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'Battle of the Sexes' directors serve up personal portrait of Billie Jean King

Last Updated Sep 20, 2017 at 11:00 am PDT

Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris pose for a photo as they promote the movie "Battle of the Sexes" at the Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto on Monday, September 11, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

TORONTO – Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris weren’t particularly interested in doing a by-the-numbers biopic on tennis great Billie Jean King.

So rather than serving up a sprawling account of King’s life, the husband-and-wife team behind Oscar-winning indie charmer “Little Miss Sunshine” decided to focus on a time of great public and private significance for the legendary athlete in “Battle of the Sexes,” which opens Friday.

Reigning best actress Oscar winner Emma Stone trained for four months and gained 15 pounds for her role as King. As the title suggests, the film focuses on her infamous 1973 match against faded former world No. 1 Bobby Riggs, played by Steve Carell.

“I think it was a pivotal time for Billie Jean, and in retrospect, that match has taken on even bigger proportions,” Faris said in an interview earlier this month at the Toronto International Film Festival.

“I think what was interesting to us was really what was going on in her social life. I think it was a period of transformation for her and that’s really what interested us and drew us to the story. “

“Battle of the Sexes” also looks at King’s role as feminist trailblazer as she created her own professional tour for women with manager Gladys Heldman, played by Sarah Silverman, in protest of not receiving financial parity with male players in the National Tennis League.

Dayton said the events in the film unfold during a period significant activism and social change, citing the creation of feminist magazine Ms., the Equal Rights Amendment passed by the U.S. Congress in 1972 and Title IX, the 1972 federal law that bans discrimination based on sex in education.

“It was a really interesting time, so this event took on extra weight,” said Dayton. “Even though it was kind of ridiculous, this whole idea of a match between a 55-year-old man and a 29-year-old woman, but it just caught the zeitgeist. It was an interesting thing to focus on.”

The film also offers a glimpse into a deeply personal off-court battle as the married King struggles with her sexuality, brought to life with her budding attraction to hairstylist Marilyn Barnett, played by Andrea Riseborough.

“The fact that she let herself explore that and not deny herself that because of her place, because of her public image and all the pressure that was on her — I think that’s what was so brave in those times,” said Faris.

“We think of Billie Jean as this courageous fighter for equality. But we thought this was as important a first step for her to acknowledge — this truth about herself,” added Dayton.

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