Interview – Will Smith, Venus and Serena Williams, Plus the Cast and Crew of ‘King Richard’

To celebrate the global release of King Richard, the empowering story of Richard Williams (Will Smith) and his dedicated journey alongside his daughters, Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena Williams (Demi Singleton) to achieving success within the tennis world (you can read my review for the film here), I had the privilege of attending a virtual discussion with Will Smith, Venus and Serena Williams, plus the supporting cast and filmmakers about portraying the Williams family, the similarities in Will being a father on and off the screen, and how important it was to focus on the family drama while also being an exciting sports film.

Starting with Venus and Serena, what sort of emotions are you feeling seeing your families journey being told in a motion picture, with your father being played by none other than Will Smith?

Venus: I think it’s super emotional. I’ve seen the trailer, I’ve read the script and every time I watch the film, 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 when the cameras weren’t rolling. It was so sweet! I’m just so proud of what everyone has accomplished and it’s just so surreal.

Serena: Honestly, no word describes better than surreal. You know, just to see these incredible actresses and everyone behind it putting this all together. And for me and my sister, it’s more about: “Wow, is this really happening? Are we really something”? And then for someone like Will to be playing my father, and the way he just embodied Richard Williams, it just took the film to a whole new level. It’s just so emotional. It’s well done and it’s a brilliant piece of work.

Venus: And just to add on to that, everyone here was a big part in making that happen, bringing this story to the screen, so thank you everyone. I love you.

HOLLYWOOD, LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA, USA – NOVEMBER 14: American tennis player Serena Williams, actor Will Smith and American tennis player Venus Williams arrive at the 2021 AFI Fest – Closing Night Premiere Of Warner Bros. Pictures’ ‘King Richard’ held at the TCL Chinese Theatre IMAX on November 14, 2021 in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, United States. (Photo by Xavier Collin/Image Press Agency/Sipa USA)

And Will, what was it about playing Richard that appealed to you? Because you fought a long road to bring this story to folks?

Will: You know, we were talking earlier and there was an interview that Venus was doing… how old were you?

Venus: 13 or 14?

Will: Right, 13, 14! It’s the famous interview where Richard snaps on the interviewer. I saw that in real time, and the look on Venus’ face burned into me, because that’s the face I wanted my daughter to have when I showed up for her. That interview changed my parenting at that time. That look on Venus’ face was like she had a lion, she was confident and comfortable, because she knew that lion wasn’t going to let anything happen to her. I fell in love with Richard Williams, 20 something years ago. And when the opportunity for this came up, that interview was the first thing that came into my head. I knew I wanted to show a father protecting her daughter like that to the world.

Trevor White (producer): When this story of Richard came to us (Trevor and production partner Tim White), we knew it was one of the greatest coaching stories of all time. But when we dived into their lives, it was far more than a coaching story. It was a story about love and how that keeps the drive alive, in a way.

Aunjanue (Oracene Williams), when we talk about family in this film, your character really takes flight where the heart of the film lies, especially in the scene where your character tells Richard – ‘You did not do this alone’ – how did you approach that dynamic that’s not usually seen in the parent’s story in these sports biopics?

Aunjanue Ellis: We insisted that her story wouldn’t be shown from the shadows. There are so many stories with the heroic male figure, but to do something where we saw that Oracene was a co-conspirator of this crazy dream was just honest, and we worked hard to give her the presence she deserved to have.

Saniyya and Demi, the other dynamic for the film was these young, incredible, talented actresses who were given the task to portray Venus and Serena Williams. What were the conversations like when you were researching these ladies, and how did you bring the authenticity to playing sisters on screen?

Demi: It was important that everything we did felt real. You know, this is their (the Williams sisters) story, not ours. So, lots of research, using the internet. The first time I got to speak with Serena, she surprised us on set. It was such a fun day! And it was great because we actually spoke about everything except tennis! We spoke about their life, about the people they dated growing up (everyone laughs).

Serena: We wanted to make sure it all felt real – you know, making sure we were portrayed in the right way! (laughs)

Demi: It was so cool just to talk to them. Serena and Venus are two ladies I’ve looked up to my whole life, so it was great to get to know that side of you.

