Shia LaBeouf hasn’t been shy about his affection for tennis giant John McEnroe, so his starring part in Janus Metz’s Toronto International Film Festival opener “Borg/McEnroe” feels like a particularly special gift for the actor. Primarily fixed on the eponymous Wimbledon match played between McEnroe and all-time great Björn Borg (played by Sverrir Gudnason), the drama also finds room to explore how both men rose to their positions in the sport, aided by seemingly unshakable perceptions by the public (that McEnroe was crazy, that Borg was a machine without emotion).
From the start, LaBeouf has voiced his pleasure at taking on the role, one that he sees so much of himself — and his own public perceptions — inside of. In an interview with Variety last October, LaBeouf said, “[McEnroe and I have] everything in common. Passionate. Perfectionist. Narcissistic. I’m a bit of a caricature also. You look for parallels in your life, and I’m lucky because there is a lot here…I got nothing but love and respect for him. The script is brilliant. We are all here because of that. I cried the first time I read it.”
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At a TIFF press conference held this afternoon, just minutes after the film’s first press screening and mere hours before it officially bows at the festival, LaBeouf hit the stage to chat about the part alongside Metz, Gudnason, and costar Stellan Skarsgård. His affection has not waned, and the parallels between the two men do not escape him.
When asked if he believes that McEnroe was misunderstood, LaBeouf was clear, answering with a simple “yeah.” Pressed to expand on his understanding of the man he plays in the film, he added, “It’s more complicated, I think he’s a tactician. He really added something different to the game. He brought touch and feel and a sensitivity to the game that wasn’t there before.”
And all that rage? For LaBeouf, who has often drawn attention and ire for his more outspoken nature, that’s also key to both the role and the man. “He used rage as a tactic to throw people off,” he said. “He manufactured his intensity to hype himself up. In that way, he is an artist.”
Funnily enough, “Borg/McEnrore” also dramatizes a number of press conferences, including a memorable one in which McEnroe berates the crowd for being too caught up in his personal drama and not actually understanding the demands placed on him by tennis. When asked how that reflects on an actor like LaBeouf, often asked about his personal life rather than his creative process, he didn’t balk.
“This is another parallel I feel with him, for sure,” LaBeouf said of McEnroe. “It’s part of the cathartic feeling of the film.”
The production was not the first to approach LaBeouf to play McEnroe — at one time, he was in the mix to star in the still-unmade feature “Superbrat,” though he was honest about why he didn’t see that role as the right one: It didn’t give the proper respect to the tennis champ. “It was a satire, and it wasn’t treating McEnroe’s story with a whole lot of respect,” he said. “He was just a sort of a clown, a screaming shrew. It wasn’t necessarily the McEnroe role that I was first attracted to.”
When asked about how the film impacted him as his own kind of misunderstood artist, LaBeouf said, “It’s quite cathartic…watching this. I knew it when I read it, it touched me when I did it. To watch it now is something I’m very proud of, I’m very proud of the movie. I think it expresses something I feel deeply. I’m honored to be able to have been a part of this, and to be able to share it.”
LaBeouf still has not met McEnroe, but he’s eager to change that. “John, I’d love to meet you,” he said, before conceding, “he’s a busy guy.”
“Borg/McEnroe” opened the Toronto International Film Festival. Neon will release the film in North America in 2018.