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Zendaya, Josh O'Connor and Mike Faist on the love triangle of 'Challengers'

‘Challengers’ isn’t really about tennis—that’s just the arena where attraction and emotion in the film ultimately spills out

(from left) Mike Faist, Zendaya and Josh O'Connor at the Monte Carlo ATP Masters Series Tournament. Photo via AFP

By AP

LAST PUBLISHED 24.04.2024  |  10:57 AM IST

How sexy can a qualifying tennis tournament in New Rochelle, New York, be? When the on-court drama involves Zendaya, Josh O’Connor and Mike Faist, the answer turns out to be quite a bit more than your average USTA singles match in Luca Guadagnino’s “Challengers."

The film, directed by Guadagnino from a script by playwright Justin Kuritzkes, may have the appearance of a sports movie. Much of the action happens in between baselines. There are break points and short shorts. But in Guadagnino’s film, what’s being volleyed isn’t just a fuzzy little yellow ball.

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“The ball is the ephemeral, invisible force of desire," says Guadagnino, the director of “Call Me By Your Name" and “Bones and All." “I wanted to show desire going back and forth."

The result, by a score of about six-love, is the love triangle of the year. “Challengers," which Amazon MGM Studios releases in theaters Friday, takes the melodrama of the threesome and gives it a breathless, bi-curious spin. That’s especially due to the multilateral chemistry between Zendaya, O’Connor and Faist — all actors in their late 20s or early 30s, all very capable of smoldering when called upon.

It’s a big-screen statement especially for Zendaya, who’s also a producer on the film. She plays Tashi, the wife and coach of tennis superstar Art (Faist, the “West Side Story" breakout). Tashi was only relegated to the sidelines because of a career-ending knee injury — though it did little to sap her ambition. When Art, whose passion for tennis is fading, is matched in New Rochelle against an old friend, Patrick (O’Connor, star of Alice Rohrwacher’s recent “La Chimera" ), their complicated past is, deliciously, resurrected.

Zendaya gravitated to the project not because it seemed a natural fit for her, but because it wasn’t.

“Because it sounded like a challenge. Because it is so different from me," Zendaya said in an interview alongside her co-stars. “Sometimes when you’re a little afraid to tackle something like that you, you’re like, ‘Oo, maybe I should do it.’ I don’t want to walk into something and be like, ‘I got this. This is going to be easy.’"

“Challengers" was originally set to open last fall’s Venice Film Festival before it was postponed due to the actors strike. But the delay has only given more time for the buzz around the film to grow. That has a lot to do with the attention on everything Zendaya does, but it also has to do with how the film puts three exciting young actors in the center of the frame, and doesn’t let go.

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“What’s special is that the three of us got to lead the movie. That is cool," says O’Connor. “An opportunity to do something like that is so rare."

“Sometimes I’ve been a part of big ensembles," adds Zendaya, who co-starred in the recent “Dune: Part Two." “But it’s just the three of us. We are the cast. While we obviously have other amazing actors that contribute, this is the core thing here. Tennis training and the rehearsal period, it was just us. So thank god that we like each other."

Guadagnino, known for his organic way of working, compares the weeks he and the three stars spent together preparing in Boston to “kids on the beach creating castles of sand." Though Faist has some ability, the rest were hopeless at tennis. Guadagnino hadn’t picked up a racquet in his life before stepping onto the set in “Challengers." Famed tennis coach Brad Gilbert was brought in to help.

But “Challengers" isn’t really about tennis, that’s just the arena where attraction and emotion in the film ultimately spills out. When it’s pointed out to Guadagnino that the tennis scenes are essentially his movie’s sex scenes, he responds, “Thank you."

Faist, O’Connor and Zendaya all connected in different ways not just to how desire ebbs and flows but to how the characters are each juggling their fluctuating passions with their careers.

“It is this constant navigation in what we do. Once a project is over then you’re kind of in limbo. You’re always trying to find that thing that sparks something inside of you," Faist says. “It was something I really resonated with, that idea of falling in and out of love with your craft."

For Zendaya, the idea of having your craft ripped away, as it for Tashi, fueled arguably her finest film performance yet. “Challengers" is also the first time she’s leading a theatrical release.

“I’m grateful that I picked a career that I can keep doing for as long as I want to. I can be 80 years old and still be making movies if I get lucky enough to be able to or if that’s something I still want to be do then," Zendaya says. “I can’t imagine that idea of that life or thing that makes you happy or gives you power being ripped away from you. I deeply empathize with that."

Producer Amy Pascal first brought “Challengers" to Zendaya, a fittingly full-circle moment considering that Pascal cast Zendaya in her big-screen breakthrough, 2017’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming." “Challengers," though, signals a shift into more mature screen roles for the 27-year-old who from a young age as a Disney TV star had the responsibly of fame and providing for her family on her shoulders.

“Something I deal with personally is the idea of what I should want, or what people want for me," Zendaya says. “I empathize with that in Tashi but also in Art because he’s playing for two people. He’s not just selfishly playing for his own joy anymore, he’s playing for someone else. Sometimes our work can feel like that, too. We’re playing for the benefit of other people, what people want for us, rather than what really would just make you happy."

For Zendaya, Faist and O’Connor, “Challengers" allowed them to, when not busy steaming up the screen, wrestle with their own ambitions. O’Connor, who portrayed Prince Charles on “The Crown," shot “La Chimera" — playing a character he more closely identified with — in between a very different role in “Challengers."

“He is front-footed, he’s overly confident — all these qualities that I’ve always admired and always wanted that I’ve never quite been able to have. Just to play it and be in his shoes for a few months was bliss," says O’Connor. “That’s what I’ll hold on to with Patrick. I really like Patrick. I know he’s problematic but I really like him. I find him hilarious and charming and he knows himself. And those are all qualities that I don’t necessarily have but I admire in him."

The connections and challenges each star brought to “Challengers" added up to a remarkably intimate drama and a potentially career-shifting experience. Even Guadagnino, who generally prefers editing to shooting, found his time on hard court with Zendaya, O'Connor and Faist to be enthralling.

“It was joyous and it was a nice and it was energetic," says Guadagnino. "It was a good company."

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