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Fair game
by Bob Strauss December 08, 2017
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Emma Stone is at the point in her career where every job seems like a major new challenge. Grounded as always, the reigning Best Actress Oscar winner wants to keep that perception in perspective.
“That’s not necessarily true,” says the 28-year-old star of the audaciously single-shot Birdman, the singing-and-dancing La La Land and, now, the docudrama about the 1973 Billie Jean King/Bobby Riggs tennis match, Battle of the Sexes, which opened in cinemas yesterday. “Some of it is just fun to do, doing different things. But it’s so much fun to be challenged, and it’s been such a great opportunity to have worked on some of these projects. To work with really interesting directors and writers and get to learn new skills, it’s all the cool parts of being an actor.”

Especially if you’ve never played tennis before, which was the case for Stone before she signed on to play King leading up to, and including, one of the most famous (and infamous) court confrontations of all time. The actual event was about much more than tennis, of course. King, who was 29 at the time, was embroiled in efforts to win women equal pay and respect in the male-dominated sport. With feminism rising up on all societal fronts, the 55-year-old retired champ Riggs, played by Steve Carell in the movie, got the bright idea of staging a comeback by making like a chauvinist pig and challenging top female players to exhibition matches.

The King-Riggs battle, at the Houston Astrodome 44 years ago, became a media circus that drew some 90 million TV viewers worldwide.

But before she could address any of that — and so much more — Stone had to learn how to play the game. And more, how to at least look like she could play it Billie Jean’s unique way.

“It quickly became about understanding — ha! — basically the whole sport, the grips and all of that, then beyond that it became more choreography based,” Stone, who intensively trained for four months for the project, reports. “Obviously, she played tennis with a wooden racquet, and it’s a very specific type of game that Billie Jean played. I had to learn how to move on the court like her, how she served, her backhand and all of that.”

For all the effort she put into it, the typically humble Stone is quick to credit her and Carell’s doubles for a lot of the long shots in the film’s climactic match, which had to resemble many of the actual plays so many have seen. A tennis player earlier in his own life, Carell trained with Riggs’ actual coach for the movie, but sounds more impressed by what his co-star brought to it.

“The story really centres on Billie and all of the things that were going on in her life at the time, both personally and professionally,” says Carell, who came to Battle with fond memories of working with Stone on Crazy, Stupid, Love. and the new film’s directors, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, in Little Miss Sunshine. “How conflicted she was about her public perception versus her private persona, and I think to a lesser extent what Bobby was going through in his private and public life as well.”

Stone says she enjoyed access to King whenever she needed it for the movie, but mainly relied on footage from the period to capture the Long Beach native’s younger persona.

“At the beginning I talked with her on a tennis court and we spent a little bit of time together, and then I sort of realised that would be more beneficial,” Stone reveals. “She now has over 40 years of hindsight on the depth of what she was going through at age 29, which was invaluable, but it was really mostly steeping myself in the early 1970s.”

Which was when, along with all the public attention that was coming down on her, King was privately discovering her orientation.

“She was going through quite a lot,” Stone understates regarding King at the time.

More of that whole story was eye-opening for the actress.

“The era was exciting because of everything that was going on in that time period, politically and culturally,” Stone states. “Vietnam, civil rights, Watergate and that whole battle of the sexes. A woman couldn’t get a credit card without a man signing off on it, so that gives you a snapshot of that time. I was born in 88, so it was fascinating to learn about.

“Also, it’s slightly disappointing to see how relevant some of these themes still are today,” she adds. “I mean, the fight for equal pay and equal treatment and just basic human rights. Also, the kind of rhetoric that the men use in the movie, to hear it in our culture still to this day is kind of shocking and scary. We have come quite a long way, but we’ve still got a long way to go.”

Seems rather glib to segue from that to something like Hey, Emma Stone has sure come a long way from her Valley Youth Theatre days in Phoenix. She did just win an Oscar, though, so we asked the La La Land leading lady what that historic Academy Awards ceremony felt like last February.

“It was definitely a little wild in the moment,” notes Stone, who was onstage with the La La gang following the erroneous announcement that their film had won Best Picture — because presenter Warren Beatty had been mistakenly handed an extra envelope, after Stone won the Best Actress prize minutes earlier, with her and the movie’s name in it. Graciousness quickly replaced surprise as the La La folks welcomed the actual Best Picture winners from Moonlight to take their place on the stage.

“Ultimately, I think it all shook out OK,” Stone continues. “Moonlight is an absolutely incredible film. The team from La La Land had all gotten to know the people from Moonlight during the whole awards season. I think we were all very excited for them.”

As for her own Oscar triumph:

“It was just a surreal and an incredible night,” Stone recalls. “It’s an honour, it really is in some way that I don’t think that I’ll ever completely wrap my head around. But I think that’s OK; if you wrap your head around that too much, it’s probably not a good thing for you to do.”


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