‘Challengers’ Screenwriter on the ‘Homoerotic’ Nature of Tennis and How Zendaya’s Child Stardom Informs the Film

MGM/Courtesy Everett Collection

When Justin Kuritzkes began writing what later became the hottest love triangle of the year, there was no star power involved. Though he was already an accomplished playwright and novelist (and the husband of Celine Song, the writer-director who provided last year’s buzziest love triangle with “Past Lives”), “Challengers” was Kuritzkes’ first screenplay and began as a document on his computer that no one was paying him to finish.

But in 2021, “Challengers” appeared on the Black List, an annual roundup of the most popular unproduced scripts in Hollywood, which helped him sell it to producers Amy Pascal and Rachel O’Connor. Pascal brought Zendaya aboard the tennis movie as star and producer after first working with the actor on Marvel’s “Spider-Man” trilogy, and soon, “Call Me By Your Name” director Luca Guadagnino was attached as well. All of a sudden, “Challengers” was on its way to the court.

As part of Variety’s cover story about the film’s long road to the box office, Kuritzkes spoke to Variety about Serena Williams, Andre Agassi and what makes tennis inherently gay.

You’ve said your screenplay was influenced by Andre Agassi’s memoir “Open.” What struck you about that book?

After I’d gotten the kernel of the idea for the movie, I was starting to do research about tennis and went down a deep rabbit hole of getting my hands on every tennis book out there. Agassi’s was a classic — it’s one of the best sports memoirs ever written. He really talked about the brutality of sports, and the toll that it takes on the body and the mind and spirit. He was very honest about his feelings of falling out of love with the sport and then falling back in love and having a relationship that was unhealthy for him. He felt like he was in a battle with tennis. I found that really compelling.

Then, very directly, something that inspired the movie from that book is that when Agassi was really plunging down in the rankings, his coach, Brad Gilbert — who ended up being our tennis consultant on the movie — entered into a challenger event in Nevada. That was pretty rare for a guy who had won a couple grand slams and had been No. 1 in the world, to go play a low-level tournament for no money with guys who are ranked in the 200s. That was really inspiring to me when I was thinking about the situation I could put the character Art into at the beginning of the film.

What made you want to write a tennis movie in the first place?

I just happened to be watching the U.S. Open in 2018. It was the match between Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams in the final, and it was very controversial because Serena Williams got penalized for receiving coaching from the sidelines. She got very upset and said that she didn’t do that — but that was the first time I had heard about that rule. Immediately, it struck me as really cinematic, that you’re all alone on the court, that there’s only one other person who cares as much about what happens to you in this match as you do, and you can’t talk to them. I started to think, ‘What if you really had to talk about something important that went beyond tennis? Beyond sports? Something that was going on with you guys personally? How would you have that conversation? And how could you communicate the tension of that situation silently using the language of film?’

Prior to that, I hadn’t been a massive tennis fan, or even a sports fan. But I started to really fall deep into an obsession. It was all I wanted to watch. It was better than TV. It was better than movies. I was getting more drama, pound for pound, from watching tennis than I was getting from anything else. When I was thinking about what this movie could be, I was really trying to answer the question, ‘What can I write that would be as entertaining as tennis — and what would make tennis even better?’ And for me, the question of what would make tennis even better was if I could know, on a microscopic level, what was at stake for each player at every moment in the match. When I really asked myself what would be my hedonistic dream of something I could watch, it’s watching an amazing tennis match and having somebody whispering in my ear all the dark stuff that’s going on with the players, influencing the way that they’re playing. That was how I started thinking about the movie, and that was really the spirit that guided me in writing it.

Luca Guadagnino said that he asked you to amp up the love triangle. What did that aspect of the film look like before and after you started collaborating with him?

The love triangle was always there, and the intertwining of their lives and their relationships and their desires was always the engine that made the movie go. One of the first conversations we about the script was that Luca felt it was very important that, in any love triangle, all the corners touch.

When I first heard that, I sort of felt that they already did. I felt, ‘Oh, of course, they already are so intertwined, and desire is flowing in all these different ways between them.’ But I quickly realized that he meant it literally. That had not been in the script, a literal moment where they all come together. Without spoiling anything, there’s a moment where all of the corners of the love triangle touch in a very literal way.

I was really excited by that idea when we first started talking about it, but the question for me became how to make it feel organic to the story that was already there, how to not make it feel like something that was coming out of nowhere, and how to make sure that it didn’t alter what was going to happen to these characters and the rest of the movie. Finding the right place for it, so that it felt earned and organic and like it was always there in the first place.

There are going to be so many interpretations of that scene. How do you see Patrick and Art’s relationship and sexual orientation?

