John McEnroe may not be too thrilled about Shia LaBeouf playing him in Borg/McEnroe, the psychological thriller about the greatest tennis rivalry of all time that’s opening the Toronto International Film Festival today. (“Supposedly he’s crazy, so maybe that works,” McEnroe told Vanity Fair, having not seen the movie. “I’ve never talked to him, so I don’t know how he could play me.”) But as LaBeouf talked about the tennis great at the movie’s TIFF press conference, he sounded like a starry-eyed teenager who’d just found his soul mate.
“John,” he said, looking back at the row of news cameras, “I’d love to meet you. He’s a busy guy.”
Think of all the things the two men have in common: that unruly curly hair, a penchant for athletic socks, a singular intensity about their chosen crafts, and a tendency to throw what might be called “tantrums” in public. (See: LaBeouf’s arrest this July, and any tape of McEnroe playing, ever.) LaBeouf may not have a personal relationship with McEnroe, but over the course of 40 minutes, he more than proved that he’d read probably everything that’s been written about the man — usually by McEnroe himself — seen every tape, and spent many, many an hour trying to break down the psychology of all that racket-throwing and yelling at umps. How else did LaBeouf manage to prove his undying admiration?
By comparing McEnroe to perhaps the greatest composer in history:
“He’s like Mozart to me,” said LaBeouf of McEnroe’s mad genius, “so I watched Amadeus a lot.”
By revealing he’d actually turned down an earlier chance play McEnroe, because it was kind of mean and goofy:
He’d actually been offered and turned down a satire called “Superbrat” — McEnroe’s nickname in Britain — because, he said, “it wasn’t treating McEnroe’s story with a whole lot of respect. He was just sort of a clown, a screaming shrew.” LaBeouf signed on for this one mainly because he was a big fan of Danish director Janus Metz’s Afghan War documentary Armadillo, and he thought it was “so fucked up” he’d be making a movie about tennis.
By calling him “misunderstood”:
Always the tell that you love somebody.
By chalking up all that bad behavior to being young:
“He was a young man. Everything was really loud and really fast, so I don’t think he was really searching. He was just trying to win.”
By mentioning several times that he faked all his tennis because there was no way he’d ever play like McEnroe:
“I learned it more like a dance to a metronome,” said LaBeouf. “It was dance moves. I mean, you could’ve given me 20 years and I would’ve never played like McEnroe. So pretty early on the process after screen tests, we knew exactly what we needed to do, and I started learning it like a dance. I never actually played tennis. It was something different.” Also, he broke his foot practicing tennis with the very hot, very talented Swedish actor, Sverrir Gudnason, who plays Björn Borg — and who, in the movie, has very luscious hair that I could watch for days.
By making a passionate case for the idea that McEnroe changed tennis:
“He was a tactician,” said LaBeouf. “I think he really added something different to the game. When he entered the game, it was base-liners, it was a power sport, and Borg was the king of that. He brought touch and feel and sensitivity to the game that wasn’t there before. It was not just screaming rage. He used rage as a tactic to throw people off, and he manufactured his intensity to hype himself up. In that way he’s an artist.”
By explaining that McEnroe was so testy in press conferences because he was thinking on a higher level than all the sports journalists asking him questions:
“It was very hard to sit in situations like this” — meaning a press conference — “and explain that kind of tactical positioning in tennis at the time, because the narrative was cartoons, it was bad guy versus good guy and it was very hard for him to be honest in a setting like this.” Does LaBeouf feel that same frustration when people ask him about his behavior instead of his acting? “Yeah, this is another parallel that I feel with him, for sure.”
By empathizing with how his upbringing could have made him come across as a competitive jerk:
“He came from a very loud household and was a scared guy — a small guy, grew up in Queens, rough area. My idea of tennis was very white collar, he was entering it in a different way. His father and his mother pushed him. You know, an A+ wasn’t enough. I just really empathized with the fact that there was just no way to win. That’s what made him so competitive in his life. So the fact that he could stand up and hold his head high and put himself out there and be as vulnerable as he was, exhibit that kind of emotion, I really respect it.”
By getting a kick out the older man McEnroe has become:
“I think he’s hyperaware of legacy,” said LaBeouf. “I mean, he’s written two biographies. He’s written a sequel to the biography. He’s recorded the audio book. His wife is on the audiobook. I think he’s very aware of the perception of him and I think he’s turned into quite a sweet man. He’s sort of the Bad Santa of Tennis. He’s a very lovable guy. I really like what he’s become in the public. Nothing but respect and love to him.”
By having a very deeply considered opinion about why McEnroe got into art dealing after tennis:
“I don’t think he was as into art as he was into money,” said LaBeouf. “This is a man who comes from Irish immigrants who were very into numbers. He said it in his last biography that the artists he was into, like Jeff Koons, he was into it for the capital part. Famously turned down Basquiat paintings until they started making money, then he became into Basquiat. Held onto his Warhols until he could get the right price for them.”
But also by always seeing the soul behind the man — and in turn hoping that people will see the soul in Shia LaBeouf, the actor, too:
Even if McEnroe was a bit of a capitalist about art, LaBeouf believes he did see its intangible values, too: “What he did like about art, and he talks about this, is the vulnerability of a person coming out with his own ideas, which he compared to athletics. He loved the idea of an artist putting his neck out on the line for something he believed in, which I believe and I think we would all agree, is what acting is. It is like athletics, ordinary men with extraordinary determination putting themselves out there.”