When you’ve been doing a job long enough, full-circle moments are an inevitability, yet the one I experienced on this assignment was singularly special. My very first interview I conducted as a published journalist was with Will Smith during his 2006 press junket in Chicago for “The Pursuit of Happyness.” I was hired to write the first-ever weekly film column for my college paper, The Columbia Chronicle, and suddenly found myself sitting in a boardroom with roughly thirty other journalists awaiting the arrival of a man I had considered, since the age of 10, to be the epitome of coolness. I whispered to the writer seated across from me, “Should we applaud when he comes in?”, and quickly received a curt “no.” When Smith entered the room, he immediately shook everyone’s hand, and though I barely got a word in edgewise, I was left awe-struck by his larger-than-life charisma.
Within mere days of this event, a future star named Saniyya Sidney was born, followed not long after by another, Demi Singleton, the following year. Now they are starring as tennis champions Venus and Serena Williams, respectively, opposite Smith as their father and tireless coach in Reinaldo Marcus Green’s rousing biographical drama, “King Richard.” Smith’s performance in the title role is his best since “Happyness,” and Aunjanue Ellis is equally marvelous as his devoted yet long-suffering wife, Oracene. Yet the key to the picture is Sidney and Singleton’s channeling of the real-life icons, and their work here is pitch-perfect. My chat with them was only the second in-person interview I’ve conducted for RogerEbert.com since the beginning of the pandemic, and it was the first that required me to take a rapid COVID test and keep my mask on at all times. Of course, I was happy to comply with both safety measures, despite the fact that my mask caused my glasses to fog up each time I laughed, much to the amusement of both subjects.
Despite having just flown in from New York on a jam-packed press tour, Sidney and Singleton exuded all the intelligence, charm and integrity that their famous co-star did fifteen years ago. Their film is bound to inspire countless people, and in the following conversation, they spoke with me about how the experience of making it has enhanced their lives.
In what ways would you say Will Smith is similar to his character, Richard Williams?
Demi Singleton (DS): I think they are very similar but also very different.
Saniyya Sidney (SS): Exactly. There are elements about Richard that Will felt was like his father, so I think he kind of drew upon those aspects of his dad. But then, I think he also saw a lot of elements in Richard and Venus’ relationship that he felt he could relate to in light of the relationship he has with his own daughter, Willow.
DS: He was very fatherlike with us, not as our characters but as Demi and Saniyya. He’s told us several times that it was interesting getting to work with a bunch of girls because he has two sons but only one daughter.
SS: And on this film, he had five! [laughs] He would always say that girls are so different from boys. Something that he loved about girls is that their response was always “yes.” He said, “With boys, you often hear them go, ‘No, I’m not going to do that,’ but you girls would always take a leap of faith,” which is cool.
DS: He would recall how his boys would kind of run away and say, “No, I’m not doing it,” and we were like, ‘Why not? Let’s try it.’
SS: Rather than fight about it physically. [laughs]
What aspects of Venus and Serena did you want to emulate in your performances?
DS: I think for us both, it was really important to show that sisterly bond that they had. They were very, very close. Even to this day, they are still best friends who are basically attached at the hip, and that’s also a big part of who they both are. I feel like they both kind of lean on one another, so it was really important for us to show that in the film.
SS: I agree with what Demi said. The sisterly bond that you see between Venus and Serena is just incredible. They are so close. A lot of people asked their sisters Isha and Lyndrea over the years, “Is it fake? Is it a put-on? Are they doing it for the cameras?” And the answer is no.
DS: We’ve seen it first-hand!
SS: When you meet them, it’s exactly what you see in the pictures or the videos. They are very much conjoined at the hip and that’s something we definitely wanted to portray. The experience of making the film definitely made Demi and I become sisters. We were friends first and now she’s my sister.
DS: Yeah, we are really, really close now.
Was there any prior work you had done that prepared you for embodying the physicality of these women?
DS: For me, even though tennis still ended up being one of the hardest sports I’ve ever had to learn, what made it slightly easier was I’ve been dancing since I was three or four years old, so I’ve always been able to pick up choreography. The way we learned tennis for this film required us to play like other people, so we were basically mimicking their moves. It was kind of like choreography on the court. Learning to play like yourself is different than when you’re learning to play like somebody else, so I feel like that background in dance helped me a little bit. I’m able to learn and understand things really quickly.
SS: I did dance a little bit. I also did track in school, but tennis is totally different than any other sport you may think about. It’s very mental, and occurs only between you and one other person, so when you’re by yourself with your own thoughts, it feels like it’s your own game. I had never played tennis before, so having to—like Demi said—mimic two tennis champions was something that we definitely worked on. It was a challenge, but we loved it so much and we had a great coach who helped us.
Will has mentioned multiple times on the press tour that Saniyya had to play with her right hand, even though she is left-handed. Was that an added challenge for you, or did you approach it simply as another part of the choreography?
SS: I feel like it was both because there are things I use my right hand for, but it is very rare. It was my leg more than anything that proved challenging. I ride a scooter with my right leg, but I was like, ‘I’m not going to use my whole leg to hit a tennis ball!’ [laughs] So we were going to try and find a way for it to feel comfortable. That was definitely a challenge that was added on, for sure.
Was replicating the sisters’ signature “open stance” difficult?
