Movies

Unsporty Emma Stone honed dance skills to to play tennis legend

Emma Stone on challenges of playing US tennis legend Billie Jean King in Battle Of The Sexes

Emma Stone admits she has never been into sports, so when she was asked to play former world tennis No. 1 Billie Jean King in the new movie Battle Of The Sexes, the Oscar winner approached it from a different direction - dancing.

King, by contrast, who pioneered the fight for equal pay in tennis more than 40 years ago, pictured herself in Stone's position as she worked with the US actress to portray her on the big screen.

"I tried to put myself in Emma's shoes. That's really taking a risk portraying someone who is still alive. I'm like, 'God, that's a little pressure,'" King said.

Stone, 28, and the 73-year-old US tennis legend became good friends while making the biographical movie that tells the story behind King's 1973 exhibition match against former men's champion and male chauvinist Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) to fight sexism in the sport and society at large.

It opens here tomorrow.

FOOTWORK

Stone, who won the Best Actress Oscar in February for the musical movie La La Land, had never played tennis, so her early sessions with King focused on footwork and choreography.

"I danced, so footwork was good. (And) I had been on stage before and when Billie Jean went out onto the tennis court, it felt like her stage, so she really keyed in on that," Stone said.

Later came weeks of practice on serves and cross-court backhands, but for Stone, even the simplest things were tough.

"We went to the US Open... and I was sitting next to Billie Jean, and (US tennis player) Sloane Stephens was catching balls and tucking them in her skirt and bouncing them with the racket.

"It is just little in-between stuff but that took me months to learn," Stone said.

Professional players were hired to reproduce the shots in the match against Riggs, which was watched by more than 50 million viewers on television.

For her part, King worked for weeks with screenwriter Simon Beaufoy recalling her experience in the early 1970s, when she not only established the breakaway Women's Tennis Association and took on Riggs but also was wrestling with her sexual identity, via an off-court relationship with a woman.

King came out as gay in 1981.

Stone said: "The thing that was most inspiring to me... was that Billie Jean was going through so many personal trials at the time and discovering so much about herself... She was confused and scared and still was able to effect such massive social change."

More than 40 years after beating Riggs in the highly publicised grudge match, women are still fighting for equal pay and rights on and off the tennis court.

"It is eerily relevant these days, and sadly it is, I think, more relevant than it should be at this point," Carell said.

Not that any of this comes as a surprise to King.

"If you read history, you realise how slow progress is and that it is each generation's job to try and move the ball forward.

"We've come further, but we've a lot further to go," King said. - REUTERS

Tennis