GAME, SEX, MATCH
EMMA STONE AND THE TENNIS FIXTURE THAT CHANGED THE WORLD
Emma Stone had many anxieties about becoming Billie Jean King for her new film, Battle of the Sexes. She would be playing a real person for the first time. A public figure. An athlete. Someone admirable yet vulnerable. “I didn’t want to be doing an impersonation or an impression of her in any way,” she says. “I wish in every way I could be an exact match for her, but I think that the most important part of the story is her heart and her spirit. If I could bring any of that to life, I felt that was the biggest part of my job.”
There were things she found she could identify with in the figure of King. Self-doubt. A painstaking approach to performance. A passion for doing something you love. And the sense of how difficult it is to bridge the gap between a public and a private life.
And she was struck, she says, by something else they had in common. She is almost the same age as King was during the events the film depicts, and that means “I can relate to so many of the feelings I think she’s having”.
Battle of the Sexes is set in 1973, and it revolves around a famous tennis match between champion Billie Jean King, then aged 29, and former champion Bobby Riggs, then 55 years old. The game was driven by Riggs, a gambler and showman, who declared that the best woman in the world would not be able to beat him. He turned the challenge into a media circus, a spectacle played out in front of a celebrity crowd and a television audience of 90 million.
The match is only part of the movie. It’s also the tale of a movement for change, an account of how women players — offered one-eighth of the men’s prize money — defied the male tennis establishment and set up a tour of their own. And it’s a story of what else was happening to King behind the scenes.
It’s about public stances and private lives, emotions and secrets, solitude and desire.
As the focus was on the future of women’s tennis, King had other things on her mind. She had fallen in love with another woman. She had begun a relationship with Marilyn Barnett, a hairdresser she had met on tour. She was married; she had conservative parents; she felt that, in the climate of the time, she had to keep this relationship a secret.
“The pressure,” says Stone, “was a huge element for me to try to communicate. That struggle with her sexuality and what the implications were at that time, and being married, and all of the things that come along with that.”
The challenge, she says, is “keeping that thread of the tension and pressure alive throughout the film. For her, being out in the world and trying to be true to herself was a very scary prospect.”
Stone came to Battle of the Sexes straight after her Oscar-winning role in La La Land. She had already done singing and dancing bootcamp for the musical numbers for that movie. Now she had to spend four months working out — with Matt Damon’s Bourne series trainer — to acquire an athlete’s physique. No one was going to turn her into a tennis player, but she had to look and move like one.
Battle of the Sexes was developed by producer Christian Colson in conjunction with screenwriter Simon Beaufoy and director Danny Boyle, who had worked together on 127 Hours and Slumdog Millionaire. When Boyle had to drop out to work on another film, the producers turned to directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, the husband-and-wife team who made Little Miss Sunshine and Ruby Sparks.
For Faris, the external and internal elements of the story were equally important. “When we first met with Emma, we said: ‘This is a very physical role, we really want you to feel what it’s like to live inside an athlete’s body.’ It’s important that is there, as well as the internal life, which we knew Emma would get.
“We talked a lot about each scene, what each
one was about and what it would feel like, to make sure we were all seeing the story in the same way.”
King, now 73, is credited as a consultant on the film. She was a resource in various ways for the filmmakers. “It was both a luxury but also a huge responsibility to have her looking over our shoulder,” says Dayton. Beaufoy spent a long time with her, admires her deeply, and counts her as a friend.
Stone met King and talked to her, but was very cautious about how much use to make of that opportunity. What she didn’t need, Stone says, was the benefit of hindsight. She didn’t want to draw on King’s memories of her past.
“I was nervous about relying on her too much. She could say: ‘ Oh, that was why I did this, that was why that happened.’ But in the moment, you don’t know why.”
Stone wanted her version of the character to have a sense of immediacy, to convey what it was like to be that person at that extraordinary, chaotic moment in 1973, when the public realm and her private world were both in turmoil. “I felt it was my responsibility to stay true to that element,” she says.
And there was another risk in spending time with King, she adds. “If I got too close to her, I would end up wanting to please her.”
What King was able to give her was a way of thinking about tennis in a performer’s terms. “Billie Jean is such an incredible coach, and she instantly keyed into me. She said: ‘Well, you’re a dancer.’ ” Stone says wryly: “I told her, ‘Well, some could argue that I’m not, but I have danced.’ And she said: ‘Well, this is my dance, this is my stage, that’s where I perform, I go out there and I do my choreography and I improvise and visualise everything, I know what I’m trying to do. And I feel the exact same way as I think you do on the stage.’
“It was really interesting to apply those lessons of blocking out the rest of the world and focusing clearly and imagining where you want to go and trying to follow through to that point, whether it’s where you put the ball on the court or what your emotional intention for a scene is.”
Beaufoy thinks that Stone has undergone a remarkable transformation. “There’s a kind of determination behind the eyes that I had never seen in one of Emma’s performances before. She’s very mercurial by nature on screen, but not in this. She has this look in her eye that says: I will not be stopped.”
