Challengers : Press Conference with Actors Zendaya, Josh O’Connor, Mike Faist, Writer Justin Kuritzkes, Producer Amy Pascal, Director Luca Guadagnino

Challengers : Press Conference with Actors Zendaya, Josh O’Connor, Mike Faist, Writer Justin Kuritzkes, Producer Amy Pascal, Director Luca Guadagnino

Mike Faist, Zendaya, and Josh O’Connor, ©Courtesy of MGM

Challengers : 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 – West Side Story), 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 – The Crown) — 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.

Director: Luca Guadagnino

Executive Producer : Bernard Bellew, Lorenzo Mieli, Kevin Ulrich

Screenwriter : Justin Kuritzkes

Distributor : MGM

Production Co : Pascal Pictures, Frenesy Film Company

Rating : R (Some Sexual Content|Language Throughout|Graphic Nudity)

Genre : Drama

Original Language : English

Release Date (Theaters) : Apr 26, 2024, Wide


©Courtesy of MGM

Press Conference with Actors Zendaya, Josh O’Connor, Mike Faist, Writer Justin Kuritzkes, Producer Amy Pascal, Director Luca Guadagnino


Q: So of course I want to start with Miss Amy Pascal.  I know that your producing partner isn’t here, but she found the script and brought it to you.  What was it about that script that just locked you in and said, “I have to do this?”

AMY: Well, Rachel and I, Rachel runs my company, and we’ve been working together for the last 20 years.  And Justin’s agent, you know, Sue, sent it to Rachel, and she loved it.  And Rachel sent it to me, and I loved it. And then we begged Justin to be the producers of it. And we had quite a bit of competition.  But I think what really locked it, and I don’t think Z knows this, but I’ll say it now, is we promised we’d get her to do it.  I said, “You know, I know there’s a lot of other producers, but I know Z personally.  [laugh] And I will get her to do this movie.”  And that is why Justin chose us, I’m certain.

JUSTIN:  I can confirm that’s partly true.  When I heard that Amy was interested in the script, I was completely over the moon, because, you know, Amy is a legend.  And, you know, there’s a lot of phases of this process that have felt very surreal.  But if I’m being honest, that was the moment when the movie felt real to me. When I felt, like, oh, this might actually happen.

Q :  Ah, I love that. Well, walk me back to, you know, your process with writing it.  Because that story is incredible, and I don’t know if everyone here in the room and watching virtually is aware of where the idea was born.  So tell me where that was born and how you kinda worked to what we finally see on screen. 

JUSTIN:  Yeah, of course.  You know, prior to writing the script, I hadn’t been that massive of a sports fan, or a tennis fan.  And then around 2018, I just happened to turn on the US Open.  And it was the final between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka. And there was this very controversial call from the umpire where he accused Serena Williams of receiving coaching from the sidelines.  And I had never heard of this rule, but, you know, and Serena Williams was saying, “That didn’t happen,” “I would never do that.”

But 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. 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?

And what if it involved the person on the other side of the net? How would you have that conversation?  And how could you communicate the tension of that situation using the tools that are specific to film? So yeah, that was really where it all started for me.

Q:  No, that’s beautiful. And of course, to bring your words to life, you needed the right cast in place to do that. And do that you guys did. 

AMY:  Can I say one more thing about the screen play?  It is very, very difficult to tell a story that goes backwards and forwards, but only moves forwards as a storytelling device. And one of the things that I just want to say between Justin and Luca and my producing partner Rachel and Zendaya is that we were most impressed with, is that it’s very, very, very difficult to do a story that takes place in many different timelines, and yet you’re never confused.  And the story is constantly moving forward.

And one more thing I want to say, and then I’ll give it up, is that 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 more.  And there was no better director to bring that to life than Luca.

Q :  I’m sure lots of people agree with that that have watched this film, right?  Zendaya, you know, where were you in your career when Amy brought this project to you, and what made you say, “I have to do this, and I also want to be a producer on it as well.”

ZENDAYA:  I believe I was still shooting Euphoria at the time. And it’s one of those things where everybody knows that, like, especially when I’m working, it’s really hard to, like, get me to do anything else [laugh] other than focus on what I’m going to do tomorrow on set.  And so we kind of had like a mock table read at my agent’s house.  And 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.

