Borg vs McEnroe: Director and Actors on Reality Story... And The Debut of One Leo Borg

By Jim Slotek

Filmmaker Janus Metz Pedersen, who directed the gripping new fact-based sports drama Borg vs McEnroe, admits he knows nothing about tennis. But as a Swede, he knows a thing or two about existentialism.

“I don’t think you can make a ‘sports movie,’" he says while promoting the arty chronicle of the legendary 1980 Wimbledon final death-match between Bjorn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) and American super-brat John McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf). “Sports is only a stage. It’s the characters and a sense of humanity that matter.

 Shia LeBeouf, director Janus Metz, and Sverrir Gudnason on the set of Borg vs McEnroe.

Shia LeBeouf, director Janus Metz, and Sverrir Gudnason on the set of Borg vs McEnroe.

“I had reservations only at the point where I had the script on the desk in front of me that said, ‘Borg vs McEnroe.’ I thought, ‘OK, I don’t have any particular interest in tennis. But I have an interest in people that drive themselves to the edge and beyond.’

“And as I started reading, that was the story.”

That beyond-the-edge experience, as far as the world is concerned, was an angel-versus-devil, four-hour 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (16), 8-6 win for Borg, his fifth consecutive Wimbledon title, punctuating his career. 

“It was one of those incidents in the history of sports where time stands still. It made the world stop and wonder,” Pedersen says.

“But I think it’s also a perfect narrative between two perfect opposites: one (Borg) who always represses his emotions in order to manifest an intensity that makes him a winner. John is the opposite. He feeds off his emotions and uses them extravagantly. They represent mirrors we can look at and find a piece of ourselves in. 

“And secondly, it was a perfect narrative of clashing types of society, of clashing worlds. What happened in that match was so dramatic, so extensive that it almost has an element that became larger than tennis. It became sublime, perfection.”

There’s even a bit of geopolitics in Pederson’s take. “I think it’s very much a film about how very different societies produce two very different types of heroes, you might say. The Swedish welfare system of the ‘70s was very much about not sticking out, about composure. And that is very opposite to the American society of the same time which was a very individualist, capitalist society that champions an entirely different type of personality.”

But the big psychological reveal in Borg vs McEnroe is that the “Ice Borg” had a brat past that was every bit as furious and outburst-prone as McEnroe’s, a trait that was practically beaten out of him by his coach Lennart Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgård), a former Wimbledon champ himself. (Skarsgård calls him “Salieri to Borg’s Mozart.”)

Playing the bratty pubescent Borg is a child actor named, um, Leo Borg. “This was a wonderful thing, we were actually approached by Leo himself. He wrote saying, ‘My name is Leo Borg, I’m a tennis player, I’m 13-years-old. I’d like to come for casting. By the way, my father is Bjorn Borg.’

“I thought it was really great. I also thought it could be a big problem. Would Bjorn Borg be on set? Would he suddenly have a say in the film? Would he say, ‘No you can’t do that scene because I don’t want that side of me in the film.’?  Would Leo be in trouble at home at the dinner table if they didn’t like what he was shooting?

“Leo was just so undeniably good. We had thorough discussions with the Borg family. He was going to be treated like any other actor. Bjorn wouldn’t have any interference. But of course, the scenario evolved into me having a chance to sit down with Bjorn and talk about his life. He was onset as we were going to film, but he could never be there when Leo was filming. We wanted him to be free.

“He was there when we filmed at his childhood home. I was very lucky to have that contact with Bjorn, but unfortunately not with John.”

McEnroe declined to co-operate with Pedersen’s production. But in Shia LaBeouf, the director knew he was getting someone who knew the McEnroe experience, particularly his fractious relationship with the press. (Indeed, LaBeouf had previously turned down an offer to play McEnroe in another movie). 

I tell Pedersen that an angry McEnroe press conference enacted in the movie could have been one of LaBeouf’s own, making it an almost meta experience. 

“That was very much part of the casting,” he replies. “We wanted a sense of truth and reality. And I’d be foolish as a director not to use [LaBeouf’s 'bad boy' notoriety].

“Shia himself talks about this role as being a cathartic experience for him, and it makes me very proud.”

For his part, Skarsgård enthuses over LaBeouf’s performance. "What he does to the image of McEnroe is amazing. He does what you always want to do as an actor. ‘You think he’s a bad guy? Well, you will feel sorry for him in the end.’ It’s something so vulnerable and beautiful, what he’s done.”

Skarsgård is the one principal old enough to have vivid memories of the 1980 showdown, and indeed, Borg’s career. “Everybody saw every match. The country stopped when he was playing. Our Gross National Product would go down. He would lose in the beginning and he came back from you didn’t know where, and he’d beat the shit out of people.

“But that particular match goes beyond sports," Skarsgård continues. "It’s the perfect drama. There’s one flaw in it. It’s that the big tie-break should have been in the fifth set, not in the fourth. I don’t know what they were thinking [when they wrote it]," Skarsgård quips.

“I saw it and it was painful. Each of those sets he lost, it was painful, and I wasn’t even that interested in tennis.”

There were no similar visceral memories for Gudnason, who plays Borg. “I felt pretty far away from a tennis player when I got this part,” he says. “I had never been on a tennis court. I had never really watched tennis. I didn’t know the rules. So, I had to start from the beginning.

“I was not in good shape. I was eating… (turns to Skarsgård) you tell them.”

“He was living on pizza and beer, basically,” Skarsgård says with a chuckle.

“So, I started this diet of seven meals a day with healthy food, and played two hours tennis a day and did a lot of physical work. For me, the key into the role was to be very physical, to try to see what it is to be an athlete."

Gudnason studied YouTube videos of Borg’s physicality. And the rest was finding out what he didn’t know. “I didn’t know what was going on behind Borg’s Iceborg façade,” Gudnason says.

“He had these rituals where he sleeps in 12 degrees in the room and takes the same car and same route and everything. I didn’t know all this. I didn’t know as a child he was screaming on court and losing it and he was like a young McEnroe.”

Borg vs. McEnroe. Directed by Janus Metz. Starring Shia LaBeouf, Sverrir Gudnason, Stellan Skarsgård, and Leo Borg. Opens April 13 in Toronto (TIFF Bell Lightbox) and Vancouver. Also available April 13 on iTunes and On Demand.