Elisabeth Shue’s adventures go way beyond babysitting.
In the new biopic Battle of the Sexes, Shue plays Priscilla Wheelan, neglected wife of misogynist tennis champ Bobby Riggs. But the ’80s icon actually has more in common with out feminist heroine Billie Jean King, who famously defeated Riggs in the legendary 1973 grudge match for which the film is named.
Before revisiting memorable roles like her Oscar-nominated work as a prostitute in Leaving Las Vegas, Shue explains how she grabbed the sexual revolution by the balls.
Early ’70s fashion suits you. Were you comfortable wearing those high-end period looks for Battle of the Sexes?
The costumes actually made me feel slightly uncomfortable, especially those pointy grandma bras, which helped me get into character. But they made me feel very womanly, like I belonged in that fancy house with nothing to do but get dressed up and worry about my hair.
Priscilla has a contentious relationship with her sexist husband, played by Steve Carell. What attracted you to the character?
I related to her feeling stuck. My mother, who was of that era, was also an educated woman who felt trapped by having to have children and be a pillar of society. Priscilla loved Bobby’s childish behavior because he made her boring life of wealth more exciting, but she wanted him to care more about his family than his gambling. I love when she asks how he can be such a male chauvinist pig when she’s the one paying for everything.
Emma Stone stars as Billie Jean King, a tennis pro fighting for respect in a male-dominated sport. Similarly, in 1972, you fought for the right to play soccer on an all-boys team. Even at the age of 9, did you know you were a feminist?
I just wanted to play soccer. [Laughs] But I was very aware of how it felt to be the only girl on the team and the only girl in a family with three brothers, always having to fight to get attention. People would say I was a good athlete for a girl—that really pissed me off. It was definitely hard for me, which is why I loved being a part of a movie that touched on those themes.
In Gracie, a film based on your experiences, there’s concern that the protagonist will be labeled a lesbian if she plays soccer with boys. Is that why you quit your team at 13?
No, it was just a really vulnerable time. There were these girly girls who lived up on the hill in my town, and I wanted to be a part of their world so much that I let the athletic part of my identity go. I look back at that as one of the worst decisions I ever made, honestly. That’s why I respect Billie Jean, because she could’ve run away from the challenge of that battle, but the fact that she faced it is so moving to me.
Billie Jean also fought for female tennis players to get paid the same as the men. Have you experienced that salary disparity in Hollywood?
I don’t think I ever got to the level of fame where it became an issue. When I was actually making money, I was on my way up and just thankful to be paid well. But I can relate to what actresses like Emma Stone are facing now, and I do think it’s unfair that they aren’t paid the same as their male costars.
Have you ever played a lesbian role?
No, but I would really love to. I did get to kiss a woman in Leaving Las Vegas, and that was a lot of fun.
That was a pretty steamy gay-for-pay scene. Was there any awkwardness?
It was actually very comfortable for me. I loved it. I’ve always truly felt that all human beings are bisexual. I think we’re all attracted to each other, men and women, and then we sort of figure out who we want to marry or have a relationship with. Does that make sense? That’ll probably sound terrible in print.
When did your relationship with the LGBT community begin?
I’m grateful that I was raised in an open, liberal family with no judgments. I had an amazing acting teacher, Roy London, who died of AIDS. My dear friend Patrick Lippert, who led the Rock the Vote campaign, also died of AIDS. It was devastating. I’m lucky to live in L.A., where I have a lot of close friends who are gay, and there are many gay families at my kids’ school. My daughter is best friends with a girl who has three mothers. It’s perfect.
Queer filmmaker Gregg Araki cast you in Mysterious Skin as the mother of a gay hustler and sexual abuse survivor played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. What sticks out to you about that experience?
I can maybe count six films that I deeply loved being a part of, and that’s one of them. I loved how complicated my character was; her narcissism and insecurities made her unable to give her son the love he needed. What Gregg was able to bring forth with a $1 million budget is so beautiful. That was Joe’s Leaving Las Vegas, when he finally got to play a character worthy of him.
Soapdish also has a huge gay following. Did you know it had potential to become an enduring camp classic?
I didn’t. It wasn’t very successful at the time, so it was a bit of a disappointment for everybody involved, but it makes me so happy to know it’s a favorite of the gay community—that certainly makes sense. I just adore that film and loved doing it. It was so unique.
It’s been 30 years since Adventures in Babysitting premiered. As a gay kid totally obsessed with that movie, I think I may’ve been subconsciously attuned to the fact that your costars Anthony Rapp and Maia Brewton were also queer. Was that on your gaydar?
It wasn’t! The funny thing is that Anthony had a little crush on me at the time, which was very sweet. He was so good in the movie, and we definitely had a special friendship. We stayed in touch afterward and did a Tina Howe play together [Birth and After Birth] in New York. He’s one of my favorite people.
I’ve haven’t read too much of that commentary but I totally understand it. When I watch comedies on Netflix with my kids, it’s almost always something like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or The Breakfast Club. All those ’80s teen movies were relatively complicated. I feel like we’ve cleaned up storytelling to eliminate any messy stuff that’s interesting, challenging, and thought-provoking.
Do you watch Adventures in Babysitting?
I don’t like watching my old movies because I’m very judgmental of myself, but that one’s easier than most because it was so special to me. I just love that I got to say, “Don’t fuck with the babysitter!”—even though my father asked me not to, because he thought I would inspire kids around the world to start saying “fuck.”
Your next film, a Death Wish remake starring Bruce Willis as a vigilante, has been slammed on social media and labeled “alt-right fan fiction” based on its trailer. What’s your take on the controversy?
It upset me when I read that. Obviously, I would never be a part of anything like that, so I think people should wait and see the movie. The trailer is slightly misleading, because you don’t really feel this guy’s grief over what happened to his family or understand his motivation to find their killers. The trailer makes it seem like he’s just going out having a great time taking care of business. But if that controversy gets more people to see the movie, that’s okay, because I think it’s really good.
Your career has been refreshingly unpredictable. After playing girlfriends in ’80s movies like The Karate Kid and Cocktail, you balanced serious dramas with indie comedies like Hamlet 2, popcorn thrillers like Piranha 3D, and even four seasons on CSI. Do you enjoy variety or just toying with audience expectations?
I don’t think I’ve ever had any sort of plan. I just looked for characters I thought I’d enjoy playing and people I really wanted to work with. The stories haven’t always panned out, but I feel strongly that when I look back at my career, whether the movies were good or bad, I’ll be proud to say that I worked with really talented, interesting actors and directors that I admire. At the end of the day, that’s what matters to me.
Battle of the Sexes is in theaters September 22.