Editor’s note: Washington Blade movie critic Brian T. Carney interviewed actresses Andrea Riseborough and Natalie Morales at the Los Angeles premiere of ‘Battle of the Sexes’ last weekend.
LOS ANGELES — “Battle of the Sexes,” the excellent movie currently showing in D.C.-area theaters, is a passionate examination of the people and politics that led to the game-changing 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, a match that is stunningly recreated in the film’s finale.
Produced by Fox Searchlight Pictures, “Battle of the Sexes” is the rare Hollywood film that features a strong female cast and that features a lesbian relationship as just one of many elements in a complex plot. It’s also one of the rare movies that passes the famous Bechdel test.
The Bechdel test first appeared in Alison Bechdel’s “Dykes to Watch Out For” comic strip in 1985. A character says she will only see a movie if it meets three criteria: that the movie has at least two women in it, that they talk to each other and that they talk about something besides a man. “Battle of the Sexes” passes the test with flying colors. It also passes the Russo test, named for the late activist and cultural critic Vito Russo, which applies the same criteria to LGBT characters.
Two of the women who star in the film, Andrea Riseborough and Natalie Morales, were eager to talk about the challenges of playing strong women with recent historical footprints and about turning Billie Jean King’s vision of equal pay for women and female economic empowerment into reality.
Acclaimed British actress, writer and filmmaker Riseborough plays Marilyn Barnett, King’s first girlfriend. For Riseborough, known for playing strong historical character like Wallis Simpson (“W.E.”), Margaret Thatcher (“The Long Walk to Finchley”) and Svetlana Stalin (the upcoming “The Death of Stalin”), playing Barnett offered a different challenge: the lack of documentation.
“There was so little to unearth compared to other characters I’ve played,” she says. “They’re over-documented. You have to forget the noise and get to the center of who they are.”
Playing Barnett, she says, “I had the opposite pressure, it was a process of excavation. For me as an actor, it was very fulfilling because there was so much I had to fill in, so much I had to imagine.”
Riseborough discovered that Barnett was “a very liberated, free-spirited woman. She embodies the hopefulness of the early ‘70s, the wholesome part of it. She was incredibly happy and very much in love.”
Working with a few period photographs, she collaborated with Costume Designer Mary Zophres to recreate Barnett’s look, that of a long-haired California beauty.
In fact, Austin Stowell (who plays King’s husband Larry) and Riseborough joked that, “the cinematic Billie certainly had a type; in the film, we’re both tanned and blond.”
In addition to her award-winning appearances in front of the camera, Riseborough founded her own production company in 2013. “Mother Sucker,” named in honor of her mother, is an all-female company. Its staff is now working on “Nancy,” an anti-hero piece starring Riseborough and written and directed by Christina Choe.
Natalie Morales faced a different set of challenges playing Rosie Casals. Morales says Casals, “was frequently Billie Jean’s doubles partner and one of her best friends at the time. She was one of the few women of color in the tennis world at the time and one of the few people of color in this movie, because that’s the way the tennis world was at the time.”
Casals also worked with famed sportscaster Howard Cosell to provide on-air commentary during the match. Morales (“Grinder,” “Parks and Recreation” and “Girls”) was edited into the actual film from ABC, which offered an exciting challenge for the actor.
“I had to match Rosie’s voice perfectly, her intonation and the way she ended sentences. Everything had to be an exact copy so it would match. I had to look at him at the exact same time. It was a fun puzzle. I’m a director and I really love the technical aspect of making movies.”
Morales has directed several music videos as well as segments for “Funny Or Die” and is working on deals to direct a television series and a feature film.
Morales was not able to meet Casals until the film’s premiere last weekend in Los Angeles. She was thrilled when both Casals and King said she got it “really, really great.”
Inspired in part by her participation in “Battles of the Sexes,” Morales came out as a lesbian in June. She says she’s a private person who avoids the spotlight.
“I was already out to my friends and some of my family, so it really wasn’t a big deal coming out in my personal life,” she says.
But since she knew she would be heavily involved in the press tour for this movie, Morales made the decision to come out publicly.
“I wanted to support this film fully in a way that is honest to me. I’d like to be candid while also being private,” Morales says. “I was always an advocate of LGBTQ rights, but I thought I was omitting something by not saying publicly that I was actually a part of that community and not just a straight ally. I thought I don’t mind sacrificing a little bit of privacy for the visibility and the normalizing that that will do for the queer community. If I make anyone feel a little less alone or a little more understood, or if I educate a single person it’s worth it.”