As Will Smith stepped into the shoes of Richard Williams, father of tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams, for King Richard (in theatres Nov. 19), the actor revealed the one moment that changed him as a parent and enticed him to take on the role.
“There was an interview that Venus was doing,...and it's a famous interview where Richard Williams snaps on the reporter and says, ‘now she done said what she done said, with a whole lot of confidence,’ and I saw that in real time and the look of Venus's face burned, that image burned in my heart,” Smith told reporters ahead of the release of King Richard.
“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, the look on Venus' face,...she had a lion and she was so confident and so comfortable that her lion wasn't going to let anything happen to her.”
While that interview with Venus (recreated in the movie) occurred when the now 41-year-old tennis icon was just a young teen, Smith said it was the first thing he remembered when the opportunity to play Richard came up, with the actor wanting to shine a light on the father-daughter dynamic in the Williams family.
“I knew I wanted to show a father protecting a daughter like that to the world,” Smith said.
'If you fail to plan, you plan to fail'
One statement to generally summarize the story of Richard is “if you fail to plan, you plan to fail,” a mantra that you see several times in King Richard.
Richard always saw the future for his daughters, even in the 1990s when they were just running through tennis drills at the local Compton, California tennis courts. His famous 78-page plan to create these tennis superstars is ultimately what led Venus and Serena (played by the brilliant Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton) to being inspirations for young people around the world.
In King Richard we see Richard trying to find someone who believes in his daughters as much as he knows they deserve, based on their determination and skills.
Much of the tennis portion of the narrative is around the older Williams sister, Venus, and her journey to her first professional tournament. But King Richard is about far more than tennis, it’s really about this family unit, which includes mother Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis), and Venus and Serena’s three half-sisters Isha Price (Daniele Lawson), Yetunde Price (Mikayla Lashae Bartholomew) and Lyndrea Price (Layla Crawford), as they all went on this journey as one family unit.
While the story of a pushy, demanding parent/coach has been told time and time again, that’s not the narrative of King Richard. The desire to play tennis very much came from Venus and Serena themselves.
“One of the first things that was interesting, in our first meeting we sat down and Venus said, ‘you know, it's almost like they brainwashed us,...it was like, our punishment was that we couldn't play tennis,’” Smith revealed. “It wasn't the standard thing that you see of a parent pushing and driving a child,...it was a fire coming from inside of Venus and Serena.”
“For me as an actor, when I take a role also, 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 versus directing children.”
Another key element of the story is Oracene, Venus and Serena’s mother, being very involved in their dream and their training, particularly when it came to Serena who was following in her sister’s footsteps.
“They sort of insisted that Ms. Oracene would not be in the shadows,” actor Aunjanue Ellis told reporters.
“We have these stories where you 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 tried to give her the presence that she deserved to have, because that was the truth.”
'You build up a little bit of distrust'
For the family, executing this film required them to have trust that their personal story would be told with honesty and integrity. Isha Price, Venus and Serena’s half-sister who also served as an executive producer on the movie, called the process a “journey” with a focus on not having the story be one of “vilification.”
“Being in the public eye for as long as they have,...you build up a little bit of distrust,” she explained.
“I did trust that as long as there was going to be a footprint there every day, and I might have gotten on a couple of people's nerves on set, but it was important for me because I had a responsibility to my family to make sure that the story was told right.”
For Venus and Serena themselves, also executive producers of the movie, King Richard certainly has their stamp of approval. Venus admitted just watching the trailer makes her eyes water.
“It's pretty surreal to be honest,” Venus said. “They really understood our family and portrayed us in a way that was really us and I'm very proud of that.”
“It's so emotional. It's well done, and it's a brilliant piece of work,” Serena added.