Zendaya on the Trick Behind Her ‘Challengers’ Tennis Moves and Taking Charge of Her Career: ‘There’s No Lip Service When You Have the Producer Title’

“I’m watching tennis as we speak — Djokovic,” Zendaya tells me during one of her first interviews about “Challengers.”

It’s July 11, 2023. The 27-year-old actor is watching Wimbledon on TV while preparing for SAG-AFTRA to go on strike, which would leave her unable to attend her film’s Aug. 30 world premiere at the Venice Film Festival. Of course, one week after the actors strike was ordered, Amazon MGM Studios decided to pull out of the festival, pushing “Challengers” to an April 26 debut.

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Zendaya leads the film as Tashi Duncan, an 18-year-old tennis prodigy on her way to Serena Williams-like stardom until she injures her knee and loses her shot at a pro career. Over the course of 13 years, she continues to find herself ensnared in a psychosexual relationship with the sport and two other players, Art Donaldson (Mike Faist) and Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor).

“I’d never seen a character like Tashi. And if I had seen a character like Tashi, it definitely wasn’t someone like me playing them,” Zendaya says.

As part of Variety‘s “Challengers” cover story — which was also delayed to align with the film’s release and chronicles the drama’s long journey to theaters — Zendaya spoke about mastering her tennis scream, playing a Black athlete surrounded by white players and how becoming a producer has reinforced her dreams to direct one day.

What did your collaboration with director Luca Guadagnino and screenwriter Justin Kuritzkes look like?

I met with Justin over Zoom and talked about his vision. I was like, ‘Are you even into tennis? Why this?’ We hit it off right away. The first thing was, ‘What director makes this come to life?’ From the beginning, I came on as a producer and was trying to figure out who could take this — it’s a movie and it’s tennis, but it’s not a tennis movie. It’s much deeper. I don’t want people to go into it thinking, ‘Oh man, I have to understand tennis to understand this movie.’ Tennis is just a metaphor for a lot of bigger shit. It’s a metaphor for power. For codependency. They’re using tennis as their device to get these things out of their system. It’s the only way they know how to communicate. There’s the script, and then there’s always another scene happening.

The person that stood out to all of us was Luca Guadagnino. When we first set our Zoom together, he just understood the script in a way that was so nuanced and so thoughtful. He understood things about the characters that I hadn’t quite seen. There’s the scene that’s on the page, and then there’s the other, unspoken scene. He was already starting to carve that out and understand what this movie could be. We both saw the same movie and that was really, really important. He worked with Justin on the script and then it just kept forming.

It’s not a sports movie, but it’s not just a comedy, but it’s not just a drama. It has all these different feelings swirling around. In the first draft, you could feel that, but even more so with Luca’s sensibility. He likes to really dig in and find the things that aren’t necessarily on the page and get into the visual language and how we play with the humor and the pain and the mourning. And put it into this thing that is really glossy and fun and has techno music playing over it.

Tell me how you prepared for all the tennis playing. Did you have a boot camp?

I didn’t know anything about tennis, to be honest. So I just threw myself in there. I’ve pretty much seen every video, every match that’s online, every compilation, every interview. It became my thing. Anytime I wasn’t at work, I was watching something. My Instagram became full of tennis stuff. I’m learning how to play tennis, and I’m seeing like these little kids on Instagram — like, 10 — absolutely professional. I’m like, “Wow, I’m terrible!” It really is one of those sports that anyone who’s really great at it, they start so young. I was obviously very intimidated by the fact that I was stepping into something I really didn’t understand.

But something that is on my side is that I have a dance background, so I tried to approach it from the sensibility of mimicking. I might not actually be the most perfect tennis player, and the ball might not go where I need it to go, but I don’t really have to worry about the ball anyway. We can put the ball in later. It became about fitting the movement and trying to match that as much as possible. We had incredible doubles who are really talented tennis players. We found someone that matched my build and I shadowed her. I watched her footwork. I would record videos, endlessly, of us side-by-side, and try to sync up my feet, my hands — just get it as close as possible to what she looks like. That became my focus. And also learning the mannerisms: the little things that happen before they serve, or how they grab the ball. They put it on their racket instead of grabbing it in their hand.

