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Interview: Andrea Riseborough Talks Battle of the Sexes

She’s been directed by Tom Ford, Mike Leigh, and Madonna. She’s played young Margaret Thatcher and Wallis Simpson, but her latest portrayal of a historic woman is not nearly so famous. Not much is known of Marilyn Barnett, the hairdresser who became such an important part of Billie Jean King’s life, and Andrea Riseborough was surprised at how little information had been documented. Nevertheless, Marilyn plays a key role in Battle of The Sexes because of the essential real-life role she played for Billie Jean King during her famous match against Bobby Riggs in 1973. Her character serves as a symbol of hope, freedom and empowerment as King stands up for her individuality, her sexuality, and her fight for the rationality of equal respect and equal pay. Riseborough tells me she enjoyed playing the role because Barnett was a captivating spirit and seems to symbolize so much of what the ’70s was about.

The film also allowed Riseborough to be reunited with Emma Stone for the first time since the duo appeared together in Birdman. Their on-screen chemistry is so wonderfully organic and the actress says the movie gave then a chance to learn more about each other and rediscover each other in way that mirrored their on-screen relationship.

Read my chat with Riseborough below:

What was it about Marilyn that stood out for you when you first saw the script?

She wasn’t really developed when the script came. It was very difficult to get any information on the elusive Marilyn and there was so little documented. The beginnings of a relationship were there. There was definitely a freedom of spirit. There are some changes that Simon Beaufoy made in the story. Billie was far more sexually assertive and Marilyn was also sexually assertive. In the film, it’s a different dynamic and Billie laughed about it.

I went to meet Jonathan and Valerie and we had a cup of tea in a diner. They were such warm people with so much integrity who paid real care to deliver this story that criminally I knew so little about. I knew they were going to be wonderful people to tell it. They weren’t going to marginalize her or Larry. They certainly weren’t going to demonize Steve’s character, Bobby Riggs. He does that all on his own with his inadvertent misogyny. There was a feeling of fine compassion for each character.

In terms of great artistry, I love their aesthetic and I was so excited about that. I was excited about meeting them because I’d actually not met them before. Val said something to me, “Marilyn helped Billie Jean see her body in a more sensual way.”

In real life, Larry and Billie had a great sex life and Billie is very open about that, but Marilyn awakens a different sexuality in her. It was great to play because I was playing the hope and free spirit of the ’70s. I was playing the good substantial bit. It was so peaceful to play her. I’m far more cerebral and more of a thinker. Marilyn is more in her body and accepts where she is and where everyone is at life. What’s difficult for our Marilyn to accept is that Billie’s fight for social justice would always come before a partner. It was entirely appropriate. People always say to Billie that tennis came first for her, but that’s absolutely not the truth. She certainly put people before tennis as we see in the film.

She said to a little boy on the press tour who asked her, “Who are you?” and she replied, “I’m Billie Jean King, I use tennis as a platform for social change.”

What pressure was there to playing someone like Marilyn?

The pressure I put on myself that I couldn’t avoid was playing someone posthumously. Playing someone who can’t speak from the dead and give me notes. I felt a huge responsibility to accurately honor her life and to show the good side of her and do it as accurately as possible with very little information. That was my own journey.

It was also about speaking to a lot of people and gleaning who she was because there weren’t interviews or recordings. It was like chasing a ghost. I was fighting to see her behind Billie.

It was a brilliant dynamic for Emma and I to have because another reason I wanted to make the film was because of her. She had just come on board when I spoke to Jon and Val. There’s a perfect dynamic in our own lives and I am in Emma’s shadow in a totally appropriate way and that translated really well in our relationship on screen because I’m happy to be in that lovely shadow, and I love her in real life as a person. It was the most smooth, natural, and organic feeling. I can not tell you how many “love scenes” that you do as a woman where you’re holding on for dear life not to puke because you’re playing with someone who is thirty years older than you or it feels weird. It was a joy for Emma and I to do that.

It looked beautiful and so wonderful.

We are friends and we do know each other. At the time we did that movie we didn’t know each other as well as we do now and it was as if there was enough mystery for us to discover each other on screen. I think Jon and Valerie capture that getting to know each other on a different level. Yes, I do feel closer to Emma now.

What was it like having Billie close by?

She wasn’t on set. She was with us on the press tour. It was one of those things where you thought, “I don’t know what I’ve done to have the great fortune of being able to see Billie Jean King speak to hundreds of people for six weeks.” It was the most inspiring thing that I’ve ever been part of.

What did Billie Jean King tell you?

She told us so much. With any story and with any character whether they’re real or not. When it’s a real person, they’re human beings and we were all very cautious of not wanting her to feel like she was being prodded for information. She’s dealing with one of the hardest things ever in her life, other than being stripped of every endorsement she had for being gay. She was so courageous to even allow us to retell that story. She’s done a great service to the world on that count. Emma was so courageous on her part when she let us into that moment that we’ve all had in the locker room. It was such a brave and beautiful performance. Billie is awesome. She’s a fighter.

She’s absolutely incredible and you don’t realize all she’s done or even appreciate it.

She’s so respected in the sports world and I’m amazed we didn’t learn it in school and why we didn’t hear about her struggle for pay equality.

I’ve loved your work and notice you like playing real-life characters a lot. Great women. What’s the lean towards that?

I used to really like occupying my brain with quadratic equations when I was in school. I used to love doing that and anything mathematical in school. It’s like getting this feeling where you study and study and then it becomes this strangely natural feeling to be in someone else’s rhythm. It happens really quickly for me, sometimes to the point, I find it disorienting because it’s hard to then retain a sense of your own self. I really like playing people who existed because it’s like a conundrum, how do you get behind all those reports and sift out what the actual person is underneath? It’s like math and then it becomes obvious.

When I saw Emma play Billie the first time, it was so obvious as to why Marilyn fell in love with her. If you work with great people it makes everything seem so seamless and natural. I think playing real people is a responsibility and whether you feel that the story is being accurately represented or not.

You have your own production company too.

I do. Yes. I have four films at Sundance. Nancy is a film that I star in and produced. We’re in competition there.

Mandy is a film that Nicholas Cage and I made. It was a film we made in Belgium with Panos Cosmatos who I’ve coveted for ages. He’s extraordinary and he makes Kubrick-style terror. He’s so good. He’s groundbreaking with imagery. He has a fantastic writing partner and they’re a great team.

I’m so excited about Death of Stalin.

That might be timely.

They all are. Even with Battle of the Sexes, none of us could have anticipated how depressingly relevant could have been. Jon and Val had planned on screening this at the White House, imagining that Hillary would get in.


Consider Andrea Riseborough in the Best Supporting Actress category.