How Zendaya keeps pushing boundaries on-screen


In partnership with Warner Bros. UK

At 27, Zendaya is already one of her generation’s defining actors. In her latest film Challengers, she reveals thrilling new layers as Tashi Duncan, a whip-smart tennis coach who’s playing to win both on and off court. Ahead of its release in cinemas on April 26, here’s a guide to the many ways Zendaya is continuing to push the envelope on screen.

She’s already setting records

Since 2019, Zendaya has starred in zeitgeist-grabbing teen drama Euphoria as Rue Bennett, a drug addict with a sardonic sense of humour and a deep-rooted destructive streak. This dark, complicated and incredibly charismatic role hasn’t just made her a Gen Z icon; it’s also put her in the record books. In 2020, when she was just 24, Zendaya became the youngest ever winner of the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress In A Drama Series. She broke new ground again when she won the award for a second time two years later.

Zendaya stars as Tashi Duncan in ‘Challengers’. CREDIT: Warner Bros.

She’s taking big swings

Zendaya has no trouble pivoting between piercing small screen intimacy and epic blockbuster storytelling. Since 2019, she’s balanced her ongoing Euphoria role with high-profile film appearances in the Spider-Man and Dune movies. She’s also shown her lighter side with a super-fun voice role as Lola Bunny in 2021’s Space Jam: A New Legacy.

Now she’s pushing forward again with Challengers, a project she’s described as her “first time really being a leading lady, if you will”. As Tashi, she plays a former tennis prodigy who reinvents herself as a coach when injury halts her playing career. When she agrees to train Art Donaldson (Mike Faist), a struggling player who happens to be her boyfriend, she knows just how to motivate him – by reigniting his rivalry with Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor), Art’s former bestie and her ex-boyfriend. It’s a psychological game of mixed doubles that plays out in intense, unexpected ways.

Explaining what attracted her to the complex, erotically charged project from visionary director Luca Guadagnino, Zendaya said: “I felt like it was a good step into a more, I guess you could say, ‘grown-up’ role and into that next phase. It was a little bit scary to take on, which I think is a good feeling. To be like, ‘Ooh, can I do this?’ You could run from that feeling and stay safe and comfortable, or you can go, ‘You know what, fuck it.'” Clearly she has no intention of resting on her laurels.

Dune: Part Two
Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya in ‘Dune: Part Two’. CREDIT: Warner Bros.

She knows how to play the long game

Some fans were surprised when Dune opened in 2021 and Zendaya’s role was more of a supporting one. But Zendaya was entirely unfazed – she knew all along that her character, Chani, would play a pivotal role in this year’s stunning sequel, Dune: Part Two. The film’s director, Denis Villeneuve, said Chani’s relationship with Paul (Timothée Chalamet) is “at the very core” of the film, which opened in cinemas in March.

Because Paul comes from a once-powerful colonising family, their love story has the shifting dynamics that Zendaya seems drawn to. “She’s falling in love with him, but at the same time hating what he represents, and that’s really difficult for her because she cares about her people and wants the best for her community,” Zendaya said ahead of the film’s release.

She isn’t afraid to delve into the dark side

Challengers doesn’t just give Zendaya a more “grown-up role”; it also asks her to reveal fascinating new layers. “I like to believe that I have characters that are multifaceted and dimensional in some kind of way,” Zendaya said at the film’s London premiere. “But I think she definitely is the most unapologetically cruel, sometimes, and direct character that I’ve ever played.” The actress also said she relished playing Tashi because “we get to see her grow as a woman” as she ends her playing career and embraces her coaching era.

Mike Faist and Zendaya in ‘Challengers’. CREDIT: Warner Bros.

She’s already producing her own projects

Zendaya isn’t just Euphoria‘s lauded lead; she’s also one of its executive producers. When the show earned an Outstanding Drama Series nod at the 2022 Emmys, Zendaya became the youngest woman ever to be nominated for producing.

In 2020, she displayed her creative mettle by exec-producing Malcolm & Marie, one of the first Hollywood films to be entirely written, financed and produced during the COVID-19 lockdowns. Zendaya stars opposite John David Washington in this stylish two-hander about a rising star director and the supportive girlfriend he fails to thank at his film’s premiere. It’s a striking showcase for her dynamic line delivery and crackling chemistry with Washington.

Zendaya also serves as a producer on Challengers, which will show even more of her dramatic range when it opens on April 26. She especially relished playing a character who really calls the shots both on and off courts. “What was important to me was that she was unapologetic about it,” she said. “Sometimes characters who are messy and conflicted and wield power over other people are reserved for [actors] who don’t look like me, so when I get an opportunity to play a character like that, I’m-a take it!”

‘Challengers’ is in UK cinemas from April 26

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