Between the successful lauch of women’s football and this year’s Australian Open, Emma Stone reflects on playing feminist tennis heroine Billie Jean King while lamenting the lack of progress in the past 40 years.
It’s been a very good last 12 months for Emma Stone. On top of winning the Oscar for La La Land, she was recently anointed the world’s highest paid movie actress (with $26 million in yearly earnings) by Forbes magazine. Now she’s earning kudos for her performance as Billie Jean King in Battle of the Sexes, a film that revisits the historic 1973 exhibition match between the then-reigning US women’s tennis champion King and
55-year-old former men’s champion Bobby Riggs.
It was a clash that evolved from an absurd publicity stunt – Riggs had goaded King into the match by trashing the quality of women’s tennis and the feminist movement – into a feminist cause celebre that made international headlines and attracted 90 million viewers to the prime time television broadcast. The event turned King, already an outspoken advocate for equal pay for women in tennis and a co-founder of the Women’s Tennis
Association, into an instant feminist icon. Not only was she a powerful champion of the women’s movement, but she would later become a staunch advocate for gay rights. Stone, who herself has been at the forefront in the battle for equal pay for women in Hollywood, jumped at the chance to play King.
“It was both fascinating and scary to play Billie Jean,” says Stone. “She was both an icon and an activist who inspired so many women not only as a great tennis player but as an advocate for equal pay and equal rights for women. The match was a key moment in history and she has done so much for feminism and for the LGBTQ community. I was so proud to be able to tell her story.”
Aside from the actual tennis match – billed as the ‘Battle of the Sexes’ – much of the film deals with King’s struggle with her sexual identity and her nascent affair with Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), her hairdresser at the time.
In her preparation for the role, Stone spent several months on the tennis court so that she
could look credible swinging a racquet in the film while also undergoing a rigorous weight training programme that saw her pack on 12 pounds of muscle to her normally lithe frame.
“It was important to try to reflect the physicality of a top athlete like Billie Jean. I had to get very fit and toned and look stronger. I’ve never liked training and working out in the gym, but once I started getting into lifting weights and feeling myself getting stronger,
it became very empowering. I started feeling more capable in every way just because I had
been able to transform my body. I started getting addicted to that feeling of strength.”
Battle of the Sexes also marked the first time that the 29-year-old Stone had played a real-life character and in this case, a living sporting legend who fought for women’s equality, an issue very important to Stone, who has been outspoken in the equal pay debate in Hollywood. She felt an obligation to capture King’s fierce spirit of social commitment.
“It’s rare to be able to dive into someone’s life like I did and learning as much about her as I could,” says Stone. “But she is one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met and I was so proud to be able to channel her strength and spirit. The movie is not just about one match
but also about love and people discovering who they are.”
“It was also a pivotal time in the fight for women’s rights and you feel an added responsibility to reflect the kind of leadership she brought to that movement. Also, when you’re playing a real person, you don’t want to let that person down. I was very excited about meeting her before we started shooting and being able get to know more about her, but I didn’t want to get to know her too well.”
Stone met with King briefly during the early stages of filming but decided it was better not to become too close to her given that she needed to play King as she was when she was 29 rather than on the basis of her 73-year old self.
“She was 29 at the time and I needed to play her from the perspective of someone going
through everything that was happening to her then rather than from the viewpoint of someone looking back at that time the way she does now.”
“So it was frustrating for me to maintain a certain distance, especially while we were shooting the film and she might have wondered why I wasn’t speaking to her that much. Billie Jean was so great and kind to me. I was just afraid that if I got too close to her I would be even more worried about disappointing her even though she’s so warm and funny and such a wonderful individual to be around. But I knew it was much better for me to just study the tapes of her from that period rather than ask her questions personally. But lately [while promoting the film] we’ve gotten to know each other much better and it’s been really wonderful.”
King spent dozens of hours helping Stone work on her tennis game, however, so that she would at least look credible hitting a tennis ball the way a pro would. To her credit, Stone
looks very capable in the actual tennis scenes aside from delivering a spot-on portrayal of a young Billie Jean King.
“She would basically just keep hitting balls at me and telling me not to get mad when I
would hit bad shots but just to focus on the next ball,” Stone recalls. “She helped a lot; although I knew I would never even come close to the kind of level she had as a true
tennis champion. My main goal was to bring out her essence as an individual and capturing everything she stood for and was trying to achieve.”
