'I asked Zendaya if she was nervous about people seeing her new movie. She hesitated to answer.'

Being around Zendaya in a small room is an oddly calming experience, but outside the walls of a lavish hotel suite, it's an entirely different matter.

When the global premiere for her new movie Challengers — in which she co-stars with Josh O'Connor and Mike Faist — recently took place in Australia, the streets around Sydney's State Theatre were spilling over with fans who had lined up behind barricades for hours, and in some cases even flown interstate, just to glimpse the 27-year-old actress' back as she walked the red carpet.

On my way to the premiere, the car I was in pulled up alongside those heaving barricades, the screaming intensified, and one young woman even bellowed "Zendaya!" while slamming her hands against our car's window, attempting to peer inside.

A moment that says a lot about what love and fandom will trick you into seeing, when just for a moment, you mistake three slightly bedraggled writers making their to an event after a long day in the office in a midrange Uber for the glamorous young woman who holds the title as the youngest two-time Emmy winner in history.

To be perfectly honest, I haven't felt in that much danger of being trampled by an enthusiastic crowd since I made the near fatal error of standing next to Chris Hemsworth and Mark Ruffalo on a Thor red carpet, but even that crowd paled in comparison to this one. All who seemed just happy to be in the presence of Zendaya, along with Josh O'Connor — best known for his award-winning role of Prince Charles in The Crown — and Mike Faist, a Broadway star who stole the show as Riff in Steven Spielberg's film adaptation of West Side Story.


 Zendaya at the premiere of Challengers in Sydney. Image: Getty. 

During our interview the next day, in the slightly less chaotic setting of a harbourside hotel room, devoid of screaming fans but still filled with cameras, I asked the three Challengers stars about the intensity of the night before as we began to roll into our interview. Even Zendaya, who has walked many a Marvel red carpet before this, admitted to feeling fear before she exited her car (maybe her car window also took a beating from some enthusiastic fans' hands).


"I thought I was going to be really nervous at the premiere but it was actually kind of fun," Zendaya told me, noting it was the first time she and her cast mates had seen the movie with a full audience.

The Dune star went on to say that she was aware of the fans lining the streets, some even holding up signs with messages like, "Zendaya, I flew from Perth to see you," scrawled across them, and confided that this had prompted her to quietly slip out of the premiere.

"I didn't get to see the whole thing because I had to sneak out of the theatre before the movie ended," she explained. 

"They were all waiting across the street for me that whole time and I felt really bad about it."

The streets around Sydney's State Theatre were spilling over with fans during the Challengers premiere. Image: Universal Pictures.


But more intriguing than what had taken place outside those theatre walls was what happened on stage just moments before the movie began. After speaking to the crowd, Zendaya, Mike and Josh turned to make their way backstage when Zendaya suddenly whipped back around to the crowd and said, "Please don't judge these characters, please just keep an open mind" — almost warning the crowd that she expected the energy in the room to shift.

In the film, directed by Luca Guadagnino, Zendaya plays Tashi Duncan, a former tennis prodigy who has turned to coaching after her tennis dreams came to an abrupt end. Tashi meets fellow tennis stars and best friends Patrick Zweig (Josh O'Connor) and Art Donaldson (Mike Faist) when the trio are teenagers and the young men are both instantly enamoured with her. The storyline flips back and forth in time as the movie progresses, from the complicated relationships that form while the three friends are in college to their days as tennis pros as they face off against each other on the court.


While the trailer for Challengers does set up Zendaya's Tashi to look like a bit of a manipulative villain (complete with Nelly Furtardo's song 'Maneater' blasting away in the background), the characters and their storylines are much more complex and compelling than a lazy stereotype.

So I repeated her words from the stage that night back to her and asked her to clarify what they meant. Was she nervous about people seeing this movie and what the judgment would be?

As she contemplated my question, the energy in the room shifted ever so slightly. A few minutes earlier, she had jokingly asked if I was going to sing (a hazardous line of questioning that often pops up when the company you work for shares a name with a famous musical) while sharing a laugh with her cast mates, and now a serious expression had replaced her camera-ready smile (Josh and Mike's, too).

It was, after all, the very first day of their global press tour and critics were at that moment still forbidden from publishing their thoughts on the film. For a moment, I began to think I'd asked her a question she just didn't want to answer. That she was worried about how her words might shape people's perceptions of the movie, or start the wrong type of conversation.

It turns out that the answer was a little more complex.

"I don’t know if I'm worried so much as... I know that your opinion will change upon watching this movie again,” she finally answered. "As all humans do, we all judge right? So then you have a preconceived idea of what this story will be.


"But then you watch Challengers again and you'll change how you feel. I truly believe that with a piece like this, at least in my experience of watching it with my friends and family, everyone's responses are different.

"Sometimes I'll be upset with one character and then another," she continued. "I keep changing my mind about these characters and I'm in the dang movie. So I just want people to stay open, and I promise you that your thoughts will continue to change every time you watch it.

"When I'm making the movie, I always think to myself, 'I love this part.' And then the movie is about to come out, [and] I get scared. Suddenly I remember, 'Oh, shit, people are gonna see this.'

"This is the bit where I get scared," she concludes, waving her arms around the room filled with cameras, a line of journalists waiting outside the door to ask her more questions.

 Mike Faist, Zendaya and Josh O'Connor in Challengers. Image: Universal Pictures. 


To prepare for their roles in Challengers, the three stars went through vigorous tennis and fitness training for months prior to filming. But once on set, one of the biggest hurdles to overcome was bringing the intense and sometimes toxic chemistry of their love triangle to life on screen in a way that would make the audience unsure of how they want this story to end. 

"I'm always thinking about quitting this at any given moment," Mike told me, drawing a line from the exhaustion his character Art feels in the film while living out his dreams, to what he's thinking while in the thick of the filmmaking process.

"After I've finished every project I say, 'I think I'm done,'" the 32-year-old continued. 

"I think that's mostly because I'm just exhausted by it. It's quite a draining thing — we shot for six months, and there was training before that. It takes a lot for me to come out again on the other side of that and want to do something else."


Of their first day on set together, Josh added, "We have now established that we were all super anxious when we first met," looking to his co-stars for clarification that they felt the same way. "My big discovery is that from the outside I see Mike who was in West Side Story, and Zendaya from Euphoria, and I can't stop looking at them and thinking 'Oh, my God.'


"I've just realised that this is how people are with all actors, in some ways," the 33-year-old continued. "That all actors come across as indestructible and otherworldly, but we're all just a mess. We're all super nervous. We're all scared that we're not good enough. We all say bad things to say to ourselves in our heads."

That's when Zendaya jumped in to explain how they found their group dynamic on set. 

"I would come onto set and say to myself things like, 'Okay, I'm not going to mess with Mike today. He's really in it all day, so I'm not going to talk to him.' Going into this, we all knew that these characters were deeply intense, and all going though turmoil. But we also needed to have those moments where we turned it off and just had fun."

Now that I'm allowed to share my thoughts on Challengers, I can confirm it's an intoxicating movie and one that you'll change your mind about a dozen times as you watch it.

And as Zendaya warned, it's also a movie that requires you to withhold judgment in order to fully enjoy it.  

Laura Brodnik is Mamamia's Head of Entertainment and host of The Spill podcast. You can follow her on Instagram here.

Challengers will be released in Australian cinemas on April 18

Feature Image: Getty/Universal Pictures.