I think because of, also, you know, I couldn’t define what kind of movie it was.  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?  And it had tennis, but it wasn’t like 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.

And it was a character that I feel like I had never read before, and never seen before.  And she scared the shit out of me.  So I was like, “Maybe I need to do this.”  [laugh] You know?  And I think being able to be, you know, a part of it in a creative sense, and, you know, hopefully be in service to the characters and our, you know, incredible team here, and help in any way I can to help bring that to life, and then, you know, hearing that Luca had read it and was interested in doing it was like a dream, because I was such a fan of his work for so long.

And we had met once at a Fenty dinner.  [laugh] And he was so kind and so sweet to me.  He helped me get vegetarian options ’cause I couldn’t speak Italian.  And, [laugh] I loved him then.  But I, you know, I had been hoping to work with him in some capacity.  So the idea that it would be this was, I mean, magical.  And we sat, and we talked over Zoom.  And I understood that he understood the kind of movie we wanted to create.

He understood these characters in such a deep sense down to, like, you know, we were joking about what kind of lotion she would, you know, use before she goes bed at night.  You know what I mean? These are these little details that I’m like, “Oh my gosh, you know this woman.  You get her.  You see her.”  And he had that same instinct for a lot characters.  So it just felt like an obvious yes for me.

Q : Yeah, those little nuances are really great in the film. Luca, let’s bring you into the conversation.  What about you? What made you say, “I’ve got to direct this script?”

LUCA:  Amy and I, we are courting each other since many years now.  And there is a sort of an unspoken love story between the two of us.  [laugh] But when Amy send me the script, I was working on something else.  And she calling me every half hour to ask me if I was reading it or not.  And eventually I had to read it while working.  The script was fantastic.  The characters were amazing. 

The structure was so cinematic that I just immediately, instinctively felt that the company of Amy, the company of Zendaya, and the company of Justin, the artistic endeavor that we could all gather together in this would’ve been fantastic. And so I think I said I was in immediately, like — (Yes) And it was meetings. It was encounters. Encounters with Justin.  Encounters, remeeting with Zendaya.  And I would say what’s something that I don’t like, particularly, movie sets because I am a control freak, and the cows, I don’t like.  But I felt this was a very kind of, like, play. There was playfulness in making the movie that made me very happy about it.

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Make Faist, Zendaya, ©Courtesy of MGM

Q : Okay. I love that.  Thank you for that answer. 

AMY:  Can I add also something else? That then when Mike and Josh joined this team, this movie came to life in a whole other way because —

LUCA:  Oh, absolutely.

AMY:  As complicated as the character is that Z plays, the characters that they play are really, really exquisitely difficult roles.  Because they do unspeakably terrible things to each other.  And you love them.  And you understand them.  And you’re like, “Oh, yeah, I did that.” Right?  And they make you understand them on such a human level.  It was such a beautiful experience for all of us working together.  It was quite something.

Q :  Thank you for adding that.  Mike, how did this project come to you, and why was it, I’m assuming, a quick yes for you [laugh] to do this? 

MIKE:  I was home in Ohio, and I think like Z, it’s really hard for me, for my team, to get me to read anything. And my agent actually called me.  Sam.  She gave me a call and she said, “Mike, you have to read this script.”  And I was like, “All right, well, that sounds serious.”  So I read it.  And you know in those moments when you’re like, “Fuck, I hate when other people are right.” 

[laugh] And so then, from there, I met with Luca.  Luca and I, you were in Italy.  I was in Ohio.  We Zoomed.  We met each other.  We chatted.  And then they flew me to London to meet with Z. And we did a screen test there.  And I remember I left the screen test, and I was walking around London, and I actually felt like it went atrociously wrong.

And I thought, “Okay, well, I did not book that at all.”  And then Luca gave me a call, and he said, “Mike, where are you?  Come back, have lunch with me.”  I guess we sat down and had lunch.  And he just was, you know, we just chatted some more and got to know each other. But the thing that stuck out with me personally that was the draw to want to do this, besides the script and the team, ’cause it was always gonna be art, is what they were asking me to kinda look at.

