Emma Stone puts extensive research into every one of her film roles, but when the star was preparing to transform into Billie Jean King for this fall’s Battle of the Sexes, she barely spoke to the tennis legend she was about to portray. The film recounts the real-life 1973 Battle of the Sexes, when King beat former world No. 1 player Bobby Riggs—a man—in three straight sets, propelling women's tennis onto the world stage. The tennis all-star said she had one initial meeting with Stone before the Oscar winner cut ties temporarily—for good reason.
“Emma Stone I’m getting to know better now as a person, because in the process, she didn’t spend any time with me,” King told InStyle at an event for Citizen Watch Company at the U.S. Open on Wednesday night. “She didn’t want to because I’m in my 70’s, and she said I’m more fully formed as a person. She said, ‘I want to know what [Billie] was feeling at 28 and 29 when she played Bobby.’ That’s where she had to concentrate.”
Don’t get her wrong: King was not at all offended by the approach. In fact, she thought it was brilliant. “[Stone] just looked at everything and just read and thought and reflected. I think she did a great job,” King added. “I don’t think she’d ever played a real person before, so that was a new challenge for her. I think she was scared. She was afraid she was going to disappoint me, and I said, ‘You’ll never disappoint me.’ And she said, ‘Well, why not?’ And I said, ‘Because I’ve seen how you bring all of yourself to something, and that’s all anybody could ever ask for. I know you’ll do a great job.’”
Those comforting words must have done the trick, because Stone delivers a performance that, according to King, captured both her younger self and the essence of the times. But despite her “amazing” acting, King says the movie, out Sept. 22, is still difficult for her to watch.
“It’s very weird to watch. It’s very uncomfortable, and it’s very painful, because it was a painful time in my life,” she told InStyle, referencing her struggle to be respected and treated equally as a woman in her sport. "But as hard as it was to get through, the iconic player says that that infamous match was essential to furthering not just women’s tennis but the sport as a whole.
“I kept saying that [the Battle of the Sexes match] was going to bring people together, and it did. Sororities and fraternities got together, they had parties in the ‘burbs, everybody had a party. 90 million people saw it. People came down from the mountains to watch it like in a motel,” she told us.
“The match was an amazing catalyst to keep carrying the idea of equality forward, and I think it helped psychologically, emotionally, to keep Title IV permanently in place,” King said. “Do you know what happened to tennis after that? You could not get on a tennis court in the United States of America. We had more people playing, and for the first time in ’74, the men and the women got a network contract—the men’s tour and the women’s tour. It wasn’t just affecting women. It affected tennis. All the people were wearing tennis clothes to the supermarket.”
You could say King has been influencing America’s style since ’73 too, and her new partnership with Citizen is just another example. The tennis legend collaborated with the watch brand to create two timepieces for the U.S. Open, both of which support the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative, an inclusive young leadership. According to the brand, the watches are for “smart women.” But King’s foundation isn’t just for women—the icon is supporting men too, which she made clear on Wednesday night.
“I’ve always cared about time and thought about time. It’s for smart women—I hope it’s for smart guys too.”