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[Only IN Hollywood] Meet cinema’s hottest new threesome: Zendaya, Josh O’Connor and Mike Faist

Ruben V. Nepales

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[Only IN Hollywood] Meet cinema’s hottest new threesome: Zendaya, Josh O’Connor and Mike Faist

Cinema's appealing new threesome before their three-way kiss in 'Challengers': Mike Faist, Zendaya and Josh O'Connor

MGM Pictures

One of the best films of 2024, 'Challengers' is also one of the finest love triangle movies to come in a long time

LOS ANGELES, USA – It’s one of the most beautifully acted, directed, and written scenes in recent cinema. In Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers, both Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor) and Art Donaldson (Mike Faist), best friends since they were 12, fall for young tennis star Tashi Duncan (Zendaya) as soon as they see her for the first time on the court.

Competition between the two boys, also fledgling tennis players, who were pre-teen roommates at a tennis academy, kicks in when they meet and chat with Tashi at the tournament party later that night. The trio, all 18 years old, hit it off. The boys invite her to their hotel room.

Fashion, Formal Wear, Clothing
Los Angeles Premiere Of Amazon MGM Studios’ “Challengers.” Photo from MGM Pictures

Cut to Patrick and Art’s messy hotel room where they debate whether Tashi is going to come. When Tashi knocks on the door, the boys scramble to tidy up the room a bit. After their initial giddy chat while sitting on the floor, Tashi sits on the bed and invites Patrick and Art to join her.

What follows is spontaneously sensuous as Tashi kisses Art first then Patrick. A three-way kissing ensues and then suddenly, Patrick and Art are locking lips passionately.

Tashi sits back and watches the two boys smooch. She smiles – she has unleashed emotions between the two boys that they have not previously acted on or admitted.

The scene affirms what The New Yorker once declared – that Luca is the master of “cinema of desire.” Add Challengers to the Italian filmmaker’s oeuvre on sensuality and bodily passions, from I Am LoveA Bigger Splash to Call Me by Your Name.

Luca was precisely chosen to direct Challengers because of his erotic aesthetic. As Amy Pascal, the film’s producer, explained in a recent press conference at The Maybourne Beverly Hills, “It is very rare that commercial movies are about adult relationships and 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.”

Clothing, Footwear, Shoe
The team behind ‘Challengers,’ one of the year’s best films (from left): Luca Guadagnino, Josh O’Connor, Zendaya, Mike Faist, Amy Pascal and Justin Kuritzkes. Photo by Ruben V. Nepales

One of the best films of 2024, Challengers is also one of the finest love triangle movies to come in a long time. Taking place within the 13 years since Patrick and Art first met Tashi, Justin Kuritzkes’ brilliant screenplay, his first original feature script, follows the three as their lives and careers intersect.

Although Patrick and Tashi start as lovers, she eventually ends up marrying Art. An injury ends Tashi’s career while Art goes on to become one of the top five tennis players in the world. But he has lost his passion for tennis.

Meanwhile, Patrick becomes a washed-up player, sleeping in his car and playing in low-tier tournaments.  When Tashi, who is Art’s coach, enters him in a “challengers” tournament to help get his groove back, the result is a thrilling, dramatic finals match between the two former pals.

These are multi-layered characters that Zendaya, Josh, and Mike give nuanced life to. One of the film’s many joys is watching these actors embody the complicated lives of this trio.

Electrical Device, Microphone, Clothing
Playful trio at the press conference: Josh O’Connor, Zendaya and Mike Faist. Photo by Ruben V. Nepales

Amy joined Zendaya (who is simply called Z by this team), Josh, Mike, Luca, and Justin in the press conference moderated by Kelley L. Carter, senior entertainment reporter for ESPN’s Andscape.

When Josh and Mike, asked how they made their “toxic bromance” work on the screen, the latter – who was memorable as Riff in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story and will star in the coming West End play with music adaptation of Annie Proulx’s novel, Brokeback Mountain, as Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal’s role in the film version) – immediately quipped, “Well, we hate each other.”

