One of the biggest sporting events in history is now one of the biggest movies to emerge at the start of awards season with Battle of the Sexes, the film from directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton which tells the story of the infamous tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. The film stars Oscar-winner Emma Stone as the legendary tennis star and Oscar-nominee Steve Carell as the chauvinistic opponent. At a recent press conference, those involved with the film spoke about the movie and how the sporting spectacle of 40 years ago still resonates today.
“I never think like that,” Billie Jean King said of that famous moment in her life being turned into a feature film having already been a TV movie in 2001. “To me, everything that happens is a blessing. First of all, it’s about relationships. When Holly [Hunter] did the TV movie she and Gordon became best friends. That, to me, is everything and all these things that have happened to me this weekend are a blessing in my life. I never thought about a movie movie. We’ve had people come to us over the years about it but this one was perfect.”
Fresh off her Oscar win for La La Land, Emma Stone steps into the shoes of Billie Jean King and there’s already chatter that the acclaimed actress stands a chance of repeating with her role as the tennis star.
“I had never played a real person before, much less someone like Billie Jean. So I wasn’t sure what my process was going to need to be, so when I met her she was so wonderful and Illana, her partner, they were so welcoming to me,” the actress said of her preparation. “Billie Jean made it open very early on that she would be open to whatever process we kind of needed to go through in order to bring this whole thing to fruition. We threw some balls around on the tennis court and I quickly realized that I wanted to watch a lot of footage of her from the time period and read a lot about her then because she is so fully formed now and able to talk about all of this with closure and hindsight and a lot – she could just see it more clearly than she could at age 29. I ended up doing a lot of research on her in that very specific timeframe.”
Even though Stone had showed that she’s fleet on her feet in her Oscar-winning performance in the musical, she faced a whole new challenge by stepping into a pair of tennis shoes to play a legend on the court.
“I had never played tennis. I’m not particularly good at tennis,” Stone said with laugh. “I took a lot of lessons but I also had an incredible professional double named Kaitlyn Christian, who was phenomenal, and an amazing coach Vince Spadea and a great trainer bulking me up. I was surrounded – I had Billie Jean throwing balls at me and letting me mirror her and figure out all the details. I was surrounded by a team of massive support when it came to that element, because so much of the story is about her personal journey, her personal struggle, but had this been the Billie Jean Tennis Story, I’d have never gotten the part. It was such an incredible team. They made it possible.”
Battle of the Sexes is a reunion of sorts, reuniting star Steve Carell with his directors from Little Miss Sunshine, Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton.
“We decided that we’ll only make a movie together every 10 years, so he’s preparing for the next one,” Faris said with a tinge of sarcasm.
“Fully nude next time,” Carell interjected, riffing on his nude scene in Battle of the Sexes where he recreates a picture of Bobby Riggs covered only by a tennis racquet.
“We have since [Little Miss Sunshine] we’ve been looking for the right thing to do with Steve,” Dayton said of working with Carell again. “It was, I cannot tell you how fun it was to work together again, and to be able to have a character that could highlight all that Steve brings to a part. We all knew the funny kind of character that Bobby was publically, but what was exciting to us was the private side of Bobby. That’s where Steve showed his range.”
Carell relished in taking on a role as complex as Bobby Riggs, who on one end was a chauvinistic showman and on the other hiding some deep-seated pain. “As Jonathan was saying, there’s, you know, there’s that public persona, then there’s this guy that no one really knew,” Carell said of his role. “I remember watching when I started doing research – there’s a great 60 Minutes interview with him and he’s doing his thing, he’s playing his character. It’s this spiel but the conversation came around to his wife and talking about how they’ve recently separated. ‘She’s better off without me. She’s a great woman, the best.’ But there was even within all of that bravado and that crazy over-the-top nature of his you could see this pain that he was suffering through. To me, that was the root of what I was going for. There was thing public thing but even in his public persona you could see the pain and sort of the complexity that was lying underneath it all.”
Getting that distinct ‘70s look for his character had its own set of complication for the actor. “I read one review for this movie that talked about how bad my wig was, and it’s my real hair,” Carell said with a big laugh and smile. “I grew out my hair and I grew these massive chops and actually used the same – because Bobby Riggs, he was such a self-promoter I think he wanted to get a deal with Clairol because he always mentioned, ‘I always use Clairol number 87,’ and I think he was trying to get Clairol to support him, to sponsor him. He was always looking for an angle. I used the same color, which kind of an orangey-brown and grew these sideburns, which he didn’t dye, so those were grey and my hair was orangey-brown and then me and my wife and my kids went on vacation before we shot and they didn’t want to be seen with me. I have to say it did sort of effect my love life with my wife.”
In a way, Bobby Riggs brought the pro-wrestling showman ship to the sport of tennis, using the match to raise his profile and inject himself into the national conversation. “He created a character. I think he saw what was happening in the zeitgeist and decided to try and profit from it, really. I don’t think, correct me if I’m wrong and who knows, I don’t think cared much about politics. I don’t think he had a foot in feminism or chauvinism. I think he just wanted to make some dough and promote himself,” Carell said.
“I think he had a chip on his shoulder because when he was a star, he didn’t get the money, he didn’t get the acclaim. It was the late ‘40s and tennis wasn’t a big deal. By this point, he was in his mid-50s, he was playing on the senior circuit, and he just wanted to have his due. He also specifically took a page from Muhammed Ali – it’s the same sort of thing: this bravado and this character, this creation,” Carell said of Bobby Riggs. “I maintain he just wasn’t that good an actor and that was his charm. You could tell all these things that he was espousing wasn’t true to his heart and I think that was a part of his charm. I was 11 at the time and I knew it was a put-on, and most people that I knew knew it was a put-on and that was part of what was charming about him because he was benign. You could tell the guys who were really saying these things and meant them. Which is not to say in saying them isn’t dangerous as well, even if you’re just joking around, because other people who do believe that pick up the mantle and run with it.”
Part of recapturing that bombastic showmanship of Bobby Riggs involved a scene with Carell dressed as Little Bo Peep and playing tennis surrounded by sheep. What was that experience like? “Sheep poop. A lot of sheep poop,” the comedian and actor said with a perfect deadpan delivery. “It’s one of the things that no one took into consideration before we shot the scene is that sheep shit. Between takes there was somebody to basically – two people who didn’t know that this was going to be their job at the beginning of the day.”
Battle of the Sexes is now playing in theaters.