And the thing that really stuck out with me about the character was this idea of a person, this craftsman who’s fallen out of love with his craft.  And he’s so desperately trying to kinda get back to that place of purity.  That place of, Josh uses the word “flow” where you’re just, it’s like a form of transcendence.  When you’re just in your work and just in your craft, and you actually love the process of doing it.

And I think for all of us at times, we kind of ebb and flow throughout our artistic endeavors to always strive to try to find those projects that pull something out of us that makes us feel compelled to really conjure the things for ourselves, to pursue it to the fullest extent that we can.  And that just leapt off the page with me, genuinely, with this character.  And I thought, I understand this very deeply.  And I would be very, very lucky to be a part of it.

Q : Kind of what Zendaya was saying about being scared. You know, like a character scaring you and you’re like, “I got to do it.” You got to conquer that. 

MIKE:  But you know, and that’s the thing, right? It’s like when that feeling of fear pops up within you, that’s a really good indicator of you probably should do it.

Q : Yeah. Thank you for that.  Josh, you know, what about yourself?  Where did you even start with building this character? What made you say yes, and then where did you start?  Did you model him after anyone in particular, or? 

JOSH: Well, what made me say yes was Luca and Zendaya. And Mike wasn’t on board at that point.  But if Mike had been on board, that would’ve also contributed.  I think also, I knew Luca before. We’d met a few years before.  And we talked about making some work together for a while. What I liked about Patrick initially, I mean, I love both the characters, and I actually read the script like a year or two before.  ‘Cause I met Justin in New York.  Because my American agent, I just moved to New York, and I was on the phone to my agent one day and I said, “I have got no friends.” And so he set me up on a friend date.

JUSTIN:  We had a little date.

JOSH:  And I guess to kind of, like, guise under the idea of, like, this is also work, Josh.  He gave me a script to read.  But really, it was just, “Josh, here’s a friend to make.”  So we met on Ninth Street —

JUSTIN:  I’ll just embarrass you.  Josh had also just won an Emmy at that point. And we were at this coffee shop, and people kept coming up to congratulate.  [laugh]

JOSH:  They’re not real friends, Justin.  Anyway, so I’d read the script before.  But then when Luca asked me about doing it, initially Patrick was kind of, I thought this would be kind of beyond my reach. And I felt like this was a character that was so confident, so front-footed, so comfortable in himself, even though he has, as we all do, fears and insecurities.  But really is, you know, he’s completely, you know, lives life to the full.

And is very accepting of his flaws.  And all those things seemed like a reach.  And Luca very brilliantly kind of accepted that and made me feel comfortable around that.  And there was a process, you know, once we started preparing where, you know, we had to kind of pull those things out. It didn’t fit comfortably for me to not hide.  You know, he doesn’t hide at all.  So all those things contributed.  But there was no doubt, really.  You know, it’s such an honor and a privilege to get to work with people like this.  And so, yeah, that was an immediate yes.

Q : Yeah. Well, now of course I’m gonna kick to the audience questions.  Apologies in advance if I mispronounce anyone’s name. Again. Sorry, Justin.  Barbaros Tappin [phonetic] from Hurriyet Newspaper asks Zendaya, Josh, and Mike, “Can you talk about your tennis training process for the role?” 

ZENDAYA:  Tennis training. Yeah.  The gym work, as Josh puts it.  Man, I mean, we were lucky enough to kind of, I don’t know, I call it, like, I call it summer camp.  It was great.  Because essentially, we got about almost six weeks before we actually started production to just work on tennis.  And we were under the support and guidance of Brad, who is incredible and an iconic person in his own right.

And truthfully, I had no idea about tennis.  I knew nothing.  All I really knew of tennis was Venus and Serena.  [laugh] And so, again, 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.  And I think I was incredibly nervous showing up.  And I think we were all incredibly nervous showing up on that first day. And so we did tennis training beside each other.  We worked out beside each other.

And we also had rehearsal beside each other, which was such a privilege to be able to have that time to work on the script, to get to know each other.  But during that tennis training time, I think I was, you know, driving myself crazy trying to, I mean, become a tennis player, right?  Like, I was trying to learn the fundamentals and make sure.  I remember when I first started hitting the ball, it just would go off into trees.  Like, it was just never even close to the court.  And I was like, “Damn, I got a long way to go.”