Josh, Emmy, and Golden Globe winner as Prince Charles in The Crown, said, “Mike does this joke sometimes and he follows up with a punchline like…”

“Just kidding,” Zendaya finished the sentence for Josh.

Josh added what Mike usually says after his joke: “We don’t actually (hate each other).  Just kidding, we’re great friends.”

The British actor shared, “But in the UK last week, we did an interview where Mike committed so much to this joke that it sounded like I bullied you (to Mike). And it was extraordinary.  But I think today he’s gonna give…”

Mike interjected (the three seem to have become such friends that they sometimes finish each other’s sentences), “Josh, genuinely in the middle of the interview, was screaming at me, ‘Please tell them that you’re joking.’ ”

Arguing, Conversation, Person
Mike Faist and Josh O’Connor star in ‘Challengers.’ Photo from MGM Pictures

Mike, a bit more serious this time, said, “Look, we had a very luxuriant time of six weeks prior to actually shooting.  When we got to Boston, we had six weeks of training and rehearsal with Luca, Justin, and Amy.  And just getting to know each other.”

“Then on top of that, Josh and I would just spend any other time that we had just running lines to each other 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.”

“By the time we actually got to those scenes, Josh and I had spent so much time together. Josh and I also commuted every day together. So, more or less, we knew each other’s lines like that.  We were able to just come in and be like, [makes noise] just like in a tennis match.  Just be right on top of each other.”

“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 to the position that we needed to go. Between the three of us, we just very much knew instinctively what direction we all wanted the story to go in.”

Amy added, “Watching this experience, everyone knows what Luca can get out of actors and how safe an environment he makes for them to reach places they didn’t know that they wanted to go.  And I think that was very difficult.”

“Luca pushed everybody in a way past their comfort zone sometimes, to be honest.  But what he got from everyone was so exquisite and nuanced. And he made them all spend so much time with each other. Thank God they liked each other.”

Amy continued, “But, you know…” Then she just said with a smile, “Enough.”

“Not that joke again,” Josh said, grinning.

Zendaya said, “Just kidding. I love them.”

Amy said, “When Mike and Josh joined this team, this movie came to life in a whole other way. Because as complicated as the character is that Z plays, the characters that they play are really exquisitely difficult roles.”

“Because they do unspeakably terrible things to each other. And yet you love them. You understand them.  And you’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, I did that.’”

Zendaya talked about Tashi, a complex, fascinating woman. Sensing something between the two boys from the beginning, Tashi said, “I am not a homewrecker.” It’s a line she would repeat in the film where Zendaya gives one of her career-best performances.

Describing Tashi as a villainess, as some have raised, is wrong.

Adult, Female, Person
Zendaya and Josh O’Connor star in ‘Challengers.’ Photo from MGM Pictures

Asked if she thinks Tashi is just misunderstood, the Emmy and Golden Globe awardee for Euphoria answered, “I think the response might be, like, it’s refreshing that a female character doesn’t have to be likable and doesn’t care about you liking her.  And doesn’t ask for forgiveness.”

“That is probably refreshing to some people. I understand that. And that was refreshing to me when I read her.  That was why I wanted to play her. But honestly, I say that (do not judge Tashi) before screenings sometimes because I feel like it’s our natural instinct to judge people in general. So it’s easy to judge these characters. I understand that. Because we all do.”

“The beauty of this film is that your mind will change. Because I know mine has.  Every time I watch it.  Every time I read it. I had preconceived notions about the characters. Then these guys came in and with their performances alone, they changed my perception of these characters.”

“What they brought to them, how they embodied them, the life they gave them. So it’s one of those things that’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 kind of feeling for this character now, or this time I’m Team So-and-So.”

“So you’re constantly living with them and learning something new about them. 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. That’s the beauty of it. And just to empathize with them.”

Amy recounted how Challengers began: “Rachel (O’Connor) runs my company and we’ve been working together for the last 20 years. Justin’s agent, Sue, sent the script to Rachel, and she loved it. Rachel sent it to me and I loved it.”

