Zendaya, Luca Guadagnino, Josh O’Connor & Mike Faist On ‘Challengers’

By Kyle Buchanan
New York Times
The stars of ‘Challengers,’ from left, Josh O'Connor, Zendaya and Mike Faist, in Los Angeles in April. Photo / Chantal Anderson, The New York Times

Ambition, jealousy and “erotic amusement” are entangled in director Luca Guadagnino’s new movie about three tennis pros at different stages of their careers and lives.

Can trash talk be a love language?

It is in the world of Luca Guadagnino’s new film Challengers, which pits two best-friend tennis players, Patrick

“I find them all really likable and charming — and terrible also,” Zendaya said with a grin. The complicated adult stakes of Challengers offer a new pursuit for this 27-year-old actress, who shot to fame as a teenager on the Disney Channel and is now best known for her Emmy-winning role on HBO’s Euphoria and the big-budget movie franchises Spider-Man and Dune. Although she is aware that Challengers will test her box-office draw as a solo star, she didn’t overthink her decision to make the movie, which came out in theatres in New Zealand on April 18.

“I wanted to do it because it’s brilliant,” she said. “It’s not like I sat in my room and had this master board: ‘Okay, this is how I’m going to make my big transition for my first lead theatrical role.’”

Last week at a Beverly Hills hotel, I met Zendaya, her co-stars O’Connor (The Crown) and Faist (West Side Story), and Guadagnino for an hour of freewheeling conversation about Challengers and the pressure of forging a life and career in the public eye. Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.

Q: This movie poses a lot of questions about ambition and drive. Zendaya, has your relationship to your own ambition changed over time?

ZENDAYA: Yeah, for sure. When I was younger, you have different ideas and hopes and dreams about what’s important. The older that I get, I just want to be happy and peaceful, and my ambition is more about trying to live a good life.

Q: To do that, have you had to shed other people’s ambitions for your career?

ZENDAYA: Or maybe just ideals of what I thought I was supposed to want my whole life or had been trained to think is important. The older you get, the more you realise that doesn’t matter: If you’re not enjoying it, if you’re not happy.

JOSH O’CONNOR: I think we can be a little bit apologetic sometimes of having a sense of ambition, and I feel ambitious to work. For instance, working with great directors is a treat and an honour. But also, like Z, I have an ambition to make my garden look really nice this summer, or see my family more. I guess your perspective changes as you get older, doesn’t it?

Photo / Chantal Anderson, The New York Times
Photo / Chantal Anderson, The New York Times

Q: That’s something that I want you to weigh in on, too, Mike, because when you were interviewed by the Times three years ago, you sounded ambivalent about where you were headed. You said, “I can’t tell if I hate acting or if I love it too much. It’s not like I don’t plan on doing it. I just don’t want to follow the trajectory of what the industry wants me to do.”

LUCA GUADAGNINO: That’s very Mike.

MIKE FAIST: I moved to New York at 17 to pursue theatre. I didn’t know anyone and I didn’t have any sort of way in, so I was fighting for what felt like my life every single day just to get my foot into the industry. Once you’re there, you start to realise, “Why was I fighting so hard? Just to get some sort of acceptance from an outside perspective?”

With any sort of project, there’s two avenues you could go down: “How will this look on the outside and how will people perceive me?” or “I want to do this because I get to explore this thing for myself.” That’s what I became more interested in. I don’t actually care how it comes across to other people, I know for myself what I’m doing it for.

Q: As an actor, you’ve got to identify with your character. As a viewer, watching Challengers, are you still on your character’s side?

O’CONNOR: One of the really interesting things about sharing the film now is hearing people’s responses to the characters afterward. The first few people that I spoke to were like, “Patrick’s horrific. He’s awful,” and I was like, “Hang on one second here!” I really think that they all need each other, and they go about it in questionable ways, but don’t we all go about stuff in questionable ways at times? I think all three of them are lovable.

FAIST: Obviously, because people are liking the movie.

