Warning: This feature contains spoilers for The Dead Don’t Die.
Selena Gomez doesn’t last long in The Dead Don’t Die. Her character, Zoe, breezes into Centerville, USA, driving what the gas station attendant calls a “very George Romero” style car, right in the middle of a zombie epidemic. And since she’s the lone ingenue in short shorts, it’s practically horror movie law that she be among the first to die.
Yet, her short performance is among the most memorable in Jim Jarmusch’s latest movie, which boasts an all-star cast, including Adam Driver, Bill Murray, Chloe Sevigny, Steve Buscemi, and Danny Glover. Gomez’s character is clearly a “cool girl” in the most Gone Girl sense of the word — one of the movie’s gags has the town’s motel owner referring to Zoe and her male friends as “hipsters from Cleveland” — but she’s also got an earthy, grounded quality that draws us in. You want to be friends with Zoe. You want her to show you where she buys her 1970s-style jean shorts and muscle tees, so you, too, can look like you stepped off of the set of Jaws. You want her to notice you, to focus her attention on you, to smile at you. To quote a strangely morbid internet phrase used to describe that kind of big female energy, you want Zoe to run you over with that slick car of hers.
That is the power of a good Selena Gomez performance. And it’s a sad reflection on our own biases that despite her many accomplishments, she’s still not getting the recognition she deserves. In many ways, we still think of her in labels: a Disney kid, a social media influencer, that singer who’s friends with Taylor Swift, or the girl who dated Justin Bieber.
Earlier this week, Bill Murray admitted that he had misjudged his co-star, whom he had never spoken to or met before working together on this film, based on her 152 million Instagram followers. “I learned that I like her,” he told People at The Dead Don’t Die premiere “I learned that whatever preconception I had about someone that had 55 million, billion followers of something — maybe, I probably thought she was different than she turned out to be... I enjoyed her very much."
And even then, Murray’s previous comments about Gomez belie how most people feel about young, female celebrities: They don’t take them seriously. “I really like her,” he told Vanity Fair after a photo of him whispering in her ear at the Cannes Film Festival went viral. “I mean, you still can’t tell me who the hell Selena Gomez is — but Gomez I really like. She’s unusually bright. She’s kind and she’s natural.”
“I’m always pleased to find some kind of pop icon who I really like,” he added.
At 26, Gomez can trace her on-screen beginnings back to Barney & Friends, in which she played Gianna for two seasons. She then transitioned to Disney, where she had guest spots on The Suite Life of Zack and Cody alongside the Sprouse twins, and Hannah Montana, before landing her starring role as Alex Russo in The Wizards of Waverly Place, which would run from 2007 to 2012.
Over the years, she’s done voice work in the Hotel Transylvania franchise, starred in a Sundance indie (The Fundamentals of Caring), blockbuster comedies (Neighbours 2: Sorority Rising, Behaving Badly), a thriller (Getaway, alongside Ethan Hawke) and Oscar-contender (The Big Short), and one truly iconic cult film (Spring Breakers). She’s released two solo studio albums, an EP, three more albums as the lead of Selena Gomez and the Scene, headlined five global tours, and executive produced one of Netflix’s biggest streaming hits, 13 Reasons Why.
Off screen she’s made waves for her friendship — and then rumoured feud — with Taylor Swift, her high-profile relationships (with Nick Jonas, Bieber, and The Weeknd), and her ongoing battle with a lupus diagnosis that required a kidney transplant in 2017. Her health concerns have caused her to take a step back in the last two years, as she takes care of her body and her mind.
But the fact remains, Gomez is a magnetic screen presence, whom I’d love to see more of. Before The Dead Don’t Die, she had been scheduled to star in Woody Allen’s A Rainy Day in New York, with Timothée Chalamet, Elle Fanning, Jude Law, Diego Luna, and Liev Schreiber. But the film, which was supposed to be distributed by Amazon prior to the company terminating its relationship with the director, will not be released in the United States.
I saw the trailer. In another universe — or a decade ago — in which starring in a Woody Allen movie wasn’t a lightning rod for controversy, Gomez’s performance would probably been hailed as a turning point.
Back before James Franco became a controversial figure in his own right, he directed Gomez, his Spring Breakers co-star, in 2016’s In Dubious Battle, loosely adapted from the eponymous John Steinbeck novel. She played Lisa, a young Depression-era mother, in what was, as Refinery29 noted in a 2015 profile of Gomez, a serious departure for her acting career.
“If she were allowed to play [more] roles beyond just teenagers with teen interests, she would show her innate maturity and strength,” Franco told Refinery29 at the time. “She has had to face pressures and scrutiny at a young age that most never face in a lifetime. So when she is able to display the strength and leadership she has developed, she shines.”
Gomez has proven over and over that she has the chops. Now, let’s give her the meaty roles she deserves — and not in the tasty zombie meal sense.
“The Dead Don’t Die” hits UK cinemas on 12th July