CHALLENGERS Starring Zendaya

Visionary filmmaker Luca Guadagnino presents Challengers, written by Justin Kuritzkes and starring Zendaya as Tashi Duncan, a former tennis virtuoso turned coach and an anomaly who makes no apologies for her game on and off the court. She is married to a champion on a losing streak (Mike Faist from West Side Story) and her strategy for her husband’s redemption takes a surprising turn when he must face his opponent, the washed up Patrick (Josh O’Connor from The Crown). Patrick just happens to be Tashi‘s former boyfriend and her husband’s former best friend. Their colliding pasts and newfound tensions run high, and Tashi must wonder what it will cost to win.

Former Disney star, actress, singer, dancer, model and producer, ZENDAYA is one of the most acclaimed and relevant stars in Hollywood at the moment and deservedly so. Having received two Primetime Emmys, and a Golden Globe award, Time magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2022, with a following of 185 million on socials. Her transition from child superstar on the Disney channel was smoother than most, as her feature film debut was Spider-Man: Homecoming, released in 2017. She later reprised her role in its two sequels.

Her role in the HBO series Euphoria made her the youngest recipient of the Primetime Emmy Award. She has also starred in the musical The Greatest Showman, the romantic drama Malcolm & Marie, and the science fiction films Dune and Dune: Part Two, which was released earlier this year. As a singer, “Rewrite the Stars” from the Greatest Showman soundtrack–a duet with Zac Efron–hit the Billboard top 100. She now owns the co-starring role in Challengers, a film she also helped produce.

Reviews of the film paint the cast as giving star quality performances in a gloriously stylish filmmaking event that’s an energetic and fun time at the movies. During a press conference with director and cast present, Zendaya relayed the following answers to questions posed to her:

Where were you in your career when this project was brought to you and what made you say you had to do this and also that you wanted to be a producer on it?

I believe I was still shooting Euphoria at the time, and it’s one of those things that everybody knows, especially when I am working: it’s really hard to get me to do anything other than focus on what I’m going to do tomorrow on set. So we kind of had a mock table read at my agent’s house. I just fell in love with the script. I mean, it was brilliant and it also made me very nervous. It was something to tackle because of how complicated these characters are. Also, because I couldn’t  define what kind of movie it was. It was funny, so funny.…but I wouldn’t say it was a comedy. There was drama, but I wouldn’t say it was just a drama. It had tennis, but it wasn’t like a sports movie. So that feeling that it was everything at once in this beautiful way was terrifying, but equally exhilarating and exciting, and it was a character that felt like I had never read before and had never seen before. It scared the shit out of me. So I thought, “Maybe I need to do this.” 

And I think being able to be a part of it in a creative sense and hopefully be in service to the characters and our incredible team and help in anyway that I can to help bring it to life…hearing that Luca had read it and was interested in being a part of it was like a dream because I was such a fan of his work for so long. We had met once at a dinner and he was so kind and sweet to me and he helped me get the vegetarian options because I couldn’t speak Italian…and I loved him then. I’ve been hoping to work with him in some capacity so the idea that it would be this was magical. We sat and we talked over Zoom. I understood that he understood the kind of movie we wanted to create. He understood these characters in such a deep sense, down to joking about what kind of lotion she would use before she goes to bed at night. So it just felt like an obvious yes.

What kind of preparation did you have to go through to learn the tennis skills?

I call it summer camp. It was great. Essentially, we got six weeks before we even started production, to just work on tennis. We were under the support and guidance of Brad [tennis coach Brad Gilbert], which was incredible, an iconic person in his own right and truthfully, I had no idea about tennis. All I really knew about tennis was Venus and Serena. Again, it was one of those things that was terrifying as a challenge to take on because you know you were supposed to be a great tennis player and I’ve never been a great tennis player. I think I was incredibly nervous showing up on that first day. We were all incredibly nervous about showing up that first day. So we did tennis training alongside each other. We worked out beside each other. We also had rehearsal beside each other, which was such a privilege to be able to have that time to work on the script and get to know each other. But during that tennis training time, I think I was driving myself crazy trying to become a tennis player. I remember when I first started hitting the ball. It just wouldn’t go off. It was going into trees and it was never even close to the court. I was like, “Damn, I’ve got a long way to go.” With tennis, it’s just not a game you can pick up. So I would come in and I would feel like I would get it, like something clicked. Then you come in the next day and you can’t do it. 

You’re like, “Damn, back to square one.” They were feeding the balls and I once asked if I could return the serve…you know, hit me a real one. The way that thing flew by me so fast…at the time I still had glasses, so I couldn’t even see the damn thing. So at some point, I realized that my approach had to be different because whatever, this isn’t working. I was watching Luca and noticed that he was building these scenes and choreographing them. Every shot in these tennis sequences was a storyboard. It was so exact and so meticulous. So I thought maybe that’s how I need to approach it too, and so I decided to approach it like choreography, and I am a dancer. So I decided to let me dance this thing out. That kind of became my entryway to looking more like a tennis player, ‘cause I knew that at some point I wasn’t going to be one. 

At the premiere, you asked the audience not to judge Tashi too harshly. But I heard an overwhelming consensus that people loved Tashi being a baddie. Have you learned to embrace her being a bit of a villainess or do you feel she is just misunderstood?

I think the response might be that a female character does not have to be likable or doesn’t care about you liking her. She doesn’t ask for forgiveness, and I think that is probably refreshing. It was refreshing to me when I read her, and that is why I wanted to play her. I feel like it’s our natural instinct to judge people. So it’s easy to judge these characters, and I understand that because we all do. I think the beauty of this film is that your mind will change. I know mine has. Every time I watch it, I mean honestly, I had preconceived emotions about the character and then these guys came in and their performances alone changed my perception of these characters, what they brought to them, and how they embodied them. So I think it’s one of those things that is ever-changing. So every time I watch it, I’m still surprised. You are constantly living with them and learning something new about them. I say that only because I know you’d be wrong. You were going to have an initial reaction and then you’ll change it. That’s the beauty of it. 

Eileen Shapiro

Best selling author of "The Star Trek Medical Reference Manual", and feature celebrity correspondent for Get Out Magazine, Louder Than War, and Huffington Post contributor, I've interviewed artists from Adam Ant, Cyndi Lauper, and Annie Lennox to Jennifer Hudson, Rick Springfield, LeAnn Rimes, and thousands in between. My interviews challenge the threat of imagination....

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