[Editor’s note: This article was originally published in November 2021 and has been updated.]
Don’t let the title fool you: While Reinaldo Marcus Green’s crowd-pleasing biopic Best Picture contender “King Richard” gets its name from the tongue-in-cheek nickname of the father of the iconic Williams sisters, it’s Aunjanue Ellis’ Oscar-nominated turn as their mother Oracene Price that feels like the real revelation. Green’s film, produced by both Venus and Serena Williams (along with their sister Isha Price), tracks the rise of the tennis champs through the teachings of their mercurial, driven father. And while Will Smith turns in one of the best performances of his career as the eponymous Richard Williams, Ellis matches him at every turn.
For Ellis, bringing the full truth of Oracene Price — that’s “Ms. Oracene” to her — wasn’t just essential to the role; it became nothing less than a mission for the actress. But first, she had to counter her own misconceptions.
Ellis admits she knew “very little” of the Williams family and their journey before taking on the role, something she suspects she shares with most of the film’s audience. “What I knew of them was what anybody would know about them, just from what’s in the media and what’s in the press,” Ellis said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “I had a very superficial knowledge of who they were, but I saw this famous interview that they did on ’60 Minutes’ when they were still young girls, and I will never forget that. I just remember the feeling of promise that I had watching that. I just felt so excited about who these young girls would become.”
What Ellis didn’t know was that Venus and Serena (played in the film by talented young stars Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton, respectively) were already part of a lineage of remarkable, ambitious women, thanks to their mother. Ellis admits that “our internalized patriarchy” initially colored her perception of the role Oracene played in the raising of the two young superstars. While most people know that their father was their first coach, shagging balls with them at the local tennis courts in their hometown of Compton, few realized that Price was just as involved in their development.
“When I was doing my initial research for the part, I went to Wikipedia and saw that she was described as a coach, and I just remember having such a snarky response to that. ‘Ugh really, you’re calling yourself a coach, sitting in the stands and cheering for your girls, that’s not really coaching.'” Ellis said. “And then when I found out the truth of the matter, I was so ashamed. I was so ashamed, just thinking, ‘Aunjanue, you should know better. You should know how women are always underwritten, undertold, you know what I mean? Come on.'”
Ellis said she soon discovered that “Ms. Oracene” was on the court “just as much as Mr. Richard was.” It shifted everything for her. “If Mr. Richard was on one side of the court, Ms. Oracene was on the other side of the court,” she said. “She was really instrumental in designing Serena’s play. All of that was surprising to me and I just found that to be glorious. I love the idea that people will come into the theater thinking one thing about her and hopefully will come out thinking something else.”
The actress admits that, once she realized the full scope of the real-life Oracene’s work with Venus and Serena, she became a little hard to handle. “When I found out the truth of Ms. Oracene’s — I don’t want to say contribution or involvement — because when I found out that she was a true partner in their career and their play style, I was very hard to deal with,” she said. “I would come to these rehearsals when we were sort of still working things out, and I just was armed with this truth about this woman. I was so intense.”
For Ellis, her goal became clear: to do justice to Price’s legacy and work. “To do anything less would be a disservice to this family,” she said. “We just made the decision that we were going to honor her as fully as we could in the context of the film. When I found out the truth, I wanted to give her a voice, and I wanted the world to know the truth of who this woman was. That became my mission.”
Playing real-life people isn’t new to Ellis: she was nominated for her first Emmy in 2019 for her portrayal of Sharonne Salaam (the mother of “Central Park Five” defendant Yusef Salaam) in the miniseries “When They See Us,” and her previous film work includes playing everyone from iconic singers Mattie Moss Clark (“The Clark Sisters: First Ladies of Gospel”) and Vicki Anderson (“Get on Up”) to historical figures like Nat Turner’s mother Nancy (“Birth of a Nation”) and Ray Charles’ muse Mary Ann Fisher (“Ray”). Over the years, she’s developed a philosophy about taking on such roles.
“I want to really be clear about it, because I see these roles as characters. I see them as characters,” Ellis said. “You can take the facts and that’s the foundation of what you do, but then my work begins in the make-believe part. You try to make sure that you have a foundation of truth, but then after that, you have to play. After that, you have to be a character. You’re not doing a recreation. You’re not doing a documentary.”
She’s not at all interested in mimicry, and points to someone like Jamie Foxx (with whom she starred in “Ray”) as being a prime example of a performer able to tap into truth over cheap impersonation. “I certainly don’t like watching that and I don’t want to do that,” she said. “I’m not interested in doing that. I would much prefer erring on the side of being able to speak a truth. Rather than, did I always sound like somebody? Did I always look like somebody?”
That’s perhaps why Ellis is not bothered by the fact that she didn’t meet the real Oracene Price before taking on the role. (She noted that Venus and Serena’s half-sister Isha was “there all along the way, keeping us on course, keeping us on track, keeping us honest,” and Venus and Serena both visited the set.)
Still, Ellis was offered a way into Price’s life by way of a series of “epic, long, extended recordings” that the family provided to the actress. “I got to hear her talk about her life, talk about her childhood, and talk about being an athlete as a kid,” Ellis said. “She talked about how she played baseball and that she was so good that people would get mad when she came to bat, because they knew she was going to hit the ball and she would hit it far and they would have to go chase the balls that she hit.”
But there was also freedom in her portrayal of Price, including in the choices Ellis, Oscar-nominated co-star Smith, Green, and Oscar-nominated screenwriter Zach Baylin made when it came to bringing to the screen the fraught relationship between Richard and his wife (the pair divorced after the events of the film, which only follows the family through Venus and Serena’s teenage years).
“This is [the] make-believe because, for the most part, I don’t know what those conversations were like between Ms. Oracene and Mr. Richard,” she said. “We can only sort of imagine what those conversations were like. As long as we are truthful to the essence of what they were, based on what we know, that’s the best I can do.”
And getting to that essence, that deep truth of these real people, came to a head in a pivotal third act scene that sees Oracene standing up to Richard as he threatens to dismantle so many of the strides the girls have made at a luxe Florida training camp. It’s also the first scene in which Richard’s complicated past — including rumors about other women and other children — come to a head between the two.
“When I said that I was a woman on a mission, that mission came to its highest point with how we did that scene,” Ellis said. “It was so important to me to get that right. It was so important to Isha to get that right. It was so important to Will to get that right. It was so important for Rei and Zach to get that right. Up until a few minutes before we started shooting, Will and I, we didn’t talk about that scene. We didn’t rehearse that scene at all. We didn’t. We just went in our separate corners and came with the words and just saw what would happen.”
For Ellis, that scene encapsulates so much of what she wanted to bring to the role — the honesty, the passion, the drive, the pain, the resilience of Ms. Oracene — and it hits all those notes.
“I don’t think she was talking about how he was unfaithful to her, I think she was saying that he had other children that he had sort of left,” Ellis said. “And she was saying, ‘You’re not going to do that to my girls.’ I love the idea of her saying, ‘Yeah, I’m married to you, but my obligation is not to you, my obligations are to my daughters and my God.’ I felt that this was the time that Ms. Oracene Price would get to have her say. How many other times will this woman get to have her say? I just did not want us to lose that opportunity.”
It’s her mission, completed.
A Warner Bros. release, “King Richard” is now available on VOD.