‘King Richard’ Star Aunjanue Ellis on Playing the Woman Who Made Serena Williams the Greatest of All Time
Behind every king is a queen. “King Richard” star Aunjanue Ellis explains what it took for Oracene Price, mother of Serena and Venus Williams, to manifest history for her girls.
The woman with a British accent who “so fiercely supports the difficult man she loves.” The woman who “shakes [a] vaguely dissatisfied white man out of malaise” with her “accessible eccentricity.” The woman “who is sort of there while men who have names are doing a very important war.” The woman “who is married to the great white man who is solving racism forever all by himself.”
A thread of videos from performer Natalie Walker went viral in 2016 for satirizing the stereotypes actresses are asked to portray on film. It was all too real. How familiar we are with the trope: a two-hour biopic that lends a showcase to a man’s brilliance, and then the actress playing his wife is allowed one outburst, or, all too often, one emotional phone call. (A telephone, the most sighted co-star in Best Supporting Actress performance reels at the Oscars.)
I start describing the trope, and actress Aunjanue Ellis starts to give herself whiplash. By the time I’m midway through the explanation, the fervor of her head-shaking becomes an actual concern.
“It drives me crazy,” she says. She starts repeating it. “Crazy” becomes “insane.” She starts sighing. “When I see it, I’m just like, OK, I’m done. It’s so tired. You have the hero. And then you have a woman that’s nagging him for being heroic. I am so done with it.”
We’re speaking in Georgia at the SCAD Savannah Film Festival, where Ellis is being presented with the Outstanding Achievement in Cinema Award for her performance in the new film King Richard. It’s the perfect case study to protest those stereotypes.
This is a film starring Will Smith as the domineering and controversial father of Venus and Serena Williams, the man whose unconventional coaching methods and unflappable conviction that his daughters would make history warrants, well, a film that stars Will Smith. But the King has his Queen, and the remarkable thing about the film and Ellis’ performance is the insistence that she also has her crown. That she is more than, as we know it in film, just the wife.
“Ms. Oracene was on the court just as much as Mr. Williams,” Ellis says about Oracene Price, the mother of the Williams sisters, who she plays in King Richard. “It would have been a lie to show any less than that.”
Ellis is an actress who is outspoken about how unlikely it is that she became an actress.
Growing up in Mississippi, she remembers her grandmother paying for basic needs—cheese, peanut butter—using government assistance. The idea that she could become a professional creative person was so outside the bounds for her, it took decades into her career to admit that this was her actual job. That she had become a working actress.
She is an actress who, earlier in her career, played the parts that could have been spoofed in the videos mentioned above. But now she’s thriving. She received Emmy nominations at the two most recent ceremonies, first for her role in Ava DuVernay’s limited series spotlighting the injustice faced by the Exonerated Five, When They See Us, and, at this last ceremony, for her work in HBO’s Lovecraft Country. She’s thriving, and she has purpose.
Whether or not she takes a role is a matter of the work and the experience. Sure. Is it fun? But it’s also about what she’s representing; what it means for her to be on screen as a Black woman. And that’s why everyone is talking about Ms. Oracene.
Will Smith is receiving the kinds of notices that you’d expect of Will Smith in a feature like this. He is playing a devoted father whose tunnel-vision certainty that two of his Black daughters would graduate from their two-bedroom house in Compton to become the greatest athletes in a sport dominated by rich white people puzzled anyone he came into contact with. Richard’s commitment rattled people, be it neighbors who called child services out of concern that he was working his daughters too hard, or the agents whose million-dollar offers he initially rejected because he suspected his girls would eventually be worth more. (He was right.)
But with the Will Smith conversation of it all threatening to drown out all other talk, it’s a testament to the work that people—often just as loudly—are talking about Aunjanue Ellis.
Filmmakers Reinaldo Marcus Green, who directed King Richard, and Zach Baylin, who wrote it, had conducted extensive interviews with Oracene Price prior to the movie going into production.
They exacted a portrait of a woman who was a registered nurse, raised five daughters, and played a pivotal role training two of the unlikeliest sports superstars to make global history. The film portrays her as an active participant in the destiny that Richard Williams saw for his girls. The moments when he ignores her opinion or devalues his work are the film’s most momentous; Ms. Oracene demands her worth.
“I really believe that if Mr. Williams was the architect of Venus and Serena’s play and essentially remaking tennis as we know it, Ms. Oracene was the builder of that dream,” Ellis says. And she built it while teaching herself how to play tennis for them, working a full-time job to support them, and doing the heavy lifting of raising five girls.
Ellis also had to train herself to play tennis. During production, anytime she wasn’t shooting, she was scheduled for a tennis lesson. (It’s Oracene, as we see in the film, who helps Venus and Serena perfect their assassin serves.) “I was like, y’all don’t want somebody else to do this?” Ellis remembers, searching for a body double. Now, she estimates she lost a little bit of her touch. But if you put a racket in her hand, “it wouldn’t be foreign to me anymore,” she says. “But I wouldn’t be as good as I was in 2019.”
It was also Oracene who helped prepare Venus and Serena for what it was going to mean to be Black women in the public eye. And, more, how they were going to change what that means. Knowing that is what convinced Ellis to go all-in on this role.
“I could never repay them for the joy they brought into my life,” she says about Venus and Serena. “How revolutionary they have been since day one, just walking out with the braids and the beads—which was by Miss Oracene’s design, you know. They are walking revolutions. The tennis industry is still trying to police them, and they can’t because these are women who are utterly liberated and utterly unapologetic.”
Oracene is a woman for whom there are no wasted emotions. That doesn’t mean she’s the stoic, silent type—a person who could be source material for one of those aforementioned videos. When she speaks, it’s with purpose. She could be confronting a nosy neighbor, setting straight her husband, or speaking values to her children; it’s exacting in order to affect change, or, more specifically, to change somebody.
“I’m all over the place and open with my feelings,” Ellis says. “So that was challenging for me, having to find that place of reserve. What comes naturally to me is to emote openly and loudly, you know, get out all that stuff. That’s not her.”
Oracene’s daughter, Isha, was on set every day. Venus and Serena joined as producers after seeing the film, and have been an integral part of a promotional tour that centers a message of what it took—the audacity and the struggle—for a Black man from Compton to manifest the power that was always within the Black women he surrounded himself with, but which society refused to see.
King Richard is in constant conversation with what that was like for the Williams family to endure, and what it meant for them to break every barrier erected for them. It’s also maybe impossible to separate that from what it means to play a member of that family in the film.
Ellis is playing Oracene at a time when Venus and Serena were young girls, before they became superstars in the public eye. What they faced and weathered along with their historical accomplishments is always on the mind. The racism, the sexism, the constant debate of what they deserve or what they owe back.
Of course, the actress is a fan, though Ellis confesses that she gets so stressed out when either sister plays—she so desperately wants them to win—that she can only watch replays of matches once she knows the outcome. There’s being a fan. There’s being an actress in this role. And there’s being a Black woman in the world at a time when these two phenoms changed culture—a change so powerful, so unexpected, and so overdue that some would call it a disruption.
“They could just be great tennis players and we’d all be fans. But they are so much more than that,” Ellis says. “And it’s not strategic. They are just who they fully are. It’s culture. It’s me. It’s the patriarchy that has the problem.”
She takes a long pause and smiles. “What is it Beyoncé says? You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation.”