“King Richard” star Will Smith bears the crown of playing tennis coach Richard Williams and also wears the willful personality, Louisiana accent and ubiquitous shorts of the famed (and controversial) father of Venus and Serena Williams.
“It’s like giving Superman the cape. Putting those shorts on Will was like sinking into the role,” director Reinaldo Marcus Green says. “Once the shorts went on, it was game over.”
Set in the early 1990s, the biopic “King Richard” (in theaters and streaming on HBO Max Friday) follows the determination of Richard and his wife Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis) to make their daughters tennis champions and tracks the fledgling careers of Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) from training on dingy courts in Compton to Venus’ 1994 professional debut at age 14.
Will Smith talks suicide, abuse and Tupac Shakur:5 surprising revelations from his new memoir
“I felt like I knew him immediately,” says Smith, who watched 100 hours of tape to research the role. “He’s very similar to my father in some ways. I understood what it meant to feel brutalized by the world and to have a dream that nobody believes in but you, and you’re not going to let that deter you. I got the heart of him.”
10 new movies you can’t miss, from ‘West Side Story’ to new ‘Spider-Man’
Early on, the Williamses told filmmakers the movie needed to portray “how loving and kind their father was to them,” Smith says, and how different their perception of him was from the public’s. “He was not a father who was pushing them and hammering them to be successful at tennis. It was quite the opposite,” the actor says. “He was pushing them to go to church and to get good grades and to be good people. Tennis was fourth or fifth on the list of priorities. He was using tennis to teach them how to survive in this world.”
To accurately portray Richard’s on-court presence, Smith reached out to an instructor who knew him. “About halfway through the first lesson, the guy was like, ‘Look, Will, listen. I could teach you how to play tennis, but I think you want me to teach you to play how Richard played and Richard really didn’t know how to play tennis,’ ” Smith says with a chuckle. “When he worked with the girls, Richard bounces the ball and hits it and (the instructor’s) like, ‘No pro would do that. You would never teach them like that. But I gotta show you what Richard did.’ So I never actually learned the proper ways of playing tennis.”
‘King Richard’ review: Will Smith’s inspirational, imperfect tennis dad is Oscar-ready
The sisters are very good friends in the movie, always there for each other as the family moves from California to Florida and Venus takes her next step toward the pros. That close bond is “pretty much spot-on to what it was then and what it is now,” says Venus Williams. That closeness was important for the sisters to preserve onscreen, Green adds. “Venus said something along the lines of, ‘Serena’s the kind of sister that would skip a match to see me practice.’ And that just hit home for me because I know how close I am with my own sibling. That’s not something you mess with. That’s real.”
One of Venus Williams’ favorite scenes in the movie finds Richard at a contentious meeting with sports agents about her younger self’s tennis future, and when he doesn’t like how it’s going, Richard loudly passes gas. The sisters told Smith this was a common occurrence back in the day. “If it didn’t happen for real, you would think it was fake. You wouldn’t believe that somebody would actually do that,” Smith says with a laugh. “They would be cracking up because he would do that if he wasn’t hearing what he wanted to hear in the meeting.”
Richard enlists the help of Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) but they can only afford to have him coach Venus. So Richard tapes the sessions for Serena to watch as she trains with Oracene. Serena Williams recalls that period being “definitely hard, but also at the same time, I knew I wasn’t on that level yet, just to be quite frank and honest. I wasn’t playing at the level that Venus was playing.” She knew she needed to work harder to be better, “but I really did not like working with my mom because she was so tough. In hindsight, she really prepared me mentally on so many things and I had to just have a lot more tenacity than I thought I could have ever had.”
Venus goes on a tear in the juniors tennis circuit, and in one sequence where Venus is playing, no one can find Serena. Then Richard and Oracene discover that she’s on a nearby court, having entered herself in a different competition. “My dad said I was too young and kept saying it. And eventually I was like, well, I’m going to just enter myself in a tournament,” Serena says. Her sister still isn’t sure how she pulled it off: “Back in the day, you fill out the card, you have to send it in the mail (and) she hadn’t paid the bill. (Richard’s) like, ‘Well, OK, I guess we’ll pay.’ ” Serena reports she didn’t get in trouble: “I think that solidified his belief that, OK, she really does want to do it.”
When Green met with the sisters’ mother, “one of the first things she said was, ‘Don’t make me a chump,’ and we hadn’t cast the role yet,” the director says. “Aunjunae Ellis ain’t no chump.” Venus Williams was “really proud” of Ellis’ performance because even though Oracene is often in the background, “she’s the backbone and she’s the one that really gave us our values. Of course, our dad, too, but (Ellis) really understood that quiet unshakable strength that my mom has and the authoritative part of it as well.”
Oracene Williams watched “King Richard” and although Venus Williams didn’t ask about her thoughts, “she didn’t complain. We figured that was her vote of approval.” As far as their dad, Serena Williams doesn’t think he’s seen it (“At least he tells us he hasn’t seen it yet”), but her sister figures he will.
Smith hopes so, even after making the “mistake” of watching “Ali” as he sat right behind the man he played, Muhammad Ali. “I’ll never do that again,” he says, laughing. “But when you do this, the people you’re portraying are the only audience. You’re not thinking about the movie theater or the box office or awards. You can only think about, ‘Oh, my God, what if I put these people’s lives on film and they hate it?’ You want the people of the film to think you did a good job.”
LACMA Art+Film gala:Billie Eilish, Miley Cyrus, Serena Williams, more stars look glam in Gucci