More than tennis, King Richard is a story about parenting
Driven by a clear vision of their future and using unconventional methods, Richard, played by Will Smith, has a plan that will take Venus and Serena Williams from the streets of Compton, California to the global stage as legendary icons.
King Richard, now showing in cinemas, shows the power of family, perseverance and unwavering belief as a means to achieve the impossible and impact the world.
Here, director Reinaldo Marcus Green explains that the movie is more than just a biopic of the Williams sisters. It is a story of a strong, loving family that plays tennis together.
What do you know about the Williams family when you first read King Richard?
Reinaldo Marcus Green: I didn’t know much about the family at all. I wasn’t an avid tennis fan. My allegiance was to Venus and Serena as Black excellence in the sport. I would say that of Tiger Woods, too.
But, in learning about the family, it became such a rich tapestry. The script was great—Zach Baylin wrote a beautiful screenplay. Part of my job was to work with him to figure out how to make it deeper. What we were looking for, what we were trying to say? And those were the things that we spent the next few months trying to hammer home in the process.
The story about a father of athletes resonated with you. How are you connected with the script?
My father, in his mind, was raising two baseball players. So we — similarly to the Williams — spent the first third of our life on a baseball diamond. I don’t remember much of my childhood outside of the baseball field. I played on countless teams, all-star teams and travelling baseball.
We grew up in a single-parent household, so I had a father who was always there. We just assumed that that’s how most people grow up with their parents — with this overabundance of love and commitment of time that our father gave to my brother and I.
I played college baseball. I had two major league tryouts. I didn’t make it, but I had taken it pretty far. I knew what it was like to be a high-level competitive athlete and what that challenge is like — the things that you face, the pressures once you get to a certain level.
What do you want to bring to your film?
What was more important than making a tennis movie was making a movie about a family — a family that plays tennis. We all know that Venus and Serena are two of the greatest athletes of all time… but what makes our film special? Those are the questions that I ask myself. Let’s dig deeper into this family.
The Internet portrays Richard to be one way, and the family portrays him to be another. This isn't just about two girls who were robotically playing tennis and becoming champions. They were two girls who were infested with love. They had the full support of older sisters and parents who devoted their lives to making the girls’ lives richer — not in terms of money, but in terms of how they treat themselves, how they respect themselves. That’s the journey that you see and that we go on in the film.
How was it working with Will Smith not only as your Richard but also as a producer?
I thought it was a perfect role for Will for a lot of reasons. He’s definitely of an age in his life where I thought he can give the gravitas to this particular performance.
I had seen Will in Concussion (2015) and a couple of other movies where he had taken some prosthetics or taken an accent to certain levels... I wanted to make sure whatever we were going to do for this film was not going to be a distraction to the performance itself.
It was about finding the balance with somebody as eccentric and as well-known as Richard is. But Will Smith is playing that role. So part of it was, how do we make Will disappear? So it was about really finding the right level of prosthetics to offset his look enough for him to disappear. He’s still handsome, despite eating muffins for a couple of months!
Everybody levels up when Will Smith is in a scene. So, you get incredible performances by virtue of how giving he is offscreen. He didn’t run to the trailer when it was time for the girls to be on-camera; he was there.
What about Aunjanue Ellis who plays the girls' mum, Oracene?
I can’t say enough amazing things about Aunjanue. We all know it’s called King Richard, but our secret weapon is really Oracene Price. She should get all the credit in the world for what she was able to bring to breathe life into that mother. She just brought depth and dimension.
And the girls who play Venus and Serena, Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton, are also unbelievable...
They are just great actors. We were fortunate that they had some experience coming into this. This wasn’t their first rodeo. Saniyya had worked with legends, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. Demi had worked with a legend in Forest Whitaker.
What was truly a revelation for us was how close they were going to become as sisters. They love each other. There were times where it was, like, “Hey guys, we’re rolling. Come on!” They were just sisters. It was amazing. But, it wasn’t just the two of them. All five girls — Mikayla LaShae Bartholomew, Daniele Lawson, Layla Crawford, along with Saniyya and Demi — were truly a family.
I thank their real parents because they were on-set every single day. You have some set moms and dads who just drop them off — but these were sitting with them, making sure that they got lunch, making sure they got to school.
It’s a testament to a story of parenting, in front of and behind the camera. These girls could not do it without their parents being there. It was amazing to watch. They had a complete support system.