Today, Serena and Venus Williams are known as the world’s biggest tennis stars, but what the world may not know is what or who started their career.
"King Richard" comes out on Nov. 19, and it tells the story of Richard Williams’ (Will Smith) 85-page plan to make his two youngest daughters the best tennis players the world has ever seen.
The movie starts off in the late 1980s, showcasing Serena (Demi Singleton) and Venus (Saniyya Sidney) as young girls whose father has been coaching them on tennis their entire lives. It expands throughout the next several years and follows part of the sisters’ journey to conquering the tennis world.
Tennis, however, is not the main focus of the film. Family is.
“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 camera was rolling, like holding hands and it was so sweet,” Venus Williams said. “They really understood our family and portrayed us in a way that was really us, and I’m very proud of that.”
Singleton and Sidney, aged 14 and 15, respectively, were not yet alive to witness the Williams sisters’ climb to the top. Because of this, they had to familiarize themselves with the sisters’ lives before playing them in "King Richard."
“Saniyya and I just did a lot of research,” Singleton said. “It was really important to us that everything we did was real because this is not our story. This is theirs.”
Both Singleton and Sidney have looked up to the Williams sisters since they were young girls, so meeting them, let alone portraying them, was surreal. What stuck out to Sidney is simply how real they are.
“We had such great conversations, and it was never just about tennis,” Sidney said. “It was just about them as people. I looked up to them ever since I was little. It was very important that I let people know how big of a heart Venus has, and that was something so special to me.”
The story of Richard Williams is of major significance to the Williams sisters not only because he was the start of their tennis careers, but also because he is their father. They were keen on portraying who he truly is through this film.
“To have Will play this role as my father and the way he embodied Richard Williams just took the whole film to a whole new level,” Serena Williams said. “It's so emotional, it’s well done, and it’s a brilliant piece of work.”
The way Richard Williams parented his five daughters largely contrasts with others’ parenting methods, especially in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Smith was raised by a father, is now a father and has played a father in previous movies, but he still found this parenting style unique.
“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,” Smith said. “Faith was at the center, and then it was a collective journey we were going on. … It was… somewhat eye-opening for me.”
Along with Smith, brothers Tim and Trevor White produced the film. Tim White remembers the first discussions about this potential movie way back in 2013. He said both he and his brother were inspired by the Williams family’s “relentless pursuit of this dream.”
“When Tim first brought us the idea of doing a film about Richard Williams, we thought about it in terms of this might be the greatest coaching story in the history of sports,” White said. “What made it real exciting is when we started diving into their story, it was far beyond a coaching story. It was a story about family and a story about love and about how that keeps the drive alive in a way.”
Zach Baylin wrote the film’s script. One thing he emphasized was he wanted to depict the story of “King Richard” as real as possible.
“I wrote the first draft of the script, and I thought it was pretty good, but then once we started sitting down with Isha and Venus and Oracene and getting everyone's 'what was it like in that bedroom? What was it like at the dinner table and in the van with Richard?'” Baylin said. “That’s what I think really brought it to life.”
Baylin and the producers were also intentional about the Williams mother’s role in the movie. Not only did Richard Williams have tennis skills that allowed his daughters to get their footing in the sport, but so did Oracene Price (Aunjanue Ellis), Serena and Venus Williams’ mom. In fact, Price is regarded as one of the best tennis players of all time.
“They sort of insisted that Ms. Oracene not be in the shadows,” Ellis said. “We have these stories where we 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. We worked on that, and we tried to give her the presence that she deserved to have, because that was the truth.”
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In the film, Serena and Venus had two coaches. Before working with Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal), they worked with Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn). To best portray his character, Goldwyn got in contact with Cohen and asked him about his relationship with Richard Williams and the Williams family as a whole.
“He expressed tremendous love for the family and incredible admiration for Richard,” Goldwyn said. “It validated what I read in Zach’s script that really moved me a lot, and it’s the same thing everyone’s saying. Whatever disagreements we may have, (there is) respect for seeing how this man is fighting and advocating for his kids.”
One thing everyone in the audience is sure to catch when watching this film is how relatable it is even to people who have not stepped foot on a tennis court in their lives. It is more than a movie about tennis stars; at its core, it is a movie about a family.
“In making the movie, 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,” Reinaldo Marcus Green, the director, said. “She understands what family is, she understands what love is, and she understands what struggle is. There were things that were 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.”
“King Richard” comes out in theaters and on HBO Max on Friday, Nov. 19.
“I just can’t wait for the world to see it,” Sidney said. “I cry every time.”
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