Playing tennis icon Margaret Court in her new film, Jessica McNamee reveals her immense admiration for the sports star – and her very different social views. By Cushla Chauhan.
Playing tennis icon Margaret Court, Jessica McNamee reveals her admiration for the sports star – and her very different social views.
It was fun to play this role and a departure for me, because I’m usually playing someone quite likeable and happy-go-lucky,” says Jessica McNamee of being cast as legendary Australian tennis player Margaret Court in Battle of the Sexes.
“I’m from quite a tennis-mad family,” she adds. “Margaret was one of my mum’s idols and my grandmother loved watching her play, so I knew a lot about her. On top of that, Valerie [Faris] and Jonathan [Dayton], the directors, are amazing, so when I knew they were at the helm and that Emma [Stone] and Steve [Carell] were attached, I was like: ‘This is not an opportunity I can pass up!’”
Having just spent 18 months shooting four films back to back, the LAbased actress is elated to be back home in Sydney, but will soon be returning to the States for the Battle of the Sexes promotional rollout.
The film is based on the true story of the 1973 tennis match between US tennis greats Billie Jean King (Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Carell), and explores the blatant sexism that prevailed at the time as well as King’s own sexual awakening. McNamee plays a young Margaret Court, who wasn’t on particularly friendly terms with King and her teammates during this period; Court caused a media furore earlier this year following her comments denouncing gay marriage.
“We shot before all the drama of her coming out against marriage equality, but even then we were very conscious of not making her look too villainous,” reveals McNamee, who nevertheless had to bring an aloof and disapproving demeanour to her character.
Although a strong advocate of marriage equality, McNamee believes that Court’s success as an athlete stands as distinct from her conservative take on marriage. When the story broke, however, it was a no-brainer for her to voice her opinion, which she did via Instagram, posting a photograph of herself dressed in character alongside Emma Stone, captioned: ‘This ‘Margaret Court’ believes in marriage equality …’
That controversy aside, the 70s style transformation required of being flung back in time for her part was a highlight of the experience, and provided an insight into the rampant misogyny so apparent at the time. “It’s unbelievable! It was just completely PC to be openly sexist,” she says, her beautiful green eyes widening.
The cast formed a tight-knit group during production, and after filming met for lunch with Billie Jean King herself, who was impressed with how on point the movie and portrayals were. McNamee laughs recalling her first introduction to King: “She walked in and was like: ‘I feel like I can’t look at you without being angry!’ She was joking, of course.”
Winning this part in a major Hollywood production may seem like a life-long dream come true, but as a child growing up in Sydney, McNamee never thought about acting as a career, despite her immersion into the world of musical theatre. “I loved it, but I hadn’t been like: ‘I’m going to be a movie star,” she says. It wasn’t until year 12 when an encouraging drama teacher suggested she consider it professionally that she decided to defer university and instead enrolled in acting classes.
The struggle to make it in the industry, she confesses, means the idea of throwing it all in is something she has contemplated often over the years. But at 31, she’s now more confident in her ability to secure regular work and easily holds her own next to stars such as Stone and Carell.
Right now though, McNamee is making the most of her down time by channelling her energy into a personal project. “I’ve been writing a script that I want to make, so I’m heavily focused on that,” she says.
She’s also savouring this homecoming. “I like living in LA, but I’m at the crossroads at the minute where I’m loving returning to Sydney,” she reflects. “I’ve got family, lots of nieces and nephews, and my partner lives here. Sometimes that side of work can be tough, but I never want to give it up.” Battle of the Sexes is in cinemas now.
JESSICA McNAMEE WEARS A LOEWE DRESS, $1,750. ELLERY EARRING, P.O. A. SARAH & SEBASTIAN RING, $1,050. MICHAEL KORS SHOES, $959.