‘Challengers’ Heats Up: How Zendaya’s Star Power and a Sexy Love Triangle Could Give Gen Z Its Next Movie Obsession

On June 20, 2022, Mike Faist and Josh O’Connor sat at the edge of a motel bed on either side of Zendaya, kissing, licking and biting her neck. As Art and Patrick, their respective “Challengers” characters, they were desperate for more of Tashi, played by Zendaya, and desperate to mask their desperation.

Zendaya’s mind was elsewhere. “The only reason I really remember is because Beyoncé came out with ‘Break My Soul’ that day,” she said. “I was having a great day, like, ‘Y’all. Beyoncé’s single just dropped.’ That’s what I was focused on, to be honest.”

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“We lost Zendaya for like a week,” O’Connor recalls. “She was on set, normal, chatting with us. Then one day Beyoncé released something. They called ‘cut,’ and she immediately had headphones in. She was completely lost to the world.”

Tashi, too, is often lost to the world. Her unavailability — bordering on heartlessness — sets the stakes for “Challengers.” It’s certainly what makes the film so sexy, as Art and Patrick take turns peacocking for her attention. And when they can’t have it, they resort to messing with each other.

Variety Challengers Cover Zendaya Mike Faist Josh O'Connor
Variety Challengers Cover Zendaya Mike Faist Josh O'Connor

The release of “Challengers” has been packed with so many contradictions, it’s no wonder no one knows what’s happening in the movie business anymore. This R-rated arthouse movie is being released wide domestically in theaters by a streamer (Amazon) that inherited the project in an $8.5 billion acquisition of a traditional studio (MGM).

Wait, there’s more: “Challengers,” directed by Luca Guadagnino, was supposed to be a fall awards movie — but saw its release date snuffed out by the actors strike. (If Zendaya can’t walk the carpet at the Venice Film Festival, which “Challengers” was meant to open, then what’s the point?) And somehow, since Warner Bros. is responsible for putting the movie in theaters overseas, “Challengers” has been showered with the global rollout usually reserved for Marvel movies, with splashy premieres in Sydney, London, Rome, Paris and L.A.

Is the movie any good? Hell, yes. But as Zendaya has been traversing the globe putting on her own fashion show, we’ve all been most mesmerized by her tennis couture, in looks that bring to mind Carrie Bradshaw, if she’d ever picked up a racket. At the London premiere, Zendaya’s stylist Law Roach pulled a Vivienne Westwood dress from 1994 with a miniskirt punctuated by feathers that resembled “a fluffy white bunny tail,” reported Bustle. Method acting has entered the real-world runway of film promotion, with BuzzFeed calling Zendaya’s fashion choices “method dressing.” But will all of this delayed hustle lead to box office success when “Challengers” opens in theaters on April 26? The chair umpire is still out on that one.

Zendaya Variety Challengers Cover Story
Zendaya Variety Challengers Cover Story

“Challengers” introduces Tashi Duncan as a teenage tennis prodigy who is lusted after by the showy Patrick Zweig and his shy best friend Art Donaldson, lesser players than Tashi but still talented. As she’s about to enroll at Stanford, Tashi hooks up with Patrick; she later marries Art. When Patrick reenters the couple’s lives 13 years later, Tashi must reckon with the choices she’s made. So must the guys.

“Challengers” presents the rarest, most satisfying species of love triangle: “Luca felt it was very important that, in any love triangle, all the corners touch,” says first-time screenwriter Justin Kuritzkes, “and I quickly realized he meant it literally.” Guadagnino encouraged Kuritzkes to write the steamy scene where Patrick and Art start out kissing Tashi but somehow end up in a makeout session of their own.

In the same way the release of “Challengers” has been so scattered, so have the interviews for this story. The three actors on our cover — Zendaya, O’Connor and Faist — assembled for a photo shoot in London in June 2023. Prior to the film’s original Venice release, it was the only time Faist was available while starring in “Brokeback Mountain” on the West End. We speak to Guadagnino more recently over Zoom in Rome, where he’s dressed like the world’s classiest film professor in a white cashmere cardigan. “It’s beautiful to kiss people!” he says about the most talked-about scene in his movie. “That’s what I want to say. People, kiss! Do not make war.”

There’s more to the kissing than pacifism. O’Connor, who gets on a Zoom with us from a nondescript Philadelphia location while doing press this month, says he doesn’t know how to label the sexuality of the boys of “Challengers,” which has been the subject of constant chatter online. “I think they’re everything,” he says. “I think it’s Platonic and non-Platonic. I think they’re obsessed with each other. I think it’s stronger than love — we need each other in order to feel complete.”

