King Richard uniquely tells the story of Venus and Serena Williams’ rise to tennis greatness through the eyes of their father, Richard Williams. But, the film also makes sure to highlight the importance of the Williams sister’s mother, Oracene Price.
In the film, Will Smith brilliantly portrays Richard Williams, the polarizing father of the Williams sister who didn’t take no for an answer on his quest to make his daughters the next big tennis superstars. Williams was a loving but strict father, but thankfully, Oracene, played by the amazing Aunjanue Ellis (Lovecraft Country, When They See Us), was there to provide a calming, understanding voice. But at the same time, she kept her husband in check while helping him execute his plan by teaching a young Serena while Richard Williams focused on Venus.
Ahead of King Richard’s release, Cassius Life had the pleasure of speaking with Ellis, and we touched on Oracene’s importance in the story of the Williams sisters and her preparation for the role. We also talked about her working opposite of Will Smith, her favorite moment from the film, and more.
Step into the interview below.
Cassius Life: Richard Williams came up with the 78-page manifesto for his daughters. But, Oracene pretty much was pivotal in helping him execute that plan as well. So, why do you think it was important that the film highlights that she was the glue of the family?
Aunjanue Ellis: Yeah. I think that the filmmakers wanted to be honest about who she was. And to honestly tell the story of the Williams family, they had to tell the truth of who Miss Oracene was. And I think that the, our producers, our director, Will, and then, of course, myself and her family, that was important to them. And they insisted on that happening.
CL: Absolutely. She was definitely our favorite character in the movie.
AE: Are you just saying that because you’re talking to me?
CL: We’re serious. We really loved her portrayal in the movie.
AE: Thank you.
CL: Speaking of your portrayals, you play a lot of strong moms in television and films that leave lasting impressions with everyone. Your portrayal of Oracene was also brilliant. So, how do you prepare for these roles?
AE: Well, with miss Oracene, II didn’t get a chance to meet her. But I had the gift of these recordings that our director Reinaldo Marcus Green, and our writer Zach Baylen, they sat down with her, and they just did these really, really extensive conversations with her. And they recorded them, obviously. And I would just listen to those conversations over and over again. And what’s so special about that is I didn’t have to ask anybody about her, but I could just listen to her own voice tell me who she was. And that’s what I used as my raw material to build the character.
…to honestly tell the story of the Williams family, they had to tell the truth of who Miss Oracene was.
CL: That’s amazing. Your performance was great. And we think it’s going to garner a lot of conversation. And so was Will Smith’s portrayal of Richard Williams. What was it like working opposite of him and doing those scenes?
AE: You know, what I love about working with Will, the same thing that I love about working with people who aren’t international superstars is that you know, he is, he creates an environment where you feel safe. And he does that on camera and off camera. And when you have that kind of safety, it creates, you just want to, you can take risks with someone, and it makes you a better actor. And so I had such a great time working with him because I just went off. And then, you know what I mean? And when you are working with someone like that, you kind of have the permission to do that. Because they’re open and open to whatever happens. It’s all about just, can we connect? Can we be honest? Can we tell the truth in this moment? And that’s what he wanted, and that’s what I wanted.
CL: We Spoke with Tony Goldwyn, and we gushed about your scene, where you checked Richard. We both declared that was our favorite moment for the film. So tell us, what was your favorite moment from the film?
AE: Ooh, my favorite moment. Well, I haven’t seen the film. I saw the very end, but I think I would say this. I think that would say two things. Two moments. One is when Will says to Venus; you’re not just representing yourself. You’re representing every little black girl.
You’re representing every little black girl.
CL: Yeah, that was, that was a good one.
AE: I saw that in a trailer, and I was like couldn’t, I had to take a few minutes to get my life back, you know. And then I love the scene at the end, and it’s a very simple thing, but I just, I thought it just said so much about Venus Williams, and it also said a lot about Saniyya Sydney, when she says, Well, Mr. Williams offers to take her bag, he takes her bag. It’s after that great loss, right. He’s about to take her bag, and she’s like, no, I can take my own bag. And that’s just so symbolic because it wasn’t about the bag.
AE: You know, it was about her claiming her own journey. That her journey, her tennis journey, her life’s journey, was her own. And I just, it was just brilliant—a brilliant moment for me.
CL: Yeah. That was a beautiful scene. We don’t often cry watching movies, but that movie had some tears coming out of our eyes a few times. Especially when she [Venus] walked out with the beads, that was a powerful moment for us.
CL: If you could see another athlete or sports family brought to television or film, who would it be for you?
AE: Woo. Oh my God. That’s such a good, that’s such a good question. I don’t know. I just, I feel like, I feel that there are so many young, there are so many black women athletes who, that we don’t know their stories and none of them are coming to mind right now. And that’s the problem.
CL: That is a problem.
AE: Because I don’t know their names, but they exist. I want to see more. I want to see more of those stories. I want to see who Venus and Serena were heirs to. We know about Althea Gibson. You know, I just think there are so many of those women that we should know about. So I’m interested in us excavating that history and discovering more of those women.
King Richard arrives in theaters and on HBO Max Nov.19.
Photos: Warner Bros./ King Richard