What was your reaction when you first read King Richard? How did it personally resonate for you?
JON BERNTHAL: I loved this script right off the jump. And I knew this was one that I wanted to fight for. Beyond anything, I’m a dad and I’m a husband. I’m an ex-athlete. I played sports in high school and in college. I thought it was just this beautiful meditation on fatherhood, on parenthood, on raising athletes. It explores both the beauty and the toxicity of youth sports. It’s something that’s very near and dear to my heart. And I was blown away by this character of Rick [Macci]. I thought that there was something really special about him and why ultimately Richard Williams connected with him.
And this palpable, undying love for the game that was in his heart—it was something I really wanted to explore. It was different. And I thought the quality of the writing was great. And then, once I got the part, the work, the research, the tennis and the dialect, it was all just such a joy for me. It was so much fun. It was one of these projects that’s so rare—that it just gets better and better as you go. The more people you meet, the more time you get to spend with the cast, when you finally get on-set and you meet the crew… it just got better and better. And we really achieved, I think, this real peace and harmony that you’re always looking for in your work; you show up and trust everyone so much, everyone’s done their work. You can really just honestly play. And we really got there on this one, and it’s a real testament to everyone involved.
Describe Rick a little more for me.
JON BERNTHAL: Serena Williams told me that being at Rick Macci’s Academy was among the most fun times of her life. He’s this certain kind of coach that I think is so sublime and beautiful. He’s all about his love for the game, for the love of games in general, making it fun. Yes, he demands hard work. Yes, he demands rigor, but that’s because it’s so important to him, because he loves it so much. Everything’s a game, everything’s a challenge. Everything’s positive. Everything’s “How much further can you go?”
There are all sorts of coaches out there. I’ve had coaches that have been the kind who step on my neck, who have humiliated me and worked me to the bone. I’ve had coaches who try to act like my best friend and just wanted to be one of the guys… but this is other level. This kind of coach doesn’t mind being the butt of a joke. He just wants to keep everything light, but focused and fun. And I think that what happens with him in the film—and what happens to him in real life—is that he developed this unbelievable love for this family and for these two young women. He marveled at them and believed in them so much that he wanted to be part of that support system. And he’s a beautiful character.
What kind of dynamic goes on between Rick and Richard Williams?
JON BERNTHAL: Well, they’re both men who are 100% outliers, both men who absolutely believe that they know the right way to handle things. They’re masters of their own universe. And so, I think when you put them head-to-head with each other, they’re going to bump. And I think what’s beautiful is that over time, this appreciation, this respect and this kindred attitude develops, but they both believe that the other one does not really know what he’s doing. I think that’s intrinsic with head coaches. They believe wholeheartedly in their plan. And that being said, I think the intersection, the point of connection, is really that they believe, first and foremost, in preaching the love for the game and having fun.
What kind of physical prep did you do? I mean, how’s your game, first of all?
JON BERNTHAL: It was not good before we started. I’m an ex-athlete, Reinaldo’s an ex-athlete. We really connected on that. It was really, really important to him that the tennis looked real… just like it is to me in everything that I do, I want the physicality to be real. And I’m really grateful to the studio, the production and to the producers that they gave me the opportunity to really train.
There’s the Weil Tennis Academy in Ojai, California. I didn’t know how to play at all, and now I play all the time and love it. What an unbelievable gift that is. I trained six days a week—sometimes three or four hours a day with a number of coaches—not only on learning the game, but also how to coach. They let me work with young, nationally-ranked players, coaching them. I would do half of my time learning the game, half my time actually coaching players… Learning how to feed, the way you support a practice session, how you encourage, how you keep the player involved, how you get the player to concentrate on one thing at a time, and how to keep their minds committed, focused and sharp. I’m really, really grateful to those coaches and for the opportunity.
And I understand you were in touch with Rick. What did you gain from reaching out to him, insofar as your performance?
JON BERNTHAL: I read his book. And there’s a plethora of stuff on him on the web; he’s very much a public person. His public persona is very much like, I think, the way that he coaches. And that was enormously helpful for me to understand the spirit of Rick—to hear stories from people that marveled at his positivity, fun and his gamesmanship. But, it was also interesting to get behind all that. And [screenwriter] Zach Baylin wrote a beautiful, nuanced, layered script. My keeping on that persona and on that positivity—through real friction and conflict of belief between Rick and Richard—it was a lot of fun.
