“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
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.