‘Challengers’ Interview: Jake Jensen On Working With Zendaya And The Psychology Of Tennis

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One of the most explosive releases of this year, with high anticipation and a star-studded triumvirate, Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers is “a love triangle where all corners touch”. Riding off the high from tennis-centred films like King Richard (2021) and Battle of the Sexes (2017)—both critically-acclaimed—this new entry from the Call Me by Your Name director highlights the psychological warfare of love, loss, and tennis.

Starring Euphoria star Zendaya alongside BAFTA-nominated actor Mike Faist and The Crown’s Josh O’Connor, the feature cannot be more packed with talent and exciting dynamics. The magic this trio of stars can make alongside Guadagnino’s direction has limitless potential.

Amidst all the awe and praise for such a powerhouse cast is Jake Jensen, sports-psychologist-turned-actor, who plays challenger Finn Larsen. Jensen began his film and TV career with the aforementioned King Richard. He will hit the screens again in the upcoming independent film Believe. He’s also a former player within the Challengers circuit and is therefore well-versed in the world of tennis.

The Indiependent caught up with the actor to talk about all things Challengers, his friendship with Josh O’Connor, and the psychology of tennis beyond the love triangle in the film.

Challengers (2024) © Warner Bros. Pictures

To start us off with, can you please tell us about your role in Challengers?

Jake Jensen: I play a Scandinavian tennis player on the Challengers circuit. Basically, [in the film] I’m trash-talking one of the main characters in the locker room. I’m not the guy you want to play, let’s put it that way.

The Challengers circuit is kind of the minor league of professional tennis; there’s not a lot of prize money but it’s a way to build your ranking in the sport. Players use it to improve their rankings. Sometimes, there are players that were in the top 100 but have had an injury and moved down. I played in the Challengers circuit right after college, so I totally understand the dynamics of those tournaments and what they’re like.

What was the audition process like for this film? How did you find out about the project and how did you feel when you got the part?

JJ: My agent sent me the audition and I fit the look perfectly. They wanted a Scandinavian accent—I have a Danish background but I don’t speak Danish—so I worked with a voice coach and just had a lot of fun with it. I remember submitting the self-tape and thinking “I’ve really got this role!” But then I didn’t hear anything for six weeks. I was on my way to LAX when my agent called me and said, “You got the role! Are you available these dates?” So I was like, “Of course I’m available!” They flew me to Boston and I was there for about ten days. It was great to have it actually happen.

Do you think this film is a good showcase of the psychology of sports and the inner workings of an athlete beyond the action taking place?

JJ: I haven’t seen [the finished product] yet, so I can’t fully speak on it. But from a sports perspective, I think the characters have been really good. Zendaya’s character becomes a coach and she forces her player to go back to the Challengers circuit. That’s realistic of what happens: your rankings drop, you’re not performing well and you have to step back. [Based on that alone], a lot of the psychology and the ups and downs of the sport are captured really well in the film.

© Warner Bros. Pictures

How important of a role does tennis play in Challengers? Is it more than just an accessory for the love triangle seen in the trailers?

JJ:  I think it plays an even bigger role than the trailers indicate in the story. They did everything they could to make it look as realistic as possible. Brad Gilbert, who’s a huge tennis coach and commentator, was on set directing every little detail of the tennis parts, and they brought in a bunch of stand-ins who were very good tennis players and had played on the Challengers circuit. As a tennis player, I can notice if somebody looks like they’ve never played tennis before. For me, those details are really important. From what I could tell, they really crossed all the Ts on making sure tennis looks legit in the film. 

While filming, did you have any downtime or chance to play the sport with the rest of the cast?

JJ: Zendaya was also a producer so she was in full producer mode when we were shooting. I talked to her and said “hi”, but I definitely hung out more with the rest of the cast. It was fun because I know the world of the Challengers circuit so well. Some of them were asking me questions about it, which was cool.

Who were the cast members that came up to you for advice? What kind of advice did you give them?

JJ: I talked with Josh [O’Connor] because he didn’t really know anything about tennis before filming. He even had to learn how to score. We did a crash course in what a three-set match can look like, the scoring and the tie-break. I rode on the bus everyday with Josh so that gave us a bit of time to chat. He was obviously learning as much as he could as fast as he could. But there are a lot of details in any sport to try and pick up and learn. I think the more he felt he could get, the better job he could do for his character.

While you were on set, who do you think out of the trio—Josh O’Connor, Zendaya and Mike Faist—picked up the sport the best?

JJ: I think Zendaya picked it up the best, and Mike was definitely picking it up faster than Josh. All three of them were working really hard to get their strokes, and get the look of playing tennis and having been professional tennis players. Zendaya was pretty amazing. She’s obviously quick at picking up a skill, and is very athletic.

Photo: Jake Jensen

What are your thoughts on tennis being showcased in a highly-anticipated film like this—especially starring someone like Zendaya?

JJ: I just think we need more tennis films that are good. Over the years, I don’t think there’s been enough that really captures not only the professionalism of tennis but also shows that whole world and its culture. King Richard did a good job with that; so did Battle of the Sexes. Tennis films are getting better and better, and it’s nice to see people like Zendaya and Lucas Guadagnino [be invested] in our sport.

With this film being delayed because of the strikes, do you think it bodes well for growing the sport’s fanbase ahead of the Olympics?

JJ: What’s so interesting about tennis is that it’s such an international sport. You’ve got players from all over the world competing. That’s what the Olympics is all about: bringing the world together in competition. I was sad to see the film be delayed from last fall. But the fact that it’s an Olympic year will actually help the film do even better. People tend to watch more sports and get excited about them during the Olympic years.

Let’s talk about your other film Believe. Can you tell us what that’s about?

JJ: It’s an interesting film; putting it into one genre or another is very hard. I’d say it’s a romantic, fantasy drama. My character plays an Afghanistan veteran who’s pretty traumatised by the war. He goes back to California and sees a therapist who he ends up falling in love with. The first half of the film is very much this romantic drama, but there’s a mystery about the therapist, Evelyn, that my character can’t quite figure out. She disappears and seems like she can’t commit. At first, I think it’s because she’s my therapist and there’s obviously that challenge there. But then I find out that she’s actually Eve—from the Bible. She has been roaming the earth for thousands of years helping people, and the first human being she has fallen in love with is my character.

Believe (2024) © Cineplex Studios

We have to navigate this whole fantasy [aspect of the relationship]. It obviously throws my character for a loop to find out the woman he’s in love with is thousands of years old. How do you even manage a relationship between a mortal and an immortal? The director and writer worked fourteen years on the script; it was a real passion project for him. I booked the lead and ultimately got involved as an executive producer. After a two-and-a-half year journey with the film, I’m really excited and proud of it. I can see it get labelled as religious; although that’s obviously a part of it, it’s also so much more than that.

Did watching how Zendaya worked as both actor and producer in Challengers help with the duality of your role and your approach to Believe?

JJ: I have a huge respect for balancing those roles. There’s one scene [from Believe] that I showed my mum a few months ago and she was like, “Wow, you look terrible!” She doesn’t usually say that but I do remember shooting that day. I was doing so many different things, I was stressed and you can see it. It worked for the scene and character, but it was just funny that my mum picked up on it.

I have a huge respect for somebody like Zendaya who could balance being the lead in the film and having that producer role. It’s a skill I don’t think every actor has and she handled it brilliantly.

Challengers is in cinemas from Friday 26 April

Words by Mae Trumata


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