Movie review

The Gift of Being Able to Hear Her Voice: Aunjanue Ellis on Playing the Williams Sisters’ Mother in King Richard | Interviews

The film takes place in two distinct time periods, when the girls are young and the family is living in Compton and then when the girls are in their early teens being coached in Florida. We see very clearly that the relationship of Richard and Oracene is very different in the later scenes. How do you as an actress approach a role with that kind of challenge?

Oracene was a co-conspirator in this crazy dream that they had. It really is when you hear about it, it is utterly irrational that they would have children and make them tennis stars. And for that to happen she had to birth these tennis stars. It wasn’t like they adopted some really fabulous tennis players. She had to birth them. I think that was a real excitement about that. And she was their coach just as much as he was. Physically, she was more their coach than he was. He was more of a guide, I would say. But she trained herself so she could teach those girls. They would all be on the tennis court at the same time. And I just think that in the first scenes there was that moment of just the world hadn’t entered it. The world hadn’t entered the dream yet. And so that naiveté was still there. That wide-eyed view of what they could make happen was still there.

And then when it became more real when the world invaded this, and then when the world had designs on their children, she saw a change in her husband and knew that she had to protect her girls from the tennis industry, from a world that had no interest in little black girls. They marginalize them, they erase them in the tennis industry that was, and still is, white. So she had to protect her girls from the sport of tennis, and protect her girls from the vaseline notions of her husband. So what you see is the progression of that.

How do you work with young actors to create an authentic sense of family and history?

These young girls happen to be really, really special young women. So that makes it really, really easy. When you’re working with someone, it doesn’t matter how old they are. If they are closed off, if they’re fearful, it’s hard to connect. It’s hard to present any sort of living experience on camera with them. 

That’s not a matter of age. Older actors struggle with that as well. But these young women are really extraordinary on and off-camera. And they’re craftswomen. It looks really easy, it looks like they’re just having a good time with Will Smith on camera. That’s what it looks like. And yes, they are having a good time with Will Smith on camera and having a good time with each other. But there’s skill to that. Acting in front of a camera is acting in front of a camera. The camera is not hidden, it is in front of your face, and you have to pretend that it’s not. So you are pretending to be someone else. And pretending that this big black machine is not watching your every move and then okay, and now be natural. That is a feat to do. All of that while this big black machine is in your face. That’s why theater is very different from acting in front of a camera. I can’t say that enough. These young women are very, very good at what they do. And so it was easy for me to have that with them. Because as I said, they’re very good at what they do. And then they’re lovely people, lovely young women.

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