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Shia LaBeouf on His Next Big Acting Challenge: Playing John McEnroe

Before hitchhiking across the States as part of his #TakeMeAnywhere project, Shia LaBeouf was in Cannes to present Andrea Arnold’s “American Honey” and spoke to Variety about his next challenging role as American tennis superstar and provocateur John McEnroe in “Borg vs. McEnroe,” to be directed by popular Danish helmer Janus Metz Pederson (“Armadillo,” “True Detective”).

Due to start shooting in August, the movie — penned by Ronnie Sandahl — centers on the relationship between McEnroe and Swedish tennis icon Bjorn Borg (played by up-and-comer Sverrir Gudnason) and chronicles the epic Wimbledon final they played against each other in 1980.

LaBeouf, who has been prepping for the role for two months, will star opposite Gudnason (“Monica Z”) and Stellan Skarsgård, his co-star in Lars von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac.” Tre Vanner and SF Studios are producing the project, while Svensk handles international sales.

How did this project fall on your lap? You had passed on another film about John McEnroe.

I received the script and read it when I came home – loved it. Chased it. It was a different script that I passed on. It was another movie called “Superbrat” about John McEnroe, and it was satirical, like a cartoon character like Happy Gilmore. And you know, I read it, it wasn’t very good and I initially thought it was the same project. But then I saw his name [Janus Metz Pederson] and I thought, “No, that doesn’t make any f—ing sense.” And I was a fan of his film. When we did “Fury,” we all just obsessed on his movie “Armadillo.” We sat in a room and watched his movie over and over again – steal a bunch of s— from his film. So we were obsessed, I found out who was doing it, what was going on and I chased him. That’s how we wind up here.

So it’s a darker take on John McEnroe?

No, not darker. Truthful, tangible, anchored, human.

The script is already written?

The script is brilliant. We are all here because of that. I cried the first time I read it. It’s not based on a book or a biography. It’s based on hard work.

So you’re working with Scandinavian directors now [after Lars von Trier with “Nymphomaniac” and Fredrik Bond with “Charlie Countryman”]?

Yes, they make better movies. Scandinavian filmmaking is different. It’s a different pace, a different relationship to the crew — the bonds are different.

Do you feel that you get more interesting roles in Scandinavian movies than in the U.S., for example?

Yes, by far. They make movies about people in Europe. In America, they make fewer films about people, more about plot. Those aren’t interesting to me.

Have you met John McEnroe during the rehearsal?

I haven’t met him yet, but I’m eager to meet him before we shoot. I got nothing but love and respect for him.

What’s your take when you’re trying to play a real character – do you try to imitate or make it your own?

Yes, you look for parallels in your life, and I’m lucky because there is a lot here.

What do you have in common?

Everything in common. Passionate. Perfectionist. Narcissistic. I’m a bit of a caricature also.

Will this film be bigger in scale than “American Honey,” for instance?

I think so, yes. This is epic. It’s f—ing epic. This is the biggest movie I’ve been in lately.

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