How Zendaya’s Assistant Darnell Appling Got Cast in ‘Challengers’

Director Luca Guadagnino apparently saw a “strong spirit of truth and justice” in the rising talent

Darnell Appling attends the L.A. premiere of "Challengers"
Darnell Appling attends the L.A. premiere of "Challengers" (Credit: Stewart Cook/Getty Images for Amazon MGM Studios)

Zendaya’s longtime assistant Darnell Appling thought he was just getting his starlet boss a coffee. Then, Luca Guadagnino cast him as a prominent role in “Challengers.”

Playing the umpire in the “Challengers” scenes involving Phil’s Tire Town Tennis Tournament — a central set piece that reunites Josh O’Connor’s Patrick Zweig and Mike Faist’s Art Donaldson in a climactic match as Zendaya’s Tashi Donaldson watches from the stands — Appling told Vulture at the film’s Los Angeles premiere how he ended up landing the on-camera gig.

What originally was just a check-in to see if Zendaya needed a beverage ended up getting the attention of Guadagnino, who apparently said that he sensed a “strong spirit of truth and justice” in the now-rising talent.

“I went in and asked Zendaya if she needed a coffee or anything or if she was good. They were doing a camera test and she said she was OK,” Appling told Vulture at the “Challengers” premiere. “I walked out and next thing I know Zendaya came running out after me and was like ‘Hey, they want you to sit in the umpire chair.’”

Appling thought he was just going to be a stand-in for Zendaya — something he’d done a number of times before. That changed when Guadagnino walked up to him and offered him the role.

“I go sit there and I came down and Luca asked me. He was like, ‘I think you have a strong spirit of truth and justice and I was wondering if you could play the umpire,’” Appling said. “Zendaya was like, ‘Yes, absolutely yes!’ And then I was like, ‘Yeah, OK yes. Let’s do it.’ It was all Luca, who’s seen my aura I guess and what is surrounding me.”

“Challengers” is out now in theaters and took the No. 1 spot at the box office in it’s opening weekend. The film also earned the second-highest release for an original R-rated drama since the COVID shutdown, behind only 2022’s “Don’t Worry Darling.”

Zendaya, O’Connor and Faist star in the tennis drama as a sordid love triangle over the span of 13 years.


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