Mike Faist. Photography via Focus Features

AFTER FILMING WRAPPED on Challengers, Luca Guadagnino’s recent sexy drama about a tennis-playing love triangle, Mike Faist — who, along with Zendaya and Josh O’Connor, forms the entangled trio — decided to take a break. The 32-year-old actor, who splits his time between New York and Ohio, had planned to drive around the US with his dog and spend time with his friends and family, to “allow myself to be bored”, as he puts it. But then, director Jeff Nichols called.

The film that Nichols, writer-director of Mud (2013) and Loving (2016), wanted to talk about was The Bikeriders, a drama inspired by the book of the same name by American photo-journalist Danny Lyon, depicting the time he spent with the Chicago Outlaws Motorcycle Club in the 1960s. Faist was to play Lyon, which felt serendipitous: Zendaya had got him into photography on the set of Challengers, and he had recently bought a camera. “These things coincide with one another, at this perfect time,” he notes, when we meet in Claridge’s hotel in Mayfair, the day after the London premiere of Guadagnino’s film.

Faist visited Lyon and his wife in Maine, where they spent the day fishing. Lyon told him stories about his career — he had photographed key moments during the civil-rights movement — and they took photos together (Faist has “wonderful prints” from that weekend). Faist’s role in The Bikeriders is removed from the action, an observer documenting the frequently thrilling and often dangerous ways of gang members, who are played by stars including Austin Butler, Tom Hardy and Michael Shannon. “I viewed myself to be on the opposite side of the camera almost, just sitting there and watching these actors,” he says. “I wanted to see what their processes were and to see their psychologies a little bit.”

It would be fair to say that Faist has an unusual — and, at times, refreshingly unfiltered — take on his profession. He was born and raised in Ohio by adoptive parents and later moved to New York to pursue a stage career. Almost as soon as he started drama school, he dropped out and auditioned for plays while working part-time. His breakout came in 2015 with the all-singing, all-brooding role of school bully Connor Murphy in hit musical Dear Evan Hansen. He was nominated for a Tony for the performance, though wisely did not sign up for the widely mocked movie adaptation.

Instead, he was cast in Steven Spielberg’s 2021 adaptation of West Side Story as Riff, the leader of the Jets. That was the perfect showcase for Faist’s talents: balletic, unpredictable, gritty. Among a starry cast, he was a standout. “I was nervous about going into that process, because of the Spielberg of it all, and because of the Hollywood of it all,” Faist says now. But it turned out to be an “awakening”: “Steven never made me feel I needed to ask permission to do anything. It was more just, ‘What do you have to offer today?’”

In Challengers, Faist continued to make just what he has to offer perfectly clear. As Art, the husband of former tennis prodigy Tashi (Zendaya), he brought his sinewy physicality and charisma to the most, well, challenging of the three roles. Art is stuck in a rut and, in the hopes of an easy win, Tashi, now his coach, signs him up to a challenger tournament where he ends up facing his former best friend and love rival Patrick (Josh O’Connor).

challengers mike faist

To get into shape for Challengers, Faist enlisted the help of a personal trainer, a nutritionist and tennis pro JJ Wolf. Then he travelled to Boston and enrolled in a boot camp for six weeks alongside Zendaya and O’Connor. “It was just waking up at five in the morning, shovelling eight eggs down into your belly with a bowl of oatmeal, getting to the gym at six. And then just hitting, hitting, hitting, hitting.”

Faist had dabbled in the sport before, albeit briefly. “I played really terribly for one season in high school because I didn’t get into the school play,” he explains. No matter how short-lived, that experience clearly made him alert to the wider psychological aspects of the game. “I didn’t have the mental fortitude it requires just to remain tough and keep calm,” he says. “I’m far too emotional.” It’s another of the ways the inquisitive Faist brought his own perspective to Art. “I saw a craftsman who has a deep passion and ambition. And it’s gotten to a certain place where he keeps falling in and out of love with his craft,” he says. “And right now, he’s in a slump.”

Faist — who, despite his occasional efforts to disengage from his profession, is very much not in a slump — seems to be managing his emotions better these days. (He certainly isn’t overly stressed by industry pressures: while discussing how he picks roles, he asks me, “Honestly, who cares about acting?”) He likes to write — not unusual for an actor — but also has a pilot’s license, which is a little less ordinary. There is a good story there. When he was 17, he met his birth mother and two half-brothers. “My younger brothers are both pilots,” he explains. “They had their pilot’s licenses, and I was impressed with how young they were. And I thought maybe I could do it, too. So I just did it.” How does it feel when he’s up in the air? “I think I just get bored,” Faist says, as restless and insatiable as one of his on-screen characters. “I’m just like, ‘OK, I’ve done it. I’m ready to get down now.’”

The Bikeriders is in Australian cinemas from July 4.

A version of this article originally appeared on Esquire UK.

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