'Battle of the Sexes': 8 of the Film's Stars and Their Real-Life Inspirations

11:26 AM 9/22/2017

by Katherine Schaffstall

The movie about the highly publicized tennis match digs deep into the personal storylines of its authentic characters.

In 1973, Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs went head to head in a televised tennis match. The champion won $100,000, but both competitors had ulterior motives far larger than a cash prize. King was determined to shed light on women’s rights, while Riggs wanted to prove that he was not a washed-up athlete.

Fox Searchlight's Battle of the Sexes, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, recounts the rivalry between King (Emma Stone) and Riggs (Steve Carell). Stone previously told The Hollywood Reporter that the film goes beyond the historical match and is also about “love, social change and people discovering who they are.”

The cast of real-life characters also includes Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, Elisabeth Shue and Austin Stowell.

Read on to find out how the actors prepared to play their real-life counterparts.

  • Billie Jean King, portrayed by Emma Stone

    Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation; Frank Barratt/Keystone/Getty Images

    Stone portrays tennis champ Billie Jean King, who has won a total of 29 Grand Slam titles throughout her career. The film also delves into King’s personal life, including the exploration of her sexuality and her fight for equal pay among men and women.

    King is the first real person Stone has portrayed and she knows that she has large shoes to fill. “It was my first time playing a real person, and that person happened to be Billie Jean King,” the actress said after the film's Toronto Film Festival premiere, according to IndieWire.

    Luckily for Stone, she was able to observe King firsthand. “No one can live up to Billie Jean King, so I knew that going in. But I sat with Billie Jean, we were able to talk about things. She was so warm and open and supportive and said instantly, ‘I will respect whatever your process is, I’m here if you want to talk, whatever you need.'”

    Stone and King even hit the court together, with Stone joking that King “threw balls basically at me.” King reportedly helped Stone focus on her strengths when they practiced tennis together.

    “I quickly kind of realized something I didn’t know, which was that the closer I got to her, the more I was going to fear really, really letting her down,” Stone said at Toronto. “Then I realized that none of the fear went away, so I don’t know what I was doing. Because it just stayed the same! She was incredibly reassuring.”

  • Bobby Riggs, portrayed by Steve Carell

    Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation; Keystone/Getty Images

    Carell portrays the late Bobby Riggs, who died in 1995. The athlete won Wimbledon and the U.S. Championships as an amateur and he was the No. 1 tennis player internationally for three years. In an attempt to once again be seen as a serious athlete at the age of 55, Riggs challenged King to the match that was promoted as the Battle of the Sexes.

    While discussing the film, Carell revealed that he remembers the 1973 event well, though he did his fair share of research to do the part justice. “I went back and I watched a lot of tape on him,” the actor told GQ. While conducting research, Carell realized that there was a positive side to Riggs, who is often portrayed in a negative light. “He didn't take himself very seriously. He didn't mind playing the clown, although I just don't think he was. He's been described as a buffoon, but he wasn't a buffoon. He was a really smart guy.” The actor continued his praises by stating, “He was an excellent promoter. That, to me, is the heart of him. He was somebody who wanted to generate interest.”

    The greatest influence on Carell’s portrayal of Riggs came from the time the actor spent with Lornie Kuhle, Riggs' coach and best friend. “I learned more about the darker sides to him, the longing in him, through Lornie,” Carell said. “Finding out about a guy who was a great, great champion in his day, and I think it was mistimed. He just didn't get the reward out of that that he should have. He was still striving to achieve that.”

  • Marilyn Barnett, portrayed by Andrea Riseborough

    Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation; Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images

    Riseborough portrays Marilyn Barnett, King’s hairdresser turned lover during the time of the Battle of the Sexes tournament.

    While discussing the role with Advocate, Riseborough stated that she enjoyed playing the strong and supportive Barnett. “My character’s like the embodiment of hope and freedom and female emancipation,” she said. “It’s a really wonderful recklessness, so it was kind of a wonderful thing to play.”

    Riseborough spoke with OUT in July and revealed that she wasn’t very familiar with the match prior to being cast in the film. “I didn’t grow up knowing about the Battle of the Sexes, or Billie Jean King,” she said.

    The actress has said that the love story between King and Barnett is her favorite part of the movie. “It was full of hope and joy. I felt like the embodiment of joy in the piece, the freedom and liberation, and that is very different for me, in my own life, to play," Riseborough said, adding, "It felt fantastic and sensational to play someone who had such a free and captivating spirit as Marilyn.”