It felt like summer camp. We’d wake up — Mike, Josh and myself on these three courts side-by-side — and we’d just practice for however many hours, and then we’d go and work out, and then we’d have a break, and we’d come back and the second half of the day was rehearsal. Such a great time of learning a new skill. Working out isn’t necessarily something I do without having the motivation of work to do, and having space to rehearse is really special, because often you don’t have that time to dig into the material, ask questions, play around, get to know the characters, get to know your fellow actors. That was really a special time. I had my little camcorder with me and just recorded everything.

It’s interesting that you mention your dance background — thinking of tennis as a dance makes sense for this movie. Tashi says that tennis is a relationship. Does that overlap with how you see your own craft?

What I empathize the most with about Tashi was this pure love and passion for what she does. She loves tennis. She absolutely adores tennis. Up until the point of her injury, it has been her identity. It’s how she finds power. It’s how she knows herself and sees herself. It’s her entire future. She’s never given herself a moment to grieve the loss of a life that she thought she was going to have, and the love of her life, which was tennis. It led her down a million decisions, maybe not so great, of finding ways to at least have proximity to what she loved. And ultimately, she depends on other people to satisfy that for her.

It’s not the healthiest way to go about things, but I felt for her massively in that way, because I couldn’t imagine there being something… I’m lucky, being an actor. I can do this forever. As I get older, I don’t have to retire. I can keep doing this. There’s plenty of actors that keep going forever, and it’s beautiful. We get to see them grow in front of our eyes. That’s so cool, and I am lucky in that way. But athletes have a clock. And God forbid there’s an injury — that can change the trajectory of your entire life. I can’t imagine suffering from something and then never being able to act again. That would be absolutely devastating. I don’t know what my life would look like if that wasn’t an option for me. I felt for her in that way. I felt for the idea of having to reinvent and start over. The problem is she just never got a chance to deal with it.

Sports and Hollywood are different businesses. But in a way, Tashi is a child star.

Exactly. She’s a prodigy, or whatever.

You’ve successfully made that transition from child star into adult celebrity. How much of Tashi’s trajectory before her injury resonated with your experience of being young in this industry?

I can definitely relate to this idea of pressure — of feeling like you have so much to prove, so much ahead of you, so many people to please. You don’t really even know yourself yet. The thing is, she would have handled the pressure really well. Tashi probably would have went on to be the greatest female tennis player. She had all the makings and the mental fortitude, which makes it even more devastating because we’ll never know. I’ll never know what the world would have been like with her. The only way she could get close is to find someone that was malleable enough to turn them into something she could have done. And even then, it’s not enough for her. At the end of the day, she is fire and ice right? And if she can’t get it from one, she needs both. And they, together, are maybe a little bit of what she was just on her own.

Tashi screams “Come on!” at two pivotal points in the movie. By the second time, we understand her philosophy about tennis being complex and sexual and mournful. What were you putting behind that scream?

The scream, to me, is so interesting. When my mom watched the movie, she thought a completely different thing than what I thought. Every time you leave, everybody has their own version of how they feel about every character. They leave like, ‘Okay, I’m Team Art this time,’ or, ‘Actually, Tashi was right. Fuck them both.’ I hesitate to say what the intention behind the ‘Come on’ is, because I really want people to feel whatever they feel from her, whether that feels like anger or relief or joy or whatever. That’s the beauty of filmmaking, allowing people to experience it in the ways in which they connect to it, and let that be their own.

I went up to Pepperdine quite a few times and watched both the men and women’s tennis teams play. I was blown away with the sounds they made. These guttural screams. I don’t know if it’s passion, or anger — I don’t know what it is, but they have these instinctual sounds that they make. And they’re loud. They’re letting it out. There must be some catharsis happening. It feels therapeutic. It feels beautiful.