Tennis is notably absent from the pantheon of sports movies. That’s not for lack of trying: Kirsten Dunst took a swing with 2004’s “Wimbledon,” which made a modest profit before being forgotten, while in 2017, Shia LaBeouf’s “Borg vs McEnroe” failed to break even at the box office. Ditto “Battle of the Sexes,” starring Emma Stone as Billie Jean King. Even “King Richard,” which earned Will Smith an Oscar in 2022, only managed to gross $15 million because of its simultaneous streaming release during COVID.

But “Challengers” has what its predecessors lack: the more-than-sports appeal that’s kept films like “Rocky” and “Love & Basketball” on replay for decades.

Zendaya Variety Challengers Cover Story
Zendaya Variety Challengers Cover Story

“It’s a movie, and it’s tennis, but it’s not a tennis movie,” Zendaya explained last July over the phone. She was spending the summer in London with her boyfriend and “Spider-Man” co-star Tom Holland when she found herself scrambling to get on the phone for one last “Challengers” interview just two days before the SAG-AFTRA strike began, when there were still hopes the movie might come out in 2023. “It’s much deeper,” Zendaya continued. “Tennis is just a metaphor for a lot of bigger shit. For power. For codependency. They’re using tennis as their device to get these things out of their system. It’s the only way they know how to communicate.”

It’s a good line, one she likely would have used to campaign for her first Oscar nomination last year. But then all hell broke loose.

The week after our interview, Amazon MGM Studios pulled “Challengers” from its coveted competition spot at Venice. “Of course we were bummed,” says Faist, 32, from London in early April. “But I’m glad the movie has been getting its time in the sun.” A breakout star after playing Riff in Steven Spielberg’s 2021 “West Side Story” remake, he’s still endearingly new to the press game. “It’s been a joy to see people respond to the film,” he adds before sheepishly clarifying that he has yet to see it with an audience.

O’Connor, 33, says that he’d invited family members to see the film in Venice. “There was a little bit of feeling stunted, but I agreed with everything about the strike,” says the actor, who won an Emmy for playing Prince Charles in “The Crown.” “There was no other option. I mean, the only other option would have been” — he breaks into a laugh — “to release it without doing press. Which would have been fine.”

Not that its stars lack a talent for doing press: Zendaya’s tennis-themed outfits have broken the internet time and again. But the delay represents an awkward test. Spring isn’t usually when ambitious, potentially awards-contending movies come out. And “Challengers” is playing catch-up at a sensitive time for its lead actress. Shortly after playing Chani in “Dune: Part Two,” Zendaya is getting her first shot at leading-lady status. If “Challengers” succeeds, she will cement herself as one of the most powerful movie stars of her generation, rivaled only by her “Dune” co-star Timothée Chalamet. Much is riding on the power of her serve.

“I’ve been playing 16-year-olds since I was 16,” Zendaya said, having launched her career on Disney Channel before moving on to projects such as HBO’s “Euphoria” and the most recent “Spider-Man” franchise, both centering on high schoolers. “So it was nice to play a character that was not a child anymore. It was also interesting playing parts of my life that I haven’t experienced yet: I’ve not gotten married. I’ve not had a child. Those milestones, I don’t necessarily have a direct reference point for. That was different to feel. Ultimately, it felt like the right time for a character like this.”

This moment certainly represents a crossroads in Zendaya’s career. “Euphoria,” the juggernaut series that won her two Emmys for playing the drug-addicted teenager Rue Bennett, is in limbo as the network retools its third season; according to sources, Zendaya — who serves as an executive producer — asked for major script changes from writer-director Sam Levinson. She has tactfully sidestepped most conversations about the show during her “Challengers” press tour and declined a follow-up interview for this story.

Josh O'Connor Variety Challengers Cover Story
Josh O'Connor Variety Challengers Cover Story

But at the movie’s L.A. premiere this month, when asked by Variety whether a third season of “Euphoria” will ever get made, she tosses up her hands. “I don’t know,” she says. “I am not in charge. If it’s right for the characters and everything turns out the way it should, of course.” But Zendaya, who isn’t the final decisionmaker on the show, leaves “Euphoria” fans with little hope: “It’s beyond me,” she says.

Back in London on our 2023 call, Zendaya was most focused on her new obsession. “I’m watching tennis as we speak. I’m watching Wimbledon.” As Novak Djokovic triumphed over Andrey Rublev, she said, “I was not a tennis person before this. All I really knew was, like, Serena and Roger Federer. So I just threw myself in there. I’ve pretty much seen every video, every match that’s online. It became my thing.” A sport all about precision and craft seems like something the most tactical performer of her generation was destined to discover, with or without “Challengers.”

