Interview: Zendaya, Josh O’Connor and Mike Faist on Challengers; “I think all three of them are desperate for connection.”

From visionary filmmaker Luca Guadagnino, Challengers stars Zendaya as Tashi Duncan, a former tennis prodigy-turned-coach and a force of nature who makes no apologies for her game on and off the court. Married to a champion on a losing streak (Mike Faist), Tashi’s strategy for her husband’s redemption takes a surprising turn when he must face off against the washed-up Patrick (Josh O’Connor)—his former best friend and Tashi’s former boyfriend. As their pasts and presents collide, and tensions run high, Tashi must ask herself, what will it cost to win?

As their exciting new film sets up match point across global theatres this month (it’s in Australian theatres from April 18th), Zendaya, O’Connor and Faist kicked off their tournament in Sydney, Australia, as the first stop on their tour.

Peter Gray was fortunate to be invited to the Australian press conference to hear the trio discuss working with their famed director, the intricacies of their characters, and what Challengers is actually about.

Zendaya, you’re a producer on Challengers (too). What was it like working with Luca Guadagnino as an actor and producer?

Zendaya: It was really, really special. Producing is something that I’m definitely not new to, but for me, it’s always been a way to be creative in a different sense. I think I was always a shy kid, and so the more I (produce) the more I love moving behind the camera.

I love being able to learn from people and grow from different directors, whether I’m a producer or not. I just like being on sets and learning, and asking questions, and problem solving, and figuring out how things work.

Then, also, I learned quite early that being able to have a real title allows you to be able to protect yourself in a lot of different spaces, you know? It allows you to be a part of the conversations and protect my work, and myself, and (the) people around me.

You mentioned that you were shy growing up.  Does winning awards for your craft and starring in title roles help with the shyness? Does it give you more confidence?

Zendaya: I don’t know.  If anybody has the cure let me know (laughs). We were joking about this yesterday –  you just turn it on.  It’s the same thing with acting, you pick a character today and you go out there and you embrace that.

I do think that acting, or this job per se, has helped me in many ways. I think the reason why I like it (is) it allows me to be these other people. Allows me to do things that I otherwise would be terrified and nervous and would never actually do. If anything, I’ve come out of my shell because of my work.

Tashi is such a complex and intricate character. What is a part of her personality that you were most looking forward to tackling?

Zendaya: I think for me, to many people, Tashi will be unlikeable. You judge her immediately. She’s too much. It’s messy. It’s whatever. And I think my job was trying to find her, like, “gooey centre”, you know what I mean? Trying to find her empathy, and why she makes the decisions and where the pain is coming from?

I think ultimately, while she is ruthless, there is something to her that I think is grief. Grief of a career, and a life that she never got to live. I think her one true love was always tennis, and she was trying whatever she could to get close to it, to touch it, to do it. And she uses people to get that feeling because she can’t do it anymore on her own.

Josh, how did you guys bring a competitive nature on set to embody characters who will win at all costs?

Josh O’Connor: I think the competitiveness comes from an obsession with each other. At the beginning of this film, there’s the competitiveness when they’re younger, But Art (Mike Faist’s character) is kind of falling out of love with tennis. And I think Patrick (my character) is just desperate for connection. I think all three of them are desperate for connection.

Whether it’s Art seeking to restore the love in his marriage, or Tashi restoring this three-way love affair. Patrick, you know, the tennis to him is the ultimate connection. He’s always searching for that with Art, and with Tashi too. I think the competitiveness came secondary to that.

Is this film about love, tennis, or the love of tennis?

Mike Faist: It’s kind of this weird thing, right? Because I think we naturally, as humans, bring whatever sort of thing we’re trying to get out, to our work. We fall in love with whatever we do.  Whether that’s storytelling, or whatever. We can’t help but put a piece of ourselves into that. We’re trying to get something out of that as well at the same time. So, it’s probably both is the truth of the matter.

Do you, Josh, see this primarily as a movie about tennis?

Josh O’Connor: We say it’s “co-dependency” the movie (laughs). I think that’s what it’s about. I also think it’s about a million things. Tennis is the metaphor which we use to express that.

What I think is really enjoyable, is that people have watched it with family and people who do not like tennis, or people who don’t understand how tennis works, and they still feel like they’re inside the match. There’s something kind of alive in them that they can follow it and it still makes sense to them.

Which of your previous roles do you think helped you best prepare for working on Challengers?

Zendaya: K.C. Undercover! (laughs) Listen – the Disney stuff… it’s a good training ground!

Josh O’Connor: I did a sports film a long time ago, very early in my career, with one scene cycling, and it was called The Program.  Stephen Frears directed Ben Foster playing Lance Armstrong. And I did no training, and I was cycling up, I think it’s called the 21 Turns in the Alps.  All the other actors had been training for months, and they were way ahead of me as I was dying! And I was supposed to be one of the best ones! I guess it taught me that I do have to prepare if I’m playing a sports person.

Mike, what was it like getting into the mindset of a tennis champion?

Mike Faist: You know the thing is, what drew me to the character of Art was falling out of love with your craft. I think when you’re in your 20s, at least for me, I moved to New York to become an actor, and I’m just grinding. All you’re doing is working, working, working, working, hustling, hustling, hustling, hustling. Then you finally get to a place of somewhat success, and you’ve achieved what you thought was the thing, and you’re left with the idea of, “Now what”?

It’s that thing of you’re damned if you do, you’re damned if you don’t. It’s almost a curse. When you achieve that kind of monumental moment of success, you start to wonder just for yourself, “Where else can I actually go from here”? What else is there in life? Is this all of who I am?” There’s a lot of questions, you know, existentialism, that goes within that, and that’s honestly what I just connected with.

Luca is such a pioneer when it comes to filmmaking. How do you think this story will change the way romance and desire are portrayed on screen?

Zendaya: Luca has always had an eye for that. An instinct to push that desire and how to tell desire in ways that are less than obvious and intriguing. I feel like that’s the responsibility of cinema, you know? How do you show something that is going to resonate in a new way that we haven’t seen before?

Challengers is screening in Australian theatres from April 18th, 2024.

Peter Gray

Seasoned film critic. Gives a great interview. Penchant for horror. Unashamed fan of Michelle Pfeiffer and Jason Momoa.