“Always believe in yourself, never doubt”: Venus Williams, Serena Williams, Will Smith and cast on the making of King Richard
There are probably few people on this planet who don’t know who Serena and Venus Williams are – and being a hardcore tennis fan is certainly no prerequisite to that knowledge. However, there will also be few people who know their backstory in full, particularly where it pertains to their father, Richard Williams, and how he and the rest of their family helped skyrocket their journey from humble beginnings in Compton to global sports superstardom in the elite (and conspicuously white-dominated) sphere of tennis.
King Richard, from director Reinaldo Marcus Green (Monsters and Men), is here to change all that. With Will Smith in the titular role (giving arguably the performance of his career) and two astounding young actresses, Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton, stepping into the roles of Venus and Serena as they come of age into the tennis world, this is an emotionally absorbing, beautifully crafted and compelling telling of their barely believable story from a unique angle. While it doesn’t shy away from the struggles the family faced with abject poverty and racism (the girls bunked up with their many sisters in a single room, only able to practise on potholed, gang-surrounded courts), nor Richard’s flaws, it’s ultimately a film with a big heart and contagious sense of hope.
Having already inspired a generation, particularly women and young black women, through their achievements as athletes, the Williams sisters will no doubt be able to inspire yet another generation through this big-screen reimagining of their journey to get to the top.
We had the pleasure of hearing from the cast and director, as well as the real-life tennis players themselves, at a press conference ahead of the release.
Venus Williams spoke of her reaction to seeing their story told on the big screen, with none other than Will Smith playing her father:
“I think it’s super emotional. I’ve seen the trailer, I’ve read the script and every time I watch it my eyes are just watering. I think it was amazing to see the family atmosphere on the set and how much Demi and Saniyya really acted like Serena and I, even when the cameras weren’t rolling, like holding hands, and it was so sweet. I’m just really proud of what everyone has accomplished. It’s pretty surreal, to be honest. And they really understood our family and portrayed us in a way that was really us, and I’m very proud of that… Every single person sitting here worked so hard to make this a reality and they really cared about telling a story that was authentic, and not just one that was scripted or could be a formula. So, just, thank you, everyone.”
The tennis player also shared what she hopes people will take away from the film: “Yeah, anything is possible. And to always believe in yourself, never doubt. Doubt does nothing for you, but the same time you’re doubting is the same time you can spend believing in you, and putting the work in so that way you do believe, it’ll build confidence. And as a family, you can achieve anything. And that’s what I really loved about this – that it’s a family film. And, like Will said, if you don’t even understand tennis, you understand family, and that with a family you can do anything. Some of us are born with that, some of us have to create those families, but surrounding yourself with family can take you higher.”
Serena Williams also gave her views on the film:
“Honestly, no word describes it better than just surreal, you know? Just to see these incredible actresses and everyone behind it, just putting this all together… It really is super surreal for me. And then to have Will play this role as my father, and the way he just embodied Richard Williams – it just took the whole film to a whole new level. It’s so emotional. It’s well done and it’s a brilliant piece of work.” And what does she hope people will take away? “You just really have to ultimately, just believe in yourself and anything is possible. And it’s not too high if you set your goals at the sky, the sky is literally the limit, so don’t be afraid to set high goals.”
Will Smith shared what appealed to him about playing Richard Williams: “
There was an interview that Venus was doing – how old were you in that interview? Like 13 or 14? – and it’s a famous interview where Richard Williams snaps on the reporter… and I saw that in real-time. And the look on Venus’s face, that image burned in my heart because that’s how I wanted my daughter to look when I showed up. And that interview had really changed my parenting at that time. It was the look on Venus’s face. We just watched it and it was like she had a lion and she was so confident and so comfortable that her lion wasn’t going to let anything happen to her, you know? And I fell in love with Richard Williams. That was 20-something years ago. And when the opportunity to be a part of this came up, that was the first thing that I remembered. I knew I wanted to show a father protecting a daughter like that to the world.”
He also spoke about what he learnt about being a father in the process: “You know, one of the first things that was interesting in our first meeting, we sat down and Venus said, ‘It’s almost like they brainwashed us, because it was like, our punishment was that we couldn’t play tennis.’ Right? Because they said he never had to push. It was like that there was a Jedi mind trick that it was like, it wasn’t the standard thing that you see of a parent pushing and driving a child – there was that but it was augmenting and throwing fuel on a fire that they had. It was a fire coming from inside of Venus and Serena. And for me as an actor when I take a role, also, I’m taking it to explore something, I’m taking it to learn something. And that’s was a new parenting idea for me, of aligning with your children versus directing your children – you know? And it was a very, very different concept and approach that was magical in the Williams family: that the rules were set, but the rules that were established were divine rules, right? So faith was at the centre, and then it was a collective journey we were going on, it wasn’t that as a parent, ‘I know and you don’t. So you’re going to do what I say, cos I’m right and you’re little’ – right? And it was a very different approach that was somewhat eye-opening for me. My father was military, so it was very different for me. Like, when I was growing up, the kids, you don’t get a vote. Right? So you do what’s laid out for you, you do what’s established for you – and there’s some benefits to that mindset also – but this was a very different thing.”
