“You con­stantly have to chal­lenge”

Ac­tor Jes­sica Mc­namee talks about por­tray­ing con­tro­ver­sial ten­nis leg­end Mar­garet Court on the big screen – and wag­ing her own bat­tle of the sexes off­screen

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - Stellar - - Contents - Pho­tog­ra­phy DAMIAN BENNETT Styling GEMMA KEIL In­ter­view ADRI­ENNE TAM

Ac­tor Jes­sica Mc­namee on play­ing con­tro­ver­sial ten­nis player Mar­garet Court in a new film and tak­ing on Hol­ly­wood’s no­to­ri­ous boys’ club.

“I’m sick of be­ing in a city, in a town, in an in­dus­try, where women are un­der-rep­re­sented”

Jes­sica Mc­namee is a good sport. She’s stand­ing atop a rather flimsy chair in­side a Syd­ney photo stu­dio, dressed in a fig­ure-hug­ging black dress and heels. At the re­quest of Stel­lar’s pho­tog­ra­pher, she drops down into the clas­sic Thinker pose, laugh­ing at the oc­ca­sional ab­sur­dity of her job.

Once the photo shoot is done and she’s back in her jeans and top, she prac­ti­cally runs to the ket­tle and asks who wants a cup of tea. There are no airs and graces ra­di­at­ing from the 31-yearold, de­spite the fact she’s in the midst of pro­mot­ing the big­gest role of her ca­reer, play­ing Aus­tralian ten­nis champ Mar­garet Court – along­side this year’s Os­car win­ner Emma Stone and Steve Carell – in Bat­tle Of The Sexes.

To film buffs, an­other im­me­di­ate ob­ser­va­tion made of Mc­namee is how much she looks like ac­tor Rachel Mca­dams. The pair had a chance to laugh about their re­sem­blance when they teamed up for 2012’s The Vow – Mc­namee’s first Hol­ly­wood role. In that film, of course, they played sis­ters.

It is a part she knows well. She’s one of five – the youngest of four sis­ters, fol­lowed by a lit­tle brother, who she cred­its with help­ing her re­alise her act­ing dream, even if he did so by de­fault. “I grew up do­ing mu­si­cal theatre,” Mc­namee tells Stel­lar. “I’d do mu­si­cals at my brother’s school be­cause theatre wasn’t big at my school – at all. But I never thought of act­ing as a ca­reer un­til a teacher from the boys’ school took me aside and told me I should con­sider it.”

She took the ad­vice. She de­ferred univer­sity, en­rolled in act­ing classes and found work al­most im­me­di­ately. As is seem­ingly the rite of pas­sage for Aussie ac­tors, she was cast on Home And Away in 2007 – then sub­se­quently killed off via a car ac­ci­dent. “My body dou­ble in the fi­nal scene where I was dead looked noth­ing like me!” she de­clares with a laugh.

She wasn’t the only one of her sib­lings to en­ter the pro­fes­sion – her sis­ter Penny is also an ac­tor, and cur­rently star­ring in… Home And Away. Was Penny in­ter­ested in any help­ful tips about be­ing on the Aussie soap? “Penny didn’t re­ally want ad­vice,” re­veals Mc­namee. “It’s a whole new ex­pe­ri­ence for her. It’s her thing. So I let her do her thing. And I do my own.”

In 2008, she was cast as good girl Sammy Rafter in pop­u­lar TV drama Packed To The Rafters. It’s the role most pun­ters know her for. But she grew itchy with the part, and found her­self wish­ing to play meatier char­ac­ters. In the mid­dle of her run, she did a stint on Danc­ing With The Stars. It isn’t a gig she re­mem­bers with pride. “It’s that thing I al­ways hope peo­ple don’t fig­ure out about me,” Mc­namee ad­mits. “No-one knows. It’s just that Google al­ways throws me un­der the bus.”

In the midst of Rafters – “where it was all fairly sunshine and roses” – Mc­namee made a film called The Loved Ones. “I played this gothic, messed-up, re­ally dark char­ac­ter, which is so not what I usu­ally play. That was a re­ally cool ex­pe­ri­ence.” It con­vinced her to move on; by the end of 2010, she walked away from the role that made her a house­hold name.

For a spell, Mc­namee came close to be­com­ing a WAG – in 2012, she started dat­ing AFL player Scott Thomp­son of the Ade­laide Crows. At that year’s award cer­e­mony, she ad­mit­ted that, “I didn’t know what the Brown­low was two months ago.” The re­la­tion­ship co­in­cided with an in­crease in con­sis­tent over­seas work for Mc­namee, and even­tu­ally came to an end. But per­haps her brush with sport sparked some­thing in her, as she’s now play­ing against type once more as Court in Bat­tle Of The Sexes.

