Words and Interviews

David Jenkins


Illustrations by

Andrei Nicolescu

Three’s Company: Zendaya, Josh O’Connor and Mike Faist on Challengers

The trio at the heart of Luca Guadagnino's racy tennis drama tell all about summer camp, short shorts, and their formative Guadagnino experiences.

We hooked up with the hottest cast of the year to get their Z: It’s the obvious answer but, Call Me by Your Name, which I post-match analysis and insight on Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers. In the film, Josh O’Connor and Mike Faist play tennis buddies-turned-arch rivals, Patrick and Art, while Zendaya, who also produced the film, plays Tashi, the would-be champion whose life and career takes an unexpected turn.

LWLies: Can you tell us about your first meeting with Luca in person?

Zendaya: My first encounter with Luca was at a Fendi fashion show in Rome. We sat next to each other at dinner. I could not speak a word of Italian and was having difficulty explaining that I needed the vegetarian option. He helped me.

Josh O’Connor: My first encounter with Luca? I went for lunch with him and my friend Jonathan Anderson. We just chatted about film and everything else and we got on brilliantly. I remember wearing a stripy jumper that didn’t fit me, and I came with a bicycle helmet because I’d cycled from North London.

Mike Faist: Luca and I first met over Zoom. He was a fan of West Side Story. We talked about Justin’s script, the role of Art, some of our favourite actors and films.

Zendaya, how did you come on board as a producer?

Z: I’d been a producer on Euphoria, and I made a film with John David [Washington], a two-hander, back in Covid days, called Malcolm and Marie. So producing is not entirely new for me. But every time you do it, you do it to a new level. Or you try to do more and learn from previous experiences. It just kind of came about really because Amy [Pascal], who cast me in Spider-Man, acquired the rights to the script and brought me in. And I just immediately wanted to talk to Justin to understand what his vision was and why he wrote this thing. We really connected pretty quickly over the phone. And I was like, ‘Oh, he’s cool.’

For the director, we thought it had to be like the right person and who’d make sure that it feels elevated and thoughtful, but also still fun and sexy and commercial to a degree. And when we heard that Luca was actually interested and had read it and wanted to speak about it, I was definitely excited. Him being on the phone and just completely understanding it made me think he was clearly the one to take it on. With producing, I enjoy the producerial aspect. It allows me to be creative and solve problems.

What was your first encounter with Luca’s films?

MF: I wasn’t familiar with Luca’s work, but his first film I watched was A Bigger Splash. I love that cast and I really enjoyed the film.

Z: It’s the obvious answer but, Call Me by Your Name, which I thought was absolutely wonderful. For our script, Challengers, it honestly felt like, from knowing that film, this was something I didn’t expect Luca to be interested in. In tone and style it seemed so different to the things he had made before. Yet I remember our first meeting and he just had this deep understanding of the characters in this beautiful, nuanced way that he brings out in all of his work. He has this understanding of their inner story. I feel like for most people there’s the question of, ‘What’s on the page?’ but with Luca it’s, ‘What isn’t on the page?’.

JO’C: I was a big fan of his work. I have this very strong memory of when we premiered God’s Own Country at Sundance and, the night before, we all went to see Call Me by Your Name, and it got a standing ovation. We were all singing Luca’s praise.

How did you develop your character with Luca?

Z. We just kind of knew this woman. Whoever Tashi was, wherever she was going, our instincts really aligned in how we wanted to bring her to life. And it was down to figuring out the details, from her haircut to the moisturiser she uses and all these little things that represent the essence of this woman. And I must say, this was one of the few times I’ve worked with someone who’s so quick. He’s like five steps ahead of everyone else. There’d be times where he’d finish shooting something without doing the sort of coverage that I’m used to, and he’s like, ‘All right. We’re done,’ and I’m like, ‘Wait, we’re done like already?!’. And he’s like, ‘I love it, I know what I’m cutting to, I don’t need anymore.’

JO’C: Luca was very particular about images. He and Jonathan [Anderson, artistic director of LOEWE] were very clear about all of that. And when it came to the character of Patrick, it was just about his confidence and his bravado and where that came from – that was really clear. He had a really strong feeling that he should be very cocksure and very certain of himself and overly- confident, and he wanted me to lead with that.

MF: I spent 12 weeks training. Six in Ohio with my friend Julie, who is a personal trainer and six in Boston with Brad Gilbert. For those twelve weeks I focused on becoming efficient in tennis and building up my body. In 12 weeks I put on just under 15 pounds and was able to serve and hit with a one handed backhand.

When did you all meet together for the first time, and how did you discuss the things you had ahead of you?

Z: As producer, I feel like I met the boys before I met them. When I first read the script, my mind immediately went to Josh. I was thinking, ‘You know the guy from The Crown!’ And I was like, ’He would be great for Patrick.’ When I sat down and finally had a moment to chat to Luca, he said, completely independently, ‘You know, I was thinking of someone like Josh O’Connor.’ I was like, ‘That’s so funny you’d say that because that’s literally the first name that I thought of.’ And I think in his heart of hearts, Luca always knew Mike would play Art.

MF: I met Z and Josh when we began our training in Boston. We would hit for about two hours every day and then workout for another two hours. After that we had rehearsal with Luca and Justin where we all went over the scenes.

JO’C: It was great. We had a read-through. We were all just so excited. The script was so great. We all just kinda felt that we needed to get out of the way of the story and let it tell itself and focus on the characters. When you’ve got someone like Luca at the help, you know that it’s going to be strong.