Smith went on to wax lyrical about the amazing achievement of the two young actresses, not only in playing the two sisters but also learning to play the game: “Saniyya and Demi had to to learn how to play tennis like two of the greatest tennis players of all time. So when I had to try to learn how to play Muhammad Ali, I know how daunting that was. There are professional fighters who can’t move like Muhammad Ali. There are professional tennis players that can’t play like Venus and Serena. And I was watching Sanjaya and I just want the world to know not only did Saniyya learn how to play like Venus, Saniyya is left-handed. She learned how to play with her off hand! She learned how to play like one of the greatest tennis players of all time with her off hand! When I step on a set like that, I take it as it’s my responsibility, it’s my family, it’s my crew, it’s my people, it’s my place and, you know, it was just such a beautiful thing to watch. With Aunjanue, the scene in the kitchen, we didn’t really even find that until it was like the day before when we were starting to get it. Aunjanue was so confident and it was, “A little more, a little more, a little more.’ And it was really like the day of when she was like, you know, ‘That’s it. That’s it.’ And I just loved that push. I loved being able to serve that, I love being able to be a part of creating in that way, in that push, in that tenacity for the authenticity and everybody in this group. And to say to the three of you, everybody in this group is amazed and in awe of your family. And it was a beautiful honour and an absolute pleasure to bring this depiction to the world. So thank you for your suffering. And thank you for your hard work and thank you for your inspiration to the world. We appreciate you.”
Demi Singleton, who plays Serena, shared how she achieved such authenticity in her portrayal:
“Yeah to bring everything together, and make it feel as real as possible, I think Saniyya and I just did a lot of research. It was really important to us that everything we did was real, you know, because this is not our story, this is theirs. So, yeah, research, the Internet, we had Miss Isha there every step of the way… The first time that I got to speak with Serena was when her and Venus surprised us on set – that was such a fun day… So, so much fun. But when we spoke, they kind of spoke to us about everything but tennis, which was actually kind of funny. We spoke about their life and their childhood and about the people that they dated growing up. It was just a cool conversation and we just got to speak to them as people. You know, Serena and Venus, you guys are two women that I’ve looked up to my entire life, so it was really fun to get to know that side of you.”
Saniyya Sidney, who plays Venus, further added:
“I was quite nervous when I met Venus for the first time, I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I can’t believe I’m actually meeting you in person’. And, like Demi said, it was like we had such great conversations and it was never just about tennis, it was just about them as people. I’ve looked up to them too ever since I was little and I think it was very important to make sure that I let people know just how big of a heart Venus has, and that was something so special to me. It makes me emotional every time because I had such an amazing experience on this and getting to create this family – not just with my cast, but everyone behind the camera and Mr Rei and everyone; they made us feel so comfortable. I was excited to try tennis and we were quite nervous but, yeah, it was great and such an amazing time.”
Sidney also explained what she will take away from the experience: “What I’m going to take away from this is just being able to step into Venus’s shoes helped me grow as a young woman. They were so humble at such a young age. And they had such a great father. I think, again, family is everything, and that taught me so much and made me go out there and reach out to people that I haven’t talked to since I was little. But I think something that I will always take away from this is just to make sure you always respect whoever you’re working with. Mr Will made us feel so comfortable, but at the same time, you know, he created a relationship with everyone on set and he also has such a big heart and, you know, inspired me so much and he was definitely like our dad! But yeah, I mean, I think when I left shooting the movie, I kind of just wanted to go back and do it all over again. Those are the memories that you just wish you can just relive all over again. But at the same time, I really challenged myself and I’m just proud of everybody and I just can’t wait for the world to see it. I cry every time.”
Aunjanue Ellis, who plays Oracene, the Williams sisters’ mum, spoke about the importance of both parents being front-and-centre in the biopic:
“Well I want to say that I give a whole lot of credit to these filmmakers that I’m lucky to be with, because they sort of insisted that Oracene would not be in the shadows. As you said, we have these stories where you have the heroic male figure – but to do something where we did not see that Oracene was a co-conspirator of this crazy dream would have been dishonest. And we worked on that and tried to give her the presence that she deserved to have because that was the truth.”
