(CNN) — Not that the film needs one, but “Challengers” actor Josh O’Connor has an alternate title idea in case the need arises: “This could be called ‘Co-dependency: The movie.’”

“That was our other title!” Zendaya quips.

“Challengers” – its official title – is a tennis drama from director Luca Guadagnino that serves up a thrilling love triangle and seductive performances by Zendaya, O’Connor and Mike Faist. It is set to be released this month after being delayed from its initial September 2023 release date due to the SAG-AFTRA strike.

As tennis prodigy Tashi Duncan, Zendaya takes on the leading role different from anything audiences have seen from her before in projects like “The Greatest Showman” and the “Spider-Man” film franchise.

In “Challengers,” Tashi becomes the object of affection for childhood best friends and fellow tennis talents, Art (Faist) and Patrick (O’Connor), as they both vie for her heart. When Tashi suddenly faces a career-ending injury at the height of her potential, she pivots to coaching, altering the course of the trio’s relationship and setting up a host of new challenges.

“It’s like we’re seeing these people in real time, watching their lives come
together and fall apart,” Zendaya said.

‘I love them, and I hate them’

In the film, Tashi is also seen in adulthood, having guided her husband Art to the peak of success as his coach. However, she faces the painful reality of witnessing him contemplate retirement as his remarkable career, one that seemed destined for her, draws to a close.

Before his career ends, however, the stage becomes set for a reunion of sorts as Art faces off against Patrick in a key match.

“I love them, and I hate them. I’m very conflicted about the decisions that they make and the things they choose to say and do to each other. But ultimately, that’s what creates strong characters,” Zendaya said.

The Golden Globe winner was drawn to the role by the depth and maturity of her character. Throughout a significant portion of the film, she depicts Tashi as an older woman, embracing the part of wife and mother – a departure from her previous roles, which have often cast her as a high school student (see “Euphoria” and the “Spider-Man” series).

Although she initially felt conflicted about the character’s actions when reading the script, her perspective shifted when she watched the film.

“It would be very easy to make Tashi the villain,” Zendaya said. “But I think there’s so much more to her. It became my challenge to empathize with her and somehow get the audience to.”

O’Connor agrees, confessing he felt sympathy for all three characters at
different stages of the film.

“It feels like a very refreshing modern interpretation of the complexity of relationships,” he said. “That co-dependency is painful and beautiful in equal measure.”

Behind the camera

“Challengers” is everything audiences have come to expect from a Guadagnino film. Known for titles like “Call Me by Your Name,” “I Am Love,” and “Suspiria,” Guadagnino once again delivers a visually sumptuous and emotionally complex exploration of sexual desire.

For Zendaya, whose love of filmmaking has seen her take on a greater interest in behind-the-camera work, collaborating with Guadagnino provided a new opportunity.

“The more time I spend in front of the camera, the more I enjoy being behind it,” Zendaya said. In addition to her starring role, she also holds a producer’s credit on “Challengers.”

“Being surrounded by Luca it helped me gain confidence. It was a beautiful place to learn and to really feel like I had a voice and a seat at the table,” she said.

Zendaya is no stranger to working behind the camera. Her journey as a producer began with “Malcolm & Marie,” a 2021 romantic drama film penned and directed by Sam Levinson. Building on this experience, she collaborated with Levinson again, this time as an executive producer for the critically acclaimed HBO TV series, “Euphoria.” (CNN, like HBO, is a unit of Warner Bros. Discovery.)

The learning experiences didn’t stop there, as all three actors dedicated themselves to a rigorous 12-week tennis training program led by former professional tennis player turned coach, Brad Gilbert.

“We had to develop our bodies to look and act like professional tennis
players,” Faist said. In Gilbert’s illustrious career, he was coached by Andre Agassi, the former player who had a formidable rivalry with Pete Sampras.

According to Faist, Sampras and Agassi’s contrasting playing styles influenced the development of Art and Patrick as tennis players.

“Andre was a little bit more rock ‘n’ roll, and Pete was more technical and
formulaic. Brad read the script and drew parallels to Art and Patrick’s
relationship,” he said.

The result is a convincingly immersive on-screen experience that many filmgoers will consider a win.

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