And eventually, you know, with tennis, if you’re picking it up, it’s not a game you could just pick up, right?  Unless you’ve been playing since four, it’s not happening for you.  You know what I mean?  [laugh] So, you know, I would come in, and I feel like I would get it.  I’m like, “Yeah, I got this.”  Okay, like something clicked.  And then you come in the next day and you can’t do it.  And you can’t recreate it.  [laugh] You’re like, “Damn.”  You know, back to square one.  And I think there’s one thing too, is like they’re feeding me balls, right?  I once asked, I said, “I want to try to see what it feels like to return a serve.”  Someone like, you know.  Hit me a real one. The way that thing flew by me so fast —

And at the time, I still had glasses.  I’ve since had LASIK, so I couldn’t even see the dang thing.  So, at some point, I realized, okay, my approach has to be different.  Because whatever this is isn’t working.  And as soon as the ball’s flying at me, all of a sudden my fundamentals and the form, everything is gone.  Hit it or get out the way.  And so we eventually, you know, especially watching Luca, I think he was starting to build these scenes and choreograph them because every shot in these tennis sequences was storyboarded.

And it was so thought out and it was so meticulous.  So I said, “Okay, well, maybe that’s how I need to approach it too.”  Let me approach it like choreography.  I’m a dancer, so let me dance this thing out, you know.  And I began to just focus on.  We had amazing tennis doubles.  And I just wanted to sync up with her, right?  I wanted to understand her footwork, her, you know, her patterns, her movements, and just try to make it as seamless as possible.  I wanted to look like her mirror, you know.

And then I’d record myself next to her, and I’d watch it back.  “Mm, I could do that a little better. ” Her arms a little more, her shoulders a little bit.  You know, and she’s quicker on her feet, you know.  So that kind of became my entryway into looking like a tennis player.  Because I knew that at some point I wasn’t gonna be one.  But I could fake it.  [laugh] So yeah, that kind of became eventually where we got.  But the training was pretty intense.  And it was great to do it beside them because I know they were just as committed as well.  And, yeah, we’re struggling together.

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Zendaya, Josh O’Connor, ©Courtesy of MGM

Q :  Luca, “Can you please tell us about the making of the kinetic tennis sequence at the end?  Because it is quite breathtaking.” 

LUCA:  Thank you.  Like as Zendaya just said, we rehearsed a lot.  We rehearsed the dramatic part of the movie very many, many, many days.  And then we were on the court every day, few hours, watching the point.  Understanding how those sports action had to be reflective of the dynamic between the characters.

So basically, 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.  So it took a long time if conception, the drawing, shooting.  I think that sequence, the last 10 minutes, took us eight days to shoot, more or less, which is incredible.

Q : As a person heavily interested in music and sound, something I adore about Luca’s films are his usage of an excellent soundtrack and score. For the cast, I was wondering, what song kept you grounded during this film experience and helped get you into character? 

JOSH:  We got asked this yesterday and we all struggled a bit with it, didn’t we?  But I have a play list on Spotify which is called Boston Marathon.  I didn’t do the Boston Marathon.  But I started it because Mike and I went to watch the Boston Marathon while we were shooting Challengers, and inspired me.  And then a year later, I did do the London Marathon.  And so I started this playlist, which I think in my head now is my London Marathon playlist.  But I think must have stemmed from making Challengers.  The sort of follow-up question to that is name a song on it, and I can’t.  So I can’t help you.

Q : The playlist. 

JOSH:  Yeah.

Q :  Make the playlist public.  [laugh]

JOSH:  There’s various music out there.

Q :  What about you guys?  Is there any song in particular? 

MIKE:  No.

ZENDAYA:  I can’t think of one.  [laugh] As soon as people ask these specifics with things like this, all of a sudden you can’t think of anything.  It’s like, “I’ve never heard a song before.”

Q : Goes right out of your head. 

ZENDAYA:  “What is music?”

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Mike Faist, Josh O’Connor, ©Courtesy of MGM

Q : Mike and Josh, “How did you make the toxic bromance between your characters work so well?” 

MIKE:  Well, we hate each other.

JOSH:  Mike does this joke sometimes, and sometimes he follows up with a punchline of like —

ZENDAYA:  “Just kidding.”