She also shared what she will take from the experience: “There were many times that I would look around while we’re shooting and just think that at some point in my life, I did something right. Because I just felt that God was like, ‘I’m gonna give this gift to you.’ I worked with these amazing young women who educated me and they make it look easy. They look like, ‘I’m just having a good time with Will Smith today.’ But that’s the deception of their genius, because everybody cannot live an experience like that on camera. There’s a camera right there and they were able to be present in every moment. Working with Will – all these burgeoning superstars should come and watch him on set because he is a superstar but he is lovely to everybody, would not allow for anyone to be mistreated in his presence. Reinaldo Marcus Green was our cheerleader every day; he had the same enthusiasm from day one to the day we finished, clapping for us. The everyday experience of the film was just a joy for me and I’m so thankful for it. It was a gift”
Jon Bernthal also told us about the experience of playing the girls’ coach, Rick Macci, and what he took as inspiration from his own life as a father:
“We keep hearing the word family here, and that’s just the deal. I mean, this was all about family. And it was such an unbelievable honour to be a part of this family and this beautiful story. Look, for me, there’s nothing in the world more important than my babies and, you know, parenthood is the most important job. It’s the hardest job, it’s a job that you’re never going to get perfect, and I think it’s so important the people that we put in our kids lives. I think, for me, the thing that I connected with Rick – and then talking to so many of the folks that had played for him, and talking to him, and talking to Serena about him – the thing I just heard was fun, that he loved the game and he made it fun. And I think that was sort of something I think that Richard could kind of get behind – as weird and as quirky, and with the moustache and the hair – he could still get behind this guy. Everybody got behind him for sure.”
Director Green then shared how he balanced the expectations of a sports biopic about world-class athletes with a very personal family drama:
“Yeah, well, look, I was on a tennis court one time before that and I’m a baseball player and the ball went over the fence and I was like, ‘Well, I don’t think this sport is gonna be for me in terms of playing it!’, and I realised how difficult it is to actually do that. But in making the movie, obviously, I wanted to make a movie that my mom could see, and she’s never seen a tennis match before. But she understands what winning and losing is, she understands what family is, she understands what love is, and she understands what that kind of core is and understands what struggle is. And there were things that are relatable to folks like my mother, who could see this movie and enjoy it and still understand what’s happening and not get lost in the technical aspects of the sport. So when we were building the tennis, that was something that we really honed in on: what aspects of the tennis do we need to tell the story? And whether that was, you know, talking about open stance, which is what Venus and Serena used to revolutionise the game of tennis, and let’s be specific about that, let’s talk about how we can use that in the film to kind of shape those tennis sequences.
Look, it’s a testament to our cast – you guys are so beautiful, really, like, all around. It was an incredible opportunity to work with these stellar performers and to build this family together. Not every film does everybody love each other when you call cut. We were like roping each other in just to get it in and it was just a testament to how much fun we really created on set. And, look, with Will and Aunjanue being the backbone of the family, not only in the film, but onset really, truly creating an environment for everybody to excel – it was amazing to have those, you know, co-captains on the field. And then, like you mentioned before, Saniyya and Demi, I mean it is incredible to take on the responsibility that they had to, to do what they did in this film is nothing short of remarkable. I’m just so grateful to the Williams family for allowing us to do that. Having Isha and Lynn Draya on set every day to be like, ‘Nope, they wouldn’t hold the racquet like that,’ like, the nuance, like, ‘Nope, I wouldn’t wear that colour like that.’ There’s so many pearls that came from that. And yeah, you know, we have a family beyond this film, and I’m just grateful for that opportunity. Hopefully, you guys can feel that love on the screen.”
Tony Goldwyn, who plays the girls’ first coach when they are still very young, gave an insight into his character, Paul Cogen:
“It was really interesting, in Zach’s script – one of the things that really appealed to me so much was the heart with which the character of Paul approached things; so even though we have a contentious relationship, there’s this playfulness to it and mutual respect. So I reached out and found the real Paul Cohen and had long conversations with him and asked him about this relationship with the Williams family, and with Venus and Serena, but also how he approached coaching kids because I just wasn’t sure, you know? It’s a pretty intense, high-octane, very challenging thing, and he said what I wanted him to say, which was that, again, it’s this thing about family and it’s about giving it heart and making it something joyful, even though it’s super intense. He expressed tremendous love for the family and incredible admiration for Richard, and so it validated what I read in Zach’s script, that actually moved me a lot. And it was the same thing everyone’s saying: whatever disagreements we may have, the respect for seeing how this man is fighting and advocating for his kids and this woman too, Oracene. And then for me to be on my first day on set watching these guys as a family and all the sisters, everyone, almost like there was some kind of magnet that any time when the camera turned off they just were like together in a big lump of playful joy, all the girls. It was like, ‘Oh, okay, well this is easy because this is a family’. And Aunjanue and Will were just totally a part of that; it was almost seamless between when they were in front of the camera or when they were not. It was just all real.”
