Hear Will Smith talk about Richard Williams, the brash father of two future tennis icons – and the dominating presence of King Richard — is to see a veteran actor approach a role from the inside. “Richard reminds me a lot of my dad,” Smith, 53, said. The actor, who appears in EW’s latest installment The winner podcast alongside co-star Aunjanue Ellis, adds, “It was that same generation: men who could fix anything with their hands. My dad was in the military, so he understood what it was like to ‘trying to maintain a dream at the edge of survival.’
Williams saw enormous promise in his daughters Venus and Serena, both of whom he nudged to excellence on the tough tennis courts of the south-central, far from the money and privileges that often come with such aspirations. . Portrayed by Smith in his Oscar-nominated turn, he’s a coach, a disciplinarian, and a father burning with a vision — a vision that sometimes only he can see. Smith calls the role “a once-in-a-lifetime moment,” an opportunity he had to grow old to fully appreciate. “There was an understanding of all the different angles I have now that I couldn’t even have conceived at 40.”
In Smith, director Reinaldo Marcus Green (Of monsters and men) recognized a work ethic that went beyond dialect work hours and physicality. “Will wasn’t the guy who went off in his trailer while the others were playing,” Green says. “He was doing his off-screen lines with them like it was his first take on camera. And that’s how Will give. He comes from an era that respects a director.”
Chiabella James/Warner Bros. Aunjanue Ellis and Will Smith
Aunjanue Ellis – who is nominated for an Oscar for her role as Williams’ fierce-hearted wife, Oracene – also talks about the benefits of the experience. “I’m 53 and I’ve been doing this for a long time,” Ellis says. “But what helps is having someone with 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’s okay.”
Ellis and Smith share an explosive moment of friction in the film: a seething argument in the kitchen sink that has already entered the unofficial Hollywood Hall of Fame of Marital Discord. “We had a great script in what Zach Baylin was writing – it was already great,” Ellis recalled, “but we all felt we could do more and go further with it. I’ll be honest and say, I has been Miss Oracene.”
Smith recalls a similar out-of-body experience. “As an actor, the number one thing you look for is the things that are most like you,” he says. “And then you venture into the parts that are different. And as soon as you find them, it’s like you’re fighting for your life.”
-Additional reporting by Andrew Lawrence and Clarissa Cruz
Click to learn more about the talent of the Williams sisters and why he acts (it’s not for money or awards). King Richard is now available to stream on multiple services.
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