Will Smith saw his own father in his King Richard role
To hear Will Smith talk about Richard Williams, the brashly confident dad of two future tennis icons — and the dominating presence of King Richard — is to see a veteran actor approaching a role from the inside out. "Richard reminds me a lot of my father," says Smith, 53. The actor, who appears on the latest installment of EW's The Awardist podcast alongside his costar Aunjanue Ellis, adds, "It was that same generation: men who used to be able to fix everything with their hands. My father was in the military, so he understood what it was like to try to sustain a dream at the edge of survival."
Williams saw enormous promise in daughters Venus and Serena, both of whom he pushed to excellence on hard-scrabble South Central tennis courts, far from the money and privilege that often accompanies such aspirations. As embodied by Smith in his Oscar-nominated turn, he's a coach, a disciplinarian, and a dad burning with a vision — one that sometimes only he can see. Smith calls the role "uniquely timed in my life," an opportunity he had to age into to fully appreciate. "There was a comprehension of all of the different angles that I now have that I wouldn't have been able to even conceive at 40."
In Smith, director Reinaldo Marcus Green (Monsters and Men) recognized a work ethic that went beyond hours of dialect work and physicality. "Will wasn't the guy who was going off to his trailer while the other folks were acting," Green says. "He was doing his lines offscreen with them as if it was his first take on camera. And that's how giving Will is. He comes from an era that respects a director."
Aunjanue Ellis — who is Oscar-nominated for her turn as Williams's fierce-hearted wife, Oracene — also speaks to the benefits of experience. "I am 53 years old and have been doing this a long time," Ellis says. "But what helps is having someone who has a generous spirit on and off-camera. That's not always the case. You feel free to take risks, you feel free to create, you feel free to fail with them, knowing that it's okay."
Ellis and Smith share an explosive moment of friction in the movie: a seething kitchen-sink argument that's already entered the unofficial Hollywood Hall of Fame of Marital Discord. "We had a great script in what Zach Baylin wrote — it was already excellent," Ellis recalls, "but all of us felt that we could do more and go further with it. I will be honest and say, I was Miss Oracene."
Smith remembers a similar out-of-body experience. "As an actor, the first thing you look for is the things that are most like you," he says. "And then you venture out into the parts that are different. And as soon as you find those, it's like you're fighting for your life."
—Additional reporting by Andrew Lawrence and Clarissa Cruz
Click through to hear more from Smith on the Williams sisters' talent, and why he acts (it's not for money or awards). King Richard is now available for streaming on several services.
Listen to the full interview on EW's The Awardist podcast below or available wherever you listen to podcasts. Subscribe for new episodes every Monday. Our new season covers the road to the 2022 Oscars with in-depth analysis and interviews with Kenneth Branagh, Mike Mills, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Halle Berry, and more Oscar hopefuls.
Check out more from EW's The Awardist, featuring exclusive interviews, analysis, and our podcast diving into all the highlights from the year's best films.
- Jon Bernthal is still 'just as hungry' for 'special' scripts like King Richard
- Jon Bernthal learned how to play (and coach) tennis for King Richard
- EW's The Awardist podcast returns to break down the 2022 Oscars race so far
- Game, set, Oscar? Will Smith enters the awards race with first King Richard trailer
Comments have been disabled on this post