The film is based on the well-known 1973 ten­nis match be­tween Bil­lie Jean King (Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Carell), which marked a turn­ing point in the world of ten­nis. The part was not an easy ask for Mc­namee, who trained an hour a day, five days a week, for two months lead­ing up to the shoot. Mc­namee’s par­ents ac­tu­ally have a ten­nis court at their fam­ily home, though she says all seven mem­bers are “lazy com­peti­tors” of the sport. In any case, what proved harder than nail­ing the game was fig­ur­ing out how to cor­rectly mimic Court’s style of play. Ba­si­cally, Mc­namee had to “un­learn” what she thought she knew about

ten­nis, and then act out the game in a way that can con­vince au­di­ences she plays like a leg­endary pro­fes­sional.

The role pre­sented an­other chal­lenge. In May, long af­ter film­ing on Sexes had wrapped, Court wrote a let­ter to The West Aus­tralian de­nounc­ing Qan­tas for its sup­port of same-sex mar­riage, and vowed she’d boy­cott the com­pany in protest. The let­ter – as well as com­ments she made in fol­low-up in­ter­views – gar­nered global at­ten­tion, with some call­ing for the Mar­garet Court Arena in Mel­bourne to be re­named.

Mc­namee quickly made known her stance on the is­sue, post­ing an In­sta­gram photo along­side Stone that she cap­tioned, “This ‘Mar­garet Court’ be­lieves in mar­riage equal­ity and sup­ports any cor­po­ra­tion that does the same.” But de­spite their off­screen dif­fer­ences, Mc­namee tells Stel­lar she strove to keep care­ful stew­ard­ship over Court’s sport­ing legacy for the film.

“The hardest thing about play­ing her was that I wor­ried about por­tray­ing her as a vil­lain­ess. I was wor­ried we wouldn’t be show­ing her in the best light and that it might be con­tro­ver­sial.

“Then she came out with these re­marks and now I think we showed her in quite a nice light. It was quite diplo­matic – that’s prob­a­bly the best word – be­cause we could have pushed the bound­aries fur­ther with how much she was anti all this at the time. Her com­ing out and say­ing that stuff jus­ti­fied my per­for­mance, which sat bet­ter with me as an ac­tress.”

Be­tween projects, Mc­namee chips away at a Bach­e­lor of Arts de­gree through Open Uni­ver­si­ties Aus­tralia. The on­line na­ture of the course ac­com­mo­dates her hec­tic sched­ule and her ma­jor – cre­ative writ­ing – is a nod to what she hopes will be a fu­ture

in screen­writ­ing, with a par­tic­u­lar em­pha­sis on ad­dress­ing what she sees as a gen­der im­bal­ance in Hol­ly­wood.

“I’m very much an ad­vo­cate for women’s sto­ries,” Mc­namee ex­plains. “I’m sick of be­ing in a city, in a town, in an in­dus­try, where we’re un­der­rep­re­sented. That’s a huge passion of mine. I’m not ready right now to direct but I want to cre­ate my own con­tent, par­tic­u­larly be­cause I keep read­ing scripts where I’m the ‘girl­friend of’.”

She wants to do this for “the next generation, and the generation af­ter that… to tell more fe­male sto­ries, be­cause we’re not see­ing them right now”.

The ac­tor has also fin­ished shoot­ing Meg, a shark thriller with ac­tion hero Ja­son Statham, due out next year. While she en­joyed the shoot, which took place in New Zealand, she again found her­self bat­tling to en­sure her char­ac­ter wasn’t merely writ­ten off as eye candy.

“I was cast for my phys­i­cal com­edy, but ba­si­cally ev­ery­one in­volved in the pro­duc­tion was a man, and so af­ter ev­ery ta­ble read, I’d have to say, ‘I’m not tak­ing my clothes off again’, ‘I am not comedic in this’, ‘I am just ser­vic­ing the male roles’, ‘This is not what I signed up for’. The boys never had to go and do that. That’s what it’s like, con­stantly, as a woman in the busi­ness. You con­stantly have to chal­lenge what you’re be­ing given. Par­tic­u­larly if it’s writ­ten by men.”

Mc­namee en­joys re­turn­ing home to Aus­tralia, but re­veals that when she’s here, she feels pres­sure to set­tle down and start a fam­ily. In LA, on the other hand, she says she suf­fers from slight Peter Pan Syn­drome. Per­haps ow­ing to her time with Thomp­son, which put her in the head­lines for her ro­mance, she’s loath to re­veal her part­ner’s name or talk about him at length. Still, she ac­knowl­edges one key as­pect of his char­ac­ter.

“He’s a fem­i­nist,” she smiles, giv­ing a glimpse of the same con­vic­tion that drove King to bat­tle Riggs at the net. “I wouldn’t be with him oth­er­wise.” Bat­tle Of The Sexes opens in cine­mas na­tion­ally on Septem­ber 28.

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