Challengers Zendaya
Mike Faist, Zendaya, and Josh O'Connor in Challengers

Zendaya is opening up about the challenges of starring in the new Luca Guadagnino movie Challengers.

The actress plays Tashi, a tennis pro-turned-coach who ends up in a love triangle with her husband, played by Mike Faist, and her ex-boyfriend played by Josh O’Connor, when the two men face off in a tennis challenger event.

Zendaya Opens Up About Pressure of Leading Challengers

“I always am nervous — I wish I was joking,” Zendaya recently told Entertainment Weekly of starring in the film.

She’s been an integral part of massive films and television series before — she plays recovering high school drug addict Rue in HBO’s Euphoria series, and Paul Atreides’ love interest Chani in Warner Bros.’ Dune Part 1 and Part 2. She also played MJ in three Spider-Man movies opposite her real-life boyfriend Tom Holland. But Challengers is the first time she’s been the unrivaled star of a movie.

“From a personal perspective, this is my first time leading a film in this way, so I’ve felt that pressure, that fear, burden, or whatever from the beginning of just wanting to make something that I’m proud of and enjoy it, and sometimes that can be very difficult,” she says.

The complexities of the plot of the film from director Luca Guadagnino have also been a welcome challenge to her.

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The Italian director is also behind love dramas like 2017’s Call Me By Your Name starring Timothee Chalamet and Armie Hammer, 2022’s cannibal romance Bones and All starring Chalamet and Taylor Russell, and the 2018 horror remake Suspiria starring Dakota Johnson, Mia Goth, Tilda Swinton, and Chloë Grace Moretz.

“These characters are incredibly complex and interesting,” Zendaya says of Challengers. “When people ask me what the movie is about, I can’t give them an answer in under an hour because it’s so complicated and these characters… it’s impossible to sum it up or define it, really, because it’s a comedy, but it’s not, but it’s a drama, but it’s not, it’s a sports movie, but it’s not. It’s undefinable in this really beautiful way. It’s something that people just have to experience for themselves and they will enjoy, I think, judging the characters and arguing about it after and changing their minds and coming up with theories and ideas.”

Being at the center of Challengers is a new experience for Zendaya, who calls herself her “own worst critic.”

“I don’t know if it’s because I’m a Virgo or because of the way I’ve been raised or being in the public eye for a long time — whatever it is, it’s innate to be my own worst critic,” she adds. “But for some reason, I enjoy watching the work back. I think it’s just because I lose myself in the character. I divorce myself from whatever’s on the screen. I’ve already given over the fact that it’s Luca’s, it’s [Dune director] Denis [Villeneuve]’s, it’s whoever’s, and I’m in service to this other thing, and now I just get to be a spectator. Now I just get to watch.”

Zendaya also told The New York Times that she didn’t think too hard about making Challengers her first starring role in a feature.

“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.’”

She also opened up about considering becoming a director in the future.

 “I love being on set because it is not just creatively stimulating, but it’s one of the few places where I feel free. Whatever that thing in my brain is where it’s overly critical and self-conscious, that is the one place where I can be spontaneous and exist for the purpose of just creating something with other people and feel no guilt about it. But I’m not at the place where I’m quite confident enough to step into directing,” she said.

I’m still blown away when I watch people like Luca: There’s five people coming up to you, asking you, ‘This or that?’ or ‘What’s next?’ and he has to have an answer. I’d find myself like, ‘I just want to make everybody happy, what do you need?’ Once I feel more confident in my assertiveness or decision-making, then I feel like then I’ll be able to take that step.”

Challengers arrives in theaters on April 26.

Main Image: Mike Faist, Zendaya, and Josh O’Connor in Challengers