Typically, tennis feels like a very lonely sport. It’s just you versus an opponent. When we were shooting at the Billie Jean King Center, we have background actors cheering, but everybody is an actor paid to be there. It’s a very controlled environment, but I’m terrified. Petrified. I’m worried. I’m nervous as if I’m about to play in the U.S. Open. And we’re about to say ‘cut’ and do it again — there’s no pressure on my shoulders! I couldn’t imagine what it must feel like to really be out there and be on your own. The intention behind the scream is just, I tried to just put everything. Luca was just saying: “Everything. Just put everything. As loud, as aggressive. Let it all out.” I was like, “Alright, here we go.”

What was your mom’s interpretation?

To me, Tashi is clearly moved to tears by what she’s watching. There’s joy and there’s a relief. Whatever she sees has brought back a fire in her that hasn’t been there since she was a teenager. That is a feeling that she really really misses. And then my mom was like, “She’s pissed. She’s so angry.” That’s fun. Maybe there is anger. I don’t know how she feels. I still wonder why the characters make the decisions they make.

I wondered a lot about why Tashi chose to involve herself in this love triangle. Like Art says, it’s beneath her. She’s on top of the world on the night she meets them, so where does her interest in them come from?

Here’s the thing I liked about Tashi: Yes, things have happened to her that have hardened her, but at the end of the day, this is just who she is. There wasn’t a defining moment that made her this way. Her showing up just to wield her power over these two young men is indicative of that. She’s always been aware of her power and how to manipulate that over others. Which isn’t really healthy, but she’s always been aware of it. It just used to be just for fun. As she gets older, it becomes a means of survival and getting through life. Before, it was something she did just because she could do it, flexing this skill of hers, seeing how far she can push people. Testing people. Seeing what she can get away with or get them to do. How manipulative she can be. She’s messy, but it’s at a time in her life where she can be. And it’s for fun. It’s not until later in her life that it’s not fun.

We see how much fun she has manipulating people when she gets Art and Patrick to make out at the motel. What was that like?

The only reason I really remember is because Beyoncé came out with “Break My Soul” that day. I was having a great day, like, ‘Y’all. Beyoncé’s single just dropped.’ That’s what I was focused on, to be honest.

We had rehearsed the dialogue of all the scenes prior. All of us had discussed our characters and had shared space with each other. We’d all been in P.E. class every day with each other. During our workout sessions, we’d play games — we had a fun time. So by that point, we were all very comfortable and felt very safe with each other. And I’m lucky to have worked with the boys. They bring something new and dynamic to a scene, you’re like, “Oh shit, okay, let me really focus.” They’re really talented, but also really lovely people. There’s this level of safety and support that you have with your fellow actors that makes sure that you can make your best work. I felt very supported by them. It was another day at the office.

I want to discuss how “Challengers” deals with race. It’s not a big part of the dialogue, but Tashi’s presence as a Black woman in the tennis world is felt throughout the film. How did you work with Luca and Justin to develop that narrative?

For Tashi, I don’t know if she got to see many people like herself doing it. It’s 2000-whatever. I don’t know if she had many peers, and never probably felt represented in those ways. It’s very clear to her that she’s coming into a place of privilege and access that she clearly didn’t grow up with, so she enjoys fucking with them about it. There’s a different need to succeed. She says that to Patrick: “Why don’t you just go ask for a seat on the board or to get some money for your parents?” She didn’t have that. All of her background is riding on her shoulders. The opportunities are much smaller for her. The door is much smaller for her. It’s clear that she’s had to fight her way in and is dealing with it on the daily — what it means to be a Black girl in that space. Tennis means more to her than it does to them; it’s not just something she decided to do because ‘I had the luxury of getting tennis lessons as a kid.’ This is it for her. This is what’s going to take care of herself and her family and the future. There’s so much riding on it. That’s what she’s up against. That’s something they’ll never understand.

It was always written that way. I didn’t have to find it. I just brought whatever I could to it. It’s the reality of the tennis world. I don’t know what universe this exists i, and what tennis players we do have or we didn’t have. But I sure hope in the “Challengers” universe, there’s Serena there for her to admire.

And how did you feel that dynamic play out with Art and Patrick, who both want her to help them become the tennis star she could have been?

