Challengers Marks The Second Coming Of Zendaya


by Sophie Butcher |
Published on

In Challengers, everyone is obsessed with Zendaya. Or, at least, her character Tashi Duncan. “She’s gonna turn her whole family into millionaires,” says Josh O’Connor’s young tennis champ Patrick Zweig, to old friend and doubles partner Art Donaldson (Mike Faist). “She’ll have a fashion line, a foundation.” It’s easy to see why they’re in awe. Duncan is a world-class player, brand ambassador, and the object of both their affections. And with regards to ambition, ability, and enormous success at a young age, they could just as easily be talking about Zendaya herself – a star who, over the past few years, has been executing her own Tashi-esque world domination. So far, she’s moved from kids’ TV star to being a part of some of the biggest movies on the planet. With Challengers, though, she’s taking things to a whole other level.


Like Tashi – a whizz with a racquet who goes on to model, coach, and steer her personal brand – Zendaya proved multi-talented from the beginning. She started out her professional life as a Disney kid in sitcom Shake It Up, took the lead as a high-school spy in K.C. Undercover, and developed a pop music career alongside them. 2017 saw her double-header big-screen breakthrough with The Greatest Showman and Spider-Man: Homecoming. She started shedding her family-friendly history in 2019 by becoming the face of Sam Levinson’s dark, glossy, generation-defining teen drama Euphoria, in which she played grieving daughter and drug addict Rue. Her raw, volatile, heart-wrenching performance across two seasons saw her receive multiple awards nominations and wins, including an Emmy and Best Actress nod from the Screen Actors Guild. Then, after a limited but memorable stint in Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, she became the beating heart of Dune: Part Two as Fremen warrior Chani. Already, she’s a gigantic star.

With Challengers, Zendaya is about to go supernova.

With Challengers, though, she’s about to go supernova, firing up in more ways than one to become the hottest talent in Hollywood. In Luca Guadagnino’s erotically-charged drama, Zendaya steps into a role unlike any we’ve seen her play before – a grown-up one. While her Euphoria character Rue is endlessly complex, dealing with familial tension, depression, sobriety and more, she is still, ultimately, a teenager (though the show is far from suitable for young audiences). Tashi is a whole new ball-game. She is driven, controlling; a mother, and a wife. She is both toxic and intoxicating. She is the intensely desirable sun around which Art and Patrick orbit, her gravitational pull keeping them coming back for more, no matter how painful. We see her age over more than a decade, from a teenage tennis prodigy to a conflicted spectator. Zendaya’s absorbing, utterly convincing depiction of this is the thing on which Challengers depends. The star expressed how Tashi marks a step-up in maturity herself in a recent video with Vogue, stating “People see me as a teenager, since I was a teenager for so long. But this is really, finally, me being able to play a woman closer to my own age.”


As well as having her play a new kind of character, 2024 has seen Zendaya embrace a new kind of project – bigger, bolder ones, in which she progresses more into centre stage. Between the arthouse-meets-blockbuster science-fiction fare of Villeneuve’s Dune films and the unique, tactile, experimental physicality of Guadagnino’s Challengers, the actor is racking up a roster of big-screen auteurs, moving away from the broad appeal of Disney and the franchise formula of Marvel to more niche, visionary territory.

We’re watching a megawatt movie star ascend, in real time.

She is increasingly a powerhouse behind the camera, too. Zendaya isn’t new to producing, having done so on K.C. Undercover, Euphoria and Malcolm And Marie – but with Challengers, she takes up that mantle again, showing a clear intention to retain an element of creative control over her work as she branches out into new things and with new directors. “For me, it’s always been a way to be creative in a different sense,” she explained at a Challengers press conference in Australia. “I learned quite early, when I was younger, that being able to have a real title allows you to be able to protect yourself in a lot of different spaces.” Her experience in this area sets her apart from a lot of her young Hollywood peers, but is also something she has in common with those building their careers through not just acting alone, but strategic decision-making. This includes, increasingly, her Euphoria colleague Sydney Sweeney – whose work with Sony on Madame Web gave her the experience to put together box office-busting romcom Anyone But You, and passion-project horror Immaculate – but also more seasoned stars-slash-moguls like Margot Robbie and Tom Cruise.

Zendaya – Challengers carpet

With Challengers, it’s undeniable: the second coming of Zendaya is here. On screen, she’s serving aces, busting racquets and breaking hearts. Off screen, she’s on magazine covers, attending fashion shows, and going viral with her inspired press tour looks. The media fervour around her has made Zendaya a household name beyond her core, young, US fanbase. She is everywhere, and deservedly so. We’re watching a megawatt movie star ascend, in real time. Challengers heralds the start of a whole new era for Zendaya: stepping out of supporting roles and high-school settings, and into the spotlight as a true leading lady. This is Zendaya’s moment, and she’s taking it, game-set-match. Go and see Challengers this week, and witness her grand slam for yourself.

Challengers is in UK cinemas from Friday 26 April

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