DS: We started playing with an open stance, so that’s all we know! [laughs] I don’t even know how to play with a closed stance. It feels uncomfortable. Straight off the bat, the first thing that we learned was the open stance, and that’s how we continued to play.
When I interviewed Greta Gerwig, she likened acting to sports in how it teaches you a lot about economy of movement and goal-directed activity. In both instances, she found that her behavior—such as screaming while fencing—wasn’t planned, but rather, came from a natural place.
SS: Yeah, I feel like in order to get in that mindset, the environment on a set is what matters the most. We had a great director as well as a great cast and crew on this film. When you feel comfortable with whomever you’re acting with in a particular scene, it all just happens naturally.
DS: I agree. We had the environment and the help that we needed in order to make sure that we were comfortable, so there wasn’t really a need to overthink. Ms. Isha Price and Ms. Lyndrea Price were there every day, and they provided us with information, so we just took that information and did what we thought was best with it. For me, there wasn’t a whole lot of overthinking. I just did what I thought 12-year-old Serena would do.
SS: Yeah, we kind of surprised ourselves too because we’d do something that was organic and natural, and Isha would come over and say, “Oh my gosh, that was just like them!”
DS: There were times we weren’t trying to be like Serena and Venus. We would just be people, and it just so happened that we were doing things that they used to do as well.
I love the scene where Richard sits the family down to watch Disney’s “Cinderella,” which was the first film I ever saw. Is there a film you still carry with you from your childhood?
DS: A movie that I have been obsessed with since I was three is “The Princess and the Frog.” Tiana has always been my favorite Disney princess, and mostly because of how hard she’s always worked. In her song “Almost There,” the first thing she says is, “Mama, I don’t have time for dancing,” and I really, really love that.
SS: I love “E.T.” I think it’s an awesome film. We recently met Ms. Drew Barrymore, who played Gertie in the film. The relationship between Elliott and E.T. stuck out to me, for sure. I love films where you just have to cry at the end because of how much you’ve grown to care about the characters. When I watched these young kids creating such a beautiful film with an iconic director, I thought, ‘I want to do something like that!’ Also, when I watched the film for the first time, I was five, so I was Gertie’s age. I was like, ‘Oh, she’s little like me!’ [laughs]
Did both Will and Aunjanue Ellis feel like parents to you on the set?
SS: Yeah, we had a lot of rehearsal time where we would all sit down as a family and read over the script. Reinaldo would also have us talk in character.
DS: During rehearsals, we wouldn’t be referred to as “Demi and Saniyya,” we were “Serena and Venus” or “Meka and Junior.” We wouldn’t go by our names. We both love Aunjanue so much. She is so kind and very, very funny. She has also taught me quite a bit. This is still the beginning of my career, and she’s taught me some really cool lessons that I will definitely keep close to me, not only throughout my career but my life.
SS: Something that stood out to us too was when we watched her and Will shoot the kitchen scene. We were like, ‘Oh my—that’s not Aunjanue anymore, that is Oracene!’
DS: She was like, ‘No, no, no—we have to perfect it,’ and I love that so much about her. Aunjanue is willing to spend the entire day on one scene in order to perfect it, and that’s how it was for every scene in the movie. We kept doing it until it was perfect—
SS: Until it felt authentic and real.
DS: Yeah, and that was one lesson she taught me.
Are there any lessons you learned from having to perfect playing tennis in such a compressed amount of time that you’ve been able to apply to other aspects of your life?
DS: I think I gained a bit more patience for myself. Saniyya will tell you that I am very competitive when it comes to sports—not only with other people, but with myself. I am so hard on myself, and sometimes it can be a little much, so I’ve had to tell myself, “This is a sport that you’ve never played before, and not only are you learning to play it in three months, you are learning to play one of the greatest athletes of all time. So just have patience with yourself and take the time you need. Don’t stress yourself out because you will get it. This is not something that is easy at all.”
SS: I also liked connecting to the eye of the tiger that they have. When Serena is on the court, she is very expressive, as we know. She’s always like, “Come on!” But one thing I loved about Venus is that she’s very quiet. When something bad would happen, she would maintain her pokerface until she was in private, where she would allow herself to have a personal moment and cry or be openly mad. Venus never let anyone else see her cry. She was just like, ‘I’m going to be the stronger person.’
Where would you ideally like to see your careers go from here?
DS: Acting is something that I’m very passionate about and hope that I continue to do throughout my life. But I love to act because I want to share important stories that will hopefully change the world in a positive way. I’ve never really liked acting because I wanted to be famous or anything. I’m actually very quiet when I don’t know you…
Especially if I’m wearing a mask…
DS: [laughs] Yeah, so for the most part, I am very shy. But what inspired me to act is the opportunity to share stories that matter. These stories can influence people in a good way, make people feel happy and inspire them to change the world.
SS: I love to inspire people as well. Something that I love so much is having young children look up to actors and actresses and say, “Oh my gosh, they are doing exactly what I want to do!” I just want kids to feel like they can connect to me and Demi and feel inspired by us. I also really love helping St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and I want to do my part in helping families have a home and shelter. Later on in my career, I hope I can get involved with those sorts of organizations, while visiting and donating to hospitals. That’s so important to me.
"King Richard" will be playing in theaters and available on HBO Max on November 19th.