The year was 1970 when nine female tennis stars took a stand for women’s equality in the sport they loved and said enough was enough. Although pay discrepancy between male and female tennis players had always been an issue in the tennis world, the nine brave women, led by tennis icon Billie Jean King, decided to boycott an upcoming tournament when they learned the men’s championship match would pay the winner 12 times more prize money than the women’s final.
Known as the Original 9, the women decided to start their own tennis circuit, which would later become the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA). Through the WTA, the Original 9 laid the groundwork for female tennis players to start getting compensated equal winnings to their male counterparts.
Earlier this month at the U.S. Open, Rafael Nadal and Sloane Stephens won the championship in their respected bracket. Both received the same exact prize money for their victories – $3.7 million. Without the Original 9, one could only imagine where equal rights for women in professional tennis would be today.
While the original nine women are only part of the narrative of the new sports drama “Battle of the Sexes” (most of the film focuses on the build up to the exhibition tennis match between King and Bobby Riggs in 1973), it really is the most interesting part of the story. In the movie, Academy Award winner Emma Stone (“La La Land”) portrays King opposite Academy Award nominee Steve Carell (“Foxcatcher”) who plays Riggs. Amidst the storied rivalry between the two main characters in the movie, the other eight women are also given screen time as they join King to take on the rampant misogyny displayed inside the men’s circuit.
Natalie Morales (TV’s “The Grinder”) plays one of those tennis players, lone Latina athlete Rosie Casals, a multiple Grand Slam champion who was ranked No. 3 in the world in 1970. During the 1973 match between King and Riggs, Casals was given the opportunity to do the live TV commentary alongside late sports announcer Howard Cosell. With a little movie magic in “Battle of the Sexes,” Casals’ image is replaced with Morales’ in the original footage so it looks as if Morales herself is interacting with Cosell during the match (think of the scenes in “Forrest Gump” when Forrest meets John F. Kennedy and John Lennon).
During an interview with me, Morales talked about playing Casals, how the film speaks to pay inequality in many industries today, and why she winced at some of the archive footage she saw to prepare for her role.
What kind of research did you do to on Rosie Casals to get ready for the role?
I kind of went the same route Emma [Stone] did [to play King]. I really wanted to concentrate on Rosie back in 1973. I wanted to get her vibe and her style. She commentated on [The Battle of the Sexes] match, so I was able to watch that footage and listen to her voice. That really helped me get her accent down. She is from Northern California, so she has this surfer voice. It was fun to be able to imitate that and bring it to life again.
Did you get to meet Rosie before or during production?
I met her for the first time this past weekend at the premiere [of “Battle of the Sexes”]. She is an incredible person. She said [my portrayal] was really good, and so did Billie Jean, which made my day. There were some of the [Original 9] there at the premiere and they said the same thing. All her friends were telling me, “Oh, you got her so good!” It was a good compliment when they told me I nailed the character.
What does it mean to you as a Latina actress to portray someone of film that was a talented Latina who made a difference in tennis?
It was really special to me to play somebody like her. It was huge. There weren’t a ton of [Latinas] in the 70s who were visible in this way. She defied a lot of odds. Tennis was not a poor person’s sport and she didn’t have money growing up. White people playing tennis – their shoes were new and their rackets were new. [Rosie] came in at 5’2 with less money and rose to that status. She worked really hard for it. Not only that, she worked with Billy Jean to fight for women’s rights and equality.
What do you think a film about Rosie Casals would look like? She had quite a life of her own. A child of immigrant parents from El Salvador, the fact that she was Latina and tennis was considered a white upper-class sport. Is that a film that deserves an audience?
I think a movie about Rosie would definitely be interesting. She has her own coming-of-age story and what her relationship with Billie Jean was like and what her life was like and how everything affected her. She has a whole universe of her own.
How do you think a film like “Battle of the Sexes” speaks to the issues in Hollywood on pay discrepancy between men and women today? Do you see any parallels?
Women are fighting that battle everywhere, not just in Hollywood. Women aren’t paid equally anywhere. Women get paid the same prize money in tennis today because of Billy Jean not because of any other reason. Maybe it gets publicized a little more in Hollywood because the people talking about it are famous. To make the same amount of money that a man makes in a year, a woman has to work until April of the following year. And that’s a white woman! Latina women and black women make far less.
So, how can things change?
It takes more than just the women to do something about it. If men want to help us out, it’s important for them to do their part and go, “Hey, I just want to make sure you’re getting paid as much as me. This is how much I’m getting.” I think that would be a really great thing for men to do. And again, it’s not just in film. It’s in every job. It’s going to take everybody to say, “Hey, this is unfair. We need to pay everyone equal.” I know that’s hard, but it’s what’s fair.
Talk about your CGI scenes with Howard Cosell. How was that accomplished and what did you think of the finished product?
I think the finished product was so good that a lot of younger people thought [Howard] was just another actor. They didn’t realize I was on a split-screen. It was difficult. I had to match all of Rosie’s words and intonation and every single move she made perfectly so it would look seamless – like I was really talking to him. I was acting with nobody next to me, but it was really fun to do.
What did you think when you first saw the original footage of Rosie and Howard commentating on the King-Riggs match?
When you watch the footage today, it makes you recoil as a woman. This man is grabbing this woman by the neck who he is commentating with. She is a multiple Grand Slam champion and a huge tennis star. Cosell, up to that point, had only done boxing [commentary] and was nowhere near as qualified to comment on the match as Rosie. When he introduces her, he says something like, “Oh, look who it is helping us commentate today – little Rosie Casals.” I feel like if anybody introduced me like that today, I’d be like, “What’s your problem? Get your hand off my neck!
Do you think it is easier today to call misogyny out like than it was in the 70s?
I have the ability to [call someone out] because of women like Rosie. She knew that wasn’t possible for her to do back then. What was possible was for her to slyly wink at all the other women watching on TV. There was this silent communication [with women] through her facial expressions and comedy and jabs at [Cosell]. She was saying, “This is ridiculous!” I think that solidarity was felt by a lot of women who couldn’t do at the time what we are able to do today.
The last time I interviewed you, the industry was going through the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, which has trickled into other awards shows too like the Emmys. We are starting to see a lot more diversity on that front with African Americans getting more love, but it hasn’t crossed over to Latinos. More Latino actors have been given a place in the Academy, but I don’t know if that’s going to translate over to recognition. What do you think?
To have [more Latinos] included in the [Academy] is inclusion in itself. But there is another part of that, which is that the Oscars are so white because the movies are so white. So, studios and people making movies need to include people of all kinds in their films and then maybe the nominated pictures might not be so white. I mean, we’ve done better, but most of the Oscar films are still about white people, which is fine, but there are stories about other people as well and those stories need to be told.