The thing that is upsetting to her is that they’ll never be what she could have been. She would have represented something bigger and she’ll never know what that looks like. There was no plan B. And being in a space where there’s a limited amount of peers that look like you, that just triples the pressure — quadruples the pressure — because you’re not only representing yourself. You’re representing your community and people who look like you and feel seen by you.

When all that is taken away, what’s beautiful about Tashi is she’s extremely resilient and has a way at just completely reinventing herself. In a negative way. It’s a reason she never really deals with her injury on an emotional level. Because she’s just, “Alright, onto the next. How do I fix this? How do I keep going?” She just finds the next thing and the next thing is Art. But what’s missing from Art and Patrick’s tennis is there is no life or death to them. That’s what she’s really trying to explain. She makes the stakes higher for them on purpose.

Opposite Mike Faist as Art, how did it feel to play a Black woman in a highly visible interracial relationship, since you have experience with that?

It’s more exclusive to Tashi. I don’t know if I necessarily personally connected. But I do know, being the kind of woman that she is, it would be difficult to be reduced and never called anything else but his wife. She’s his coach and she’s constantly reminding people of that. In the words of Beyoncé, don’t get it twisted, right? That’s true of a lot of women in power, especially Black women in power. Just feeling minimized or not being fully seen in all of their power, because they’re in the shadow of their partner. That’s part of why she makes some of the decisions she makes. I don’t think I can relate to this at all in my personal life, but I’ve definitely walked through what that must feel like. How to still claim her power and be who she is and not feel small, or just being another person on the staff.

When I first was reading the character, I wanted to make sure that she didn’t feel completely cold and callous and mean, because I don’t think that she is. She just doesn’t know how to healthily express certain things. It was important for me to find some vulnerability and sensitivity in her. I really wanted a moment for her to not necessarily break down, but to feel a little bit of something about the fact that she had had this injury, then just immediately zip it right back up again. I need us to remember that she’s human. She’s not a machine. She’s not this calculated monster.

She’s always answering for everyone. The difficulty with her relationship with Art is he’s always looking to her to make the answers. It doesn’t feel like a 50-50 relationship. It feels like she makes all the decisions. She runs everything. Nobody is really checking in on her. Nobody’s been like, “Are you okay? Do you need a break? How are you feeling?” I don’t think anyone’s making that space, nor is she making it for herself. She always feels spread very, very thin.

With Tashi, we’re seeing you play a very autonomous adult character for the first time. Even after leaving Disney, you continued playing young characters in “Euphoria” and “Spider-Man.” Was that on your mind while making the movie?

I just like to do things that stretch and push me. There’s a big sense of fear, like, “Can I do this?” I would love to be a director one day. I talk to directors, like “How do you know you’re ready?” They’re like, “You never know. You just do it. Jump in the deep end and hopefully do it with people whose work you admire, and then you can trust in their work and make something really beautiful.”

I’ve been playing 16-year-olds since I was 16. So it was nice to play a character that was not a child anymore. It was also interesting playing parts of my life that I haven’t experienced yet: I’ve not gotten married. I’ve not had a child. Those milestones, I don’t necessarily have a direct reference point in my own life for. That was different to feel. Ultimately, it felt like the right time for a character like this.

Has playing Tashi gotten you closer to directing? Are you looking for projects to take on yet?

One day, I would love to. That’s why I like producing, because I like learning from different directors. I love the process of filmmaking and watching people work. When I was doing “Dune,” I’d ask questions. I’d be there when I’m not technically shooting. So one day, when the time is right, when the story is right.

What did the process of producing “Challengers” teach you? 

It’s a creative outlet; it’s a way to be involved in story and in filmmaking. It’s a great place for me to learn, and for my opinions and my feelings to have a really valid place. There’s no lip service when you have the producer title. Not that I think I’ve been treated that way before, but it’s good to know that people have to listen to you. People have to have to hear you out and hear what you bring to the table, which I learned the power of when I was really young.

But also, I really love the problem-solving aspect of it. There was a week we were shooting “Challengers” and it rained, then we couldn’t shoot because it wasn’t safe for the courts and it wouldn’t match all the shots that we had earlier. Trying to figure out how to actually make something happen is a huge part of filmmaking.

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