Inside Tennis was invited to two group press events that were at the forefront of Warner Brothers’ publicity campaign for its compelling new Oscar-bound movie “King Richard,” which celebrates the emergence of Venus Williams. The press round tables featured many of the Williams family – Venus, Serena, mother Oracene Price and sisters Isha and Lyndrea – plus lead star Will Smith, other members of the cast, the writer and the producers of the rollicking movie.
There are many touching moments. The messages are clear: Believe in yourself and your dreams; hard work is essential. Family and spirituality are central. Clearly the cast and the family bonded; their glee is obvious. Venus said the movie-makers “really understood our family and portrayed [us] in a way that was really us. I’m really proud of that.” Smith spoke of having a “tenacity for authenticity.” He added, “It was a beautiful honor and absolute pleasure to bring this depiction to the world.” Despite initial doubts, Venus and Serena eventually came on board as executive producers. And sister Isha was on set every day, a fierce family gatekeeper who demanded accuracy.
Both King Richard pressers bubbled over with a giddy “We are family” love. Throughout both roundtables – one hosted by Warner Brothers and the other by Facebook’s Red Table Talk – there were hugs, tears, camaraderie and two stunning moments.
At one point in the Red Table Talk, Smith asks the strong, perpetually truth-telling Oracene about the Williams’ foundational story. “When Richard came to you two years before the birth of Venus and Serena,” Smith wondered, “What did he say that made you believe that his plan for them was real and true and possible?” Oracene offered a one-word answer: “Fiction.”
And Serena shared a vivid recollection of her early trauma when, as a 19-year-old at the 2001 Indian Wells tourney, she and her family were booed for over two hours as she struggled to beat Kim Clijsters.
“I was losing,” Serena recalled. “I felt like, ‘I don’t want to win, I just want to get out of this with dignity,’ and not just walk off the court and start bawling…Every changeover I sat down and I prayed, ‘Just help me get through this. Help me step out on court. I’m not even trying to win…I just want to finish the match. I know I have strength.’ And not only did I somehow come back and win…I was able to get through that moment…It was so hard. I’ll never forget driving back and Yetunde was there…and I was bawling. There was no celebration – [just] crying and crying and crying.
“Even when I went back 14 years later it was really traumatizing. Talk about post-traumatic stress and mental anxiety. I remember sitting in the bathroom thinking, ‘Wait…I just don’t think I should do this. Like, what if they start booing me again?’ It was really hard.
“We’ve had to face different things that, quite frankly, no one has…[had] to face in tennis and it’s been very, very difficult. That’s why we relate so much to each other. I was actually more upset [at Indian Wells] that they were booing my sister when she came down the walkway. Like, ‘Why are you booing her? That makes no sense. And my dad, too?’
“One thing about me is that I am fiercely loyal – to a fault. I’m the kind of person that I’m with you. Make a mistake, I’m with you. But then when I am done, I’m done.”
To Venus, “King Richard” was a “super emotional” experience. She teared up each time she saw it. When asked about the lessons of the film, she noted that she and Serena were told to “handle whatever life came at us – always fight; never give in. We learned you gain freedom when you let go of caring about what others think of you.”
Venus said she learned from Serena to have that “extra heart to go past the line…[It’s] because she just was fearless…I watched and said, ‘Okay, I need that part.”…I liken it to the grinch. At the end, he’s got this little heart, and, boom! It grows! I swear that was me!”
Serena said Venus “is so classy and I’m so crazy. Playing her is so annoying because here I am screaming my eyes out. I hit a winner and…[and then she just] goes to the next shot and I’m like, ‘Aren’t you mad? Why aren’t you mad?’ It’s the most frustrating thing in the world.”
Producer Tim White said a key life moment for him was when he saw Richard Williams hold up his “I told you so” sign at the 1999 Lipton Championships. Tim and his brother Trevor, who began to think about doing a “Richard” movie around 2013 or 2014, realized the story could be told in “a thousand different ways.” Twenty or thirty writers were contacted, but writer Zach Baylin had a vision to tell “a gripping family story, not just a sports center package that we all know, [that has] become calcified.” A Hollywood bidding war broke out and, according to IndieWire, Barack Obama spent an hour on the phone trying to convince them to let him produce the movie. They chose Warner Brothers.
Will Smith, who also played Mohammad Ali on screen, told us that years ago he fell in love with Richard. Never mind that Venus now jokes about how her Dad “brainwashed” her into loving tennis, Smith was won over by the most celebrated patriarch in sports history when Richard stepped in to protect 14-year-old Venus from an overzealous interviewer. “I saw that in real time on Venus’ face. The image was burned on my heart because that’s how I wanted my daughter to look when I showed up.”
Smith contends that Venus knew her Dad was “a lion, and she was so confident…her lion wasn’t going to let anything happen to her.”
With a glint in his eye, Smith refers to the “Jedi mind tricks” Richard used. He adds, “He was just throwing fuel on a fire coming from inside Venus and Serena,” a fire that, for years, has lit up the world, and, starting November 19th, will light up the big screen.