Aunjanue Ellis reveals why she ‘wanted the role so badly’ in ‘King Richard’
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Aunjanue Ellis’s impressive film and TV credits over the past several decades made her a recognisable face while corroborating her prowess in front of the camera.
More recently, viewers saw her in “Lovecraft Country” as well as “The Clark Sisters: First Ladies of Gospel”.
And that’s the thing about Ellis, whatever the role demands of her, she delivers.
As such, it’s unsurprising that she was chosen to slip into the skin of “Oracene Brandy” Williams.
She has incredible gravitas, especially in dramatic scenes.
And she holds her own against Will Smith, who has been heaped with tons of praise for his stellar performance as Richard Williams.
During a press interview ahead of the movie’s premiere on the big screen in SA, Ellis admitted to being blown away by the script.
She shared: “I really had a superficial knowledge; I wasn’t educated outside of just being a fan of theirs.
“And I can’t watch their matches because I’m too nervous – I want them to win every time.
“I can only watch the replays after they won, you know? I look up to them. They’re younger than me, but I look up to those young women… I do.
“And I didn’t know that my understanding and knowledge of Miss Oracene was very, very limited. I saw that when I was doing my initial research. I went on Wikipedia and she’s listed as a coach.
“And I have to tell you when I read that, I was like, ‘Hm, a coach, really?’ Because I thought their father was the coach, I thought ‘That’s nice of her to think of herself in that way.’
“And then, my experience with the film showed me what I hope everyone will see when they see this film, which is how essential Miss Oracene was to the lives of Venus and Serena on and off the court.
“She was the backbone of the family. She was their coach. Richard Williams was the architect.
“She was central and, in every way, the leader, while at the same time, also this incredibly graceful, poised woman.
“And so when I was sent the script, I wanted the role so badly. I just started taping and taping and taping (for submission) in Mississippi.
“And then, a couple of months later, the role ended up being mine. And I’m so happy about that.”
Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, the biographic drama follows Richard Williams (Smith), who raises two daughters, Venus and Serena, along with his three step-daughters in Compton, California.
It follows his vision for his talented daughters. Along with the challenge faced, he was unrelenting in his perseverance to take them right to the top and into the books of history.
Ahead of the shoot, Ellis was on a tennis court, practising several times a week to ensure she delivered an authentic performance.
On playing the matriarch, she added: “I’ve gotten better at recognising my strengths and weaknesses as a performer.
“And so, what I’m able to do, I think, better, is to operate from the outside in.
“When I play characters, I look for things that I can do physically to put inside my body, to put inside my voice, so I can move and sound like them.
“Then, I go to those other places that are more internal. But with Miss Oracene, she didn’t have a specific way of speaking.
“She has a very standard African-American, middle-American way of speaking, which is very different from me, because I’m very Southern.
“So, I had to sort of work from the inside out. Reinaldo Marcus Green, our wonderful director, and our writer, Zach Baylin, recorded conversations with Miss Oracene. And I listened to those tapes over, and over, and over, and over, and over again.
“And those were my clues to who she was; and beyond that, she was a Jehovah’s Witness.
“I went to a meeting with (executive producer) Isha Price in Los Angeles when we were shooting, and I picked up so much about what it is to be a woman in that religion.
“That informed me a great deal in what I tried to do with creating her. All of that stuff was my clay.”
As for working with Smith, she shared: “Oh man. Shout out to Will Smith and Jada Pinkett, who’s also an executive producer on this.
“I was in Atlanta shooting ’Lovecraft Country’ when I went to Los Angeles to read with him.
“I had to go over the course of a weekend or some weirdness like that. I got off a plane and then had to go directly to his house.
“I couldn’t brush my teeth for some reason, wherever I was. And so I had the driver stop in front of his house so I could brush my teeth outside in the car. I literally was spitting in his yard before the gates opened (laughs).
“I mean, the beauty of acting, right? It’s so glamorous. So then we came into his beautiful, beautiful home.
“And he was so lovely to me, fed me afterwards – and I still didn’t know whether I got the job or not. But his generosity to me that day – when I had not even been hired – extended into my working with him.
“He took care of me, of us. He took care of the girls, those wonderful young women, playing his daughters. Wonderful shout out to them.
“There was something that happened in my life that was pretty great and he wanted to congratulate me.
“He sent me this bunch of flowers – they were so big that I had to get my friend’s son to bring them inside my house. So that’s just who he is.”
She also sang the praises of Saniyya Sidney (Venus) and Demi Singleton (Serena).
“They were my daughters in my mind; you know what I mean? They were my girls while we were shooting. And I took ownership of them.
“My acting education – yes, I went to school, had a formal education – but I’ve learned how to be a better actor on sets.
“And yes, I’ve had great experiences working with incredible actors, vintage actors, and I’ve learned from that. But these young women are so smart in their choices.
“Seeing Saniyya Sidney and how she sculpted her performance as Venus was remarkable to see. I cannot say enough about them.
“And then beyond being strong, beautiful actors, just how they are off-camera, just so lovely.”
As for the takeaway from the film, Ellis said: “I think the lesson here is for us to tell more stories where women do talk, you know what I mean?
“Where women are actually doing what they do, which is, running the world and being the backbones to these families.
“This assumption (was) that this woman, Miss Oracene, was quiet and was purely a cook and driver for her girls.
“I’m so excited for that assumption to be dashed. And the other part of that is, this family with Mr Williams and how he loved those girls, all of them.
“It’s just such a story about love and family, and how love and family created these incredible tennis careers, not competition.”
“King Richard” is currently showing at cinemas nationwide.