Interview: Stellan Skarsgård and Sverrir Gudnason Talk “Borg vs McEnroe”

John McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf ) and Björn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) in Janus Metz’s BORG VS MCENROE, courtesy of NEON

Tennis is a challenging game whether you play a singles match or doubles. In both cases, it requires not only athletic skills but calculation and logical reasoning, analyzing and planning, finally – perfect execution of a strategy developed long before the match started. Two players on each side of the court try to implement all the above-mentioned strategies to define who is the victor. And when the match turns into a fantastic emotional game, you know that both players love tennis more than anything else. Written by Ronnie Sandahl and directed by Janus Metz, “Borg vs McEnroe” follows two iconic tennis players whose rivalry knows no boundaries.

Starring Shia LaBeouf as John McEnroe, Sverrir Gudnason as Bjorn Borg and Stellan Skarsgard as Lennart Bergelin, the film manages to bring the required tension onto the silver screen for the younger generation to witness one of the most astonishing matches of all times.

During last year’s  Toronto International Film Festival I had the absolute pleasure to meet Stellan Skarsgard and Sverrir Gudnason to talk about their way of capturing what has stunned the world.

MOVIEMOVESME: You both play characters of legendary people. Mr. Skarsgard, your character is someone who is able to get into Borg’s mind and control or navigate him through the days when his emotions seem somewhat uncontrollable. And you, Mr. Gudnason, obviously play the legendary tennis player. I’d like to ask you about this opportunity to portray real legendary people while bringing something from yourself into the role and the film.

Sverrir Gudnason: Well, when I got the part, I was pretty far away from a tennis player. I had never been on a tennis court. I had never really watched tennis. I didn’t know the rules or anything. So I had to start from the beginning.

Stellan Skarsgard:  You should tell them about your diet back then. He was living on pizza and beer basically.

Sverrir Gudnason: Yeah. So I started this program. I ate seven meals a day with just a good, or not good food, but healthy food. And played tennis for two hours every day and did a lot of physical work. For me, the key to the role was very physical -to try to feel how it is to be an athlete.

MOVIEMOVESME: Mr. Skarsgard, what was your approach in portraying Lennart Bergelin’s character?

Stellan Skarsgard: Yeah. For me, it was less about the idea of playing a person who coaches someone – because that’s pretty obvious from the script and I don’t have to play that. The big thing was to be able to create a natural intimacy with Sverrir and Tuva (Tuva Novotny – MovieMovesMe). There is no scene about our relationship but it’s something that has to be there, and it has to be there physically so that the audience feels that: “Okay, those people, they really know each other.” Because they were living together on tour for years and sometimes even shared room. So I was searching for a way to find that relationship with Sverrir and with Tuva who plays Mariana. So that we could just be in a scene and everybody would feel it all without us having to play it. We talked about that early on too. And I think we managed actually.

MOVIEMOVESME: I wonder whether you worried about portraying real tennis players. Because there are always viewers who would say that this or that move was done incorrectly, or something else. Did you worry about not just getting the character right but also the correct physical moves?

Sverrir Gudnason:  Yeah. I was nervous about it. That’s why I watched everything I could find about Bjorn Borg and watched his games and tried to really see how he walks, how he talks, his posture and his tennis style – everything. I wanted to make it right. But then after doing that, I could make my own choices to build the character. But I had to have a strong foundation of being similar to Borg.

Borg’s trainer, Lennart Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgård) in Janus Metz’s BORG VS MCENROE, courtesy of NEON

MOVIEMOVESME: When I watch Lennart Bergelin’s character, one minute he is calm, and then suddenly he changes in a blink. And all of that is because he knows that’s what Borg needs from him at that moment. I wonder how do you work on set? How do you transform yourself from being Stellan Skarsgard to becoming your character; or from Sverrir to the tennis player with all his troubles?

Stellan Skarsgard: I don’t know, I’m not a method actor. I don’t become the character, really. But I guess you can say that as an actor you develop a lightning-fast connection to all your emotions. And you can switch them on pretty fast. You can become furious in a second, so, when required, you become furious.

MOVIEMOVESME: Stellan, I’d like to ask you about the impact of this event in Sweden during 1980. Can you tell me about that a bit more? I wasn’t very familiar with the results of this match but I knew about it because it’s become such a pop-cultural thing.

Stellan Skarsgard: Everybody watched every match with Borg. Everything in the country seemed to stop when he was playing. I think our gross national product went down those years. Badly. And his matches were always a big drama because usually, he was losing in the beginning and then he’d come back from you never knew where,  and he just beat the shit out of people. But that particular match goes beyond sports. It’s the perfect drama. There’s one flaw in it, though. The big tie-break should have been in the fifth set instead of the fourth.

