Headlines have been abuzz with the Oscar buzzy upcoming King Richard in which Will Smith plays tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams’ father and now the iconic trio reflect on the journey and dish on the experience so far in the making of the biopic based on the ’90s-era.
“There’s a scene where my dad says…” Serena starts, before squeezing Smith’s arm and catching herself. “Well, Will says that you’re doing this for every Black girl. And that really hit me in a different way because obviously at the time we didn’t know.”
The King Richard biopic on HBO Max landing theaters Nov. 19 by director Reinaldo Marcus Green frames their story through the eyes of Richard Williams, Louisiana-born sports dad who masterminded his two youngest daughters’ conquering of the tennis world, Entertainment Weekly reports.
“I guess the in through Richard appealed to me, because it’s the only way I could be involved,” says the 53-year-old Smith, jokingly. He adds later that the Williams patriarch “reminds me a lot of my father. It was that same generation — men that used to fix everything with their hands. I understood what it was like to live at the edge of survival and to try to sustain a dream.” Adds Serena, 40: “There are so many ways to tell this story. But I think telling it through my dad was the best way because he had the idea. He knew how to do it.”
Smith calls the visionary Richard a mystic, raising two powerhouses with love even tight as ever with stardom. “The first time we talked, I saw a little bit of a flash,” says the star. “He was one of the most misunderstood people during that time. Nobody got it.” Interestingly, Richard saw his daughters’ unlikely future through the viewfinder of a camcorder, his preferred instruction tool on the court. “He was so far ahead in terms of the balance between pushing and protecting, [and] had a savant-level comprehension of when those moments were.”
The trio reunited for their first joint cover in years.
The film roughly covers the seven-year period that the Williamses spent trying to propel Venus into superstardom in hopes of Serena following close behind, beginning with Richard mailing his highlight reels of the girls to elite tennis coaches across the country. The first taker, Paul Cohen, is played to deadpan perfection by Tony Goldwyn, while Jon Bernthal is a standout as Rick Macci, the colorful trainer who helped Venus turn pro. Controversially, Richard kept Venus off the national juniors circuit for three years so she could refine her game, concentrate on schoolwork, and otherwise be a kid (albeit one with a 63–0 juniors record). But Richard’s unwavering faith was ultimately rewarded when a 14-year-old Venus debuted on the WTA tour and nearly toppled world No. 2 Arantxa Sánchez-Vicario in her second-ever match.
King Richard will also play big for those who revere the sisters as much for their sizable impacts in fashion, the arts, and as role models as for their tennis. “They opened up doors for us to say, ‘You can be Black and beautiful and be in movies,'” says Saniyya Sidney, 15, who portrays Venus. “‘Start your own business, be a young mom and still have your own empire.’ They opened those doors for me.”
Serena and Venus even inspired Beyoncé, who, after screening the film, was moved to contribute “Be Alive,” a bespoke closing-credits anthem. “The marriage of a movie and a song is a kind of magic that’s unmatched in entertainment,” says Smith, who knows a thing or two about that game. “I was so happy when Beyoncé called.”
Off the court, team Williams also wanted to emphasize that Richard wasn’t the only visionary: Mother Oracene was equally instrumental in making her daughters’ careers come true, a steadying presence behind the scenes. “We weren’t thinking about what we were going to get or how much money we were going to make,” remembers Oracene. “We just did it. After I saw how hard the girls were working, I didn’t have any doubt.”
Though made with the full participation of the Williams family (“The interest has always been to keep it 100 percent real,” says Isha), King Richard didn’t arrive without triggering some tough memories. An extended kitchen argument between Smith’s Richard and Aunjanue Ellis’ Oracene — deftly capturing the fullness of Oracene’s quiet strength in the face of Richard’s indiscretions — touched a nerve. (Serena teared up the first time she saw it at a family screening, and Isha couldn’t bear to be on set when it was filmed.) “She’s such a nuanced person,” Ellis says of playing that emotional scene. “Reinaldo just let us try things, and then he’d pull us back.”
Finally, the film is a valentine to Venus, the tennis trailblazer who people sometimes forget came first. “I love that it captured the innocence — the innocence we still hang on to, actually,” Venus, 41, says. “It’s kind of difficult for me to say, ‘Oh, this film shows me.’ Because me is Serena. And there’s no me without her, and I could have never done what I’ve been able to achieve on the court without her. It’s so symbiotic.”
For Smith, the project was intensely personal as well. As an actor-musician who has two actor-musician children in Jaden, 23, and Willow, 21, with wife Jada Pinkett Smith, he felt a deep connection to Richard Williams, both of them fathers who wanted to raise dreamers and doers. “After my children were born, [I had] that same thing of trying to cultivate young, contributing humans,” he says. “Willow showed me the difference between how you would go at a boy and how you would go at a young woman going into the world of competition, so King Richard was just uniquely timed in my life. There was a comprehension of all of the different angles that I have now over 50, that I wouldn’t have been able to even conceive at 40.”
Director Green says he felt supported by Smith like never before with an actor. “I got eight weeks of prep at the start, which I never have on any project,” Green says. “And that’s part of Will’s process. He’d put up index cards of every single scene in the movie that were color-coded based on [tone]. He comes from an era where you respect the director. And this was him 100 percent in on something he truly believed in — getting the dialect down and having the look down and the behavior.”
Smith, renowned for his work in Ali, as well as 2006’s The Pursuit of Happyness, performances that netted Smith Best Actor Oscar noms says: “I don’t make movies for awards or anything like that,” he says. “I make movies to honor people and to talk about ideas that I think can be helpful to other humans.”
Although he gives his blessings COVID and health issues kept Richard Williams, who turns 80 in February, away from set. “The film is not really about winning a championship,” says Venus. “It was about this process of making a person who could win in life.”
The Richard Williams movie sorts of gives insight on how to build a future sports great: “It was an honor for me to be able to just slow it down a little bit and show people how special his mind and his belief and his faith were,” Smith says. “He was a long way from a perfect man, but [he was] perfect in his belief and his love and his passion and his cultivation of his family. Imagine that at the height of Michael Jordan going for six championships in Chicago, his brother was on the team he was playing against in Los Angeles. It’s like Tiger Woods is number one and his brother is number two. It’s impossible. Right?”
It’s a tale Serena herself will be sharing with little Olympia when she’s old enough. “She gets to see what Mommy was like,” Serena says. “I always wondered how I would explain my life. Like, how will I even start that conversation? This is the perfect way.”
A version of this story appears in Entertainment Weekly’s December issue, on newsstands Nov. 12 and available to order here.