In King Richard, Aunjanue Ellis is Oracene Price, mother and oft-unsung hero in the success story of tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams. As a determined and driven father and coach, the titular character Richard Williams (played by Will Smith) has long been known in the public eye as the man behind the sporting family’s magic. But while King Richard documents the incredible efforts and support Williams gave his daughters, it also sheds new light on the powerful athleticism, care and skill provided by Price. Ellis explains her own drive to allow Oracene to shine and the experience of selecting roles that Black women can get behind.
DEADLINE: Tell me about first seeing the King Richard script?
AUNJANUE ELLIS: Well, I was sent the script in the fall of 2019, and I think they had other people that they had in mind for the role. But it was interesting, you know, this happens every now and then where I hear that someone is attached to play the part or they’re looking at other people, but I wasn’t worried. I did a television show called Lovecraft Country. And that was another situation where they were going to someone else, but I wasn’t worried. I just felt that it was going to come back in some sort of way. And so, I don’t know the real history, the facts of what happened, but I got a chance to audition and just started taping when I was in Mississippi at home. That led to a conversation with [director] Rey (Reinaldo Marcus Green). And I guess that went well. And then that led to me coming to California to do a read with Will at his house. I was actually doing Lovecraft at the time. I had to do this whirlwind of flying in, flying out type of thing. And I couldn’t brush my teeth until I actually got to his house. So, I was brushing my teeth in the car, in the driveway. I’m outside Will Smith’s compound brushing my teeth and spitting toothpaste in his dirt. Girl, it was very elegant.
DEADLINE: What did you know about the Williams family going into this?
ELLIS: Well, I knew what everyone else knows. The stories that are written about him and what’s in the media about him. It was limited to that. And I had even further limited understanding of Miss Oracene, but you know, I just remember [Venus and Serena] when they were little girls and 60 Minutes came and interviewed them in Compton, so I just remember the feeling that I had when I watched that interview, the feeling of promise that I felt… I think that’s what’s so remarkable about them is that yes, they inspire young girls, but they also inspire grown women.
A person can be an incredibly talented athlete, but the inspiration of that person is limited to their play on the court or on the football field or whatever that sport is, but they don’t necessarily carry that spark of imagination when they leave the court or when they leave that field. But that’s what Venus and Serena are and that’s why they’re so incredibly motivating, inspiring, all those words, because of not just their play in tennis. I just see what they do and how liberated they are and unapologetic for how absolutely incredible [they are] and you can’t help but be moved by that, particularly in the patriarchal world that we live in.
DEADLINE: The sisters are executive producers. Did you get a chance to communicate with anyone in the family? Did the sisters give much input?
ELLIS: So Isha Price, who is Venus and Serena’s older sister, she was there every day. Venus and Serena came in and said hello, I know one time. I think they came back other times, but I wasn’t there. But from what I’m understanding, what they had said was that they would participate, but they wouldn’t necessarily come on as producer producers, Venus and Serena, unless they really dug the movie. I actually didn’t know that, I mean, Will has been telling that story. I was not aware of that. So, you know, they saw the film and felt they were satisfied with it. But Isha, their sister, was there every day.
I didn’t get to speak to Miss Oracene, but what I had was these recordings that they did of her, our director and our writer, director Reinaldo, and our writer, Zach Baylin, they did these recordings of her, and I just listened to them over and over and over again. And so, the magic of that is that I don’t have to ask anybody about her. I can just listen to her say who she was.
You know, the last two or three years I played real people.
DEADLINE: Yes, like in When They See Us for example.
ELLIS: Yeah. And what I decided was I had to make a decision about that. There wasn’t an active decision. I think that I just, on a subliminal way, a subconscious way, I don’t care. I don’t know how else to say that. I know that may sound insensitive, but what I mean by that is I certainly care about those people. I certainly care about the people that I’m portraying and that family, but that’s not my job though. I’m not doing a documentary where I’m creating these real moments. That’s someone else’s job. I’m an actor. I dally in the make believe. That’s what I do. And so, I take what I know of Miss Oracene. I listen to her words, that’s the raw material, that’s the clay. I’m there to play the character of Miss Oracene. And as long as I’m honest with that, that’s the most I can do.
I’ve been asked this question like, was that very emotional for you? And I said, no, it’s not emotional for me because if you go into it thinking, OK, I’m playing, or I’m a part of something where we are bringing alive a deceased family member and how emotional that is, what you’re doing is you’re playing a result.
DEADLINE: You said in another interview that your selection process has always had this layer of choosing roles that serve Black women?
ELLIS: It’s interesting, the level of responsibility that Black women have, particularly in film and really in any art form that they’re in, the level of responsibility is very different. It’s just very different. The demand on us to serve. Do you know what I mean?
First of all, there is that demand to serve in the first place. Whereas that demand to serve is not there for Black men necessarily, it’s certainly not there for our white counterparts, and I think that’s because we are seen on screen, particularly in these kinds of roles, so rarely. So, when it happens it’s just like the whole world wants you to meet all of these expectations. You have to meet all these expectations that are centuries old. That come from centuries-old trauma. You cannot let folks down. And I understand that because I’ve been there before, playing a role and disappointed folks, and [was] asked why did you play that role? Why did you do that? So, I know what I’m talking about… It is very hard.
So, you have that and that is magnified when you are playing a woman who actually lived. People love this family, you know? So, you can’t let down Black women, Black folks, then you particularly don’t want to let down the fans. The many thousands, millions of people who love the Williams family.
But the thing about it is, is that this idea of, Black womanhood not being a monolith, right? And so, what I had to do is say all of these things that this woman dealt with, the rejection, not getting credit, being discarded, being marginalized, you know, no one will hear her, all of that stuff. I have a way of expressing that, that comes out in a way that I would do it. That’s not who she is. I think she would say that everything that she does is informed by her faith in God. So, I had to use that as my sculpting knife in my dreams.
DEADLINE: I love that this movie redresses the balance a little bit, because it shows that she was an athlete and a coach. I don’t think anyone really knew that.
ELLIS: No, no I didn’t. When I was doing my initial research, I went to Wikipedia and you know, she was described as a coach and I saw, you know, I had such a cynical response to that. I was like, oh that’s a bit of an overreach. You were really just there being a wonderful mother, cheering for your daughters, but calling yourself a coach? Really? And then I felt so ashamed when I found out the truth. And they will tell you, they are very clear about the fact that, her daughters I mean, that it was a family enterprise and Miss Oracene was on the court. If it was double courts, right, Mr. Richard would be on one side of the court and Miss Oracene would be on the other side of the court. She trained herself. She trained herself to teach those girls how to play.
DEADLINE: It’s extraordinary.
ELLIS: Yeah. And the other thing about that is that I’ve been saying this, and I like it so I’m going to keep saying it. That if Mr. Richard was an architect of that dream, then Miss Oracene was a builder of that dream. And see the difference is that an architect can draw a sketch and he leaves, right? But the builders are there every day. The builders are there every day dealing with the asbestos. And what I mean by that is she could not compartmentalize her coaching because she, at the same time was their mother. She was sewing their outfits. She was doing their hair. She was cooking, cleaning, and I cannot say enough about this woman that no one knows. That no knows what she did. And so, I’m so excited that people always see her in the stands. I’m getting a little emotional, I’m sorry. People see her in the stands, and they see her clapping for her daughters. But now, hopefully with the film, people will see the flowers that she deserves.
DEADLINE: Have you heard anything specific about how the family feels about the film?
ELLIS: I know that they are supporting the film very actively and they have signed on to be producers on the film. So, they saw something they liked. And we had a big press day on Sunday, and they were there all day. They are really pushing the movie. They’re promoting the film. Miss Oracene was there on Sunday.
DEADLINE: What did that feel like? You saw her?
ELLIS: I did see her. It was good. I mean she’s just an accessible woman. I went up to her and I was like hi. I’ve had to do this so much in these last few years that I have to do a disconnect because if I leave myself too vulnerable to that, I can’t do my job. You know what I mean? So, it’s not that I don’t care about the people that I’m playing, you know, it’s that I can’t care because if I care then I can’t do my job. I can’t honor them the way that they need to be honored because now I’m paralyzed by their opinions.
Yeah. And you’re playing a result. You’re playing what they already accomplished. You got to play the process.
DEADLINE: I do want to get a little insight into what it was like working with Will as well. Tell me about that?
ELLIS: For everybody who wants to be a movie star, all the superstars in training should come and watch him on a set. When I walked into rehearsal with him the first day and the windows were full of Post-It notes. He had every beat in the film on a Post-It note. He does not have to do that, but he does not take what he’s doing for granted at all. He’s very, very serious about what he’s doing, but then that’s coupled with the intention he has of making sure that the people around him feel welcome and feel that they are taken care of. And that’s not limited to the first 10 people on a call sheet. That’s everybody.
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