What kind of knowledge of the Williams family did you bring with you when you first read “King Richard”? And what was your first reaction?
Reinaldo Marcus Green: I brought no knowledge. I didn’t know much about the family at all, to be honest with you. I wasn’t an avid tennis fan. My allegiance was to Venus and Serena as Black excellence in the sport. I would say that of Tiger Woods, too. It was like, “Great! Somebody of color is doing something great.” I support that. It’s wonderful. I didn’t know much about the family, other than what I had seen on the internet or in the trades. But, in learning about the family, it became such a rich tapestry. The script was great—Zach Baylin wrote a beautiful screenplay. And then, part of my job was to work with him to figure out how to make it deeper. What were we really after? What we were looking for, what we were trying to say? And those were the things that we spent the next few months really trying to hammer home in the process.
I understand there was a resonance for you in a story about a father of athletes. Can you tell me a little about your story and how you connected with the material?
Reinaldo Marcus Green: I had a father who, in his mind, was raising two baseball players. So we—similarly to the Williams—spent the first third of our life on a baseball diamond. And that’s no joke. I don’t remember much of my childhood outside of the baseball field. I played on countless teams, all-star teams and traveling baseball. But, we grew up in a single parent household, so I had a father that was always there, always. We just assumed that that’s how most people grow up with their parents—with this overabundance of love and commitment of time that our father gave to my brother and I.
And so anyway, fast-forward, I played college baseball. I had two major league tryouts. I didn’t make it, but I had taken it pretty far. So, I knew what it was like to be a high level competitive athlete and what that challenge is like—the things that you face, the pressures once you get to a certain level. Look, tennis and baseball are two very different sports, but there’s a lot of synergy in terms of the swing, the motion. It’s like pitching and hitting at the same time. So, I could take a lot of the things that I grew up learning about baseball and apply them to tennis. And in learning about tennis and speaking with members of the family, of course, I started to fall in love with the sport and learn more about it.
And then for me, what was more important than making a tennis movie was making a movie about a family—a family that plays tennis. We all know that Venus and Serena are two of the greatest athletes of all time… but what makes our film special? And those are the questions that I was asking myself, I was asking of the screenplay, I was asking of the cast. Let’s find things that we don’t know. Let’s dig deeper about this family. And that happened by virtue of conversations with the family members.
Zach (the writer), the producers and I were able to meet Venus, Serena and Oracene. Isha Price is an executive producer on the film. Lyndrea Price is a costumer on the film. So, I had nuance available to me all day long. And what we got were stories—and to me as a storyteller, what’s better than stories? It was everybody’s story about their dad. Everybody’s perspective about who he was. The internet portrays Richard to be one way, and the family portrays him to be another. I think it was an important lens to our story, to say, “Ooh, that’s really interesting. We don’t know that about him. We don’t know that. We don’t know that five Black girls are in riding in a VW bus to go pick up balls for their younger sisters. That’s cool. That’s real. That’s important.” Why is it important? Because it wasn’t just two girls who were robotically playing tennis and becoming champions. They were two girls who were infested with love. They were beat over the head with love. They had full support of older sisters and parents who devoted their lives to making the girls’ lives richer. And not in terms of money, but in terms of how they treat themselves, how they respect themselves. That’s the journey that you see and that we go on in the film.
And so from script to screen, a lot of that process for me was working with Zach, working with the family, to making sure that we were not sugarcoating and that we were representing the very best parts of the film that I thought would be interesting for an audience to learn about the family. Otherwise, what’s the point of seeing the film, right? We want to discover something. And hopefully, through the process of watching the movie, you discover something you didn’t know about Richard, you didn’t know about Oracene, you didn’t know about the family, you didn’t know about Venus or Serena.
And so, if you’re coming in here thinking you know what this movie is—but you don’t know. And that’s hard to do when we already know where they ended up. Everybody knows where Venus and Serena are. But, they don’t know the journey of how they got there. And I think that was the challenge, but also, the beautiful part about making the movie, was challenging ourselves to find it. And I think we did.
Talk to me about working with Will not only as your Richard, but also as a producer.
Reinaldo Marcus Green: Will is an amazing performer. We already know him as a great actor. As he was already attached, I thought, “It really is going to be a perfect role for Will for a lot of reasons. He’s definitely of an age in his life where I thought he can give the gravitas to this particular performance.”
And I had seen Will in “Concussion” and a couple other movies where he had taken some prosthetics or taken an accent to certain levels, and I just wanted to make sure whatever we were going to do for this film was not going to be a distraction to the performance itself. And through conversations with Will, he was very receptive to that. It was about finding the balance with somebody as eccentric and as well-known as Richard is. But Will Smith is playing that role. So part of it was, how do we make Will disappear? So it was about really finding the right level of prosthetics, not going full, really just offsetting his look enough for him to disappear. He’s still handsome, despite eating muffins for a couple months (LAUGHS). He still looks great. And we found that perfect pocket for Will to work with. Will has a great team—Judy Murdock, who does his hair and makeup; Pierce Austin, who does his hair; Aaron Speiser, who’s his acting coach working on his behavior, slumping his shoulders and getting that right. So, I had access to some of the best in the field as well, which was super helpful.
