Steve Carell engages in minor battles of the sexes all the time when he and his wife, actress-writer Nancy Carell, meet on the tennis court. In Battle of the Sexes, though, Carell reenacts one of the most famous (if not the most famous) gender clashes in sports history: the 1973 contest between tennis icon Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and fading ex-champ Bobby Riggs.
Three years after his Oscar-nominated turn as dodgy self-styled wrestling coach John du Pont in Foxcatcher, Carell once again steps out of his comfort zone to play a fringe sports figure who bears few similarities to the 55-year-old Massachussets native and one-time 40-year-old virgin.
As far as history is concerned, Riggs is emblematic of the movement against women’s rights in the ’70s. He was proud male chauvanism personfied. But, as the film argues, and Carell is adamant about, it was all merely an act designed to generate hype.
Carell explained it all as the crowdpleasing Battle of the Sexes built up its own buzz last week at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Yahoo Entertainment: You were pretty young when this match took place. Do you remember it? Do you remember what you thought of Bobby Riggs?
Steve Carell: I remember when the match was played. I was 11 and I remember all the hype and all the build-up. I remember thinking this guy is a showman. I got it. I got the joke, even as a kid. I understood that his heart wasn’t in the whole male chauvinist pig thing. And I verified what I’d originally thought through the research that I did and the people that I talked to… He was just a master of emotion and it was an act. And so that to me was the crux of it. He was a decent, intelligent, kind, loving guy. But he created this persona to generate interest in himself.
So it was all just for entertainment. And money, of course. But it was not too far off from Mayweather vs. McGregor.
It was Ali. He actually specifically took a page from Ali’s book and thought, “That’s what’s going to generate interest. That’s what people are going to respond to, something that kind of gets under their skin.” He saw the zeitgeist, what was happening with women’s lib during that time, and he wanted to get in on it. He wanted to capitalize on it. But I don’t think in any way, shape, or form was he the sexist pig that he pretended to be.
In other words, he wouldn’t be the guy protesting an all-female Ghostbusters today.
No. He wouldn’t… You could see his heart wasn’t connected to the things he was saying.
Who did you talk to about him?
I spent a lot of time with his coach, who was also one of his best friends, Lornie Kuhle, who filled in the blanks in terms of that side of him. I think in a lot of ways he felt that he wasn’t given his due when he was a champion. He was a champion before the era of big pay days and international fame so I think part of his impetus was to regain some of that glory that he somehow he felt like passed him by.
What else were you surprised to learn about him?
How great an athlete he was. Growing up he was a champion high jumper and long jumper and he could play almost any sport. He was an excellent basketball player, he was an excellent golfer, he was incredibly fast and agile and coordinated. He was a legitimately fine athlete.
How great of an athlete are you? How are you tennis skills?
I’m an OK tennis player. I played with Lornie. He would come up to L.A. like three or four days a week for a few months and we’d practice together. I’m OK. But the difference between a decent rec player and a pro, there are chasms between them. So I just wanted to look good enough to try to get a couple shots of me actually hitting the ball and try to make it look legitimate.
Who wins in a real-life match between you and Emma Stone?
I’ll just go on record by saying and in all things, Emma will always win. I’ll just, that’s my blanket statement.
How’d you like reteaming with Emma after working together in Crazy, Stupid, Love?
We don’t share a lot of scenes together in this movie, and we didn’t really in Crazy, Stupid, Love. either. But I love working with her and being with her. She’s exactly who you think she’d be. She’s just so smart and funny and kind… I don’t know anyone that has anything bad to say about her. She’s truly just genuine. And so incredible in this movie. She’s great, but she’s really great in anything. She’s one of those people you just watch and she’s effortless. You never see her trying too hard. You never see her acting, it’s just all very natural and seems to kind of flow effortlessly out of her.
But did you guys do any trash talking behind the scenes?
No, we didn’t get very method about that stuff.
I assume your game has improved, though, since working on this movie.
Oh for sure, yeah.
Do you have a leg up on your wife now in those matches?
Well no, not necessarily. She’s a much better tennis player than I am.
Battle of the Sexes is now in theaters. Watch Carell talk about getting heckled by an extra on set:
Read more on Yahoo Entertainment: