If you don’t understand tennis, you can still understand family.
That was just one of the comments and undertones of a press conference held for “King Richard,” the biopic feature film surrounding the journey to greatness for sisters Venus and Serena Williams. And they couldn’t get there without their family.
Following the motivation of their father, Richard Williams, the film shows some of the more famous moments between the tennis superstars and their close supporters, but also the familial moments that not only paved the way for their sports success, but for who they are to this day. That was important for director Reinaldo Marcus Green and writer Zach Baylin, but also for the Williams’ sisters — including Isha Price, one of Venus and Serena’s three older half-sisters. Through Price’s early collaborations on the script, the story was formed away from sports hero tropes that you see on screen and became a family film with heart, hits and a lot of incredible moments of triumph and truth.
But it all began with Richard.
Will Smith, who portrays Richard Williams, said he remembered an iconic moment when the father snapped on a reporter who was talking to a young Venus, saying, “now she done said what she done said, with a whole lot of confidence.”
“That image burned in my heart, because that’s how I wanted my daughter to look when I showed up,” Smith explained. “That interview had really changed my parenting at that time. She had a lion, and she was so comfortable and so confident that her lion wasn’t going to let anything happen to her. I fell in love with Richard Williams 20-something years ago. When the opportunity came up for this, I knew I wanted to show a father protecting a daughter like that to the world.”
Taking his own experiences with fatherhood into account, Smith found some common ground, but also a lot of insightful ways to approach situations in both acting and beyond the set.
“One of the first things that was interesting in our first meeting — Venus said, it’s almost like they brainwashed us because our punishment was that we couldn’t play tennis… There was a Jedi mind trick. It wasn’t the standard thing you see of a parent pushing and driving a child,” Smith continues. “There was that augmenting and throwing fuel on a fire that they had. It was a fire coming inside Venus and Serena. For me, as an actor, I’m taking it to explore something and to learn something and that was a new parenting idea for me of aligning with your children versus directing your children.”
Smith continued, “It was a very different concept and approach that was magical in the Williams’ family that the rules were set, but the rules that were established were divine rules. So, faith was at the center and it was a collective journey we were going on… It wasn’t that as a parent I know and you don’t, so you’re going to do what I say because I’m right and you’re little. It was a very different approach that was somewhat eye-opening for me. My father was military, so it was very different. When I was growing up, you don’t get a vote, so you do what was laid out for you and what was established. There are some benefits to that mindset also, but this was a very different thing.”
You see the moments, true moments, of parent-child relationships throughout “King Richard.” But you also see a father believing so much in his children that he would do something like showing up on the doorstep of locally-renowned trainers to talk to them, or even making up homemade pamphlets highlighting his daughter’s stats to get the ball rolling. Or even taking them to white-washed country clubs and instilling they belong when he himself had faced racism all throughout his life.
It’s not just Richard and his daughters that kept the ball rolling either, and you see it all unfold on screen. Whether it’s Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn), an L.A. coach who worked with some of the greats of the sport, or Oracene “Brandy” Williams (Aujanue Ellis) who takes her own crucial role as a supporter of Serena, or even the bit eccentric and fun-loving coach Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal) — it takes a family both blood and not to bring success.
“We keep hearing the word family here, and that’s just the deal. It was all about family,” says Bernthal. “Parenthood is the hardest job, it’s the most important job and it’s something that you’re never going to get perfect. I think it’s so important the people we put in our kid’s lives. The thing I connected to with Rick, he was just fun. He loved the game and made it fun. That’s the thing Richard could get behind.”
The sisters who lived through it all perhaps say it best.
“Anything is possible and to always believe in yourself and never doubt,” says Venus when asked what she hopes will be taken away from the film. “Doubt does nothing for you. The same time you’re doubting is the same time you can spend believing in you and putting the work in so you build confidence and as a family, you can achieve anything. That’s what I really loved about this, it’s a family film. Like Will said, if you don’t understand tennis, you understand family and with a family you can do anything. Some [of us] have to create those families, but surrounding yourself with family can take you higher.”
Serena adds, “You really do have to believe in yourself and anything is possible. It’s not too high for you to set your goals at the sky; the sky is literally the limit. Don’t be afraid to set those high goals.”
“King Richard” hits theaters Nov. 19.