Zendaya on “Visceral Change” in Media Attention After ‘Spider-Man,’ Stepping Into ‘Challengers’ Role: “It Was a Little Bit Scary to Take On”

Zendaya is opening up about her “first time really being a leading lady” in Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers, as well as how major roles in films like the Spider-Man franchise have catapulted her to a new level of recognition.

In a new cover story for Elle magazine that was conducted before the SAG-AFTRA strike began in July, the 26-year-old star and award-winning multihyphenate opened up about her fashion journey from Disney Channel tween to red carpet icon, that viral Louis Vuitton Paris Fashion Week runway show moment with Law Roach and how her newest role in Challengers — which had originally been set to premiere at the Venice Film Festival before it was pushed to a 2024 release — will take her into the “next phase” of her career.

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“I felt like it was a good step into a more, I guess you could say, ‘grown-up’ role and into that next phase,” Zendaya said of her role in Challengers as Tashi Donaldson, the fictional tennis phenom turned coach caught in a love triangle. “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.’”

The role was a challenge for the actress, who found herself “terrified” while pretending to play tennis in front of the crew, but also a story where she could perform intense sex scenes, according to the magazine, that are “in line with Zendaya’s own views on sensuality as an implicit language.”

“It’s what Luca does so well,” she said of Guadagnino, who himself noted that the way Zendaya navigates “seduction is very beautiful” in the movie. “It’s the things that aren’t. It’s the moments between the moments. Like, chemistry. The things that you can’t always say, but you feel.

“That is Luca’s specialty when it comes to filmmaking,” she continues. “All the things that aren’t on the page that only someone who’s got the camera can really find.”

Guadagnino also complimented the way the Emmy-winning actress and producer “expresses and exudes the power of her athleticism,” even if Zendaya herself said scenes of her playing tennis induced performance fears.

“The more I had to pretend to do tennis in front of a camera with an audience, the more terrified I felt. And I was not even using a real ball,” she said, with a laugh. “I’m just doing the form and footwork and getting my swing right and doing it in front of a whole bunch of people as if it’s the U.S. Open, and I’m terrified.”

It wasn’t just a challenge physically, but also when it came to characterization for a role that the actress and producer said stars like her rarely get the chance to play. Zendaya revealed that she still doesn’t understand the decisions Tashi makes, “and we had so many conversations about the psychology of her and why she is that way.”

But “what was important to me was that she was unapologetic about it,” she continued. “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’ma take it!”

During the interview, Zendaya also spoke about the growing attention on her as a Hollywood star, which she said she began to notice while filming in Boston last year.

“After the last Spider-Man and the last season of Euphoria, there was a visceral change,” Zendaya explains. “Before, I could get away with going places and getting in and out. But in Boston, I would end up going right back home, because it was really overstimulating. Everybody would go hang out at a bar or something, and I’d be like, ‘I’d love to, but I think I could ruin everybody’s night. Because it’s just not going to be fun once I’m there.’”

That attention has spilled over into her personal life and relationship with Spider-Man co-star Tom Holland, with the actress acknowledging she focuses on controlling her privacy in the ways she can.

“Parts of my life, I accept, are going to be public,” she explained. “I can’t not be a person and live my life and love the person I love. But also, I do have control over what I choose to share. It’s about protecting the peace and letting things be your own, but also not being afraid to exist. You can’t hide. That’s not fun, either. I am navigating it more than ever now.”

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