‘King Richard’: Will Smith, Venus and Serena Williams on Authentically Telling the Tennis Stars’ Family Story
Few athletes, male or female, have achieved the level of success Venus and Serena Williams have, and for almost three decades, the pair have served as role models for young athletes, particularly girls, from around the world. While many people have learned the broad strokes of their story, few know the lengths the sisters and their family went in order to pursue their dreams, during their childhood in Compton, CA. “King Richard” sets the record straight, not only about the early days of Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton), but also the role their father, Richard (Will Smith), and mother, Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis), played in shaping them into the powerhouse athletes they are today. Astonishingly, it was Richard who outlined a 78-page plan for raising a pair of tennis stars before his two youngest daughters were even born.
“No word describes it better than surreal,” said Serena Williams at a recent press conference when asked what it was like to see her family’s story brought to life on the big screen. “Just to see these incredible actresses and everyone behind it just putting this all together about our dad’s journey but, because of myself and my sister, it really is like, ‘Wow, really, okay? Are we really something?’…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 new level. It’s so emotional. It’s well done, and it’s a brilliant piece of work.”
“It’s super emotional,” stated Venus Williams. “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, 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.”
Tennis fans know Richard Williams as a larger-than-life figure, and Smith revealed that he first became aware of him when he saw him standing up for Venus to a reporter who was interviewing her as a young teenager, a powerful moment depicted in the film that gets to the heart of who this man is. “I saw that in real time and the look on Venus’ 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 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.”
Smith continued, “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.”
“King Richard” was produced by Smith, alongside Tim and Trevor White. The Whites first conceived the idea for the film when they saw an image of Richard Williams at the Lipton Championships in 1999 holding a sign in the stands that read, “I told you so.”
“When Tim first brought me the idea about doing a film about Richard Williams, we kind of thought about it as this might be the greatest coaching story in the history of sports,” Trevor White said. “And what made it exciting was that when we started to dive into their story, it was more than just 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. It was very inspiring for us.”
Venus and Serena’s older sister Isha Price, who is portrayed in the film by actress Daniele Lawson, also served as a producer. Price’s motive for wanting the film to be made was a desire to see her family’s story told as authentically as possible, as Richard has been vilified by some members of the press throughout the years. The Williams family has been in the public eye for years (Venus had her first article written about her in a Compton paper at age nine), and Price revealed that it wasn’t easy for them to hand over their story to filmmakers. As a producer, she helped build trust, and the long duration it takes to get a script to screen worked to her benefit.
“In sports, you get one chance at it,” she explained. “You get one chance to step up to the line and serve that ball for that point. To want to make sure that the story was told right and it was fair and it was honest, it really displayed the integrity that we always tried to have as a family. It took some time to get there with my family, because there was a little bit of distrust, as you can imagine.”
It was also important to Price that the film be about more than just her father’s heroics and sisters’ talent, but also about how her mother, Oracene “Brandy” Price, was the heart and foundation of their home. The film succeeds in shedding light on Oracene’s quiet determination and the sacrifices she made for her family. We see here how she even coached young Serena on her own after Venus went to work with Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn).
Ellis recalled how it was important to herself and the filmmakers that Oracene not be portrayed as another woman “in the shadows.” “We have these stories where you have the heroic male figure, but to do something where we did not see that Miss Oracene was a co-conspirator of this crazy dream would have been dishonest. We worked on that, and tried to give her the presence that she deserved to have, because that was the truth.”
Then, of course, there are Venus and Serena themselves. The superstar sisters made a surprise appearance on set, and according to Singleton, she found it beneficial to talk to them about anything but tennis. “We spoke about their lives and their childhood, and the people that they dated growing up.”
“We wanted to make sure that we were portrayed in the right light,” said Serena with a laugh.
Sidney found herself moved by the sisters’ humility. “Being able to step into Venus’s shoes helped me grow as a young woman. They were so humble at such a young age. They had such a great father. Family is everything, and it made me go out there and reach out to people I haven’t talked to since I was little.”
Smith also got a lot out of meeting with Venus and Serena, as he learned even more about Richard and Oracene’s approach to parenting. According to Venus, her parents “brainwashed” them to the point that her punishments would be to not play tennis. “They never had to push,” he explained. “It was a Jedi mind trick. 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 Venus and Serena.”
He continued, “For me, as an actor, when I take a role, I’m taking it to explore something. I’m taking it to learn something. That was a new parenting idea for me, of aligning with your children versus directing your children. It was a very, very different concept and approach that was magical in the Williams family.”
Smith believes that it was the family’s strong faith that helped foster mutual respect between the parents and children, and they worked together towards a common goal. “It was a very different approach that was somewhat eye-opening to me. My father was military. When I was growing up, the kids didn’t get a vote. You do what’s laid out for you. You do what’s established for you. There’s some benefits to that mindset also, but this was a very different thing.”
Both Paul Cohen and the coach Venus trains with in the years before going pro, Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal), become like family to the Williamses, for better or worse, as both men find themselves butting heads with Richard, who is steadfast when it comes to sticking to his plan. “Parenthood, it’s the most important job; it’s the hardest job. It’s something that you’re never going to get perfect.” said Bernthal, who, like Richard, believes it is important whom parents let into their children’s lives.
“It’s a pretty intense, high-octane, very challenging thing,” said Goldwyn about coaching youth athletes at the highest level. To prepare for his role, the actor met with the real Cohen. Even though the real Paul and Richard Williams were often at odds, he learned that Cohen admired how Williams advocated for his daughters. “Even though [his position was] super intense, he expressed tremendous love for the family and incredible admiration for Richard.”
And that’s what makes “King Richard” a quality film, its universal themes dealing with family. One doesn’t have to be a fan of tennis to enjoy it. Director Reinaldo Marcus Green admitted that he was only on a tennis court once before filming. “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 struggle is.”
Green went on to explain how the family vibe carried on when the cameras stopped rolling. “It was an incredible opportunity to work with these stellar performers and to build this cast together. And we had that. On not every film does everyone love each other when you call, ‘Cut!’ …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, to have those co-captains on the field.”
Smith revealed that he felt a weight of responsibility when he came to set. “It’s my family. It’s my crew. It’s my people. It’s my place. It was just such a beautiful thing to watch.”
“King Richard” is streaming on HBO Max.