  • Jack Kramer, portrayed by Bill Pullman

    Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation; Leonard Burt/Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

    Kramer was a well known tennis player in the 1940s and '50s. During the '70s he co-founded the Association of Tennis Professionals and acted as its first executive director. When King and Heldman proposed equal rights for male and female tennis players to the businessman, he refused to grant that request.

    Pullman describes Kramer as an "obstacle to Billie Jean," according to Rotten Tomatoes. While Kramer is an important figure in American tennis, "he believes that women are not as capable as men in playing tennis and that they’re not as resilient."

    The actor also added that his "male chauvinist pig" character is an antagonist in the film, but he hopes that viewers see Kramer as a human being. "All the characters are kind of compromised, but they’re still very human, and you don’t ever disengage or give up on them as people."

  • Gladys Heldman, portrayed by Sarah Silverman

    Sue Gordon/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

    The late Heldman was the founder of World Tennis Magazine. Heldman was an avid supporter of King and doubled as King's business partner by organizing a women’s only circuit in which female tennis players could earn as much as professional male players.

    While discussing the film with ET Canada, Silverman noted that she is a comedian before she is a dramatic actress. “This is the first real person I’ve played,” she said. The lack of documented examples of Heldman made Silverman’s portrayal a challenge. “I didn’t have a lot to go on," Silverman explained. "There were only just pictures of her. There’s no footage.” With little knowledge of who Heldman was, Silverman attributes the character’s props to her performance: “The wardrobe and the hair and the cigarette did most of it.”

    Silverman also found inspiration for the role from co-star Stone. “Watching her was like a master class,” the comedian revealed.

  • Ted Tinling, portrayed by Alan Cumming

    Melinda Sue Gordon/Twentieth Century Fox

    Tinling was a tennis player and fashion designer who regularly worked with King and the women’s tennis team. He doubled as a close friend and confidant to King.

    Cumming visited Today to discuss his role as the designer. During the interview with Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb, Cumming revealed that he was “quite chummy” with King prior to being cast in the film. King actually offered Cumming the part while at his house for dinner.

    Although his character is heavily influenced by fashion, Cumming does not share the same passion. The actor admitted that he enjoys style, but at the end of the day they're "just clothes.”

    The actor also talked about the film on Live with Kelly and Ryan. He revealed that during the time of the match, he did not realize the impact the Battle of the Sexes had on females everywhere. Cumming stated that if King had lost the match, “the women’s movement in this country would be in such a different place.”


  • Priscilla Wheelan, portrayed by Elisabeth Shue

    Melinda Sue Gordon/Twentieth Century Fox

    Shue portrays Riggs' neglected wife in Battle of the Sexes.

    The actress told NewNowNext that she relates to Priscilla’s feeling of being stuck in her marriage. Shue drew on the experience of her parents’ marriage to find the inspiration to play the character. “My mother, who was of that era, was also an educated woman who felt trapped by having to have children and be a pillar of society,” she said.

    The actress also focused on the positive and negative aspects of the relationship between Riggs and Wheelan. “Priscilla loved Bobby’s childish behavior because he made her boring life of wealth more exciting, but she wanted him to care more about his family than his gambling," Shue said.

  • Larry King, portrayed by Austin Stowell

    Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

    Stowell portrays Billie Jean King's former husband, Larry, the co-founder of co-ed tennis league World Team Tennis. It was during their marriage that Billie Jean realized she's gay.  

    Stowell told Elle Canada that Larry is not a fan of being in the spotlight and only wants to support his wife. “He’s incredibly aware of what Billie Jean represents and her potential for social change, for global change,” the actor said. Though he did not get a chance to meet Larry until filming ended, Stowell said that “he’s a lovely man.”

    In order to play the supportive husband of Billie Jean, Stowell had to be sympathetic to Stone's character's struggles. “I think it was just listening to the energy she had in her voice and realizing the pressure, the struggle, the hurt, the dedication that was going into Emma playing that role,” he said. 

    While speaking with Inside Tennis, Billie Jean recalled how aware Stowell is about one of the main focuses of the film, which is gender equality. According to Billie Jean, Stowell told her, “Look, every person has a mother. I was raised by a single mother. Without her I would not be sitting here. She worked so hard for me to have a life.” Billie Jean’s response was, “That was brilliant. He gets it.”