Zendaya as Tashi in CHALLENGERS, directed by Luca Guadagnino, a Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film. Credit: Niko Tavernise / Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures © 2023 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The latest Amazon MGM Studios film, Challengers, recently opened to rave reviews and big box office for a film of its scale. It is the first major leading film role for superstar Zendaya, and she holds court with a fierce and fashionable edge along with co-stars Mike Faist and Josh O’Connor under the elegant direction of Luca Guadagnino.

Challengers is the story of 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, Tashi’s strategy for her husband’s redemption takes a surprising turn when he must face off against the washed-up Patrick – 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? The main cast, director, producer, and writer gathered recently at the Maybourne Hotel in Beverly Hills and spoke vividly about how this project came about.

Justin Kuritzkes wrote the screenplay which was inspired by an infamous moment during the 2018 US Open in a match between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka when an umpire accused Williams of getting coaching from the sidelines. Kurikes said, “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 but you can’t talk to them… What if you needed to talk about something?” Kuritzkes was already a viral star with his Potion Seller videos on YouTube and an author with his novel Famous People, but Challengers is his first produced screenplay.

C_05746_R2 Mike Faist stars as Art and Josh O’Connor as Patrick in director Luca Guadagnino’s CHALLENGERS An Amazon MGM Studios film Photo credit: Niko Tavernise © 2024 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The screenplay attracted legend producer and former studio head, Amy Pascal, who immediately made moves to obtain the rights and would soon secure star Zendaya and Guadagnino. Pascal understood the unique opportunity with this film to make something a little more racy than has been on screen in recent years. Pascal said, “It is very rare that commercial movies are about adult relationships and about sex, and I was sick of it. So, I thought it was high time that people kiss in movies. And there was no better director to bring that to life than Luca.”

Zendaya, who was already a fan of Guadagnino, fell in love with the script and its complex characters. She communicated with Guadagnino over Zoom and went through the intricate details of her character. Soon after the casting of Mike Faist (West Side Story) and Josh O’Connor (The Crown), the trio bonded with Guadagnino and his vision for the project.

Director Luca Guadagnino on the set of CHALLENGERS, a Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film. Credit: Niko Tavernise / Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures © 2023 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.

To play a tennis pro, Zendaya received training for six weeks concurrently with rehearsals with her co-stars. Zendaya professed, “I had no idea about tennis. I knew nothing. All I knew of tennis was Venus and Serena. It was one of those things that was terrifying as a challenge because you know you’re supposed to be a great tennis player. And I’ve never been a great tennis player.”

Guadagnino took the opportunity to meticulously choreograph the tennis sequences through storyboards. Zendaya found her tennis footing through this approach and learned the footwork, patterns, and movements to mimic what a pro tennis player looks like. Adding to the overall authenticity of the these sequences is Production Designer Merissa Lombardo and Costume Designer Jonathan Anderson, best known for his menswear company, JW Anderson.

All their beautiful work climaxes with a kinetic tennis sequence – it makes you feel like you are inside the match. Guadagnino, editor Marco Costa, cinematographer, Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, and composers Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor achieve thrilling results with the finale. Guadagnino adds, “The final moment had to be 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. So it took a long time to conceive, the drawing, shooting. I think that sequence, the last 10 minutes, took us eight days to shoot, more or less, which is incredible.”

Challengers is now playing in theaters.

Eric Green

Eric Green has over 25 years of professional experience producing creative, marketing, and journalistic content. Born in Flushing, Queens and based in Los Angeles, Green has a catalog of hundreds of articles, stories, photographs, drawings, and more. He is the director of the celebrated 2014 Documentary, Beautiful Noise and the author of the novella Redyn, the graphic novel Bonk and Woof, and the novel, The Lost Year. Currently, he is hard at work on a book chronicling the lives of the greatest Character Actors.