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Zendaya's Challengers Role Is Not A Villain - She's Something Much More Important

Zendaya is perhaps best-known for her complex portrayal of Rue Bennett on the HBO series "Euphoria," as well as her performances as MJ in the "Spider-Man" movies and Fremen warrior Chani in the two "Dune" films. But in "Challengers," the new movie from "Call Me By Your Name" director Luca Guadagnino, she has taken on what might be her most multi-layered role yet.

The actor plays Tashi Duncan, a once-promising, ferociously intense tennis player whose career is sidelined in college by an injury. Tashi instead channels her passion for winning into coaching Art Donaldson (Mike Faist), a successful pro player who is also her husband and father of her child. Complicating matters is Patrick Zweig (Josh O'Connor), Art's former best friend and Tashi's ex-lover from their tennis academy years, who is facing Art in a second-tier regional match as the latter tries to find his way back to the U.S. Open.

The professional, personal, and sexual tension at the heart of "Challengers" arises from the way that these three manipulate each other over the 13-year span of the film. At first glance, Tashi may seem to be the most scheming of the three. But Zendaya, speaking at a press conference for the film, says that Tashi is not the villain of the story — there's much more to her than that.

"It's a female character that doesn't have to be likable and doesn't care about you liking her, and doesn't ask for forgiveness," she said. "And I think that that is probably refreshing, maybe, to some people. I understand that. That was refreshing to me when I read her, and that was why I wanted to play her. But honestly, I [ask audiences not to judge her too harshly] before screenings sometimes because I feel like it's our natural instinct to judge people in general."

Zendaya says her feelings keep changing about the characters

On the surface, it appears that Tashi pushes Art to get back into contention and win the U.S. Open even though he's burned out from the game and wants to retire. With her own career short-circuited by her injury – and tennis being the thing through which she has defined herself – Tashi tries to maintain control over her life by driving Art to succeed in her place. She's also not above using the long-smoldering sexual chemistry between herself and Patrick to help achieve her goals.

But despite all that, Zendaya doesn't see Tashi as the movie's "Big Bad"; she's instead a steely yet still vulnerable woman who is simply determined to manage her life on her own terms. "It's easy to judge these characters, and I understand that, because we all do [that]," she argues. "I think the beauty of this film is that your mind will change ... I know mine has, every time I watch it, every time I read it."

The actor adds that her opinion of all three characters also shifted once Mike Faist and Josh O'Connor breathed life into their roles on the set. "Honestly, I had preconceived notions about the characters, and then these guys came in, and with their performances alone, changed my perception of these characters," Zendaya says. "Every time I watch it — and I made the dang thing — I'm still surprised that every time I go, 'Oh, well, this time I'm kind of feeling for this character now,' or 'This time I'm Team So-and-So.' You're constantly living with them and learning something new about them."

"Challengers" opens in theaters tomorrow (Friday, April 26).