And then, there were our conversations together, as to what we wanted to achieve from Richard and that character. And again, not sugarcoating who Richard was. And Will was willing to go there. I liken Will to a Tom Brady [football quarterback with six Super Bowl wins]. He’s accomplished so much in his life. He’s already done so much, but he wants to be more. And any great performer will give you the moon and back. What I was most impressed with Will—on top of what he did in front of the camera—was how giving he was off-camera, how giving he was to the girls. Everybody levels up when Will Smith is in a scene. So, you get incredible performances by virtue of how giving he is offscreen. He didn’t run to the trailer when it was time for the girls to be on-camera; he was there. It was amazing to watch. He was really giving in that way. And it was really special to have that level of performance. And then, supporting Will with this incredible cast. Aunjanue Ellis—
My next question is about Aunjanue.
Reinaldo Marcus Green: I can’t say enough amazing things about Aunjanue. Look, we all know it’s a story of Richard Williams. It’s called “King Richard.” But our secret weapon is really Oracene Price, played by Aunjanue Ellis, and the dimension that she brought to her scenes. I think she should get all the credit in the world for what she was able to bring to breathe life into that mother. And, I’m sure, a lot of that was based on her conversations she had with the family, and through tape that she had of Oracene. And, hopefully, through our relationship working together… she was really able to tap into something quite magical. She just brought a depth and dimension. One of the things, when I met Oracene, she said, “Don’t make me a chump.” So I went into the casting process with that in mind. And I said, “Look, Aunjanue Ellis ain’t no chump.” When she came in with Will, we all looked at each other and we were like, “Well, that was easy.” She just blew us away. A really wonderful human being and just an all-around special talent. I really pray that she gets her due. I know that she will, whether it’s on this one or the next one. But, she really is a special person. I hope we continue to work together for many years.
And talk to me about your Venus and Serena—Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton, who are also unbelievable.
Reinaldo Marcus Green: To be as young as they are and facing the challenge of taking on real-life, living legends… that, in and of itself, is a testament to who they are as young actors. Take age out of it. They are just great actors. We were fortunate that they had some experience coming into this. This wasn’t their first rodeo. Saniyya had worked with legends, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. Demi had worked with a legend in Forest Whitaker. So, they came with some experience. What was truly a revelation for us was how close they were going to become as sisters. They love each other. I mean, there were times where it was, like, “Hey guys, we’re rolling. Come on!” (LAUGHS) They were just sisters. It was amazing. But, it wasn’t just the two of them. All five girls—Mikayla LaShae Bartholomew, Daniele Lawson, Layla Crawford, along with Saniyya and Demi—were truly a family. Look, it doesn’t always happen in the filmmaking process. Sometimes you call “Cut” and people head off to their trailers. And it happens. But, this family loved each other on and off the screen. We just got lucky. They looked the part and they played the part, but their dedication—as 12- and 13-year-olds—to do what they did in this movie is nothing short of remarkable. But I have to say, I thank their real parents, because they were on-set every single day. You have some set moms and set dads who just drop them off—but these were sitting with them, making sure that they got lunch, making sure that they got school. It’s a testament to a story of parenting, in front of and behind the camera. These girls could not do it without their parents being there. It was amazing to watch. They had a complete support system.
I hope that I was part of that support system for them, as well. And they were also supported with Will being a dad on the set, and Aunjanue being a mom on the set. They brought in experience, but they also brought care, knowing the challenges that the girls must have faced as young performers and giving them that space. Look, they’re remarkable talents. I don’t want to put an age on it, a number on it, because they are just great actors. Great actors are committed to the craft. They do their homework and are able to bring it over and over again. And those girls absolutely did that for me and the film. Hopefully, that’s what people will feel when they watch it.
And what do you want people to take away after watching this film?
Reinaldo Marcus Green: I think everybody can take something a little different from it. And I would never proclaim for it to be one particular thing or another. But, I think everyone watching the movie can take a page or two out of Richard’s plan. I’m not saying take all 78! But, I think we can all take something from: if you give love, commitment and time to something, you can achieve incredible things in this life. What Richard and Oracene, as a family, were able to give to their children was a limitless amount of love and commitment to fostering good human beings. And it’s a testament to where Venus and Serena are today. They are far more than just great athletes—they are great humans. They give back to the community. They have not folded or crumbled under pressure, because they value themselves as much more than tennis players. They value themselves as good citizens and good humans. And I think, if we all can look at ourselves and value ourselves a little bit more… I think we can all learn a little bit from that page in the playbook.
Read more about King Richard, in cinemas 19 November 2021