GUADAGNINO: The approach of the movie is very old Hollywood, like Preston Sturges, Lubitsch. The leading characters were fierce, feisty, complex, yet fun and seductive.

ZENDAYA: When we talked (about the script), I was like, “I could just make her a straight up B-word.” That was always our line to walk, never making her feel completely cold. How do we find nuance, and how do we make her feel sensitive and fragile? I think she’s falling apart and you’re watching a woman scramble to pull her life together and keep up the facade and hold all the pain in. The challenge with a character is not necessarily justifying their actions, but always making them feel human enough to empathise with their decisions.

FAIST: And then all of us have to let it go, and then it becomes this co-creation with the audience. They’re going to run with it, and there’s nothing we can do except for our work and our prep. Hopefully it is engaging enough for them to have those colours for themselves.

Photo / Chantal Anderson, The New York Times
Photo / Chantal Anderson, The New York Times

Q: It’s interesting, too, because Art and Patrick aren’t just vying for Tashi. There’s also a competitive erotic energy between the two of them.

GUADAGNINO: Going back to the canon of the Hollywood golden-age comedy, you can track subtexts in these great films: With Billy Wilder, Some Like It Hot, there is this fun with queerness. We discussed a lot about how we could flesh out the basic point that the triangle is not just two people after one, but the corners touch together all the time. You’re not jealous of your girlfriend or your boyfriend. You’re jealous because you’re not chosen by one and you’re losing the other.

Q: Early on in the movie, the characters go back to Tashi’s hotel room and things lead to a three-way kiss. It’s a crucial moment, but I read an early version of the Challengers script and I don’t remember that being in there.

GUADAGNINO: It wasn’t.

Q: It’s hard to imagine the movie without that moment added, especially the beat where Tashi coaxes the two men to kiss each other and then sits back to watch. She’s already coaching them.

GUADAGNINO: Tashi sees it and makes it happen. For many ways, it’s of her own amusement, which is not just erotic amusement but pushing them to be a better person in general.

ZENDAYA: When they’re younger, you see that it’s about amusement, it’s joy. As she gets older, the need for power and control is now a means of survival. She is vicariously living through someone else and she needs it to feel hope, to feel like she has anything left of her own.

Q: Luca, though your earlier movies like Call Me by Your Name and I Am Love were set in very glamorous places, your recent projects have shown an unexpected fondness for banal Americana. I wouldn’t have expected a key scene in Challengers to be set in an Applebee’s, for example.

GUADAGNINO: When Billy Wilder left Germany and went to America, he had to deal with the landscape of America. I love the practicality of America, I think it’s fantastic. The way in which this landscape unfolds, everything can be completely meaningful.

ZENDAYA: I have a video of you choosing the worst combination of tile. You’re like, “Oh, this colour’s worse, I like that!”

Q: But I feel like you don’t film these things in a condescending way.

GUADAGNINO: Not at all. You can’t judge. I think every landscape can be beautiful if you see it from the perspective of the characters and everything in it. What I hate is when you see a “good” image.

Photo / Chantal Anderson, The New York Times
Photo / Chantal Anderson, The New York Times

Q: What do you define as a good image?

GUADAGNINO: Like you see the designer instead of seeing the characters. Sometimes when I talk to my production designer and they show me something, I say, “That’s something that belongs to ‘cinema’; we shouldn’t do that. We should do something that belongs to the reality we’re describing.” The lead aspect of cinema must be performance, it must be character. If you put your imagery in front of the performers, then the movie becomes kind of stilted and a bit rigid.

FAIST: He’s very open. I remember when we were rehearsing that hotel scene, running through the lines, there was this moment that I was anxious and nervous and I started picking at my finger. You were obsessed with it.

GUADAGNINO: The gesture of Mike was fantastic because I thought that was an interesting moment for Art. It’s exciting when you observe performance. I will quit the moment in which I know that I’m going to be lazy or bored or I don’t have this energy of seeing performance happening — which, by the way, doesn’t need to take 90 takes. I think this movie is an average of one or two.

