In Battle of the Sexes, Natalie Morales plays Rosie Casals, a tennis player who fought alongside Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) to improve conditions for female tennis players. She was also a commentator for the 1973 man vs. woman-type match between King and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) that the film centers on.
And here, Morales speaks with HelloGiggles about the fight for women’s and LGBTQ rights that is exemplified in Battle of the Sexes. She also details what it was like to work with so many women in front of and behind the camera, and how it felt to meet some of these female tennis icons.
HelloGiggles: Your character was edited into commentary footage that actually exists. A lot of the sexist comments made in that, and in the film, don’t sound so different from things we’ve heard today. How do you feel about that, and do you think this film could potentially point society in the right direction?
Natalie Morales: I read a review early on that criticized the writer for writing the men as too misogynistic, and unrealistically so. I was like, “No, those are direct quotes. That’s what they actually said, and it’s on TV. It’s not made up in the least,” which is just a funny thing to know. Like you said, that footage is real. Everything that I said and that Howard [Cosell] said is real. It’s word for word. I think it’s a little bit better now, especially with younger generations, but I did grow up with people telling me I couldn’t do stuff because I was a girl. I think a lot of little girls do.
As a director especially, it’s hard for some men to respect me and to see me in a position of power — and not for any other reason. Maybe they’re not used to it, and they don’t really take into consideration that they should be paying attention to me as the director on set. I notice that the most, I think. I try to take the power without asking anybody for it, just because that’s what you’ve got to do. You’ve got to go in and go, “This is what I’m doing.”
It’s weird to see a movie [about an event from 44 years ago] feel so contemporary. Obviously, we’ve come a long way. People aren’t as openly misogynistic, but they still are. I’ve had especially older men be like, “Oh, are you one of those women’s libbers?” I’m like, “Yeah, 100%.” It’s interesting to see something that happened so long ago feel current. It makes you go, “Oh, maybe we haven’t come that far.”
HG: Why do you think it’s so hard for people to believe that these comments were made?
NM: I think a lot of men have a hard time believing women’s experiences. When we go, “Hey, listen, just being a woman, we’re facing a lot more than you face every day. You don’t even think about the things we face. You don’t walk with keys between your fingers at night. You don’t look around you everywhere you are. You don’t watch your drinks at bars. You don’t do half of the things we do automatically, just by second nature, only because we’re a woman.” I think when we say, “Hey, people talk to us like this,” they have a hard time believing it.
At one of the things that we did the other day, a sound guy was miking me and he came up to me and shoved his hand up my shirt. I went, “Sorry. No, no, no, I’ll do that.” He didn’t even ask. He literally just shoved his hand up my shirt, which I don’t necessarily think was him trying to do something other than what he thinks is his normal everyday job. Maybe he has people he does it with all the time that are used to that, but I’d never met him and I certainly don’t approve of someone sticking their hand up my shirt if I’ve never met them or haven’t said that that’s okay. Usually, they ask you to do it, or ask you if they can do it.
I was lucky enough that Jonathan [Dayton, who directed with Valerie Faris,] was next to me and saw it and was like, “If you would’ve told me that, I would’ve never believed it. I couldn’t imagine that someone would do that.” I mean, literally just shoved his hand up my shirt. It’s interesting, I think, for men to see themselves, as a group, in a bad light. You go, “No, that’s too much. That’s unbelievable. We wouldn’t do that,” but it happens.
HG: What was it like for you seeing so many women onscreen, and being able to collaborate with them?
NM: It’s really great. I would’ve been happy with any of those girls, or really anybody in the cast, but getting to hang out with Sarah Silverman and Emma Stone all day is ridiculous. Valerie Faris, her and Jonathan have worked together basically their whole careers, but she is an incredible. They’re so amazing to watch together. She’s so smart and wonderful. As a director, I just watch them all day and watch what they do, watch what Valerie does and how she thinks things through and the detailed attention she pays to everything. It was really something.
You don’t get that a lot, where it’s a hugely female-centric cast, but I’ve been lucky enough to have that opportunity. I did Girls. I did Parks and Rec. I’ve had a few situations where there were a lot of women on set, which is always nice.
HG: What were some of your early conversations like with Billie Jean and Rosie about what it was like at that time, and how they fought sexism to improve the situation for women?
NM: I actually didn’t meet either of them until [recently]. I just met Rosie. I hadn’t met Billie Jean until I went to Toronto. I’ve been just soaking up everything they say. Watching Billie Jean talk is really something. It’s like every word out of her mouth is motivational, and she can’t help it. She’s always telling you how to move forward, and she can’t help it. That’s just how she talks. It’s really interesting to watch her. I studied what they did as much as I could, but I hadn’t talked to them until this week.
HG: What was it like meeting them finally in person, after knowing them so well through your research?
NM: Rosie’s a weird one because you’re playing her, and she’s also maybe a foot shorter than I am, if not more. When I met her, we took a photo together, and she very seriously was like, “Oh, people are going to wonder what happened to me after the movie when they see me. Did I shrink?”
I would like to talk to her more. We exchanged information so I can some see her when I’m in her neck of the woods. I was like, “Is it weird to have someone play you?” and she was like, “Yeah.” We talked a lot about that. Billie Jean is so great. I didn’t get to see any footage or her vibe at all, Rosie’s vibe, but apparently I got it right, which is nice. Billie Jean was like, “You nailed her.”
HG: The film is very vocal about sexism, but it more quietly fights for LGBTQ rights. There’s a scene at the end of the film in which tennis player and designer Ted Tinling [Alan Cumming] tells Billie Jean that her victory is a win for women, and there’s still more to do about LGBTQ rights. What do you think of that scene, and what the film has to say about the fight for the LGBTQ community?
NM: That makes me bawl every time I see it. I’m always an advocate for telling stories about marginalized people that aren’t necessarily about how they’re marginalized because while I think that’s important, we see that all the time and there are other stories about their lives. While this movie touches on that, it’s not necessarily about that, but it is such a big part of her life and everything that’s going on, and I think that resonates maybe even more.
As somebody who had similar struggles myself, I had the rest of my life going on as well. It wasn’t just about that, so to see how that weaves into everything else is something that you can connect with, as somebody who might be going through a similar situation. It’s like, “Oh, am I just adding extra drama to my life by doing this?” No, that’s what life is. There is other shit going on, and there’s this other huge thing too. I thought it was a really good way to make that a huge part of the movie while just also being under the surface.