Emma Stone has played tap-dancing musical starlets, comic book heroines, and even a zombie slayer, but the one thing she hasn’t done is play a real person.
That changes with Battle of the Sexes, the upcoming big-screen retelling of the iconic 1973 grudge match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. The highly-publicized match pitted the 29-year-old King, then the world’s top player, against the 55-year-old Riggs in what was essentially a public referendum on women’s place in the sports world. Off the court, King was fighting another, more personal battle as she struggled to come to terms with her sexuality. That conflict comes to a head with Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ drama (out Sept. 22), with Stone playing King and Steve Carell playing Riggs.
“Billie Jean, in and of herself, was so inspiring,” Stone says. “To get to play a person like her was a very fascinating and scary prospect.”
For our Fall Movie Preview issue (on stands now), Stone spoke to EW about immersing herself in the role and how she prepared to play the legendary tennis star.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Did playing a real person change how you approached the role?
EMMA STONE: At first, I was very excited to get to meet and to know Billie Jean, but I also really quickly realized that I was going to need to distance myself the slightest bit, which I think she probably sensed or felt. I don’t know if she was confused by that at all while we were shooting. [Laughs] She was so warm and open with me, but she’s also so fully formed now and has a good 45 years of reflection on this time in her life. I was so desperate not to let her down and was so nervous about it, I sort of tried to get to know her through old footage more than asking her questions. I’d ask her questions about the time period, and she was very honest and very open about the struggles of the time and the excitement of it and the pain of it and all of that.
But it was really fascinating to watch footage of her in the time period and read articles from that time to see the way she was presenting herself then, knowing what she was going through and what she was telling me about now. It was a tricky balance because as much as I wanted to be best friends forever with her because she’s the warmest and kindest and funniest individual, I was like, if I get too close, I think I’m going to really be afraid. I was already so nervous about letting her down that I was like, I’ve got to watch it.
This film is about the on-court battle between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, but it’s also about the contrast between Billie Jean’s public life and her private life, as she was struggling with her sexuality. How did you approach that inner struggle?
That was probably one of the biggest windows into her that I had. I was just trying to find touchstones that I could relate to, which are plenty. Obviously, we’ve had a completely different experience, and she’s a hero, which is not my experience. [Laughs] But she had this kind of conjunction in a way from these people that were looking at her, and she had her own internal struggles that she didn’t necessarily want to communicate to the world. I think we can all understand that to an extent, that feeling of presenting yourself to the world in a certain way and then what’s going on with you internally. For her, a great deal was going on privately.
This all happened in 1973, but this story feels really politically relevant right now. The Battle of the Sexes was all about hashing out social issues in a way that’s such a spectacle, and our political system right now is all about that spectacle. Did you feel that sense of political relevancy?
It’s interesting thing because this was shot in 2015, so Trump and Hillary were in the public consciousness, and we had no idea which way this was going to go. So while shooting it, it was kind of this interesting to look at Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean and the very political nature of what the battle actually was about. The battle, as much as it was this spectacle, it was also about equal treatment and equal rights. It’s one of those thing that as time goes on, it’s so painful to understand that it’s become more relevant instead of more of a nostalgic piece. We’re still having the exact same fights, and that’s become more apparent, unfortunately, over the past year and a half since we shot it. It feels like not much at all has changed since this huge event. It’s a painful truth. But it’s nice to be part of a story that’s talking about this woman who did so much for feminism and the LGBTQ community and continues to. And just to shed light on how long she’s been walking this path and walking her talk. That’s the special thing.
What was it like to shoot the actual on-court battle?
It came together like a spectacle. Those costumes were exact replicas, and I guess Billie Jean went to the costume room and thought for a second that that was her actual costume from the Battle of the Sexes. [Laughs]
You mentioned that you would watch old footage and interviews of Billie Jean. Were there any details that you really focused on from those matches?
Oh god, yeah. I mean, everything as much as possible for months. I was watching her in my trailer. I had her tapes through my headphones playing in my head. I was reading and rereading [King’s book] Pressure is a Privilege. I had a dialect coach to figure out things with. And I was like, “Billie Jean, I’m working on your voice,” and she was like, “Why? I sound just like you. That’s how I sound.” And I was like, “No, we don’t! We don’t sound the same. You were much more soft-spoken in ’73, and there’s this kind of Long Beach slang.” And she was like, “Well, I had to be soft-spoken because I couldn’t be as loud as I am now.” She couldn’t be as full bodied with her voice as she is now because she had to say things gently and sensitively and speak in a bit of a soft tone.
But there were all of these things that go into playing someone who really exists that I had never experienced before. It was such a thing to figure out how her hands moved, and her body’s so incredible and the way she moves within her body. I was a real creep. [laughs] I still am with her a little bit. If we do an interview or we’re sitting and talking, I find myself just like staring at her and watching how she’s moving all the time — which I don’t need to do any more. But that’s how I relate to her. I’m like her creepy friend now.