “Zealots.” Lauryn Hill says: “I add a ‘motherfucker’ so you ignant people hear me.” There’s so often an intellectual conversation happening — but throwing the f-word in there makes it accessible. If you’re arguing and using the f-word continually, are you being lazy or passionate?

Plain and simple, should Malcolm and Marie be together?

Washington: In the real world? I guess it depends on what we want for them. If Marie wants to pursue her career, this relationship won’t work. If she’s okay with supporting him fully and believes in his greatness, then maybe. But like, I don’t know who would want to be with a person like that.

A person like what? A villain?

Washington: [Laughs] He’s complicated.

Like most villains.

Aliya S. King is an author, freelance writer and editor.

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