JOSH:  “We don’t actually.  Just kidding, we’re great friends.”  But in the UK last week, we did an interview where he committed so much to this joke that it sounded like I bullied you.  [laugh] And it was extraordinary.  But I think today he’s gonna give —

MIKE:  Josh genuinely in the middle of the interview was screaming at me, “Please tell them that you’re joking.”  Look, we had, as Z was saying earlier, we had a very luxuriant time six weeks prior to actually shooting.  When we got to Boston, we had six weeks of training and rehearsal with Luca and Justin and Amy.  And just getting to know each other.  And then on top of that, Josh and I would just spend any other time that we had just running lines around Boston.  Just walking around.  And we would just run lines.  We’d go to the park.  We would just walk around the city and we would just run the lines.

And by the time we actually got to those scenes, one, Josh and I also commuted every day together.  So we spent so much time together.  And then more or less, we knew each other’s lines like that.  So we were able to kinda just come in and be like, [makes noise].  Just like a tennis match.  Just be right on top of each other.  And as an actor, when you’re given the opportunity to work with another amazing actor such as Josh with such strong instincts and specific choices, Josh pings me something and that gives me something to actually play with to throw him back.

And I think we both understood these people pretty well.  We understood the roles that we needed to play for each other.  And it gave us the kind of freedom in the space to play and make choices.  And Luca was really great in terms of feeding us ideas and directing us in the position that we needed to go.  And I think between, genuinely, the three of us, we just very much knew instinctually what direction we all kinda wanted the story to go in.

AMY:  Can I answer that question?  Even though I’m not a actor.  Watching this experience, everyone knows what Luca Guadagnino can get out of actors and how safe an environment he makes for them to reach to places they didn’t know that they wanted to go.  And I think that these actors were very difficult.  And I think Luca pushed everybody in a way past their comfort zone sometimes, to be honest.  But what he got from everyone was so exquisite and so nuanced. And, you know, he made them all spend so much time [laugh] with each other.  Thank God they liked each other.  But, you know.  [laugh] Enough.

JOSH:  Not this joke again.

ZENDAYA:  Just kidding. I love them.

Q : Zendaya, At the premiere, you asked the audience not to judge Tashi too harshly.  But I’ve heard an overwhelming consensus that people love Tashi being a baddie.  Have you learned to embrace her being a bit of a villainess?  Or do you feel like she’s just misunderstood?”

ZENDAYA:  Well, I think, you know, I think the response might be just, like, the refreshing nature that it’s a female character that doesn’t have to be likable and doesn’t care about you liking her.  And doesn’t ask for forgiveness.  And I think that that is probably refreshing, maybe, to some people.  And I understand that.  And that was refreshing to me when I read her.  And that was why I wanted to play her, you know.  But I think, you know, honestly, I say that before screening sometimes because I feel like it’s our natural instinct to judge people in general.

So it’s easy to judge these characters.  And I understand that.  Because we all do.  And I think the beauty of this film is that your mind will change.  ‘Cause I know mine has.  Every time I watch it.  Every time I read it.  I mean, honestly, I had preconceived notions about the characters, and then these guys came in, and with their performances alone, you know, changed my perception of these characters.  What they brought to them, how they, you know, embodied them, the life they gave them.  So I think it’s one of those things that, you know, it’s ever-changing how I feel, or my perception of the characters is ever-changing.

And so every time I watch it, and I made the dang thing, I’m still surprised that every time I go, “Oh, well, this time I’m kinda feeling for this character now,” or, “This time I’m Team So-and-so.”  You know, so you’re constantly living with them and learning something new about them.  So I say that only because I know that you’ll be wrong.  Like, you’re gonna have an initial reaction, and then you’ll come back and you’ll change it.  And that’s the beauty of it, you know?  And just to empathize with them.

Q : Sounds like you’re glad you did a character that scared you. 

ZENDAYA:  Yeah.  For sure.  For sure.

Q :  I love that.  Don’t kill me guys, but I’m gonna thank everyone so much for joining us today, and remind you guys that Challengers is in theaters next Friday, April 26.  Thank you guys so much for making this art. 

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Josh O’Connor, Zendaya, ©Courtesy of MGM

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