Q: You only shoot one or two takes? That surprises me.

ZENDAYA: Me too. It was super fast. I remember being like, “That’s it?”

GUADAGNINO: It’s because they’re so fantastic. I hate pushing. If it’s great, why do you have to torture people?

Q: Tell me about Tashi’s provocative line, “I’m taking such good care of my little white boys.”

ZENDAYA: She comes from a different world and a different background than they do. Ultimately, tennis is her life because it has to be: There’s nothing to fall back on. She’s going to end up providing for herself, for her family — a lot of things that I can personally relate to. That’s why it’s so devastating when it’s taken away from her.

O’CONNOR: It reminds me of one of my favourite bits of Luca directing, which was in the hotel room with the three of us and Tashi’s explaining why she went to public school. I was just listening, not doing necessarily anything, and then Luca just came in and was like, “When she’s telling you about going to public school, maybe that’s fascinating and confusing to you. Like, why?”

GUADAGNINO: My secret agenda with my American movies is to show that America has a very strong class system, despite the possibility for everyone to succeed. But it has to not be heavy-handed, it should be subtle. Bones and All has the same idea of the distances between people and achievements in America.

Photo / Chantal Anderson, The New York Times
Photo / Chantal Anderson, The New York Times

Q: Zendaya, you said that when you first started acting, you felt that pressure to provide. Did you come to a point where you realised you were living to work rather than the reverse?

ZENDAYA: I think that’s been most of my life, and I’m trying to undo that a little bit. When I started, I went to school like a regular kid, and then I became (an actor) and I went on set and that became my every single day, morning to night. I’ve worked consistently in that way since I was 13, and I am so grateful because it has afforded me so many beautiful things in this life. But as I get older, I understand more where my anxieties come from because I just don’t know anything else and I’ve been so programmed.

GUADAGNINO: And yet you have an incredible capacity of observational reality. You know reality in a beautiful way, and you use it a lot in the way you then portray it.

ZENDAYA: While that’s true, I think I overly do it. I’m overly conscious of everything else around me.

GUADAGNINO: Because Z is a director. I told you many times, and I repeat it now to the Times.

ZENDAYA: I love being on set because it is not just creatively stimulating, but it’s one of the few places where I feel free. Whatever that thing in my brain is where it’s overly critical and self-conscious, that is the one place where I can be spontaneous and exist for the purpose of just creating something with other people and feel no guilt about it. But I’m not at the place where I’m quite confident enough to step into directing.

I’m still blown away when I watch people like Luca: There’s five people coming up to you, asking you, “This or that?” or “What’s next?” and he has to have an answer. I’d find myself like, “I just want to make everybody happy, what do you need?” Once I feel more confident in my assertiveness or decision-making, then I feel like then I’ll be able to take that step.

Q: Denis Villeneuve said that of all the actors who worked on Dune: Part Two, you were the likeliest to stay on set and ask the questions that a director might.

ZENDAYA: I get to be with the greatest around me all the time, and I’m like, “Let me sponge and get as much from this as possible.” For many years, I was embarrassed to ask questions — I was like, “I don’t want to waste people’s time.” But you’d be surprised at how many people are like, “Oh my God, come on in. This is this film stock, this is the reference for this shot.” People love sharing what they do, and I’m lucky to be in a place where I can absorb it.

And like I said, sets are places I feel safe because everybody already knows who I am and I can just walk around and go talk to everybody. It creates this community, and I’ll see Bianca (Butti, camera operator) and be like, “Hey. How was your night? Did you sleep all right?” or go up to Kim, our AD, and we can chat. You create these little families and these little bubbles, and I can walk around and eat snacks and do whatever, and I feel like I’m just another person who’s making this thing with everyone else. So hopefully one day that confidence will kick in, but until then, I’ll just keep learning.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times. Challengers is available to watch in cinemas across New Zealand now.

Written by: Kyle Buchanan

Photographs by: Chantal Anderson


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