Z: I called it our ‘Summer Camp’. We’d get up, have breakfast, then go to tennis practice. We had tennis practice on these three in indoor courts that were side by side, so me and the boys each working on our own, but right there next to each other. And then we all headed to the gym and worked out together. And then everybody would kind of go off and have lunch and get themselves together, and then we’d have rehearsal. And for me that is like a perfect day: it forces me to be active and be out of the house and working and being creative all at the same time. And it was just really nice to be in this place and to do it with the boys. They’re just really lovely people, lovely to be around.

There’s an incredible scene in a hotel room where the characters open up – emotionally, physically – for the first time. What preparations do you make – for yourself, and with the other actors – for such a tactile scene?

MF: Josh, Z and myself spent six weeks getting to know each other and becoming friends. We laughed a lot, especially while shooting that scene.

JO’C: It’s funny. Particularly when there’s three of us, I think it’s easier. We were excited about telling of the youthful nature of that story and the competitiveness, and also their obsession with one another. And Luca really encouraged a playfulness in that scene so it was really fun to play, and very funny.

Z: We just rehearsed everything except for ‘that’ part of it. We rehearsed the dialogue to try and get a good sense of the timing. There is a comedic essence to the film, even though I don’t think it’s strictly a comedy. I don’t think it’s a dramedy either. I don’t know what it is. But that sequence definitely relied on timing and really being absolutely in sync with one another

When it came to rehearsals, what kind of things did Luca have you doing?

JO’C: We spent weeks doing tennis training. So it was a couple of hours on the court and then a couple in the gym every day. In the afternoon, we’d just rehearse scenes and just get them up on their feet, figure them out, talk about them. We were always all in the room for that, which was great – it was like doing a play, with everyone contributing and everyone saying what they were seeing and reacting.

Z: It was just so nice to have that time where me and the boys and everybody else could be in a space together and just talk through the work. Pick apart the material, find the characters together.
I think Luca’s great at finding things with you – he loves being collaborative, but also allows you to find things yourself.

Did you immerse yourself in the world of tennis of the shoot? Were there any specific players who inspired you?

JO’C: I’ll watch Wimbledon every year, and that always gets me excited to go out and play. Maybe I’ll play one game. But I’m not very good. Obviously, in prep for this I got a bit obsessed. I was really interested in Nick Kyrgios and some of his antics at the baseline. So some of the politics of it and the dynamics between everyone. They’re so competitive, but there’s a classiness to it.

MF: While I was in Ohio I trained in the same camp with JJ Wolf who is a professional tennis player. It was challenging and rewarding work.

Z: I don’t think I necessarily grew up a tennis fan, but I have since become one. While I could appreciate it, I don’t think I really had a great understanding of it. The first thing I did was just watch a shit ton of tennis. YouTubing constantly, different tennis matches involving every great player you could imagine – just to throw myself into that world. I wanted to understand as much as possible. And during that process, I became a fan. With tennis, I just find that you can’t look away – it’s just so intense. There are so many little things that you notice when you watch a lot of tennis: the way that they walk out onto the tennis court; how they open their bag; what they pull out; the snacks that they eat when they’re on their breaks; the way they put their towel over their knees; all the rituals. But also, you know, the ways in which they get frustrated and how that shows on their face.

Josh, how did you go about developing Patrick’s unique serving technique?

JO’C: We tried a few things. We had Brad Gilbert as our coach and we tried looking back at some stranger techniques for serving. The reality is, anyone who knows tennis will see tennis very differently, so Brad would be saying, ‘Look at this serve, it’s totally strange!’, and I’d look at it and think it would appear completely normal. We had to invent a little bit to make it feel out of the ordinary and not too perfunctory.

The film takes place over multiple timeframes, offering a stark counterpoint between the young and old characters. How did you approach that contrast?

MF: The way that Justin structured the scenes took care of the majority of my work. Justin is a fabulous writer, he’s thoughtful and smart. It’s a joy as an actor when the writing is this good.

JO’C: Often the way with films, you have to keep a clear mind about the time transitions. Particularly as most of the time we were shooting out of sequence. I’ll always have a fairly organised load of Post-it notes stuck on the wall of when we’re shooting what scene, then the order of the scenes chronologically and then the actual order of the scenes. That allows me to map out where I am, emotionally speaking.

Z: What’s interesting to me is I actually think Tashi’s the same. And that’s what I appreciated about her: her injury didn’t drain her energy, it just momentarily displaced it. She becomes this extremely driven woman, sometimes overcompensating for certain things, to the point of being very unapologetic about what it is she wants in life and what she’s willing to do to get it. And you know what? I appreciated that. I also think it’s interesting to watch her unravel a little bit, especially as someone who is always in control. She eventually has to deal with the idea that she is grieving a career and a life that she didn’t have. But Tashi is a character I’d never played before. Or really seen, for that matter. I think she’s just so… straight up. I’m sure people will have a lot of different opinions about her. But I think the more you watch the film, the more complicated the feelings you’ll have for her.

And finally, what was your favourite costume and why?

Z: I’ve got to say, I really love all my costumes. I think the blue dress she wears is fun, and I really love her tennis whites and seeing her in her element. But she’s got some great looks when she’s older. I like the elegant night slip with her husband’s white t-shirt over it, and the cashmere cardigan… It’s just she’s this woman and there’s a story to all these different pieces.

JO’C: I love, love the short shorts. Which, I’ll admit, I wasn’t mad about at first, but I think they’re actually inspired. It’s when Patrick goes to the hotel and flirts with the hotel manager to try and get a room. I really like those shorts – they’re really outrageous, which is what Patrick is too.

Published 25 Apr 2024

Tags: Josh O’Connor Mike Faist Zendaya

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