Zendaya On Challengers & Why She Loves Playing “Complicated” Characters

Get your racquets. Prepare the tennis balls. Because Challengers is here, and it's a grand slam. The highly-anticipated tennis-themed film from Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name) features Zendaya in her first "grown-up" role, which already has fans in a flurry after hot and steamy trailers. Yep, it seems like we're all suddenly about to get really, really into tennis.
But Challengers isn't just a tennis movie. If anything, tennis is merely a vehicle to tell the 13-year narrative of Tashi Duncan (Zendaya), a tennis star who's forced to turn to coaching after a career-ending injury. Determined to see her husband Art's (Mike Faist) tennis comeback, she enrolls him in a tournament, only to discover that her ex-boyfriend — and Art's former bestie — Patrick (Josh O'Connor) is also trying to crawl his way back into the tennis world in the very same tournament.
But whether you're eyeing off Challengers because you're thirsty for a good tennis movie, or you were lured in by promises of a horny threesome film, you'll be surprised by either camp. While this critic recommends experiencing the film with little knowledge of what it's actually like, what's clear is that these are career-best performances from Zendaya, Faist, and O'Connor alike.
Tashi is a new challenge for Zendaya. She's brutal, cruel, calculating and unempathetic, using her looks to wield men around her finger and puppeteering them into doing what she desires. It might seem like a difficult feat for Zendaya to pull off considering she's one of the most beloved celebrities in the world at the moment, but for the star, it's exactly this brutality that drew her to the role.
"Tashi is a character that I'd never read before and I'd never seen much of represented in cinema and not in this way," Zendaya tells Refinery29. "I appreciated how direct and apologetic she is in her wants and needs and communicating those things... she's very comfortable in her power and wielding that over other people."
It's a big film in particular for Zendaya, who's career accomplishments are nothing to scoff about. While originally starting out as a Disney Channel star, she quickly captured attention worldwide thanks to her complicated and gripping performance of Rue in HBO's Euphoria. She's tackling the sci-fi universe in the beast that is the Dune franchise or slinging webs in Marvel's new Spider-Man films. Previously earning two Emmy Awards, a Golden Globe Award, and being named one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2022 and age 25, it's clear that Zendaya is a force to be reckoned with. But Challengers might just prove why she is cementing herself as one of the greatest forces in cinema — and why she doesn't want to be pigeonholed into playing certain roles.

"I don't want every character I play to be likeable all the time or perfect... I think that it's so important for me to be able to depict different types of characters and have the freedom to do so."

Zendaya, on her character Tashi in Challengerrs
After juggling her husband's career as well as her ex-boyfriends, Zendaya's character Tashi says, "I'm taking such good care of my little white boys." And while it might be a line that has already made the internet go collectively feral, it's also a stark reminder of how the film explicitly subverts race and gender power dynamics. For Zendaya, she hadn't seen many characters like Tashi in cinema before — which is exactly why she wanted to do it.
"I think what's important about having strong characters or interesting characters, for me, is that they are complicated and they are nuanced," Zendaya explains. "It's important for all people to be able to see different versions of human beings, right?"
"I don't want every character I play to be likeable all the time or perfect, because it's just not the human experience," she continues, emphasising that as an actress, she needs freedom to tackle different roles. "I think that is so important for me at least, to be able to depict different types of characters. You know what I mean? And have the freedom to do so."
"I hadn't seen it before," she says. "It felt like something very terrifying to take on, but very exciting, because we need more Tashi characters on screen."
When the trailer for Challengers first leapt on the scene, it was immediate chaos, before quickly being dubbed the 'threesome film' by many. As with any Guadagnino film, Challengers is pulsating with sexual desire. But not necessarily in the ways one might think.
It's two men sharing a sauna while their bodies are dripping with sweat with the knowledge that the only thing protecting them from full nudity is a flimsy white towel. It's Patrick and Art sharing a phallic-looking churro, aggressively biting into it while deeply staring into each other's eyes. Eating bananas (slowly). Prolonged eye contact. Fiddling with tennis balls. Watching a tennis rally, with each character grunting and moaning as they hit the ball back and forth, back and forth.

"The tennis is the sex."

Josh O'Connor
"The tennis is the sex," Josh O'Connor tells Refinery29. "The tension of the film is held by the fact that we don't see those things. It's sort of like a promise that you don't fulfil. It's a private thing between them but all the tension is played out on the court."
"Intimacy," Zendaya adds, laughing.
"The scene that Mike [Faist] and I have with the churros obviously has elements of that," O'Connor explains. "It's all so charged — sexually, but also from a relationship point of view. Every scene has a charge beneath it... It's the way they talk to each other, the way they behave with each other, it's all so charged at any given moment."

"I've been playing a teenager since I was one, so I think people are used to that version of me. They've grown up with me, literally."

Zendaya, on her shift into more grown-up roles
Debuting on the Disney Channel in 2010 for Shake It Up before eventually shooting to fame thanks to her award-winning portrayal of Rue in Euphoria, Zendaya has previously made a name for herself in playing teenagers. But Challengers represents a distinct shift into more "grown-up" roles for Zendaya — something that she understands might be a difficult shift for audiences to swallow.
"Funny enough, I've been playing a teenager since I was one," Zendaya tells us. "So I think people are used to maybe that version of me. They've grown up with me, literally on television or on Euphoria."
The film is set non-linearly, oscillating between watching Tashi, Art, and Patrick as teenagers pining over each other and discovering their capability as tennis stars before cutting to the future, where Zendaya isn't just grown up, but is also a mother. "I liked the idea of having to grow with a character, not necessarily linearly, but growing with them and understanding why they are the way they are or why they make the decisions that they make."
"This was a time that I was like, now I get to play a character closer to my own age, which was nice," she laughs. "I still play a teenager... but you get to see [Tashi] grow and you get to live with them and exist with them over time... that was exciting for me."
In Challengers, Zendaya has proved why she is one of the most in-demand actresses in the world at the moment. Featuring career bests from Josh O'Connor and Mike Faist, who can expect to cement themselves as the new Hollywood it-boys, tennis has never looked this good.
Challengers is in US theatres April 26.

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