“Challengers” landing at Amazon at all was a fluke that speaks to the roller-coaster ride of making films right now. In early 2022, Kevin Ulrich, then chairman of the board of MGM, was on his way to lunch in Manhattan’s SoHo when he got a call from a friend, Christina Bazdekis, the UTA agent. She wanted to know if he’d be willing to stop by and meet Guadagnino, who was at a photo studio in the neighborhood.

Ulrich had never met the director, but they hit it off right away. Guadagnino showed Ulrich a 10-minute reel of the independently financed “Bones and All,” a movie starring Chalamet as a cannibal, which was finished but didn’t have distribution, and told him he was in the midst of developing a sexy tennis story starring Zendaya.

Ulrich wanted in. He called Michael De Luca and Pam Abdy — then the heads of MGM and now running Warner Bros. — and over the next 24 hours, they negotiated a two-picture deal, picking up both movies while the FCC still had yet to approve Amazon’s $8.5 billion acquisition of the studio. When that sale closed, the streaming giant inherited the titles, and Zendaya landed a $10 million paycheck as “Challengers” star and executive producer. “Bones and All” opened in theaters in 2022, grossing an underwhelming $15 million.

Mike Faist Variety Challengers Cover Story
Mike Faist Variety Challengers Cover Story

But “Challengers” is a more mainstream movie — sex and tennis probably appeal to a wider audience than cannibalism. Three years ago, producer Amy Pascal “flipped” when she and her producing partner, Rachel O’Connor, read Kuritzkes’ script. “We loved that it felt like a modern love story about three authentic characters who want the things we all want,” Pascal says in an email.

Kuritzkes was inspired to write a tennis movie while watching the infamous 2018 U.S. Open match between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka, in which Williams was penalized for receiving coaching from the sidelines, an accusation she denied.

It was Kuritzkes’ first time hearing of that rule, and it instantly struck him as a cinematic conceit. “You’re all alone on the court. There’s only one other person who cares as much about what happens to you in this match as you do, and you can’t talk to them. I started to think, ‘What if you really had to talk about something important that went beyond tennis? Something going on with you personally?”

In “Challengers,” sex, lies and betrayal happen both on and off the court. “Tennis, by its nature, is a very erotic sport,” Kuritzkes explains. “It’s about being at a distance from somebody. Trying not to touch them, trying to just miss them, trying to make them think the ball is gonna go one place, and then go another place. There’s a deep intimacy in that, and a lot of repression. The point is no contact. To me, that’s almost like a Victorian romance. It’s very sexy. And you usually play tennis against somebody of the same gender, so tennis, by its nature, then becomes almost homoerotic.”

And there was only one actress that Pascal had in mind for the woman in this love triangle, and she knew how to slip her the script. “I’d worked with Amy on numerous ‘Spider-Men,’” Zendaya said. “She’d seen me grow up.” The search for a director did not last long either, she said. “The person that stood out to all of us was Luca Guadagnino.”

Pascal had long wanted to make something with Guadagnino, who was working with John C. Reilly on the short film “O Night Divine” when she sent him the script. “She calls me every half hour. ‘Read the script! Read the script!’” Guadagnino recalls. “I had the script on set, hiding myself from John C., not showing him that I was reading while I was directing. Anyway, I found it amazing.”

Guadagnino suggested that O’Connor play the cocky Patrick, a departure for the actor, who has been seen in more than a handful of British period dramas. For the role of Art, Guadagnino considered both Faist and his “West Side Story” co-star David Alvarez. Faist, who was living with family in Ohio at the time, wasn’t sure he was interested.

“My agent called and said, ‘There’s a really good script. You should take a look.’ I never read anything,” he admits. “I’m always telling my agents to leave me alone, is the truth of the matter, but I could tell in her voice that she really meant it. So I read it, and she was right. They asked if I could come to London to do a test screen with Z. I thought, ‘Why not? If I don’t get the job, I got a trip out of it.’”

Faist thought he had bombed the audition, but Guadagnino loved his interpretation of the character. “Luca’s two concerns, really, were that I was blond and that I didn’t have a hair on my body,” Faist says.

Guadagnino reveals that Faist was initially put off by the idea of manscaping. “I said, ‘Why?’ The day after, he was shaved! Athletes of that level need to be aerodynamic.”

For most of his career-making movies, including on “Call Me by Your Name,” Guadagnino rehearses with his casts as if they’re preparing for a stage play. For “Challengers,” the three actors spent six weeks in Boston, each day consumed with two hours of weightlifting and two hours of tennis followed by deep dives into the script.