“Then we begged Justin to be the producer.  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, we promised we’d get her to do it. I said, ‘I know there’s a lot of other producers but I know Z personally. And I will get her to do this movie.’  And that is why Justin chose us, I’m certain.”

Justin said, “I can confirm that’s partly true. No, when I heard that Amy was interested in the script, I was completely over the moon because Amy is a legend.”

“And 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. It was when I heard that Amy wanted to do it.”

As to how his story set in the competitive tennis world started, Justin, the husband of Past Lives writer-director Celine Song, and whose other credits include Queer and City on Fire, replied, “Prior to writing the script, I hadn’t been that massive of a sports fan or a tennis fan.”

“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. I had never heard of this rule and Serena was saying, ‘That didn’t happen…I would never do that.’ ”

“But immediately, that 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, 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.”

One of Justin’s feats in Challengers is that it is nonlinear and that like a tennis ball in a heated competition, volleys back and forth between different years, from that fateful first meeting to 2019. Yet it is not confusing to the viewer.

Propelling these multiple flashbacks are the propulsive techno and electronica score of Trent Reznor and Atticus Rose. Thailand native Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s kinetic cinematography keeps the action on and off the court dynamic.

Amy stressed, “It is very difficult to tell a story that goes backward and forward but only moves forward 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 that it’s 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.”

Zendaya recalled when she read Justin’s script for the first time: “I believe I was still shooting Euphoria at the time. And it’s one of those things where everybody knows that, especially when I’m working, it’s really hard to get me to do anything else other than focus on what I’m going to do tomorrow on set.”

“And so we had like a mock table read at my agent’s house.  And I just fell in love with the script.  It was brilliant. And it also made me very nervous as something to tackle because of how complicated these characters are. I think because 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.”

“And it had tennis but it wasn’t like a sports movie. So the feeling that it was kind of just like everything at once in this beautiful way was terrifying but equally exhilarating and exciting. It was a character that I felt 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.”

“Being able to be a part of it in a creative sense, hopefully be in service to the characters and our incredible team here, help in any way I can to help bring that to life, and then 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.”

“We had met once at a Fenty (Rihanna’s beauty and fashion brand) dinner. He was so kind and sweet to me.  He helped me get vegetarian options because I couldn’t speak Italian. I loved him since then. I had been hoping to work with him in some capacity.  So the idea that it would be this was magical.  We talked over Zoom.”

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

For his part, Luca began this way when asked what made him say yes to the project: “Amy and I have been courting each other for many years now. There is a sort of an unspoken love story between the two of us (laughs).”

“But when Amy sent me the script, I was working on something else. And she called me every half hour to ask me if I was reading it or not.  And eventually, I had to read it while I was 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, Zendaya, and Justin, this artistic endeavor that we could all gather together in would be fantastic.”

“And so I said I was in immediately. We had meetings with Justin, meeting Zendaya again. And I would say what I don’t like, particularly, on movie sets because I am a control freak. But I felt this was like play.  There was playfulness in making the movie that made me very happy about it. 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.”

“I was home in Ohio,” Mike began recalling how he read Justin’s script. “Like Z, it’s really hard for me, for my team, to get me to read anything. My agent, Sam, gave me a call and she said, ‘Mike, you have to read this script.’ ”

“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.’ And so then, from there, I met with Luca. Luca was 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. I remember I left the screen test. I was walking around London and I actually felt like it went atrociously wrong.”

Dating, Person, Romantic
Mike Faist and Zendaya star in ‘Challengers.’ Photo from MGM Pictures

“And I thought, okay, well, I did not book that at all. Then Luca gave me a call and he said, ‘Mike, where are you? Come back, have lunch with me.’ We sat down and had lunch. 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, because it was always going to be Art, was what they were asking me to 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. He’s so desperately trying to get back to that place of purity.”

“That place of… Josh uses the word ‘flow’ where 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 of all of us at times, we 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.”

“That just leaped off the page with me, genuinely, with this character. I thought, I understand this very deeply.  And I would be very lucky to be a part of it. It’s like when that feeling of fear pops up within you. That’s a really good indicator that you probably should do it.”

