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You’ve seen him embody the film’s most beloved characters— the charming Romeo, young Prince Charles, or compassionate Marius Pontmercy—but who is the actor behind these iconic roles? On the occasion of his new film, ‘Challengers’, we go inside the mind of one of Hollywood’s most elusive actors with none other than Zendaya

In the game of tennis, love equates to nothing.

Ever since the sport became popular in the late 19th century, love has been used to represent zero points. The term derives from the expression “to play for love,” or the idea that the player who fails to score any points isn’t bothered because they are simply playing for love. This messy entanglement between the affairs of the heart and the court is the subject of Josh O’Connor’s latest film, Challengers, out in 2024. The “psychological and deeply emotional” thriller, directed by Luca Guadagnino, sees O’Connor take on the role of Patrick, a once-promising, but now burnt-out professional tennis player, caught up in a tumultuous love triangle with his former friend, Art (Mike Faist), and ex-girlfriend, Tashi (Zendaya).

“I think we can both agree that you’re a great person, but you’re nothing like Patrick,” Zendaya laughs, and Josh nods in agreement. “Our characters are horrific,” he shares over Zoom, describing the dynamic between the competitive tennis players: “We are all the puppet masters at different moments.” The off-screen friends fold over and giggle, as they reminisce about how much fun they had last summer filming the movie in Boston. There was that time they watched Ratatouille in O’Connor’s apartment and oh, that other time they sang Beyoncé’s “Break My Soul” in between takes of the final scene.

“My dad, who was an English teacher, used to always talk about Shakespeare. And the thing he’d tell me about Shakespeare’s villains is that they don’t think of themselves as villains. That message has always stuck with me, but particularly as I took on the role of Patrick in Challengers.” —Josh O’Connor

O’Connor is one of a few actors of his generation who can command the silver screen, regardless of the role he takes on—whether he’s playing Arthur in La Chimera or Romeo in Romeo & Juliet. Francis Lee, who directed O’Connor in his role as a Yorkshire farmer in the 2017 indie film God’s Own Country, has said that he is her “favorite kind of actor, a transformative actor,” while Olivia Colman, who played his mother in The Crown, says he’s “out there with the greats.” As magnificent as his on-screen performances are, O’Connor’s creative heart lies elsewhere.

“I think the reason why we didn’t end up talking about why you became an actor is because I realized that your true passion was ceramics,” Zendaya theorizes. And it’s true. O’Connor confesses he’s at his happiest when he’s in the studio, his hands messy with clay. But the 33-year-old explains there’s a through line in all of his work: “I love the process of taking something from the ground, using your hands, and making something that lives forever. That ties into my acting—we use our imagination and the source material from great writing and work with another human being to create something that hopefully lasts forever.”

“While I’d love to proclaim that I have this very clear and direct idea of the kind of actor I want to be—or the kind of work I want to make, I don’t know everything yet. I’m still figuring it out as I go and honing my craft as I go.” —Josh O’Connor

O’Connor explains all of this from the Alamosa, Colorado, where he’s on set for his next film. “I was horseback riding yesterday and got completely burned,” he tells Zendaya, cracking up. And as for his plans after the film wraps? The actor is keeping schtum for now. What’s clear is he’s embracing the unpredictable push and pull of his profession. “I love that I can go make a movie,” says O’Connor, “and then I can go off and live in my van by a lake. So going forward, there’s no real plan. I’m just figuring it out as I go along.”


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