When Zendaya was cast as MJ, Peter Parker’s awkward high school friend, in Marvel’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, many suspected that her character was actually Mary Jane, Peter’s red-headed love interest who is also white. And though Spider-Man‘s producers have debunked the theory that MJ is Mary Jane, the characters do share one similarity: They were both written as white.
In an interview with Marie Claire, Zendaya revealed that MJ, whose full name is Michelle Jones, wasn’t originally written as the half-Black character audiences see on screen. It wasn’t until the 21-year-old actress walked into the audition room that the plan for the character completely changed. “At first I thought I would have to because you’re kind of used to the notion that, OK, even though the character is fictional and could be anybody, they probably are going to go with the standard of what they want and what they’ve always had,” Zendaya said. “I definitely went into it like, ‘Hopefully they’ll—as they call it in the industry—go ethnic.'”
To appear more like the character was written, Zendaya made the decision to straighten her hair. However, her straight hair wasn’t necessary. Though MJ wasn’t originally Black, the producers were open to race-bending the characters, which led to the casting of other actors of color, such as half-Black actress Laura Harrier as Peter’s love interest and Filipino actor Jacob Batalon as Peter’s best friend. Even in the movie, MJ’s hair isn’t completely straight and is seen mainly in springy curls.
“I remember making the decision to straighten my hair,” Zendaya said. “I didn’t know that they were going to be more diverse in their casting. I didn’t know that I was walking into a situation where they were already breaking the rules. You get so used to having to break the rules for people.”
As for how she got in the audition room in the first place, Zendaya doesn’t let racial descriptions prevent her from opportunities. After years of hearing no for her skin color, the actress makes it a point to audition for the same roles as white actresses, with the hopes of changing the producers’ minds.
“I always tell my theatrical manager, ‘Anytime it says they’re looking for white girls, send me out. Let me get in the room. Maybe they’ll change their minds,'” Zendaya said. “And, honestly, if there’s a part that I didn’t get or that I really wanted at the time, shit always ends up working out.”
Zendaya, who starred on two Disney Channel shows, K.C. Undercover and Shake It Up, also touched on her squeaky-clean reputation. Unlike some of her peers, who have become tabloid sensations after leaving the network, Zendaya is almost never seen in those situations. Zendaya credits this to an observation she made early on that the entertainment industry and the public treat her white peers with more leniency than they do her.
“What my white peers would be able to get away with at this point in their career is not something that I will be able to do. And I knew that from when I was real young,” Zendaya said. That’s just the truth, and so you’ll be kind of afraid of making mistakes because I love what I do. I don’t want to jeopardize it at any point because I am not allowed the room to mess up.
Zendaya dropping truth bombs all over the place, as usual.