It's rare to hear actors contradict the real people they portray. But for Jessica McNamee, there was never really an option. When she heard tennis star Margaret Court voice her objection to same-sex marriage in Australia, she immediately responded.
McNamee plays Court in Battle of the Sexes, the highly anticipated movie starring Emma Stone and Steve Carrell as Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs that hits theaters September 22.
"This 'Margaret Court' believes in marriage equality and supports any corporation that does the same," the actress posted in an Instagram caption alongside a photo of her and Stone in costume on set. In a way, this was life imitating art: one woman standing up for the rights of a minority, while another woman preached patriarchal family values.
It's an often forgotten fact that Court was actually the first woman to play Bobby Riggs, in a match that would go down in history as the Mother's Day Massacre — she lost 6-2, 6-1. As a result, King stepped up to defend the honor of women.
The potential consequences of such a monumental loss are highlighted in Battle of the Sexes. In a pivotal scene, King begs Court not to go through with the game: the stakes were too high to risk losing to a 55-year-old has-been. But Court, the reigning women's champion, refused to listen.
Refinery29 spoke to McNamee about her public disavowing of Court, the lessons she took away from this film, and which cast-member is the best tennis player in real life.
Refinery29: What first drew you to the role of Margaret Court?
Jessica McNamee: "I actually wasn’t aware of the battle of the sexes. Nor did I know that Margaret Court had initiated the whole thing by having the first battle, the Mother’s Day Massacre. So, once I started reading about it, and learning more about the story before I auditioned, I was fascinated and really drawn to the story. And obviously, the opportunity to portray an Australian icon was kind of a really exciting prospect for me too. "
Tell me about training — how does one train to play a world-famous tennis player?
"Well, there was a lot of training! We had about seven or eight weeks worth of training with Vince Spadea, who’s an ex American pro. Emma, myself and Steve — we all trained about an hour a day, five days a week.... [O]nce we we were on set, we had to make it look as convincing as possible. I actually had to learn Margaret’s style of tennis. So, it wasn’t just learning to play tennis well, I had to actually unlearn what I knew already and learn how to play like her. Like, I have a double backhand in my own game, and she has a single backhand. It was actually quite challenging."
Who’s the best tennis player in real life: Emma Stone, Steve Carrell, or yourself?
"Probably out of all of us, Steve was. He has a court at home and he loves tennis, he plays a bit. Oh, but you know Elisabeth Shue is a really good tennis player! She didn’t play any tennis in the film, but she’s tennis-mad and she’s really good."
You recently had a public disagreement with the real Margaret Court over same-sex marriage in Australia. What was it like juggling your personal beliefs with the desire to do justice to the character you're playing?
"I knew she had some fairly strong beliefs. I knew she was quite religious. But she actually came out with this stuff after we’d shot the film. My concern was that I was trying to portray her in a light where she was kind of not too villainous — I didn’t want to offend anyone. I didn’t want to offend her, I didn’t want to offend fans of hers in Australia, because she is an icon. But it was kind of amazing because when she came out with these comments, I felt very justified in my performance. I didn’t feel like we’d done an injustice in portraying her. In fact, we probably could have been a bit more hard line, to be honest."
The role is so interesting because it almost seems to me as if Margaret Court was accidentally feminist. She was a woman in this male space, and she was really good. But she also was very hard line on family values — almost in the wrong place, at the wrong time.
"Yeah, it’s funny because it didn’t necessarily mesh, her talent with what her beliefs were. I guess she was [feminist] in a way. She certainly was one of the very few that felt like that on the circuit. And over time it’s not wavered, she still remains this way. I met six of the nine [women] on the premiere night, and they’re all so progressive and open-minded and forward-thinking, and it’s funny to think that even in the course of 40 years, or whatever, that she’s not budged at all."
Why do you think this story still feels so relevant today?
"Obviously, we’re in a world where there’s still massive gender inequality. There’s inequality across the board, but gender inequality specifically. We’re still earning 75 cents to the male dollar, which is ludicrous. You watch a film that’s set 40 years ago, and it’s so sexist, and at the end of the day, not that much has changed. These are still the exact same issues that we’re dealing with. On a personal level, we’re in an industry that’s kind of the more backward that there is — that, and sports. We still pick up scripts and you’re there to service the men, you’re the 'girlfriend of,' or the one-night stand. So often you read these two-dimensional female characters when all the male characters are so developed. It’s a story I wanted to tell because it’s representing all these really strong women, and I was surrounded by a predominantly female cast, which is just unheard of. "
Did the film's message inspire you in your own life?
"Absolutely. Meeting Billie Jean King has probably been the most inspirational part of all of this — all of the women involved, as well. You’ve got Emma [Stone] and Andrea [Riseborough] , and Sarah [Silverman], all these strong women who stand up for what they believe in, are unafraid to voice their opinions. That in itself has been amazing. But meeting Billie Jean King and seeing the way that she deals with these issues; she’s so humble, she’s so gentle, she’s measured, she is thoughtful — she’s a next-level human."
What do you hope young women take away from the film?
"I hope that they take away a certain responsibility. Women need to start speaking up. So often, you don’t want to rock the boat, you don’t want to be the person who’s making waves. For instance in our industry, if women stand up for themselves, they get branded as a diva, or difficult. If a man does, it just is what it is. We need to try and all start speaking up for ourselves and standing up for ourselves and other women, so that we can try to get rid of all those stereotypes that are attached to being a strong woman who has a voice. "
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