Was John McEnroe a bad guy? Shia LaBeouf seeks to put a new spin on the tennis icon

In what he calls a "cathartic" experience, the actor drew from his own real-life controversies for the role.

In what he calls a "cathartic" experience, the actor drew from his own real-life controversies for the role.

Shia LaBeouf plays controversial tennis icon John McEnroe in the new film, Borg/McEnroe. (Mongrel Media)

There are some glaringly obvious parallels to make between tennis bad boy John McEnroe and Shia LaBeouf, the actor who portrays him in the new film, Borg vs. McEnroe, which is out today.

McEnroe became notorious for his on-court antics and outbursts, earning him the nickname "Super Brat" by the U.K. press; LaBeouf, who, when not making movies, has made headlines for getting in fights at bars or for controversialart installations, has been called far worse by the tabloids. Each man has grappled with being in the public eye, has had an adversarial relationship with the press, and they've both had careers in which their personal actions have threatened to overshadow their work.

None of this is lost on LaBeouf, who called the experience of playing McEnroe "cathartic" while at a press conference for the film in Toronto last September, just a few months after he was arrested in Savannah, Ga., for disorderly conduct, obstruction and public drunkenness.

When asked about the traits he shares with McEnroe, and whether they helped him find his character in the film, he told the crowd of journalists that "this is another parallel that I feel with him, for sure. It's part of the cathartic feeling of the film for me. "

In fact, there is a press conference scene in the film, one in which McEnroe clearly does not want to be there, that hit particularly close to home for LaBeouf.

"It was very hard to sit in situations like this" — meaning the 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."

Borg vs. McEnroe tells the story of the 1980 tennis match between Swedish tennis superstar Bjorn Borg and McEnroe, the American bad boy. McEnroe was reaching the men's single final at Wimbledon for the first time, while Borg was going for a record-breaking fifth win. It is widely considered to be one of the greatest tennis matches in history. As depicted in the film, Borg, the fan favourite, is steely and composed, both on the court and off. McEnroe is the opposite, and is even booed when he enters the stadium to square off against Borg.

"In Sweden, I saw [the match] of course, everybody saw every match with Borg," Stellan Skarsgård, who plays Borg's trainer, Lennart Bergelin, said in an interview last September following the TIFF screening. "The country stopped when he was playing. I think our gross national product went down."

To him, the legacy of the match and the appeal of the movie come down to how quickly people are willing to paint one person as good and one as bad. "It is of course cultural differences, because as a Scandinavian, you're not supposed to show your feelings that much, and you use as few words as possible. And the American culture is the opposite. … We should try to understand where everybody comes from, what culture they come from. McEnroe just came from another world, so he's a bad guy, from our point of view."

It's this idea of McEnroe as the bad guy that not only drew LaBeouf to the role, but also draws directors to him in order to play McEnroe. In fact, it's the second time he's been offered the opportunity to play McEnroe, although he turned the first role down for being disrespectful. The film was called Super Brat, and treated McEnroe more as "sort of a clown, a screaming shrew," said LaBeouf, an image more in line with how McEnroe was depicted in popular culture, particularly in Britain, during his prime.

The McEnroe in this film, however, is far more complex, giving LaBeouf the chance to flip this idea of good versus bad on its head. If anything, McEnroe comes off as a nuanced anti-hero much more so than a straight-up super brat.

"What [LaBeouf] does to the image of McEnroe is amazing because he does exactly what you always want to do," says Skarsgård. "You think it's a bad guy, but then you feel sorry for him in the end. It's something so vulnerable and beautiful."

Danish director Janus Metz says he used LaBeouf's empathy for McEnroe, not to mention the real-life comparisons, to his advantage.

"We used it very actively, I'd be a fool as a director not to use that," he says. "That was very much part of the casting, to find people that could bring a certain authenticity to the role so that we would not just be, you know, replicating, trying to create a sense of mimicry, but trying to create a sense of truth and reality that transcends the film."

For LaBeouf, the role, above all, offered him the chance to paint a more nuanced portrayal of a misunderstood man, someone who, like himself, puts more intent behind his actions than we give him credit for.

"It's not just screaming rage. He used rage to throw people off. In that way, he's an artist, it was very thought-through, even though it's hard to explain," said LaBeouf, who by seeking to justify McEnroe's actions, could just as easily be talking about himself.

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