Battle of the Sexes begins with an uncharacteristic depiction of a sporting moment. An impressionistic, immersive combination of image and audio: the blurred figure of a tennis player, the sound of breath, the thwack of racquet on ball. Sound design was a very important way for the film to create a sense of intimacy: “We all know what a close-up is in film,” Dayton says. “It’s a visual thing. But it can be an audio thing too.’’
This scene told the audience something about what was to follow. “People were on some level expecting Battle of the Sexes to be a sports movie,” Dayton says, “and we wanted to set the discourse in such a way that it felt it wasn’t going to be your typical sports film.”
He and Faris didn’t want a sense of nostalgia or historical distance. “We wanted it to feel like a contemporary film,’’ he says. “You are not looking back. No cute shots of bell-bottoms. We treated it as if it were made in 1973. We used zoom lenses, we went as far as we could to put you in a movie that was made at that time.”
Within that context, it was important to get to know a range of characters, to define the time through interaction. “For us, the relationships are part of a way that we shape the movie, you get to know the characters by their relation- ships to the other characters.”
For Faris, “one thing we kept returning to was that we wanted to make the love story in a way that we could feel that desire. It was the part of the story that hadn’t been told, but we really wanted it to come through.”
Barnett — played by Andrea Riseborough — cut and styled King’s hair for a photoshoot on tour. They were instantly attracted to one another and began a covert relationship.
Their first encounter has the same kind of immersive quality as the opening sequence of the film. Stone loves the scene, “the way you sort of enter into their minds”, and how it creates a sense of “what it feels like to be magnetically drawn to someone”.
Riseborough, a chameleon actor, played opposite Stone in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s
Birdman. Stone played Michael Keaton’s daughter, Riseborough her love.
Riseborough’s transformative quality, Faris says, “was partly what we loved about her. There are many reasons we cast her, but one was because she could disappear into that role. We just wanted you to be caught up in Billie Jean’s view, and I think it will take you out of the scene if it was somebody too recognisable.”
The relationship between Barnett and King did not end well. Battle of the Sexes gives no hint of this, however. “Its story took place in a very limited time period, and it was very important to portray her as a positive force,” Faris says. Dayton adds: “Because at that time she was. Things changed.”
Stone, Beaufoy, Faris and Dayton all talk about the isolation at the heart of tennis. “It’s such a solo thing,” Stone says. The player is alone on court. No contact with coaches or advisers. “You have to be strong mentally and physically,” Beaufoy says. “It’s a lonely place. You spend all that time in a great wide space on your own, at some distance from your opponent. There’s no place to hide, you can’t blame a teammate.”
When it came to filming the match, the so-called “Battle of the Sexes” in the Houston Astrodome, they carefully incorporated the commentary of the time.
In the end, the match is shot very much in the style of a contemporary broadcast — but what’s just as important is what happens around the game. They wanted to find a way to show how they saw King in the moments beforehand, and in the aftermath.
What’s not necessarily clear at this stage is King’s attitude towards her opponent. Stone says King respected Riggs. “She still talks about that, she studied him, she didn’t take it lightly — even though he was 55 and popping 400 vitamins and acting ridiculously about it all.”
Riggs is played by Steve Carell, whom Faris and Dayton worked with in Little Miss Sunshine. Carell embraces the singularity of Riggs — his love of the hustle, his instincts for the spectacle. The film also depicts his long-suffering, ultimately supportive, family.
“We didn’t want to reduce him to a bad guy,” says Dayton. “Or for that matter a clown. Billie Jean is the first person to say what an important figure he was in her life.” They became great friends, Beaufoy says — King recognised that his persona, his claim to be “putting the show in chauvinism”, was an act.
In general, Faris says, they did not want to create “good guys and bad guys”, even as they evoked the condescension and sexism that was an accepted part of the culture. “We wanted to diffuse the binary nature of these kinds of arguments, raise the issues and get a conversation going. And I think because politics have become so polarised these days, we weren’t adding fuel to that.”
It was the same, she says, for the figure of Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), who joined the women’s tour after the early stages. She’s shown displaying a competitive relationship with King on and off the court, and a suspicious attitude towards the sexuality of other women players on the tour. She articulates some of what King feared would be said if her relationship was made public.
Court has another role to play in this story. She accepted a challenge from Riggs when King would not, and she lost, in a match that was dubbed the “Mother’s Day Massacre”. It was this result that forced King to take on the Battle of the Sexes — she found herself carrying the banner for women’s sport in a way that she was not entirely comfortable with. “She was very concerned that she was belittling women’s tennis,” Faris says. Having taken up the challenge, she had to embrace the hoopla.
In their depiction of Court, Faris says, they wanted to give a context. “She would never have called herself a feminist, but she’s supporting her family, she’s a working mother. And yet she’s this bigot.” The figures in this story, she says, are not easily summed up. “They are complex characters, not cliches.”
Battle of the Sexes opens on September 28.
Emma Stone, top, and as Billie Jean King, left, with Steve Carrell as Bobby Riggs
Andrea Riseborough and Stone, left; King and Riggs, inset below; and Stone and Ryan Gosling in La La Land, bottom