At the world premiere of Battle of the Sexes at the Toronto International Film Festival in
September 2017, Stone confessed that even though it had been nearly a year since she stopped thinking about how to look and sound like King, she can’t seem to deactivate her
observational instincts as an actress.
“What’s funny is that while Billie Jean and I have been promoting the film together, I still find myself staring at her and studying every little thing about how she moves and speaks even though I don’t need to do that anymore. But I can’t help myself! (Laughs)”
One of the interesting similarities between Stone and King is that both were prodigies in their respective fields. Just as King was a junior tennis champion, Stone dreamed of acting as a child and convinced her parents to let her move to Los Angeles at age 15 to begin auditioning for roles in films and TV series.
“Even as a child I knew that I wanted to act. I couldn’t imagine any other life for me. I grew up wanting to make movies similar to those I loved watching so much. I lived in a very hot place [Arizona] and because the sun was so strong and I had such light skin, I had to stay
inside a lot of the time. As a child I discovered that film was this parallel world into which I
could dive into. I still remember all the film comedies I would watch on TV with my father,
who was a big fan of Steve Martin.
“Then I got to love the work of Bill Murray and developed a passion for the skits from
Saturday Night Live. I loved locking myself in the house and watching movies all the time
and wanting to be a part of that world.”
Acting also served a therapeutic purpose for Stone. She suffered from crippling anxiety
and panic attacks while growing up and it was at the suggestion of a schoolteacher that
taking acting classes would also help ease her condition.
“Acting was a way of overcoming my anxiety. I’m much more secure now, but I
still deal with anxiety,” says Stone. “Acting allows me to make productive use of my overly
sensitive side and channel all that nervous energy which would otherwise be more of an
obstacle in life… Doing improv was also a way of dealing with some pretty intense anxiety,
but it also helped me to be in the present, to loosen up.”
Somewhat like her aspiring actress alter ego in La La Land, Stone endured several hard
years after arriving in LA with her mother. She lived a very cloistered life during that time but she never once entertained thoughts of abandoning her dream.
“My mother agreed to accompany me to LA even though that meant a big change in her life and you never forget that kind of love and really unselfish act.I lived with her in a small
apartment in La Brea Park. I never went out by myself. I would always go out with my mum and we spent a lot of time going to the movies. I wasn’t going to school and I didn’t have any friends, zero social life, and I basically just studied at home and watched a lot of movies and tried to learn as much about acting as I could.
“Sometimes I felt lonely but my mother was so good and supportive, so I felt very safe and
supported and that gave me the confidence I needed to go to auditions and deal with all the rejection and the fear of not being able to make it. But I never gave up and slowly I was able to build my career.”
In her 20s, Stone’s avowed love and affinity for comedies saw her appear first in Superbad
(2007) opposite Michael Cera and Jonah Hill before earning her first lead role in Easy A (2010) and then in Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011), the hit romantic comedy in which she costarred opposite Ryan Gosling, a film that also kick-started his career.
Stone then graduated to major stardom when she won the role of Peter Parker’s
girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, in the first of two Amazing Spider-Man films. Those studio
blockbusters earned her the kind of attention and bankability that all actors crave, and
subsequent appearances in Woody Allen’s Magic in the Moonlight and Irrational Man,
in addition to Alejandro Iñarritu’s Birdman served to consolidate her status. Those films
paved the way for Stone’s heart-rending appearance as Mia in La La Land, which will likely be one of the defining roles of her career. The film’s themes of hope and the magic of Hollywood resonated deeply with her.
“It’s a story about the kind of madness you need to keep hoping in spite of everything and everyone, and the courage required to pursue your dreams even when they seem impossible,” says Stone.
“What distinguishes La La Land is its hopefulness, joy and beauty. The film is about dreaming, and hoping and working to achieve something. The characters might be cynical
about what they are going through, but the movie itself is in no way cynical. I think young
people have fallen into cynicism, and making fun of things, and pointing out the flaws in
everything. This movie is what I hope young people will do: work hard and achieve their
dreams instead of being cynical.”
For Emma Stone, her Hollywood is no less alive today than when she was a young girl laughing at her father’s side and entranced by the magic of movies.