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‘Greatest challenge’ no match for Zendaya

Updated April 25, 2024 - 11:13 am

With a little help from her grandmother’s wardrobe, a shy kid from Oakland became a one-named icon.

Zendaya would get lost in that closet, nudging the silky slip dresses off their hangers. She tried them on, pretending they were fancy ballgowns.

“My grandmother would take out her vintage jewelry and then we would paint her nails the same color of her shoes to match her outfit for church,” recalls the 27-year-old star of the new movie “Challengers” and host of the May 6 Met Gala.

All that multigenerational childhood dress-up paid off.

“Those are memories that I will treasure forever,” the soft-spoken actress says. She is a global star now with roles in HBO’s “Euphoria,” the “Dune” and “Spider-Man” film franchises, and a new tennis movie that is serving up buzz.

In “Challengers,” Zendaya plays Tashi, a former tennis prodigy turned coach who is hitched to a champion player (Mike Faist) who finds himself on a losing streak. When she attempts to help her husband reignite his career, he must face off against his former best friend and Tashi’s ex (Josh O’Connor).

The film, directed by Luca Guadagnino (“Call Me by Your Name”), hits theaters this weekend.

Zendaya says that all she knew of tennis going in were the names Serena and Venus, plus maybe Roger Federer.

“This was a character I had never read before … never seen before,” she explains. “She scared the s--- out of me. So, I was like, ‘Maybe I need to do this.’ The things that scare us are often the greatest challenge.

“I like something where I’m totally excited and equally terrified,” she adds.

Zendaya’s good life tips:

Don’t define everything

One reason why Zendaya identified with “Challengers” is that she doesn’t like to define things. “What kind of movie was it?” she recalls asking herself. “It was so funny, but I wouldn’t say it was a comedy. There was drama, but I wouldn’t say it was a drama. It had tennis, but it wasn’t just a sports movie. … You don’t have to define everything in life. Everything all at once can be terrifying, but equally exhilarating and exciting.”

It’s OK to get it wrong

To prep for “Challengers,” she trained with Brad Gilbert (now tennis star Coco Gauff’s coach) for several months, plus spent time working out in the gym to develop her game. “I call it summer camp. It was great,” Zendaya says. “We had six weeks before we actually started production to just work on tennis. Truthfully, I had no idea about tennis. I knew nothing. … I was driving myself crazy to become a tennis player, but at first all of my balls would go off into the trees. I never even got close to the court. And I was like, ‘Damn, I got a long way to go.’ ”

Serve and volley

The process was — like many things in life — one step forward, one step back, Zendaya says. “One day it clicks for you; the next you came in and you can’t do it. You can’t re-create the good day,” she says. “Back to square one. … One day I said, ‘I want to try to see what it feels like to return a hard serve. Hit me a real one.’ That thing flew by me so fast.” She laughs, “I’ve since had LASIK. I couldn’t even see the dang thing.”

‘Dance this thing out’

“And then came the ‘Eureka!’ moment. “Whatever I was doing wasn’t working, so I had to do something new,” Zendaya shares. “I started to think of tennis like choreography. I’m a dancer, so just let me dance this thing out. I’d record each tennis scene, watch it back and figure out how I could dance it a little better. Arms a little more … shoulders a little bit out … quicker on your feet, Z.’ I couldn’t be a tennis player, but I could fake it.”

Stay grounded

Zendaya counts her parents as role models. Even as her career heated up, she was still the one taking out the garbage and washing dishes. “My family wouldn’t allow me to be anything but a grounded human being,” she says. “If I thought even for a moment I was lifting off the ground, I had people who would grab my ankles.”

Make healthy choices

Even when she’s not doing a sporty film, Zendaya focuses on good, healthy habits. She says you find them even when you go out for a lot of dinners. The first time Zendaya met Guadagnino, it was at a fancy restaurant in L.A. “He helped me get the vegetarian options because I couldn’t speak Italian,” she recalls.

Push past it

“You have imposter syndrome. I have imposter syndrome,” she says. “It’s the inevitable question: Am I ever good enough? I still feel it, but I push past it.”

Accept the inevitable

Zendaya dates “Spider-Man” star Tom Holland. She knows when they’re together that the paparazzi will go crazy. “Parts of my life, I accept, are going to be public,” she says. “I can’t not be a person and live my life and love the person I love.”

Take a compliment

Zendaya says that one of her career highlights was when Hugh Jackman said she had what it takes. “Wolverine called me a badass,” she says. “It was a great moment that I remembered to get over my fear of heights.”

Know you’re perfect

“All of us run around trying to be perfect,” she says. “I like to think that you’re perfect at being you. I’m perfect at being me.”

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