Writer Zach Baylin explained how he resisted the temptation to focus on the tennis players’ more famous achievements on the court, and instead zero in on the family drama as a way into the story:
“I think that was the big effort: that it was gonna be a gripping family story – that it wasn’t just gonna be a sports-centred package about moments that we all know, and become really calcified – if we’re really going to get to know the family, we needed the intimate moments. And so I think we collectively found what the architecture was of where the movie was going. But then it really became about just digging in and doing the research and finding the little things that were going to make it not just be about a family that did this, but that this family did this. When I wrote the first draft of the script, I thought it was pretty good, but then once we started to sit down with Isha and Venus and Oracene and get everyone’s [input], you know, really, ‘What was it like in that bedroom? What was it like at the dinner table and in the van with Richard?’ – I think that’s what really – hopefully – brought it to life. So it wasn’t just a chronicling of the greatest hits of this incredible flavour. It was, you know, hopefully like an inside look at what it was at every moment.”
The Williams’ sister, Isha Price, shared her part of the process in finding the right filmmakers to tell her family’s story:
“It really was a journey; it was the persistence of definitely Tim and Trevor and wanting to tell the story of my dad and not have it be one of vilification, but one of just getting to understand who he was as a father and what he wanted to do, and how the family came together to be able to do that. And when it was understood that that was what we wanted to happen, it became a lot easier to get behind it. And so then it was the process of actually going to my family; after reading the script, I was like, ‘There’s this opportunity. There’s a script, it’s a little raw. There are some things that we can definitely finesse and get right. But this person is behind it.’ And we have a lot of respect for Will. And he wants to get it right and won’t do it unless we’ve really bought into the idea of what this could be, and doing it right and being authentically ourselves. And that took some time because that vilification aspect is still out there, and being able to trust that this group of people, this filmmaker and this production team and everyone would do this the right way, when oftentimes in sport, obviously you get one chance at it, you get one time to step up to the line and serve that ball for that point. So we wanted to make sure the story was told right and it was fair and it was honest. And it really displayed the integrity that we’ve always tried to have as a family.
It took some time to get there with my family because there is a little bit of distrust, as you can imagine, being in the public eye for as long as they have. Venus… I think the first article was like she was, eight, maybe nine years old, in the Compton Gazette. So to be written about since that age and not maybe have people understand what that family dynamic was like… Oftentimes, Lyndrea and I have people asking us, ‘Are you guys really close? Do they fight off the court?’ So [after] years and years of that, you build up a little bit of distrust. So we got there, because I did trust that, as long as there was going to be a footprint there every day – and I might have gotten on a couple of people’s nerves on set, but it was important for me because I had a responsibility to my family to make sure that the story was told right. And to have willing participants in that journey, with this entire cast, and the entire production team and everybody wanting to do it right, is why I think the product ends up being what it is, and the story ends up being what it is. It wasn’t a singular thing: everyone had a hand in wanting to get the story right and to tell this real hero story of my dad, and what he was able to do, but also understand the foundation that my mum actually was able to lay, and make sure that the heart of the family was there. And that part is the part that we wanted to make sure was right. And I think Aunjanue… There are no words for how she got it, how she really got the voice of my mum and made sure her presence was known and felt. So it was a journey and it wasn’t always an easy, direct one. But I think that sometimes the best things come from a lot of people working really hard and digging in to get it right.”
The producers Tim and Trevor White explained why they wanted to tell the family’s story.
Tim said: “We were both just incredibly inspired by the family’s just sort of relentless pursuit of this dream.” And Trevor added: “We kind of thought about it in terms of, ‘This might be the greatest coaching story in the history of sports.’ And what made it really exciting is when we started to kind of dive into their story, it was far beyond a coaching story – it was a story about a family and a story about love, and how that keeps the drive alive, in a way, and it was just very inspiring for us.”
King Richard is released nationwide 19th November on 2021. Read our review of the film here. Catch our interviews with some of the stars here and more chats with the cast and crew at the film’s premiere here.
Watch the trailer for King Richard here: