Zendaya, Josh O’Connor, and Mike Faist Tell Us Everything They Learned About Tennis for Challengers

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Getty Images; Keir Novesky

If there’s one movie that everyone in your life will be talking about this spring—from the sports fans to the film bros, the fashion heads to the Broadway crowd—it’s Challengers. Starring Zendaya, Josh O’Connor, and Mike Faist, the movie tells the tale of two tennis players (Patrick Zweig, played by O’Connor, and Art Donaldson, played by Faist) as they rise from youth prodigies into respectively rocky adulthoods. At the center of it all is Tashi Duncan, played by Zendaya, who shares a romantic (and sporting) history with both male leads.

While their intimate entanglements form a major part of the film, this is a sports movie at its core. There’s a serious amount of tennis, and legendary ex-player-turned-coach Brad Gilbert was on set as a consultant. That meant learning not only the basics, but the deep, complicated aspects of a very technical game. During a recent sit down with GQ Sports, all three of Challengers’ stars shared their experience with the sport that has a knack for bringing out people’s temper.

While acting always has an inherent degree of “faking it,” you can’t really fake tennis! If you were playing a chef, for example, you wouldn’t actually need to cook. But when you’re playing a tennis star, you have to actually play tennis and make it look convincing. What was it like finding that balance between playing a character and being your actual self, who had to showcase real-life athleticism?

Zendaya: Well, I think contrary to what you’re saying, if you are playing a chef, you do have to learn how to cut things properly. What the food tastes like doesn’t really matter, but you have to convincingly look like a chef. That was kind of my approach as well. I started to look at it more like choreography or a dance. I was mirroring my double to try and understand her footwork and her physicality. I knew that whatever I was serving wasn’t going to taste very good. [laughing]

O’Connor: You know the phrase jack of all trades, master of none? That’s what we end up being. Z is right. If you were playing a chef, you would learn, in the same way you do have to learn tennis. The reality is—unless you’re giving yourself a four-year period of preparation—you can’t get to the best standard. You get to a standard that works for the camera department and the other actors.

I know how to deliver sheep from doing a film. Probably, I would not be that efficient at it if I had to work on a farm. They’d be like, “This guy is rubbish.” So, you learn these skills, but not to a professional level.

Is this all of yours’ first sports movie?

O’Connor: No.

Zendaya: Yes.

Faist: [long, contemplative pause] No.

Why the hesitation?

Faist: I don’t know. I had to think about it.

O’Connor: I did a cycling film, and my first ever film was a soccer film.

Faist: It wasn’t my first film, but it was an early, early, early film. I did tae kwon do. Very cool.

Zendaya: Oh! There you go! I can see the memes already.

How much previous tennis experience did you have?

Zendaya: [makes a zero with her hand]

Faist: That’s not true! You’ve been playing since you were seven!

Zendaya: Technically. I went to a tennis camp with my grandmother. She was really into tennis. I don’t remember anything, though. Other than [that] I liked to use the little ball picker upper thing.

O’Connor: I think all three of us had limited experience. Mike maybe a bit more.

Faist: I played very, very poorly for one season in high school because I didn’t get into the school play. Our team obviously wasn’t very good. They let me on!

Zendaya: But look at you now.

Faist: I learned a little.

It’s a sport with a lot of intricacies. What was the hardest thing for you to learn?

O’Connor: I have one very specific thing that I found incredibly hard. You know when the other person serves? You do a little jump.

Zendaya and Faist: [in unison] The split step.

O’Connor: The split step! Couldn’t do it. Every time I was playing, Brad would be like, “What happened to your split step?” I don’t know! I don’t know! Then I started doing it just for the sake of doing it. It was pathetic. I really couldn’t do it. Back me up, guys!

Zendaya: I just remember thinking, “Okay, how hard could it be to swing a racket?” Then I looked at videos from when we started. Yo, that does not look like [professionals] look. Really knowing the form, and getting the muscle memory to make it look as believable as possible—truly the slightest difference in your racket face changes everything. A professional, or someone who knows what they’re doing, can spot that in a moment. Brad would show us videos and say, “Oh, he really holds his racket weird.” We’re like, it looks like he’s just holding a racket. I don’t see anything off about it. But there’s these intricacies and these details where, if you didn’t know you wouldn’t know.

My thing was honesty. I wanted blatant honesty if it looked ridiculous or they weren’t buying something and I needed to adjust. Through talking to professional players, learning the game, watching and going to matches—so much tennis—those are the things you really absorb. It makes it maybe even more daunting because you realize there’s so many details.

Faist: It’s a game about form. If you don’t follow the step-by-step instructions and your body isn’t in the right position…that’s what the game is about. How consistent are you with your fundamentals? Will you allow yourself, mentally, to stick with those routines and not get in your own head? It’s a very challenging sport.

O’Connor: And it’s particularly tough if you’re coming to it later in life.

Zendaya: Absolutely.

O’Connor: If you learn those fundamentals from an early age, it’s just there.

Zendaya: That was the thing. I couldn’t play with actual tennis balls. As soon as that ball is coming at you at whatever miles per hour, the form is out the window! Like, I just learned this form three days ago! I’m just trying to hit it! That’s when I realized, “Okay, let me not focus on the ball. Let me focus on my form.”

Josh, your character has a pretty funky serve. How long did it take you to get that down? Did it feel alien the entire time?

O’Connor: The fortunate position that I was in, it didn’t feel alien because it all felt alien! I was able to be like, I guess this is how you serve. In the script it was very clear that Patrick had this odd, unique serve. Before I got to Boston to start training with Brad, I was thinking in my head about what it could be. I had all these images of what I imagined it would be.

When we got to Brad, I wanted to talk about the serve. How can we make it weird and distinctive? He was like, “I’ve got just the thing.” He went on his laptop, and he had saved all these YouTube videos. He shows me the serve of this one guy and is going, “Isn’t that crazy?” It’s like…just a serve. As far as I’m concerned, that’s what every serve looks like. But something that’s completely crazy to a tennis player is just a serve to us!

So then I was like, “Brad, I think we need to think outside the box.” We started to plan it out together. There’s a guy who puts his racket behind his back and goes, one…two…boom. We figured it out that way.

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Mike, your character wears that athletic tape that professional athletes wear all the time now. Did they explain to you what that actually does?

Faist: Yeah, I don’t know. I believe it’s supposed to hold things in place. If you have shin splints or something, it’s supposed to pull the muscle into the right position.

Zendaya: Muscle support.

Faist: Yeah…I don’t know!

Zendaya: I just want to add that with hair and makeup, there are specific details to calluses on your hands, the nasty feet, certain things like that. They’re little details but they are important. You see them in passing but those things—and injuries—are things that athletes sustain while they’re doing their job.

Zendaya, in the hotel room scene you’re wearing a pink Juicy Couture jacket. Whose idea was that? Did you feel compelled to keep it?

Zendaya: We were just thinking about what she would wear when she comes home from a day of tennis. She’s taken a shower, she’s going to see these guys, what would she throw on? Obviously, in 2006 or whatever year it was, those were very popular! I had many Juicy Couture tracksuits myself. It felt like a very obvious choice. The color was really bright and vibrant, and that with her more athletic shorts felt like the right thing.

[Costume designer] Jonathan [Anderson] is brilliant. We’ve obviously seen his work in the fashion world so much. It’s been really kind of beautiful to watch him understand character and costume design. I think he really nailed it. I just needed some Uggs.

Originally Appeared on GQ