“Anytime I wasn’t at work, I was watching something,” Zendaya said about the prep process. “I’m seeing these little kids on Instagram — like, 10 — absolutely professional. Like, ‘Wow, I’m terrible!’ I was obviously very intimidated by the fact that I was stepping into something I really didn’t understand.”

Zendaya Variety Challengers Cover Story-2
Zendaya Variety Challengers Cover Story-2

O’Connor isn’t someone who’d normally find himself at an Equinox. “I find gyms incredibly tedious,” he confesses. “I get bored very quickly. I always catch myself in the mirror, and I’m like, ‘You look so pathetic. You look rubbish holding your weights. And out of your depth.’ So I just never really lasted.” But he’s so built in “Challengers,” he felt proud to wear a sleeveless shirt in the final tennis match in the film.

The competition and camaraderie motivated him to get in shape. “There’s a piece of equipment that measures how strong your abdominals are,” O’Connor says. “And Zendaya had the best abs of the three of us by a long way. I remember me and Mike laughing, but we were also furious and desperately trying to improve our strength.”

As his actors were getting jacked, Guadagnino was busy tempting them with homemade pasta. “I tried to corrupt them all with food. I succeeded a few times with Josh. Zendaya, she ate a little bit,” he says. With Faist, though, “I never succeeded.”

There was another way that Guadagnino shaped the characters. He enlisted designer Jonathan Anderson, creative director of the luxury brand Loewe, to craft the costumes. In one scene, Patrick dons a pair of purple shorts while living out of his car. “As Josh, I would have felt so deeply uncomfortable with them. First of all, the size,” he says. “He probably had those shorts from when he was, like, 14. He doesn’t mind if it’s a bit revealing — he doesn’t give a shit.”

Patrick’s other essential look was one he shared with Tashi. Twice, he throws on a shirt he likely picked up off her dorm room floor that said in capital letters: “I TOLD YA.” Though Tashi wears it before him in an argument with Art, even she wasn’t the first: The tee is a near replica of one John F. Kennedy Jr. was photographed wearing in the ’90s, itself appearing to reference the “I TOLD YOU SO” buttons collectors have held on to since the 1961 inauguration of his late father.

Tashi is indeed cursed with Kennedy-esque bad luck. “Tashi probably would have went on to be the greatest female tennis player,” Zendaya said, musing on the injury that sidelines her character and forces her to transition into coaching her husband. “She had all the makings and the mental fortitude, which makes it even more devastating, because we’ll never know what the world would have been like with her.”

Overlapping with the crushing weight of young fame are Tashi’s experiences as a Black woman in the tennis world. There’s the racism and sexism she rubs up against while moving through the larger institutions of the sport, and there’s also the position she finds herself in as a shepherd of both Art and Patrick’s careers; besides the big kissing scene, the most talked-about moment in “Challengers” is when Tashi spits in Patrick’s face the words, “I’m taking such good care of my little white boys.”

“It’s very clear to her that she’s coming into a place of privilege and access that she clearly didn’t grow up with, so she enjoys fucking with them about it,” Zendaya said. “All of her background is riding on her shoulders. It’s clear that she’s had to fight her way in, and is dealing with it on the daily, what it means to be a Black girl in that space. Tennis means more to her than it does to them; it’s not just something she decided to do because ‘I had the luxury of getting tennis lessons as a kid.’ This is it for her. This is what’s going to take care of herself and her family and the future. There’s so much riding on it.”

Kuritzkes knew where his characters came from as soon as he started writing: “Tashi was always a Black woman. Patrick was always a very well-to-do Jewish guy, and Art was always a somewhat well-to-do WASP.” Along with the inspiration he took from watching that Williams-Osaka match, he says, “It just kind of felt ridiculous to create a love triangle set in the tennis world with three American players and not have one of them be a Black woman. Because that is the story of American women’s tennis, if you look at all of the big superstars from the past decade.”

When asked how it felt to play a Black woman in a highly interracial relationship, Zendaya stumbled. “It’s more exclusive to Tashi,” she said. “I don’t know if I necessarily personally connected. “But I do know,” she continued, finding her footing, “being the kind of woman that she is, it would be difficult to be reduced and never called anything else but his wife. She’s his coach, and she’s constantly reminding people of that.”

This reminded Zendaya of one of the lyrics of her idol. “In the words of Beyoncé, don’t get it twisted, right? That’s true of a lot of women in power. Especially Black women in power.”

The ball is in Zendaya’s court — on screen and off. And if “Challengers” scores big at the box office —well, as the T-shirt reads, she told ya.

Marc Malkin contributed to this story.

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