Photo courtesy of MGM Studios

This weekend’s Challengers panel opened with laughter over the mispronunciation of Screenwriter Justin Kuritzkes’ last name.

“You got Zendaya right,” the Emmy-winner told the panel’s moderator Kelley Carter, a Senior Entertainment Reporter at ESPN.

Zendaya spoke at the virtual press conference Saturday alongside Director Luca Guadagnino, Mike Faist, Josh O'Connor, Producer Amy Pascal and Kuritzkes.

Pascal worked with Zendaya on the Tom Holland Spider-Man films and said her relationship with the actress was a key advantage in the bidding war for Kuritzkes’ script. She said she promised the playwright-turned-screenwriter she would convince Zendaya to sign onto the film if chosen as producer.

Kuritzke — a self-proclaimed non-sports fan — described watching The 2018 US Open women's final as his entry point into the game of tennis. He said the controversial call regarding Williams and her coach sparked an innate curiosity for professional tennis. Kuritzkes said he imagined the desperation of needing to talk to someone, yet being alone on one side of the tennis court.

“This struck me as an intensely cinematic situation,” Kuritzkes said. “What if it was something beyond tennis? How could you communicate the tension of that situation using the tools that are specific to film?”

Zendaya, who was still shooting Euphoria when she received the script for Challengers, said the story could not be singularly defined as just a drama or sports movie. She said she had never read a character like Tashi Duncan.

“I just fell in love with the script,” Zendaya said. “I was like, ‘Maybe I need to do this.’”

Zendaya recalled meeting Guadagnino years earlier at a dinner, during which the director translated Italian to help her find vegetarian food options, and said his involvement in Challengers intrigued her.

She said speaking with Guadagnino over Zoom assured her of his nuanced understanding of the film’s characters.

Guadagnino commended the script’s structure and the artistic collaboration between Pascal, Zendaya and Kuritzkes. He said when asked to sign on as director, his answer was ‘yes’ almost immediately.

For Faist, the decision process was less clear. After receiving the script from his agent and flying to London for a screen test with Zendaya, he initially felt his audition had gone terribly wrong.

However, Guadagnino called him soon after to set up a lunch meeting, and upon chatting further about the film, the role was his.

“What really stuck out about the character [Art Donaldson] was this idea of this craftsman who's fallen out of love with his craft,” Faist said. “He's so desperately trying to kind of get back to that place of purity…it's like a form of transcendence.”

Zendaya said she, along with Faist and O’Connor, received nearly six weeks of tennis training prior to production. She admitted she knew very little about tennis and called the preparation for Challengers a terrifying challenge.

She recalled hitting tennis balls straight into trees, and realized a shift in her approach was necessary. She said watching Guadagnino’s meticulous choreography for each sequence on set inspired her to approach tennis the way she would dance, honing her footwork, patterns and movements to transform into Tashi Duncan.

“It was brilliant and it also made me very nervous because of how complicated these characters are,” Zendaya said of Challengers. “That feeling that it was everything at once in this beautiful way was terrifying but equally exhilarating.”