Emma Stone, Andrea Riseborough & Billie Jean King on Tennis, Equality & the Battle of the Sexes

Tennis icon Billie Jean King sits down with Battle of the Sexes co-stars Emma Stone and Andrea Riseborough to discuss her legendary 1973 match against Bobby Riggs.

OUT – One of the most important sporting events of the 20th century took place at the Astrodome in Houston, Texas, on September 20, 1973. It starred the then-closeted tennis great Billie Jean King in a match with Bobby Riggs, a retired player some 26 years her senior who was adamant he could beat any woman who stepped onto the court. “Women belong in the bedroom and kitchen, in that order,” he once claimed, encapsulating the rampant misogyny of the era. (He was also a showman, and today King talks of him fondly as one of her heroes.) \

Whether Riggs was playing it for laughs or not, the stakes were very real in 1973—the year the Supreme Court affirmed the right to an abortion in Roe v. Wade. King herself feared that using a tennis match to champion the cause of equality would turn into a circus, and only agreed to play Riggs after he trounced Margaret Court, then the women’s number 1 player, 6-2, 6-1, in what was nicknamed the Mother’s Day Massacre. King, who scored a major coup that year by threatening to boycott the U.S. Open over pay disparity (resulting in the tournament becoming the first to award equal prize money to men and women), felt compelled to make up for Court’s dismal showing. On the day, Riggs arrived in the arena on a rickshaw pulled by five scantily clad women as an 80-piece band played “Jesus Christ Superstar.” King entered, Cleopatra-style, on a gold throne borne aloft by four bare-chested men.

With 90 million people watching worldwide, King prevailed in three sets (6-4, 6-3, 6-3), and the match became a cornerstone of second-wave feminism, putting sports at the heart of a national conversation around gender equality. But off-court King was waging another battle, trying to balance her public persona as a happily married woman with her attraction to women. In their new movie, Battle of the Sexes (opening September 22), filmmakers Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, best known for Little Miss Sunshine, use the match as a backdrop to explore King’s internal conflict, portraying her relationship with her hairdresser Marilyn Barnett—later responsible for outing King in 1981—in a series of generous and tender scenes. Here, Billie Jean King talks with Emma Stone, who plays her in the film, and Andrea Riseborough, who stars as Marilyn, about turning life into art, teaching girls to be ambitious, and why the issues of 1973 are just as vital and resonant today.

Billie Jean King: I thought it was very wise to choose Val and Jonathan to direct Battle of the Sexes, because this movie is for everyone. It isn’t just for women, and it isn’t just for men. It shows how vulnerable people are, and how life is messy and yet joyful. Simon [Beaufoy, the writer] is the one I spent the most time with, and then Emma and I met in January last year. We went out on the court a couple of days to play. Didn’t you say you gained 15 pounds and were working out like a fiend?

Emma Stone: Yeah, it was like six days a week. I was really going for it. You know, I see old pictures of you, and you’re so muscular and sinewy, and I’m like, ugh. Your body was so iconic, and all I wanted was to just match that exactly. You know, my tennis double was such an imperative part of the movie—me being a novice, and Billie Jean being number 1 in the world [laughs]—so thankfully our bodies matched enough that I was like, OK, we’ve got a happy medium here—it’s about the essence of Billie Jean and her heart and her spirit.But god, what I wouldn’t give to have those same muscles. You have no idea.

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Labels: Interviews, News