“I have never been a hairdresser and if you asked me to cut your bangs, I would probably do a f–king terrible job of it,” says Andrea Riseborough. She plays Marilyn Barnett, the former hairdresser-turned-lover of tennis champion Billie Jean King, in “Battle of the Sexes,” the film based on King’s epic 1973 match against Bobby Riggs.
The Twentieth Century Fox production centers around the historic sports showdown, which was estimated to have been viewed by 90 million people. But with Steve Carell’s portrayal of a braggadocious Riggs and Emma Stone and Riseborough’s depiction of King and Barnett’s forbidden love affair, the film surpasses the realm of sports and comments on social issues that are as relevant today as they were then: misogyny, equal pay and the societal acceptance of homosexuality.
“It was almost like turning on a really bright fluorescent light in your eyes,” Riseborough says. “All of the women in the film, we were suddenly hyper-aware of the inequality that was happening right now, not what was happening in the early Seventies. That’s been a rude awakening, another ‘Oh God, that f–king s–t’ awakening for women.”
In preparation for her role, the actor spent time with the real-life King, who befriended Riggs despite his over-the-top ways. The two even spoke the night before Riggs died, according to Riseborough. “A huge part of that was Billie — that she doesn’t accept unfairness,” she says. “Every time I spend time with her, I want to go back into my life and punch walls, I feel so inspired.”
At a 1981 press conference, King openly admitted to having a years-long affair with Barnett while married to Lawrence King. They eventually divorced in 1987, and she has since found a life partner in professional tennis player Ilana Kloss.
Riseborough says she tried to be as respectful of King’s affair with Barnett as possible, taking the small bits King would offer her and improvising the rest.
“Marilyn was a catalyst for Billie Jean in the sense that she helped her stop only seeing her body as a machine that was made for tennis, but as a sensual, fragile, strong, loving, breathing thing,” she says. “It awakened her sexually, it woke up her heart, made it sing. I took that idea and from there, I wanted to embody the spirit of liberation and freedom in the early Seventies.”
She and Stone “got on naturally.” Both were in “Birdman” and had met even before that through Stone’s on-again, off-again boyfriend, Andrew Garfield. “She’s a wonderful, wonderful person and it was wonderful to shoot the scenes because it felt exciting and pure,” Riseborough says. “There was this purity to their relationship — Billie Jean and Marilyn’s relationship — which I think we really managed to feel on set.”
She was particularly entertained by Carell’s representation of Riggs, who infamously held up a “sugar daddy” sign while being carried onto the tennis court the day of the match.
“[Misogyny is] with us every day, it’s something that I go out into the world bracing myself against on a regular basis,” she says. “It’s just rampant in the film industry. What I really loved about Steve’s performance as Bobby Riggs is that you got to see that deeply insecure, frustrated child behind the mask of the misogynist. He almost seems like he’s half-invested in misogyny. That’s not to excuse him — it’s anger. It’s unchanneled, pointless rage, which is depressingly timely at the minute.”
And yet the film left Riseborough with a sense of hope, which she derived from King, now 73.
“She’s such a force for change because she’s so willing to connect with anyone,” Riseborough says. “That is a great, great strength. It makes her an ambassador for women, and it makes her an ambassador for the LGBTQ community.”
Once a champion, always a champion.
More from WWD.com:
Fifteen Minutes With Billie Jean King