Challengers: Zendaya and Josh O’Connor on the thorniness of threesome movie

Headshot of Wenlei Ma
Wenlei Ma
The Nightly
4 Min Read
(L to R) Mike Faist as Art, Zendaya as Tashi and Josh O'Connor as Patrick in CHALLENGERS, directed by Luca Guadagnino.
(L to R) Mike Faist as Art, Zendaya as Tashi and Josh O'Connor as Patrick in CHALLENGERS, directed by Luca Guadagnino. Credit: Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures Inc/Warner Bros

On stage at Sydney’s State Theatre, Zendaya, Josh O’Connor and Mike Faist were about to retreat to the wings after the stars introduced their new film, Challengers. But Zendaya had one last thing to say.

It’s a plea of sorts. She asks the audience gathered for the glitzy premiere to not judge the characters too harshly. It’s a notable request because it points to a fear that Challengers could be… too challenging.

The film is set in the world of tennis, centred on three characters — Tashi, Patrick and Ant —who meet as rising stars on the junior circuit. A love triangle develops and over the next few years, they all betray each other in different ways.

Sign up to The Nightly's newsletters.

Get the first look at the digital newspaper, curated daily stories and breaking headlines delivered to your inbox.

Email Us
By continuing you agree to our Terms and Privacy Policy.

Zendaya wants people to watch Challengers more than once. “When you first read the script or when you first watch the film, you develop an opinion. I’ve found that the opinions [to Challengers] are so different,” she tells The Nightly.

Challengers Premiere Sydney Australia 26th March 2024 Photography Caroline McCredie
Challengers Premiere Sydney Australia 26th March 2024 Photography Caroline McCredie Credit: Caroline McCredie/Universal Pictures Australia

“Everybody leaves feeling like they’re Team Tashi or someone’s Team Patrick or someone’s Team Art. And we’re all going back and forth explaining what we think happened, why we think so-and-so is wrong.

“And then you watch it again and your opinion changes. It’s a really fun aspect to this because it is human, and all these characters are just messy, confusing and complicated. That is what good characters should be, it’s our humanity.”

She adds that there’s also the context that’s withheld from the audience in a moment that has a different spin to it when you later realise what was really going on. “There are scenes that happen when you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s a weird look between them’ and then you realise by the end, ‘Oh, s**t’.”

Challengers is indeed a thorny movie that does benefit from a second watch. On repeat viewing, you have a better grasp of just how awful these characters can be to each other but also how much they mean to each other. Perhaps that’s also why Zendaya seems apprehensive that they could be judged too harshly or misunderstood.

Directed by Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name, I Am Love, Bones and All) from a screenplay by Justin Kuritzkes, Challengers bounces back and forth between Tashi, a hotshot junior player whose promising career is ended by a brutal injury, and Art (Faist) and Patrick (O’Connor).

C_03510_R Josh OConnor stars as Patrick in director Luca Guadagninos CHALLENGERS  An Amazon MGM Studios film Photo credit: Niko Tavernise  2024 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Josh OConnor stars as Patrick in director Luca Guadagninos CHALLENGERS, an Amazon MGM Studios film. Credit: Niko Tavernise/Niko Tavernise

The boys were doubles partners whose relationship schisms when they both pursue Tashi and the dynamic of the love triangle almost functions like a tennis match. Sometimes, it’s as if Art and Patrick are the opposing players and Tashi is the ball while other times, those positions change.

And there is an argument to be made that the real love story is between Art and Patrick, a deep friendship charged with homoeroticism.

It’s the thorniness that O’Connor found so intoxicating. “One of the things that I loved when I first saw the movie was this energy that it has,” he says. “And that was in the script. I really felt that reading it the first time.

“I’m very, very dyslexic. Often when I read a script, I could read it all the way through and someone could ask me, to name a character or something that happens, and I couldn’t tell you because I can’t really get any of the information in. But this one I read straight through very quickly and was transfixed.”

C_03510_R Josh OConnor stars as Patrick in director Luca Guadagninos CHALLENGERS  An Amazon MGM Studios film Photo credit: Niko Tavernise  2024 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Patrick in director Luca Guadagninos CHALLENGERS An Amazon MGM Studios film. Credit: Niko Tavernise/Niko Tavernise

One of the key moments in Challengers — the one that led to the film being dubbed as “the Zendaya threesome tennis movie” when the first trailer dropped last year — is a charged scene between the three characters in a motel room. It’s a relatively chaste interaction but it is physical and the cast relied on intimacy coordinator Mam Smith who also works with Zendaya on her TV series Euphoria.

“She’s fantastic and just great at what she does,” Zendaya says. “It’s a super important job. I can’t believe it didn’t exist not that long ago, as a job, which is crazy. I’m lucky I live in an industry where that does exist.”

Intimacy coordinators became more commonplace in productions after the reckoning of MeToo, which exposed predatory behaviour in the screen industry. O’Connor describes choreographing the threesome scene as being “like a dance, but a dance where everyone has to feel comfortable, and with everything, the most important bit is communication”.

The three leads at the Challengers Australian premiere.
The three leads at the Challengers Australian premiere. Credit: Kaelin Wade/Universal Pictures Australia

The sometimes vicious, sometimes seductive and sometimes warm chemistry between the three leads is palpable, and it’s crucial to attracting audiences. As Zendaya admits, in an era where cinema releases tend to be big studio blockbusters with recognisable intellectual property or small indie dramas, Challengers is hard to define.

“I don’t know if it’s a comedy or a drama or a dramedy. It has sports in it but it’s not a sports film,” she says. “I really don’t know how to define it. Therefore, when people ask, I’m like, ‘It’s a f**king fun ride’. You have to experience it for yourself.

“It’s got complex characters and it’s thoughtful, but it’s also a lot of fun.”

Just remember to not judge them too harshly — or you’ll need to see it again.

Challengers is in cinemas on April 18

Latest Edition

The front page of The Nightly for 23-05-2024

Latest Edition

Edition Edition 23 May 202423 May 2024

Australian Border Force burns 48 boats and captures more than 200 in illegal fishing vessel blitz.