King's Court: Will Smith, Venus Williams, and Serena Williams on the journey of making King Richard
Serena Williams is not a woman who is easily caught off-balance. But when she sits down with sister Venus and screen parent Will Smith to reflect on the making of King Richard — the bighearted Warner Bros. biopic that chronicles the '90s-era forging of tennis' greatest-of-all-time queens — the line between fact and fiction gets fuzzy. "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 Williams sisters' tale always contained the ingredients of a celluloid epic: two Black girls sharing a Compton bedroom with three other sisters, learning their game on a pockmarked neighborhood court, and dominating the lily-white sport for decades. But in King Richard (on HBO Max and in theaters Nov. 19), director Reinaldo Marcus Green frames their story through the eyes of Richard Williams, the brash and wily Louisiana-born sports dad who masterminded his two youngest daughters' conquering of the tennis world.
"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."
Thirty Grand Slam singles titles later (including Serena's 23, only one behind the all-time record held by Australia's Margaret Court), it's hard to disagree with Smith when he calls the visionary Richard a mystic. "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." And somehow, he raised two champions who achieved all their sports goals without destroying each other in the process.
Reunited for their first joint cover in years, the sisters appear as tight as ever, their playfulness bringing some much-needed lightness to the sweltering EW photo shoot in a Jupiter, Fla., mansion in early October. Even orbited by a constellation of 30-odd lensmen, assistants, handlers, and helpers, Venus and Serena turn the work obligation into a fun family affair, with Olympia, Serena's 4-year-old daughter, arriving dressed as Snow White, grandma Oracene Price in tow. Stirring the pot all the while is Smith, who brings down the house with his impressions of the Williams family, a serious examination of a booty-related chant, and playful mocking of the photographer: "We're not fooling around out here, are we?" he bellows.
Those expecting a warts-and-all retrospective of the Williams era should manage expectations: King Richard isn't about the sisters' 13-year boycott of the Indian Wells Masters Series tournament. Nor is it about tendon injuries or famous on-court dustups and Sharapova feuds. And the film doesn't really explore the domestic strife between Richard and his now-former wife, Oracene, that grabbed headlines in the early aughts. Instead, it captures something more foundational: the story of a family working together, against all odds, to make a dream come true.
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."
Focusing tightly on the sisters' girlhood rise was an angle that was different from other treatments the family had lobbed back over the net for years, says Isha Price, 47, Venus and Serena's sister and an executive producer on the film. After screenwriter Zach Baylin's dramatized take on their early years landed on Price's pile three years ago, it took her a few months and some pushing from former William Morris Endeavor agency CEO Dave Wirtschafter to crack it open. When she finally did, she had to laugh. "It was so off in terms of personality," Isha recalls. "I started reading some of it to my mom, and she was like, 'Uh, heck no. But if it's good and you think we should do it, we just have to be involved.'"
That started with the family inviting screenwriter Baylin and producer Tim White to the 2018 U.S. Open to get to know everyone inside the Williams bubble. When the tournament ended with a tense clash between Serena and chair umpire Carlos Ramos that hastened her defeat to then upstart Naomi Osaka, the inherent parallels to themes of the film were obvious. "I do remember selfishly thinking, 'What does this mean for the movie?'" recalls Baylin of the off-court media firestorm that cast Serena as a competitor unhinged, even though John McEnroe is celebrated to this day for being just as irascible. "The way her interaction with the ref was framed — immediately in a negative light — made us say: 'This is exactly what the movie is about.'"
Authenticity on the court was, obviously, another priority. "Some sports are a little bit easier than tennis to make look real," says Serena. "But fellow tennis players can see when it's not the real deal. I think it was pretty nailed [here]." In the quest to get it right, Sidney and Demi Singleton, 14 (who plays Serena), completed separate coaching intensives to learn how to play the game and mimic the sisters' open-stance shots and other subtleties. For Sidney, a natural southpaw, that meant learning to play right-handed.
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."
Also painful was the sight of young actress Mikayla Lashae Bartholomew as Williams sister Yetunde Price, who was the victim of a 2003 drive-by shooting that took place less than two miles from the court where her sisters learned to play. "She was very much a huge cheerleader, a second mom," Isha says. "Mikayla wanted to know everything she could to bring that out. She did such an amazing job."
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."
To embody Richard's physical heft, Smith let himself go during production's COVID break, ballooning to 226 pounds — "three pounds more than Ali," he notes, referring to his full-body transformation for Michael Mann's landmark 2001 biopic. "Richard Williams was a big, athletic man, and I wanted to really capture that strength."
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."
Intense and coiled, Smith's understated interpretation of the publicly boisterous Richard recalls his work in Ali, as well as 2006's The Pursuit of Happyness. Not insignificantly, both performances netted Smith Best Actor Oscar noms. Could he threepeat with King Richard, which drew raves when it debuted at Telluride on Sept. 2? The star appears more interested in sharing the wealth than hoarding it. "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."
All the while, the father who had the original vision now keeps largely out of sight, content to live out his dotage hanging out with Olympia at the local water park when he isn't trundling around on his golf cart. COVID kept Richard Williams, who turns 80 in February, away from set. (He did not participate in this story due to health issues.) Has he seen the movie? Even those closest to him can't say for certain. More than once, the sisters say, they've offered him a personal screener, but for all his enthusiastic promises to check it out and support his girls, he had yet to see the film and seems to have little interest in rehashing his life story. You'd think a man who spent years shaping his daughters' future behind a camera would be eager to see himself on the big screen. But clearly that was never the point. "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 finished product couldn't be more meta — if not another Richard Williams home movie, then an instructional video on how to build a future sports great; the tennis version of the Apollo 11 mission. "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."
Motion direction and photography by AB+DM for EW. DP: Geoff George/Neer Motion; Production: Sweet Genius; Additional Production: Ava Selbach, Michelle Stark; Post-Production: Alex Themistocleous; Design: Chuck Kerr. Smith's Styling: Fawn Boardley; Grooming: Pierce Austin, Vera Steimberg; Serena Williams' Styling: Kesha McLeod/KCME; Tailor: Cynthia Noble; Serena and Venus Williams' Makeup: Natasha Gross; Hair: Angie Meadows; Venus Williams' Styling: Scot Louie/The Wall Group.
Cover Look: Smith's Jacket: Dolce & Gabbana; Sweater: Theory; Pants: Alexander McQueen; Shoes: Tom Ford; Serena Williams' Dress: Off-White; Shoes: Stuart Weitzman; Jewelry: Serena Williams for Zales; Watch: Audemars Piguet; Venus WIlliams' Dress: Marcobologna; Shoes: Giuseppe Zanotti; Jewelry: Graziela. Second Look: Smith's Jacket, Shoes: Tom Ford; Shirt, Pants: Theory; Serena Williams' Shoes: Stuart Weitzman; Jewelry: Serena Williams for Zales; Watch: Audemars Piguet; Venus Williams' Jumpsuit: Reem Acra; Jewelry: David Yurman; Shoes: Manolo Blahnik.