‘Challengers’ Stars Put New Spins (and Slices and Volleys) on the Love Triangle

Can trash talk be a love language?

It is in the world of Luca Guadagnino’s new film “Challengers,” which pits two best-friend tennis players, Patrick (Josh O’Connor) and Art (Mike Faist), against each other in a bid to win the heart of the superstar Tashi Duncan (Zendaya). What begins as innocent teasing becomes more charged once an injury cuts short Tashi’s career: Forced to pivot to coaching, she weds Art and goads him to demolish her former lover Patrick on the court, though both men continue to nurse their own hidden agendas.

“I find them all really likable and charming — and terrible also,” Zendaya said with a grin. The complicated adult stakes of “Challengers” offer a new pursuit for this 27-year-old actress, who shot to fame as a teenager on the Disney Channel and is now best known for her Emmy-winning role on HBO’s “Euphoria” and the big-budget movie franchises “Spider-Man” and “Dune.” Though she is aware that “Challengers” will test her box-office draw as a solo star, she didn’t overthink her decision to make the movie, which comes out in theaters on Friday.

“I wanted to do it because it’s brilliant,” she said. “It’s not like I sat in my room and had this master board: ‘OK, this is how I’m going to make my big transition for my first lead theatrical role.’”

Last week at a Beverly Hills hotel, I met Zendaya, her co-stars O’Connor (“The Crown”) and Faist (“West Side Story”), and Guadagnino for an hour of freewheeling conversation about “Challengers” and the pressure of forging a life and career in the public eye. Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.

“The triangle is not just two people after one,” Luca Guadagnino, the director of “Challengers,” said, “but the corners touch together all the time.”Credit…Chantal Anderson for The New York Times

This movie poses a lot of questions about ambition and drive. Zendaya, has your relationship to your own ambition changed over time?

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