Why Zendaya is nervous for audiences to see her in “Challengers”: 'I wish I was joking'

"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," she says.

Zendaya is about to serve up the biggest movie of her career so far with Challengers. While the young actor is no stranger to starring in massive blockbuster films — Dune: Part Two just came out two months ago, after all — she's more nervous than ever for audiences to see her as tennis prodigy Tashi Donaldson in Luca Guadagnino's red hot drama (in theaters April 26).

"I always am nervous — I wish I was joking," Zendaya tells Entertainment Weekly. "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."

<p>MGM /Courtesy Everett </p>

MGM /Courtesy Everett

Challengers centers on Zendaya's character, Tashi, an ultra-talented tennis player destined for big things until a devastating career-ending injury forces her to pivot to coaching. But things heat up when best friends Art (Mike Faist) and Patrick (Josh O'Connor) become enamored with her, forming a scandalous love triangle that plays out over many years with secrets, betrayals, and most of all, intense tennis matches.

"These characters are incredibly complex and interesting," Zendaya says. "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."

She admits she's "still doing that" now, especially as the creative team gears up for the film's release. "That's the fun thing," she says. "Every day we have an interview and [my costars] answer a question, I'm like, 'Yo, I didn't even think about that, and now I have to go reprocess all over again.'"

<p>MGM /Courtesy Everett</p>

MGM /Courtesy Everett

She also admits she doesn't hate watching herself onscreen like most actors — including her costars Faist and O'Connor — which is ironic considering she's "so self-critical."

"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," Zendaya says. "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."

Her love for being on set and watching her fellow actors work also contributes to why she enjoys watching her own projects onscreen. "I love watching them do their thing on set," Zendaya says, referring to Faist and O'Connor. "And so I get to watch it over and over and over again, and I learn new things. I want to ask them about all the choices that they made because there's different things that I picked up that I didn't pick up, maybe on the day or I didn't understand why the motivation behind it, and now I want to ask them."

She quickly clarifies she doesn't like watching herself doing interviews or talk show appearances. "But when it's a character that's not me, I'm like, 'Oh, this is fun, I can enjoy this other person,'" she explains. "It reminds me of the process of making it, and typically, I've been very lucky to have a great time doing what I do, so it reminds me of being on a set or being in that space. It's the one thing that I don't feel that way [of being self-critical], which typically I do feel that way."

— Additional reporting from Gerrad Hall

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