Emma Stone On Battle Of The Sexes & Why You Don't Have To Be Perfect To Be Brave

Photo: Todd Williamson/Getty Images/Fox Searchlight.

Emma Stone is navigating a steep learning curve — but she's more than up for the challenge.

The Battle of the Sexes star revealed in an interview with Refinery29 that she's still trying to confront fears about speaking out on issues of inequality, and that working on the biopic about sports legend Billie Jean King has been altogether eye-opening. The new movie focuses on the iconic 1973 match of the same name, which pitted the young tennis champion against a much older, male opponent named Bobby Riggs.

Ahead of the NYC premiere and a panel discussion titled, "How Far Has Feminism Come?" sponsored by Citizen Watch and moderated by Refinery29's Chief Content Officer, Amy Emmerich, we spoke with the actress about why you don't have to be perfect to be brave and the sexism we're still fighting today, nearly half a century after King's match point.

How did you prepare to play the legendary Billie Jean King?
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It was so eye-opening. I was researching so much about her when she was around age 29: Seeing how brave and daring she had to be, to speak out when it was not as open a forum as it is now, to do something like starting the Women’s Tennis Association with $1 when she was number one in the world... It took this insane amount of bravery. We stand on shoulders like hers, and it’s up to all of us to keep those messages alive."

The sexism in Battle of the Sexes really runs the gamut, from the kind you can laugh at to the kind that makes your skin crawl. Can you talk to me about what it was like, bringing those moments to screen?
"There’s something disheartening about how relevant this movie is now. The way that some of the male characters speak: It’s rhetoric we’ve heard recently, not just in one on one exchanges but also from our branches of government. Going into scenes with Bill Pullman [who plays tennis pro and commentator Jack Kramer] were really interesting. There’s this moment when he says, ‘I love women,’ and Billie Jean says, ‘I know you love women in the kitchen and in the bedroom; it’s when they ask for a little bit more of what you’ve got that you can’t stand.’ That sentiment can be true to this day, in many different dynamics."

One of the challenges of making movies about women, and about struggles that are still considered ‘women’s issues’, is getting men to engage with those narratives. What do you think is the key to them to pay more attention?
"Everyone’s issues are the issues of everyone. I think that’s one of the great lessons of Billie Jean and what her feminism is: a true equality. She loves men. She loves women. It’s about equal respect and equal treatment. When we can look at another who is not like us and realize that we are more alike than different, then it becomes fascinating to learn their story and expand our own minds. That can be scary, depending on where you came from or how you were raised, or what your religion might say about equality between all — that some things are right and some things are wrong. But fundamentally, we are all human, trying to to the best we can.

“Billie Jean has a story she tells about how women will come up to her and say the Battle of the Sexes — the original event, in 1973 — meant so much to them, it changed their life, they they asked for a raise. She always says, ‘did you get it?’ and they say either they got it or they didn’t but they had the courage to ask. But she says that usually when men come up to her, they’re crying. They say: I didn’t realize what this fight was. They have a mother, a daughter, a woman they love in their life who they want to feel empowered in the way that Billie Jean so beautifully displayed. You have to listen in order to understand. We all want to be loved. We all want to be respected for what we offer. Each of us has a piece of the conversation to add."

Where do you see your role in that conversation?
“In terms of finding my own voice — which I’m still very much in the middle of — I’m still learning how to use it, because I’ve been afraid of it for a long time. I have made mistakes, and I have thought, ‘How dare I try to say something if I don’t understand every element of everything all the time?’ One of the great lessons that Billie Jean taught me is that you don’t have to be perfect to be brave. You can still be figuring things out; you can still be juggling. You can still be afraid every single day. She listens, and cares so deeply, and wants to hear people’s stories and wants to grow constantly, and I think that energy is so inspiring. I know that’s an idealistic way to think, maybe a little utopian. But I definitely feel galvanized by Billie Jean, to try, to just listen, more and more."

You’ve been working in the industry for more than a decade. A lot has changed during that time. What are front lines of women in Hollywood now?
“I think times are changing. People are more outspoken — including, hopefully, people like me, who have made mistakes in the past. I don’t need to get into too many details right now in this moment. But I certainly have made choices that I would make very differently now, which I want to discuss in a deeper way at a different time. It’s up to all of us to keep our ears open, keep our minds open, to make mistakes, learn from them, change. There’s so much ground still to be broken in terms of equality for all genders, all races, all sexualities.

“There are a lot of people using their voices to affect change in my industry, the same way that Billie Jean was using her voice to affect change in hers. I think now people are using their voices to point out inequality, or call out inconsistencies between what someone says and an action being taken. The fact that about 30% of roles onscreen are female roles, and only a quarter of those roles are for women over the age of 40, whereas we have male movie stars who really hit their stride over the age of 40? Obviously, there’s so much more inclusion that needs to be happening.”

Watch Emma Stone, Billie Jean King, Shonda Rhimes, and Valerie Faris discussing Battle of the Sexes below.

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Battle of the Sexes is in theaters nationwide September 22. Seventy-nine centers per dollar of film revenue is being donated to Billie Jean King's Women's Sports Foundation.