LaBeouf steps right into the shoes of John McEnroe in ‘Borg vs. McEnroe’

Shia LaBeouf started popping up on TV screens and cinema screens about two decades ago. Yet though he’s turned in some excellent performances — think “Bobby,” “Lawless,” “Fury” — and played the lead character, Sam Witwicky, in the first three “Transformers” films, an inordinate number of fans seem to know him more for being at the center of public disturbances or for his outspoken dislike of President Donald Trump. It could be said, then, that it was a wise choice to cast him as tennis legend John McEnroe — well known for public disturbances and no fan of Trump — in “Borg vs. McEnroe.”

The film follows both the hot-tempered McEnroe and the serene Björn Borg (Swedish actor Sverrir Gudnason) from their troubled childhoods, when tennis became a positive outlet for them, up through the celebrated and grueling match between them at the 1980 Wimbledon finals. There’s enough tennis in it to call it a sports film, but it’s much more about the different character traits of the two competitors. La Beouf, 31, who had never played the game before, spoke about taking on the part in Toronto.

Q: You were approached to play John McEnroe a couple of years back in a film that was to be called “Superbrat,” Why did you turn that down and why did you say yes to this one?

A: The one I read before this was a satire. It wasn’t treating McEnroe’s story with respect or empathy. He was just sort of a clown, a screaming shrew. And it wasn’t necessarily the McEnroe role that I was first attracted to. I was a fan of (director) Janus Metz’s first film, “Armadillo” (a documentary about Danish soldiers stationed in Afghanistan), and when I heard he was doing a tennis film, I thought, “What? That doesn’t make any sense!” But I read the script by Ronnie Sandahl, and it really moved me.

Q: You’re playing a real person here. Were you able to add much to him, any dramatic license?

A: I don’t feel like I added much. Ronnie did his research, and the script is pretty factual. A lot of the stuff on McEnroe is online, so you can watch it. For the match at the end, we rehearsed things like a ballet, including the outbursts. I would play them on a screen right before we filmed and look at where everything was. It was very paint by the numbers, in a way.

Q: The film suggests that Borg started out as an iceberg but became a volcano, and that McEnroe was already a volcano, but might have been very calculating on the inside. Do you agree?

A: It’s more complicated than that. I think McEnroe is a tactician. He really added something different to the game. When he entered the game, it was a power sport, and Borg brought touch and feel and a sensitivity to the game that wasn’t there before. But with McEnroe, it’s 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.

Q: Do you feel that McEnroe has been misunderstood?

A: Yeah! It’s a bit like watching “Amadeus.” He’s like the Mozart character. So, I watched “Amadeus” a lot. I don’t think McEnroe even understood what was going on. He was a young man, and everything was loud and fast, so I don’t think he was really searching for anything, he was just trying to win. When he was growing up, in a rough area of Queens, he was a small guy, a scared guy. His parents really pushed him. An A+ wasn’t enough. I think I empathized with the fact that there was just no way to win. And that’s what made him so competitive in life. The fact that he could stand up and hold his head high and put himself out there and be as vulnerable as he was and exhibit that kind of emotion ... I respect that.

Q: Have you continued to play tennis since making the film?

A: You could have given me 20 years of practice and I never would have played like McEnroe. Pretty early on, after the screen tests, we knew what we needed to do, and I started learning the game like a dance. I never actually played tennis. It was something different. And while we were filming, I broke my foot practicing with Sverrir, and my recovery took a while. So, I haven’t gone back to playing tennis.

“Borg vs. McEnroe” opens on April 13.

— Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.

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