It started like a rom-com. Two twentysomething actors kissed in a car at a red light in Los Angeles. In the driver’s seat was Tom Holland, an actor with brown floppy hair (for once, not Hugh Grant) who had just starred in the sixth highest grossing film in history: Spider-Man: No Way Home. Embracing him was his co-star Zendaya, who at 5ft 10in is two inches taller and also a high achiever; at 24 she became the youngest woman to win the Emmy for lead actress in a drama series (for Euphoria, America’s version of Skins). She also starred in the sci-fi hit Dune — the most nominated film at this year’s Baftas.
Move over Brangelina: meet Hollywood’s new power couple. Tomdaya? Zolland? Whatever you call them, Holland, 25, from Kingston upon Thames (not to be mistaken for the historian Tom Holland or the Pirates of the Caribbean and Rev actor Tom Hollander) and Californian Zendaya Maree Stoermer Coleman, or simply Zendaya, also 25, are a force to be reckoned with.
Between them, the pair have more than 189 million Instagram followers. Their films made upward of $2.4 billion at the box office last year, and they now own a $4 million six-bedroom pad in Richmond, with a gym, cinema and “man cave”. So are they Gen Z’s version of Brangelina?
How Did the Boy from London Meet the Californian Superstar?
The couple met on set, filming Spider-Man: Homecoming in 2017. There were rumors that their on-screen chemistry extended into real life, but their relationship wasn’t made public until that papped photograph of the pair in Holland’s car last July. Spider-Man fans went into a frenzy, with video montages of the pair racking up more than 1.6 million views on YouTube. Some argued it was a publicity stunt, recalling the short-lived relationships of other teen flick co-stars such as the Twilight vampires Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart.
What Do They Have in Common?
Zendaya and Holland both grew up acting. The young Holland was a big Janet Jackson fan, so his parents, the stand-up comedian Dominic and Nikki, a photographer, signed him up to hip-hop classes. There, aged nine, he was spotted by a choreographer who suggested he audition for the musical Billy Elliot.
Its director, Stephen Daldry, says: “I remember his extraordinary acting audition.” Despite his lack of formal ballet training, Holland impressed Daldry and the show’s choreographer Peter Darling with his “balletic shapes and innate rhythm”. Soon Holland was onstage — first as Michael, Billy’s friend, and then as Billy in 2008.
It wasn’t long before Hollywood came calling. The director of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, JA Bayona, spotted the actor in a video discussing Billy Elliot and cast him in 2012’s The Impossible, a drama about the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that starred Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts. A part in Kevin Macdonald’s 2013 romantic drama How I Live Now followed.
“I was so taken with his infectious enthusiasm,” Macdonald explains. “Tom impressed us all in one scene when he started doing backflips and somersaults. No one could resist his combination of charm and genuine talent.” He also starred in the television adaptation of Wolf Hall (as Thomas Cromwell’s son, Gregory).
More than 5,000 miles away in Oakland, California, the young Zendaya was watching Shakespeare. Her mother, a teacher, worked at a festival dedicated to the Bard every summer and took her daughter along. Zendaya watched multiple productions of Richard III, and played Lady Anne in Richard III and Celia in As You Like It in school plays.
She was spotted as a model and auditioned for Shake It Up, a Disney Channel show about teenage dancers. Some former Disney stars have struggled: Britney Spears found growing up in the public eye difficult; Demi Lovato had drug problems. But Zendaya is a new model of Disney star, who takes the attention in her stride, with discipline, maturity and commitment to roles. “Her talent and attitude are well beyond her years,” says Peter DeLuise, who directed the actress in the 2014 Disney film Zapped.
Let’s Get On to Spider-Man
Then the stars aligned. In 2015 Tom Holland and Zendaya were cast in Spider-Man. Holland beat thousands of other actors for the role, including Timothée Chalamet and Sex Education’s Asa Butterfield. “There are very few actors working now who are versatile in the way that Tom is,” the Spider-Man producer and former Sony chairwoman Amy Pascal said in a recent interview. “He’s the hardest-working person that I know.”
Despite Pascal’s warning during early rehearsals — “Don’t fall in love with each other” — a relationship between the pair flourished on the Spider-Man set. What did they see in each other? Jon Watts, the director of all three films in the latest Spider-Man trilogy, says it’s simple. “They made each other laugh. It made things easier while filming, as it is like you’re capturing a real thing.
“I just watched their relationship build from the sidelines, occasionally helping and trying to give some advice. But that affection that you see between them on-screen, along with Jacob Batalon [their Spider-Man co-star] is real.”
Did it ever have an impact on their work? “All the things that happened between them, the ups and downs over the course of the three movies, it never affected their work. There was no teen drama, they were pros.”
Their off-screen bond was infectious from the start. His British charm and her deadpan American humor proved a hit — see their appearance on the American television show Lip-Sync Battle in 2017. Holland, dressed in latex hot pants, tights and a corset top, put his Billy Elliot experience to good use, dancing to a medley of Singin’ in the Rain and Umbrella by Rihanna. On the side of the stage, Zendaya rolled on the floor with laughter. The video of it has more than 119 million views on YouTube.
“Having her in my life was so instrumental to my sanity,” Holland has said about working with Zendaya. It has also boosted the Marvel series at the box office. Yes, the return of former Spider-Man actors Andrew Garfield, Tobey Maguire and Willem Dafoe helped, but it’s quite the coincidence that a few months after their relationship was announced, Spider-Man: No Way Home became the highest grossing film in the trilogy.
What About Euphoria?
It was HBO’s Euphoria that marked the beginning of a new era in Zendaya’s career. The hard-hitting series narrows in on drug use, mental health, sexual violence and a criminal underworld in a small American town. Not only does Zendaya play the show’s lead, Rue — a drug addict struggling to recover — she is also one of the show’s executive producers. Its first series won three Emmys, and the second is gearing up for an explosive conclusion. For many viewers, Zendaya is Euphoria — and that association shows just how far she has come since Disney.
She has shown her range, starring in the Netflix film Malcolm & Marie (2021) and Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi blockbuster Dune. As well as its 11 Bafta nominations, it is nominated for ten Oscars, and a second part is in the works.
Holland too is shedding his spidey skin. He can be seen in the film Uncharted as a Harrison Ford-style action hero, opposite Mark Wahlberg. He has been writing a script with his younger brother, Harry, and is shooting The Crowded Room, an Apple TV+ drama about identity. And he is set to play Fred Astaire in a forthcoming biopic.
What Does the Future Hold?
“The 20-year goal is to be a film director,” Holland has said. “The 15-year goal is to win an Oscar.”
Zendaya also has big ambitions. “I gotta hurry up and figure out how to f***ing become a director, man. I’m trying, I’m learning every day.” Will they one day become the youngest couple nominated for Oscars in the same year? Are they the next Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig?
It’s not all about work, though. Holland has said that he has spent so long focused on his career that he would like to have a break — and that may mean starting a family.
Do They Have Long-Term Potential?
In our cynical world, breakups mean good publicity, says Neil Ewen, the co-editor of First Comes Love: Power Couples, Celebrity Kinship and Cultural Politics. “The media loves speculation. Often tension within relationships is more attractive and achieves more attention than stability.”
But for now, one thing is certain, he adds: “Zendaya and Tom will be thought of and talked about as a pair for some time to come.”
Jake Helm is an editorial assistant at The Sunday Times with a focus on arts, culture, and entertainment stories