Talk to me about working with Will Smith, not only as a screen star, but also as your producer.
JON BERNTHAL: Look, Will, I’ve got no words for how generous that guy is, as a human being and as an artist. I was blown away by the work that he did, by his commitment, by his heart, by his energy. He made everybody not only feel welcomed, but he makes people feel a hundred-feet-tall. And I can say I’ve never worked with anyone like him. He’s a beautiful human being. I was staggered by the way he approached the work, the way he handled himself and at the kind of human being he is. I’m really proud to call him a friend.
And you touched on the fact that both you and Reinaldo Marcus Green are former athletes. What is a collaboration like with him as a director?
JON BERNTHAL: The thing I’m most proud of in my career is the directors that I’ve gotten to work with. Rei is on a level, I think, all of his own. I was a huge fan of “Monsters and Men,” huge fan of the pilot of “Top Boy” that he directed. But, I think this opportunity here gets to see him in his full form. There’s an amount of creativity that he fosters on set. He creates an atmosphere, again, of positivity. He radiates positivity, happiness and warmth. He’s done his work, but he keeps things so free, loose and fluid in the moment that really anything can happen. And it’s only when you have that freedom on-set, where I think really beautiful filmmaking can occur.
His positivity, it flowed through everything and through everybody. Even through this huge shutdown in the pandemic, he created a family and it’s a beautiful thing to be a part of. Now, he and I are doing an HBO mini-series together. He’s directing all the episodes. I love this guy. I believe in him with every fiber of my body. I’m so grateful that he’s my brother and I’m going to work with him for the rest of my life. I think that his taste is impeccable. I just think he’s a beautiful man. Our families are super connected. He’s a wonderful father. I can’t say enough good about Rei Green.
Coming to the project as both a father and an athlete, what was it like working with these two amazing women, Saniyya Sidney as Venus and Demi Singleton as Serena?
JON BERNTHAL: What they did here is enormously special. The way that they carry themselves, their commitment, their joy, their talent, it blew me away from the beginning. I remember Saniyya in the first table read. I was speechless at her talent and by how deeply she committed to that table read and how far she went. Both of these young women come from beautiful families. I love both of their families. They’re supported, they’re nurtured. They’ve learned a real, authentic work ethic. It’s beyond just unbelievable talent. They really stayed in it. Plus, they really developed something beautiful off-screen. All of the [actresses who played the] sisters did. The entire “Williams family” in this movie did. Without being self-righteous or pompous or too loud about it, they managed to stay within proximity of their characters and built something together… built an ensemble that was so beautiful, real, unflinching and effortless. And that only happens when a group of people in an ensemble really commits to each other. Every time I walked out of my trailer with my short shorts, my mustache and my bowl haircut, those girls would just fall over laughing. And I’d always do some sort of funny walk or talk in some heightened Rick Macci voice. I always wanted them laughing at me—that’s how I knew we were good—that they would just laugh, not laughing with me, laughing at me. They would literally see me walk out of the trailer and they would fall over laughing. I love them. I love their families and we’ll always be connected.
Looking at the range of roles that you have played, are you surprised at how this strikes people as, “Wow. This is something really different for him?”
JON BERNTHAL: I don’t ever really think about it in those terms. I know at first they weren’t sure I was the guy. I had to lose a ton of weight and kind of transform. But, I knew immediately when I read this, that I understood this guy’s heart. And I think if you can understand a character’s heart, if it makes you feel something and if you believe in what that character’s mission is, I think the rest is just building around it. I’m really grateful that I got to do this one.
You look like you’re having a ball, which makes us appreciate him even more. What do you think people can expect from King Richard? What would you like them to take away from it?
JON BERNTHAL: I think it’s a truthful and authentic meditation on parenthood, on fatherhood and on this limitless and unrelenting love that parents have for their children. And this really is a unique and beautiful version of that love. I think that it’s such an ode to parenthood. And also an ode to young folks who are beginning to come into their own, and the power of that. The power and the pain that sometimes is associated with letting your kids go and letting them fly. I just know, as a dad, the love you have for your kids is just so unbelievably profound. And it’s always this back-and-forth between being there, supporting them, holding them, but also encouraging them, pushing them and then letting them fly. And it is never easy. It is never just pretty, but it can be beautiful. And I think in this film, that’s what it is.
Read more about King Richard, opening in cinemas 19 November 2021