Sverrir Gudnason: You mean in the real match.

Stellan Skarsgard: In the real match. Yeah. I don’t know what they were thinking. I saw it and it was painful. You would go: “Oh, no, no, no!” and each of those two matches that he lost, you didn’t know what to do with yourself. And I wasn’t even interested in tennis.

MOVIEMOVESME: Tennis is really a unique experience,  especially singles tennis Because, like they sort of bring up in the movie, it’s one person against another. There are very few other sports that do that and but it’s also the only one where there’s time.

Sverrir Gudnason: And I remember seeing Bobby Fischer documentary – “Bobby Fischer Against the World” where he won the championship in Iceland. He was doing the interview afterward and the journalist asked him: “So, after all this now, what are you gonna do?” And he’s like: “Yeah, yeah, now I have the time to really play some more chess.” And that must be really stressful for an opponent to hear. Okay, he’s gonna go home and play more chess now. And I think in order to be the best in the world at something, you have to have that brain. That mentality, that you just do it and you do it and you do it. I think Bjorn lost that at an early age. That’s what the movie is about.

MOVIEMOVESME: Mr. Skarsgard, the director has talked about the Swedish character as represented in the film against the American character. Whereas in America it’s all about calling attention to yourself. As an actor who has worked a lot in Hollywood, do you see that in other parts of life? And was that in play, you think? Is that an accurate description of what went on there?

Stellan Skarsgard: Well, there are several things. First of all, they’re very similar – Borg and McEnroe – in many ways. But there are, of course, cultural differences. As a Scandinavian, you are not supposed to show your feelings that much and you use as few words as possible. The American culture is the opposite. But as I think, I find cultural differences interesting. Because, first of all, we should stop dividing the world into good guys and bad guys. That’s number one thing we should get rid of. But then we should also try to understand where people come from as they make their decisions – what culture they come from.

Americans are really bad at that. Because they don’t know anything about what’s going on outside of their borders. Especially when they’re building high walls around it, they will know less. But it is incredible how much of what we do is really okay in one culture and could be criminal in another culture. So we shouldn’t judge people saying they’re evil or good. We should judge them by understanding where you come from.

I played a mafia guy in a film called “Our Kind of Traitor”. My character was a very nice guy. But he grew up in jails in the Soviet Union, and killing is not a big deal in the culture he comes from like it was in our country in the Viking times. Killing is not a big deal. There’s no problem. It’s other things that are problems – honor is a problem, and stuff like that. So, he just came from another world. Year, well, you can still say he is a bad guy, especially from our point of view. I just drifted off on this cultural thing. Sorry.

MOVIEMOVESME: You both mentioned that you don’t really like tennis or you don’t watch tennis.  I’m a huge fan of Serena Williams, I love tennis since I was a child. As actors, you are playing a coach and a tennis player – what have you learned about them? What did you find the most challenging about him being a coach, mentor? I mean, to me, a mentor is more like a  psychologist. Did you discover something about the characters you portrayed that we – the viewers don’t know?

Sverrir Gudnason: Before I started working on this film I didn’t know what was going on behind Borg’s iceberg façade. I mean, he has these rituals where he sleeps in 12 degrees in the room, and he takes the same car, and the same route, and the same everything, and I didn’t know about all this. And I didn’t know that when he was a child he was screaming on the court, and losing it. That he was like a young McEnroe.

Stellan Skarsgard: I don’t know how much of what I found out is true or false, and which part of it is my fantasies. But of course, I thought a lot about the character, and I find it interesting – what journey he is going through. Because when he picks up Borg, it is similar to Salieri picking up Mozart. I mean, this guy has everything I’ve ever dreamed of having. Because Bergelin was the best tennis player ever in Sweden before.

And he starts taking care of this kid, and bringing him, sort of controlling him, and getting him focused on how to use his anger, his energy. And then, the relationship must change, because towards the end this guy has five Wimbledons or four Wimbledons. And he is rich like a troll, as we say in Sweden. And he’s got all the power in the world. I’m just a little old man that is hanging on to him. Hanging with him. But at the same time, this is all I have. I want it to happen, and I want him to do my dreams for me, you know?

MOVIEMOVESME: What do you think of Shia’s performance?

Sverrir Gudnason:  It’s fantastic.

Stellan Skarsgard: Incredible. And what he does to the image of McEnroe is amazing, because he does exactly what you always want to do. You think it’s a bad guy? Wow. You feel sorry for him in the end. It’s something so vulnerable and beautiful, what he’s done.


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