“What made me say yes was Luca and Zendaya,” Josh shared. “Mike wasn’t on board at that point.  But if Mike had been on board, that would have also contributed. I knew Luca before. We’d met a few years before.  And we talked about making some work together for a while.”

“I love both the (male) characters. I actually read the script like a year or two before because I met Justin in New York. I just moved to New York and I was on the phone with my American agent one day and I said, ‘I have got no friends.’ And so he set me up on a friend date.”

Justin cracked, “We had a little date.”

Josh, quick to break into a playful smile, said, “I guess kind of under the guise of, like, ‘This is also work, Josh.’ Justin 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, turning to Josh, said, “I’ll just embarrass you.  Josh had also just won an Emmy at that point. And we were at this coffee shop. People kept coming up to congratulate him.”

“They’re not real friends, Justin,” Josh quipped with a grin. “Anyway, so I’d read the script before.  But then when Luca asked me about doing it, initially I thought Patrick would be beyond my reach. 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 he completely lives life to the full. And he is very accepting of his flaws. All those things seemed like a reach.”

“Luca very brilliantly kind of accepted that and made me feel comfortable around that. There was a process, once we started preparing where we had to pull those things out. It didn’t fit comfortably for me to not hide. Patrick doesn’t hide at all.  So all those things contributed.”

“But there was no doubt, really. It’s such an honor and a privilege to get to work with people like this.  And so that was an immediate yes.”

What also drives the film is how convincing the three actors are on the court. The tennis matches are intense and volatile but at the same time reflect the inner turmoil going on in their relationships with each other.

“Tennis training – the gym work, as Josh puts it,” Zendaya answered about the tennis training that whipped them into shape and made them look credible as rising tennis stars. “Man, we were lucky enough to kind of have, 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. We were under the support and guidance of Brad (Gilbert), 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 (Williams). And so, again, it was one of those things that was terrifying as a challenge to take on.  Because you know you’re supposed to be a great tennis player.  And I’ve never been a great tennis player.”

“I was incredibly nervous showing up. 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. We also had rehearsals 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 was driving myself crazy trying to become a tennis player. Like, I was trying to learn the fundamentals and make sure. I remember when I first started hitting the ball, it would just go off into trees.  Like, it was just never even close to the court. I was like, ‘Damn, I got a long way to go.’ ”

“Tennis is not a game you could just pick up.  Unless you’ve been playing since four, it’s not happening for you. So, 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. You’re like, damn.  You know, back to square one.”

“And there’s one thing too, is 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. Hit me a real one.’ The way that thing flew by me so fast. And at the time, I still had glasses (she had LASIK surgery since then).  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 of the way.”

“Luca 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 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.”

“And I began to just focus on that.  We had amazing tennis doubles.  I just wanted to sync up with her, right? I wanted to understand her footwork, patterns, movements, and just try to make it as seamless as possible. I wanted to look like her mirror.”

“Then I’d record myself next to her and I’d watch it back.  Mmm, I could do that a little better. Her arms a little more, her shoulders a little bit…and she’s quicker on her feet. So that 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.”

“So yeah, that 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 were struggling together.”

The film’s final tennis match ends in a thrilling denouement. Luca elaborated on how they prepared for this emotional climax: “We rehearsed a lot.  We rehearsed the dramatic part of the movie for many, many days.  And then we were on the court every day. Understanding how the sports action had to be reflective of the dynamic between the characters.”

“So basically, I started from the unit.  Every little gesture.”

“And we adopted 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 of conception, the drawing, shooting. That sequence, which lasts 10 minutes, took us eight days to shoot, more or less, which is incredible. And then a lot of work in post-production.”

The result is an intense, emotional finale of a grand slam of a movie. –

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Ruben V. Nepales

Based in Los Angeles, Ruben V. Nepales is an award-winning journalist whose honors include prizes from the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards, a US-wide competition, and the Southern California Journalism Awards, presented by the Los Angeles Press Club.