‘Challengers’ cast and crew talk hits and swings of the charged-up tennis film

(L to R) Mike Faist as Art, Zendaya as Tashi and Josh O’Connor as Patrick in CHALLENGERS, directed by Luca Guadagnino, a Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film. Credit: Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures © 2023 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

Many have seen previews for the new Zendaya-led film “Challengers,” and the preliminary shots have shown the heated world of tennis, the messiness of mixing business with pleasure, and even a steamy scene or two in between. 

At the core of the story, the art of the sport is the star, but the setting doesn’t exactly qualify as your normal athlete-driven plot. Instead, director Luca Guadagnino’s film takes on the form of a few different genres through the lens of the hyper-competitive world of talented individuals who just happen to make extremely compelling on-screen characters. And the latter is what pulled most of the cast in. 

“I just fell in love with the script. I mean, it was brilliant. And it also made me very nervous as something to tackle because of, I think, how complicated these characters are. Also I couldn’t define what kind of movie it was,” Zendaya said at a global press conference for the film.

Zendaya stars as TashiMetro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

“Like, it was funny. It was so funny, but I wouldn’t say it was a comedy. But there was drama, but I wouldn’t say it was just a drama, you know?,” she added. “And it had tennis, but it wasn’t a sports movie. So, I think that feeling that it was kind of just like everything at once in this beautiful way was terrifying but equally exhilarating and exciting.”

The “Dune” star also noted the pull into signing on also came from stepping into a role she’s never played before. Zendaya plays Tashi Donaldson, a tennis star who had a clear path to the pros but had to retire early due to unforeseen circumstances. There’s a complicated relationship with her husband, Art (Mike Faist), a six-time Grand Slam winner, and also Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor), Tashi’s ex who weaves his way into the married couple’s life by signing on as Art’s competitor. 

Faist was also drawn in through his character, and more specifically, as he noted at the conference, how Art had “fallen out of love with his craft” and was trying to find his way back to loving it. That’s partially the motivation behind the script as well, as writer Justin Kuritzkes was inspired by the grit and tenacity behind the idea of fighting for your life on the court for something you truly desire. 

At the conference, the playwright-turned-screenwriter noted a moment at the 2018 US Open between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka that resulted in a controversial call from the umpire where he accused Williams of receiving coaching from the sidelines.

“Immediately this struck me as this intensely cinematic situation where you’re all alone on your side of the court, and there’s this one other person in this massive tennis stadium who cares as much about what happens to you as you do,” said Kuritzkes. “But you can’t talk to them. And for whatever reason, it just clicked in my mind, well, what if you really needed to talk about something? And what if it was something beyond tennis? What if it was something that was going on with the two of you?”

Director Luca Guadagnino on the set of CHALLENGERSMetro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

As director, Guadagnino steered the ship to match his style, but the team he coached brought their own swings to set. 

“The structure was so cinematic that I just immediately, instinctively felt that the company of Amy (Pascal, a producer), the company of Zendaya, and the company of Justin, the artistic endeavor that we could all gather together in this would’ve been fantastic,” he said. “There was playfulness in making the movie that made me very happy about it.” 

“Challengers” doesn’t shy away from showing the intensity of the game, and that went into the training for the film as well with the six weeks leading up to filming full of the sport for its cast. 

“Truthfully, I had no idea about tennis.  I knew nothing.  All I really knew of tennis was Venus and Serena,” Zendaya said. “It was one of those things that it was terrifying as a challenge to, like, take on…Because you know you’re supposed to be a great tennis player, and I’ve never been a great tennis player. I think I was incredibly nervous showing up, and I think we were all incredibly nervous showing up on that first day. [But] we did tennis training beside each other, [and] we worked out beside each other.”

The results end up showing us a refreshing peek into a woman who “doesn’t care about you liking her,” a toxically entertaining bromance between Faist and O’Connor’s characters and an extremely intense ending sequence that didn’t need any dialogue at all to get the point across. 

Mike Faist stars as Art and Josh O’Connor as Patrick in director Luca Guadagnino’s

“We were on the court every day, few hours, watching the point [and] understanding how those sports action had to be reflective of the dynamic between the characters,” Guadagnino finished. “I started from the unit.  Every little gesture.  And we adopt until we understood that the final sequence, the final moment had to be basically a silent sequence, or non-dialogue sequence, that was going to be very clear to everyone in the audience to understand the emotional ramp-up that had to be built there.”

‘”Challengers” hits theaters April 26.