‘King Richard’ Star Aunjanue Ellis on Creating a Woman Who Is Not Just “a Plot Device”

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Actress Aunjanue Ellis and screenwriter Zach Baylin were coming from two very different career paths when their trajectories converged on Warner Bros.’ King Richard, the best picture-nominated film dramatizing how, on little more than hope, dedication and sheer gumption, Compton parents Richard Williams and Oracene Price cultivated their daughters Venus and Serena into two of the finest tennis champions the sport has ever seen.

Ellis had three decades’ worth of high-profile stage, film and television experience, along with prestigious awards nominations and a Primetime Emmy to her credit. Baylin, despite several years of pushing stories forward in Hollywood, had yet to see one of his screenplays produced before his Blacklist standout featuring the Williams’ story. But on King Richard, the two were able to enjoy the kind of creative volley that actors and film scribes are rarely allowed to indulge in.

The collaborators joined THR to discuss fleshing out Ellis’ role in a back-and-forth that would ultimately earn each of them a Oscar nomination: she for supporting actress, he for original screenplay.

You were able to collaborate in a way that screenwriters and actors don’t always get to. Talk about that shared effort in making Oracene come to life on the screen.

ZACH BAYLIN I spent about two weeks with Oracene during the U.S. Open one year. I taped all those interviews and was able to revise the script and her voice based around what her experiences were and some of the really insightful things she said to me. I was able to give Aunjanue those tapes. That was the beginning of the way we worked on building the character together.

AUNJANUE ELLIS It was a gift. I wasn’t able to talk to Miss Oracene … [but] I had these recordings that they shared with me. You’re right: That doesn’t necessarily happen all the time, but Zach, [director Reinaldo Marcus Green] and [star-producer] Will [Smith], they shared that with me. It just really became my audiobook for the length of our shooting, especially at the beginning. Toward the end, I didn’t need it as much. It was priceless. The thing is, what Zach had written initially was really good. Sometimes — God bless us, especially women — you have to really just build it from nothing, but that was not the case. I had something in my hands that when I first read it — before I met Zach, before I had the job — I was just like, “I want to say these words.” I think that’s the mark of good writing for an actor.

BAYLIN Even right up before we were shooting, we would look at the scenes and say, “Do we need all this dialogue?” Aunjanue is so powerful in the performance, and Oracene, the real woman, is so specific about her words. Oracene really holds her cards, but when she plays them, they’re very powerful and specific. In the scene where Aunjanue goes across the street and gives it to the neighbor, we wrote versions of that where a lot more was said. But then, as we worked together on it, we realized how powerful it is to just have it almost be a quiet moment. You see how much strength and conviction is in Oracene, and Aunjanue just nails that.

ELLIS What made this movie stand out to me when I read it was that she had a presence, because a lot of times, you read these heroic male stories and the woman is just there to be a plot device, to move the story further for the guy. Why was that important to you, Zach?

BAYLIN I never wanted to write something where Oracene was going to be just the person in his corner who picks him up when he is down and pushes him along. Once I started to research Richard and to realize how large a role Oracene had played in everything, and just frankly how wild a character Richard was, I became very interested to say, “Who married this guy? Who went on this road with these five girls and did this thing?” It just felt like she was just as integral a part, if not even more so, of what the family became and what they accomplished. I remember the night before that kitchen-scene shoot. We’d been rewriting that thing constantly. On weekends we would get together and workshop that scene, because we knew the movie was in some ways going to make or break with that moment. We kept running the scene, and you and Will kept saying, “How can we go further? What is the thing that she can say to him that is going to bring him to his knees and bring him to his lowest?” What’s in that scene came out of those conversations that we collectively had together, and these tapes that we had with Oracene. I took that last rehearsal that you guys did and rewrote. And the next day, it was magical on set. And it was just the true essence of what the movie was, which was just a real collaboration between people who really believed in what we were doing.

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From left: Aunjanue Ellis, Demi Singleton, Saniyya Sidney, Mikayla Bartholomew, Layla Crawford, Daniele Lawson and Will Smith as the Williams family in Warner Bros.’ King Richard.
Warner Bros.

Richard and Oracene anticipated what the rise of Venus and Serena was going to mean in terms of representation. Was it on your minds, what a film telling the Williams sisters’ origin story would mean to the greater world?

ELLIS The Williams family, in my mind, are my extended family, even though they don’t know who I am — I mean, they know who I am now, but otherwise, they wouldn’t know that I existed. I can’t watch Venus and Serena’s matches because I’m so afraid of what’s going to happen; I have to watch the replay, and I can only watch if they win. I have so much invested emotionally in these women who do not know that I exist. They inhabit a space that beforehand, outside of Wilma Rudolph and Arthur Ashe, that had never been occupied by someone who looked like me. But then there’s also what they do when they’re not playing tennis: the fact that we can have these really substantive conversations about equal pay — not just in sports, but other places of business — and look to them as examples of that. This is how these women figure into my life as not just sports icons — because I’m not a big tennis fan, but I am a Venus and Serena fan — but also as cultural icons, as movers of this thing that we call the progression of women in this country. They are essential to that and what it looks like now. You don’t want to mess that up when you are playing their mother. This was my small way of repaying them for what they have done for me. There’s no gift that I can give these women, but I can hopefully do something that reflects their lives in a way that’s honest.

So much of this movie hinges on the pursuit of excellence. Did you connect to the Williamses through your own struggles to succeed in a creative endeavor and to bring your best work out of yourselves?

ELLIS I think of myself as somebody who tries to do work that expands not just the possibility of what women are in our culture, but the truth of what women are in our culture. I do that when I’m off camera. Imagine my delight when I can do that on camera. It’s a convergence of that purpose from my personal life. The character of Miss Oracene is so exciting to me and was such a fantastic thing to play, because how do you share a space with someone who is as towering as Richard, who really figures as a king and sees himself as a king that takes up all the space in the room? How are you as powerful? How are you as affecting and effective as this presence — and do it in a way that does not match his energy in any way at all? That is so much fun to play. I’ve looked for those things in terms of what I’ve been trying to build. It’s the kind of work that I long to do and want to continue to do.

BAYLIN My life has been totally different from the Williams family’s, but there were things that I connected with in the story that I wanted to write about. I have two kids; I was really interested in investigating that experience of being a parent and what it means to have tremendous hopes and dreams for your kids without knowing exactly how to put them into fruition, or if you’re capable of being the person to mold them. Even more, I’m a big tennis fan. I’ve been an athlete, and so I knew there was an element of that dream that I really responded to. But most of all, this project came to me at a point where I was in my late 30s and I’d been writing for a long time and I’d never had a movie made. I had begun to feel a little bit like, “Is this ever going to happen?” I believed that I had talent. I knew I always wanted to be a part of making movies, but I hadn’t had that big breakthrough. There was some element in Richard’s journey that I really identified with, in terms of wanting to put yourself out there in a real way and make it happen. I locked in on a lot of that in his journey, and in that way I was bringing a lot of my own aspirations into the movie.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in a March stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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