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Toronto Film Festival Kicks Off With Shia LaBeouf Channeling John McEnroe

“Tennis anyone?”

With those words and a gesture to his sneakers, artistic director Cameron Bailey kicked off the Toronto International Film Festival on Thursday night. Bailey took the stage at the Roy Thomson Hall for the gala premiere of “Borg/McEnroe,” a dissection of the famed rivalry between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe.

It’s a film that’s more interested in the agony rather than the ecstasy of the sport. “Borg/McEnroe” is also notable for offering a meaty role for Shia LaBeouf, a bad boy of cinema, who plays McEnroe, a player fabled for his short fuse on the court. While calling the cast to the stage, Bailey said McEnroe was a “a role [LaBeouf] was born to play.”

In a press conference earlier in the day, LaBeouf copped to his similarities with the hot-tempered tennis legend. Seemingly referencing LaBeouf’s troubles with the law, which include numerous arrests for public intoxication, a reporter asked if the actor was sick of being grilled more about his personal foibles than his craft, much as McEnroe was frequently questioned about his fiery demeanor.

“This is another parallel that I feel with him, for sure,” said LaBeouf, adding, “He was a young man. Everything was really loud and really fast, so I don’t think he was really searching. He was just trying to win.”

He called the experience of playing McEnroe “cathartic.”

Director Janus Metz said he saw Borg and McEnroe as two sides of the same coin, both motivated by a relentless competitive streak and thirst for perfection. The film is a psychological thriller, he argued.

“That was about so much more than tennis,” he said. “It’s about two people driving themselves to the edge and beyond.”

Audience members at the screening were given red headbands, a reference to the two athletes’ headwear. An after-party at Campbell House, a Georgian mansion, boasted ping pong tables, karaoke, tenderloin sliders, and a gelato bar.

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