The thing about a love triangle that’s always true is that you’re involved romantically and intimately with two other people, whether you want to be or not. That’s the nature of finding yourself in a love triangle. Whether intentionally or not, you are intimately involved with somebody else. When it comes to Patrick and Art, they’ve spent their whole lives together, they’ve grown up together, they went through puberty together. They’ve seen each other become young men and, and they’re doubles partners and competitors.

Tennis, by its nature, is a very erotic sport. It’s sort of the opposite of boxing, where you’re all alone, and you’re trying to spend the whole match touching another person. Tennis is about being all alone, and being at a distance from somebody, and trying not to touch them. Trying to just miss them, and trying to trick them. Trying to make them think the ball is gonna go one place, and then go another place. There’s a deep intimacy and a deep eroticism in that, and also a lot of repression. It’s a very repressed sport, because again, the point is no contact. The point is to just miss the other person. To me, that’s almost like a Victorian romance. It’s very sexy. So tennis, of its nature, is erotic, and you usually play tennis against somebody of the same gender. So tennis, by its nature, then becomes almost homoerotic.

That’s always been a part of Art and Patrick’s friendship, as it is, frankly, a part of every friendship. But there is something that’s unlocked once Tashi enters the picture, where the desire is flowing in all directions in ways that are confusing for everybody. To put a name on it or to try to nail it down and say it’s one thing or another runs the risk of flattening it, because the nature of their environment is that they’re all discovering new things within themselves because of the arrangement they’ve found themselves in with each other.

Though there’s not much dialogue about it, there’s a very present narrative of race throughout “Challengers.” How did you approach that? Was it always a story about a Black woman and two white men?

Yeah, absolutely. She was always a Black woman. Art and Patrick were always white boys. Patrick was always a very well-to-do Jewish guy, and Art was always a somewhat well-to-do WASP. Certainly, the reason for Tashi being Black is that we can’t really tell the story of American tennis over the past however many decades without telling a story of Black women. It just kind of felt ridiculous to create a love triangle set in the tennis world with three American players and not have one of them be a Black woman, because that is the story of American women’s tennis if you look at all of the big superstars from the past decade. I knew that instinctually. It was also, again, a movie that was partially inspired by me watching this match between these two very different Black women at different stages in their careers.

Where they all are in the social order informs the way that they relate to each other within the triangle. Art and Tashi might have things in common that they don’t have in common with Patrick, and Art and Patrick certainly have things in common that they don’t have in common with Tashi, and Tashi and Patrick, in a way, have things in common that they don’t have in common with Art. That has everything to do with them being at these three different points in the American system.

What’s interesting about that in the context of tennis is that tennis is an individual sport where it’s completely unequal. It’s a very expensive sport. So for somebody from Tashi’s background to enter into the sport means something entirely different than it does for these two guys who grew up in tennis boarding school, whose parents sent them off to go be raised on a tennis court somewhere. It’s a really different relationship they all have to the sport. Not just what the sport means to them, but the precarity of their position in the sport to begin with. So much of Tashi’s drive and ambition is informed by that; so much of Patrick’s entitlement is informed by that; so much of what drives her crazy about him has everything to do with that. And so much of what they find alluring about her has everything to do with that. It’s all part of it.

Because so much of this film is about what goes unspoken, a lot is riding on the performances. Did you have anyone particular in mind while writing the screenplay?

I don’t usually write with actors in mind, unless it’s something that they’re bringing to me. Especially with a spec script, and it’s my first spec script, so it would have been really presumptuous to write it for Zendaya and Josh O’Connor and Mike Faist, who are the most brilliant actors of their generation. That would have been really crazy, for me to do that. But definitely once I finished the script and was thinking about who could do it, these three were right at the top of my mind.

Once you have the idea of Zendaya being in your movie, it’s really hard to imagine anyone else even attempting it, because she’s so perfect for the role. It was so clear in our first conversation. We met on Zoom after Amy Pascal sent it to her, and it was clear to me within two minutes of talking to her that she just understood Tashi so completely, that even though they were very different people, she could see a way in, and that was incredibly exciting for me.

Something that we talked about in that first conversation that I think is really, really interesting about her with this role is that the place that somebody like Zendaya occupies our culture, in our world, is very much the space that Tashi was supposed to occupy. That was the kind of life that Tashi was supposed to have, and then that gets taken away, and she had to figure out another way to get there, or she has to be at peace with not getting there. It was really interesting for me to think about somebody like Zendaya touching a character like that, because she just naturally brings so much knowledge to it, and so much of it is grounded in reality because she so intimately understands that dilemma. It really felt like it was meant to be that then she ended up doing this.

From Variety US