One of the most amazing sports stories of the twenty-first century has been the rise of sister tennis phenoms Venus and Serena Williams. Their story of their journey to stardom was as compelling as watching them dominate on the court. And there was one person who was behind them the whole way, coaching them, cheering them and dedicating so much of his life to their success – their father Richard Williams.
The new film King Richard, opening today, explores not just Ricard William’s role in their upbringing, but the whole familial experience the two tennis pros had. Will Smith stars as the titular patriarch with newcomers Demi Singleton and Saniyya Sidney starring as the young Serena and Venus.
While speaking with a group of teleconfrenced journalists, the cast and crew of the film spoke at great lengths about how King Richard is a story about not just Serena and Venus or Richard, but how the whole family contributed to the sisters’ success.
For star Smith, the idea of taking on the role of the Williams sisters’s iconoclastic father spoke to him as a parent, igniting memories of watching the Williams sisters first take the national stage.
“There’s a famous interview where Richard Williams kind of snaps n the reporter. ‘She done said what said with a whole lot of confidence,'” he states. “I saw that in real time and that image of Venus burned into my heart because that’s how I want my daughter to look when I show up. And that interview had really changed my parenting at the time.It was like [Venus] had a lion and she was so confident and so comfortable that her lion wasn’t going to let anything happen to her. That was twenty-something years ago. When the opportunity to do this came up, that was the first thing I remembered. I knew that I wanted to show a father protecting a daughter like that to the world.”
“I think the big effort was that [the movie] was going to be a gripping family story, that it wasn’t going to be a big SportsCenter package about these moments that we all know and have become really calcified,” states screenwriter Zack Baylin about finding the film’s focus. “If we were really going to get to know the family we needed the intimate moments. I think we found what the architecture of where the movie was going it became about digging in and doing the research and finding the little things that were going to make this film about not just a family that did this, but this family that did this.”
Aunjanue Ellis, who plays the girls’ mother Oracene, agrees that even though it is Richard’s name in the title,it was the whole family effort that is reflected in the film. “To do something where we did not see Miss Oracene as a co-conspirator of this crazy dream would have been dishonest,” she says.
“They [the parents] never had to push,” he says.”It wasn’t the standard thing that you see of a parent pushing and driving a child. There was that, but it was throwing fuel on a fire that [Venus and Serena] already had.
“When I take a role I’m taking it to explore something, I’m taking it to learn something. And that was a new parenting idea for me of aligning with your children instead of directing your children. It was a very, very different concept and approach that was magical in the Williams family.”
Venus Williams acknowledges that the process of seeing her family’s story being told was emotional, if not a little surreal. “I think it was amazing to see the family atmosphere on the set and how much Demi and Saniyya acted like Serena and myself, even when the cameras weren’t rolling,” she stated. “It was so sweet. I am just really proud of what everyone has accomplished. They really understood our family and portrayed us in a way that was really us.”
Serena Williams agreed with her sister. “Just to see these incredible actresses and everyone behind it putting it all together to tell our dad’s journey and to have Will play this role as my father in the way that he just embodied Richard Williams took the whole film to a whole new level.”