Ever since a 10-year-old Venus Williams went undefeated on the United States Tennis Association junior tour, the story of the Williams family has been under the public eye, inspiring people worldwide. Now, it’s hitting the big screen in “King Richard,” a biopic illustrating far more than just the sisters’ domination on the court.
Will Smith stars as Richard Williams, Venus and Serena’s father, and prior to joining the cast, Smith knew the film’s core ran deeper than its titular character’s role as tennis coach.
“I fell in love with Richard,” Smith said in a roundtable interview with The Daily Californian, reflecting on a touching interview of Venus and Richard he came across in 1995.
“King Richard” recreates that particular interview, highlighting Richard’s avid protection of his daughters from the harsh spotlight of fame. As an interviewer questions then-14-year-old Venus’ self-confidence, her dad steps in, preventing any rebuttal to her complete conviction.
“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,” Smith continued.
But the rise of the Williams sisters cannot be attributed solely to Richard. The film importantly highlights the key role of Oracene “Brandy” Price, Richard’s ex-wife portrayed by Aunjanue Ellis, in shaping the sisters’ lives.
“We have these stories where you have the heroic male figure, but to do something where we did not see that Ms. Oracene was a co-conspirator of this crazy dream would have been dishonest,” Ellis asserted. “We worked on that and tried to give her the presence that she deserved to have, because that was the truth.”
Before the record-breaking gold medal Olympians Venus and Serena were even born, their father wrote up a 78-page plan outlining how the sisters would make tennis history. “King Richard” follows the siblings as they advance from practicing on beaten-up courts in Compton to their professional debuts. With a story as spectacular as the Williams sisters’ rise to stardom, the biopic could have easily slotted itself into the typical sports film canon, but producers knew it had potential to go deeper.
“What made it really exciting is when we started to dive into their story, it was far beyond a coaching story,” co-producer Trevor White beamed. “It was a story about a family and a story about love and how that keeps the drive alive.”
Similarly, for director Reinaldo Marcus Green, the film’s focus on family was necessary to communicate a universal message accessible for all audiences.
“I wanted to make a movie that my mom could see, and she’s never seen a tennis match before,” Green noted. “But she understands what winning and losing is, she understands what family is, she understands what love is.”
Heartwarmingly, the deep family bonds structuring the film went beyond the script — it existed within the cast and crew as well.
“Not every film does everybody love each other when you call ‘cut,’ ” Green continued. “With Will and Aunjanue being the backbone of the family, not only in the film, but on set — really, truly creating an environment for everybody to excel — was amazing.”
“(Smith) was definitely like our dad,” gushed Saniyya Sidney, who plays Venus in the biopic.
In an effort to ensure the accuracy of the film, the Williams family were along for every step of production. Venus and Serena’s sister, Isha Price, took on the role of producer, and the aforementioned duo helped guarantee their close relationship was accurately depicted — in more ways than their tennis stance.
“The first time that I got to speak with Serena was when her and Venus surprised us on set,” Demi Singleton, who plays young Serena, recalled. “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 people that they dated growing up.”
“Well, we wanted to make sure that we were portrayed in the right light,” joked Serena, gaining warm-spirited laughs from the rest of the cast and crew.
Filled with smiles, laughter and lighthearted quips, the joyful roundtable further emphasized the strong bonds between the cast and production members.
“It was amazing to see the family atmosphere on the set and how much Demi and Saniyya really acted like Serena and I,” Venus said. “Even when the cameras weren’t rolling.”
Both on and off screen, “King Richard” goes well beyond the traditional archetype of a sports film, and the bonds created on set are living proof.
“When I left shooting the movie, I kind of wanted to go back and do it all over again,” Sidney said bittersweetly. “I’m just proud of everybody, and I just can’t wait for the world to see it. I cry every time.”
Contact Afton Okwu at [email protected].