For her first big post-Oscar role, Emma Stone didn’t go the easy route, instead opting to do something entirely new to her: play a bonafide icon. In Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ fact-based “Battle of the Sexes,” Stone is cast as tennis legend and pioneering changemaker Billie Jean King, and the film follows her as she prepares to take on fellow tennis pro Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) in the eponymous 1973 match between the pair. While that would be a tall order on its own, the film also explores other facts of King’s journey during the height of her fame, including a pivotal realization about her sexuality and her crusade for equal pay for female tennis players.
At the film’s Sunday night premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Stone took to the stage for a post-screening Q&A, alongside King herself and the rest of the film’s talented (and large!) cast, including Elisabeth Shue, Sarah Silverman, and Alan Cumming. Stone vividly described her nerves when it came to playing King.
“No pressure at all,” Stone joked when asked about taking on the role. “Billie Jean’s not an icon, that’s okay. No, it’ll be fun!”
“It was my first time playing a real person, and that person happened to be Billie Jean King,” the actress added. “No one can live up to Billie Jean King, so I knew that going in. But I sat with Billie Jean, we were able to talk about things. She was so warm and open and supportive, and said instantly, ‘I will respect whatever your process is, I’m here if you want to talk, whatever you need.'”
The pair even hit the tennis court together, during which Stone joked she “threw balls basically at me,” adding that the former champ is also a skilled coach who helped the actress zone in on her strengths and weaknesses.
And while that might sound like a dream scenario for anyone seeking to play a person like King, Stone admitted a surprising truth: the more she spent time with King, the more terrified she got.
“I quickly kind of realized something I didn’t know, which was that the closer I got to her, the more I was going to fear really, really letting her down,” Stone said. “Then I realized that none of the fear went away, so I don’t know what I was doing. Because it just stayed the same! She was incredibly reassuring.”
In preparing for the film, King also spent extensive time with screenwriter Simon Beaufoy — including a “ten hours straight” chunk, by King’s estimate — along with directors Dayton and Faris. While she admits that the experience was hard, she is also very proud of the authenticity of the feature, bolstered by Stone’s own prodigious contributions.
“What made it to extraordinary is that every single person, from the writer to the directors to everybody involved, we call ourselves ‘Team BOTS,’ ‘Team Battle of the Sexes,’ and everyone brought all of themselves to this film,” King told the crowd. “It really shows. Each person, each character — they got it right, it was authentic, it was accurate, it was an amazing experience. It was very hard for me to watch.”
She added, “I have to particularly thank Emma, for having to go through everything that I went through…I’m very blessed and I know I’m a lucky girl.”
“Battle of the Sexes” screened at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. It opens in theaters on September 22.