Saniyya: I was quite nervous when I met Venus for the first time. I was like – “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I’m meeting you in person”! But like Demi said, we had such great conversations. And not just about tennis, but also about who they are as people. And it was so great, the family feeling we had on set and not just with the actors, but everyone behind the camera as well.

KING RICHARD, from left: Demi Singleton, as Serena Williams, Saniyya Sidney, as Venus Williams, Will Smith, as Richard Williams, 2021. ph: Chiabella James /© Warner Bros. /Courtesy Everett Collection

And Jon Bernthal (coach Rick Macci), you’re no stranger to athletics and having kids who also play sport. Please tell me you’re not like Richard was to their coaches?!

Jon: (laughs) Look, firstly, I just want to say how amazing it is to see everyone again. Everyone keeps bringing up ‘family’, and it was such an honour to be apart of this family and this family’s story. It’s just as important to me as my babies. Parenthood is the most important job, it’s the hardest job, it’s a job that you’re never going to get perfect. And when I was talking to Rick (Macci), about how he coached Serena, what I took away from that was ‘fun’. It was so important to make it fun for the athletes. And I think that was something that Richard (Williams) could get behind.

Reinaldo (Marcus Green, director) and Zach (Baylin, screenwriter), what was it like as a director trying to keep the family as the focus of the film, while also keeping the tennis matches in there as an important aspect? Because this ultimately a family drama that happens to showcase world class athletes.

Reinaldo: Look, I was on a tennis court one time before this movie! I’m a baseball player! But when I was making the movie, I wanted to make a movie that my mum could see, and she’s never seen a tennis match before. But she understands what winning and losing is, what family and love is, and the struggles that come with that. That was the focus, the things that are relatable to people like my mother who can go see this movie and enjoy it, and still understand what’s happening without getting lost in the technical aspects of the sport. But we also wanted to show things like ‘the open stance’ which Venus and Serena used to revolutionize the game of tennis.

Zach: From the start we wanted it to be a family story, not just a SportsCentre piece about these moments that we already know. If we wanted to really get to know the family, we needed those intimate moments. And when I wrote the first draft, I thought it was pretty good, but when we sat down with Venus and Serena, and asked them, you know: “What was it like in that match? What was it like in the kitchen, or the family van with Richard?” We really brought it to life, not just made the greatest hits of this family.

Director Reinaldo Marcus Green and Will Smith on the set of the new movie “King Richard”

Will, it’s not the first time you’ve played a father on screen, but this has to feel different! As an actor and as a father, what similarities and differences did you find playing Richard, compared to your own journey in fatherhood?

Will: One of the first things that was interesting, in our first meeting, Venus said: “It’s so interesting how they brainwash you, because our punishment would be that we can’t play tennis!” There was a like a Jedi mind trick because it wasn’t the normal thing you see a parent do to push and drive their child. It was like throwing fuel on a fire that they had, the fire coming from inside Venus and Serena. But, for as an actor, when I take a role, I’m taking it to explore something and learn something. It was a new idea for parenting for me, like, aligning with your children versus directing your children. It was a very different concept and approach that was magical in the Williams’ family, it was a collective journey that they were all on. It was eye-opening for me, my father was military. When I was growing up, the kids don’t get a vote, you do what’s laid out for you. There’s some benefits to that, but this was such a different experience.

And Venus and Serena, you’ve obviously inspired so many young, black girls all around the world. What do you hope this movie does for the upcoming generations of young girls? What do you want them to take away from this movie?

Venus: Anything is possible. Always believe in yourself and never doubt yourself. And always put in the work. And with family, you can do anything. That’s what this film is about, like everyone has said, it’s all about family.

Serena: Yeah, Venus put it perfectly! (laughs) You have to believe in yourself and everything you do, the sky is literally the limit. Don’t be afraid to set high goals!

Thank you so much to Warner Bros. Australia for giving me the chance to sit in on this press conference! King Richard is in Australian cinemas January 13!

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Nick L'Barrow
Nick L'Barrow
Nick is a Brisbane-based film/TV reviewer. He gained his following starting with his 60 second video reviews of all the latest releases on Instagram (@nicksflicksfix), before launching a monthly podcast with Peter Gray called Monthly Movie Marathon. Nick contributes to Novastream with interviews and reviews for the latest blockbusters.

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