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“Our stories of women are largely told to us through the voices of men,” says Aunjanue Ellis, who stars as Oracene “Brandy” Price, mother of Venus and Serena Williams, in Warner Bros.’ King Richard. “Ms. Oracene’s was definitely one of those stories that was told to me through the prism of patriarchy.”
And in a movie titled King Richard, it was important for Ellis to fight for the woman who easily got lost in the shadow of her partner. In the awards contender, the industry veteran plays a woman who is often eclipsed by her bold and charismatic husband, Richard Williams (Will Smith), despite also playing a vital role in mentoring and coaching their daughters to put them in the highest echelon of tennis superstardom.
Ellis, a two-time Emmy nominee who recently earned the best supporting actress award from the National Board of Review for her role in King Richard, got candid with THR about the work that went into avoiding the onscreen tropes of “long-suffering woman.”
How do you go about choosing your roles?
I wish I had some sort of elegant response to that. I wish that there was some sort of personal science I had. A lot of it is honestly what I’m presented with. I’m going to be transparent and honest and say I don’t get a hundred scripts sent to me. Of what I do get, though, I just want to do things that I would wake up in the morning and be glad to go do for the day. What makes me personally happy. What I feel would make Black women feel seen and feel heard. That can’t be in every role that I play, but those are the projects that I try desperately to be part of and to make happen.
How did Oracene fit into the mold of what you look for in a role?
I did not know who she was. I knew what I saw when I would watch tournaments that her daughters were in, and I saw this lovely woman with shades on in the stands, always there to cheer on her daughters. When I started doing my research on her, preparing to audition, I saw that she was, on Wikipedia, identified as a coach. I had this really cynical response to this, like, “Why does she imagine herself to be a coach?” She’s a mother, sure. But why does she imagine herself to be a coach? That’s reaching for her. And then when I was cast in the film and really started to do my work preparing in earnest, that is exactly what she was, is what I’ve found out. She was even more so [a coach] in terms of actually being on the court and teaching them how to play than Mr. Richard. Mr. Richard was more of the visionary. He had the idea to make this happen, but Ms. Oracene was on the court teaching and sculpting their play. I’ve been saying this a lot, and I will continue to say that Mr. Richard was the architect of that dream, but Ms. Oracene was the builder of that dream. Architects can sketch something and they can walk away, and then the builders are there every day putting in the work and the sweat.
I know that there are going to be hundreds — probably after our lifetimes — more stories that are going to be told about Venus and Serena Williams. But how many times are we going to have a chance to tell the truth about their mother?
You have talked about feeling protective of Oracene and fighting for how she would be portrayed. How did that come across when you were on set?
There’s a lot of women actors who are going to read this and know what I’m talking about. They are playing roles where there’s not a lot of interest in them on the part of the men making the movie. But the gift that I had in this production that I have not necessarily had on other work that I’ve done was that I was working with people like my director, Reinaldo Marcus Green; Zach Baylin, our writer; and Will, our leader in every way, who wanted to tell the truth about this woman. [They] did not want her to be a shut mouth. When I found out the truth of Ms. Oracene, when I found out who she was, it might’ve made people uncomfortable sometimes, but I just felt like I had to push. Rei Green will tell you, I was pushing until my scene, which was the last scene shot in the film.
Before production, did you have time to rehearse?
I came to Los Angeles in January of 2020. We rehearsed maybe three to four weeks, and that was a lot of breaking down the script. Will really took the helm with that. I walked in my first day of rehearsal and we were having rehearsals at an office building. This room was just, my God, you could see all of the Valley from the office. On this picture window, Will had colored Post-it notes of every beat in the film. I’m like, OK, I see what world I’m in. That was, first of all, very reassuring because it showed me that he took the measure of how seriously he took this role, how seriously he took this story. A lot of the work that we did initially went into script work with Zach and Rei and Will. We rehearsed a little but not a whole lot because we wanted the words to be there. And Rei tried to give us time before we actually shot during the day. Then we shot for a while, and then everything ended. But I really believe that the work that we did on the script helped us with character work.
And people ask about the kitchen scene a lot [a pivotal scene in which Oracene confronts Richard about his not taking Venus’ and other family members’ wants into consideration]. And, you know, we didn’t rehearse that scene at all. We just showed up. Because we had lived in it so long, since January, it was really in our skin and we were just ready. Like, I got something to say to you. I have been thinking on this for 11 months.
Isha Price, Oracene’s daughter and an executive producer on the movie, provided you with recordings of Oracene where she talked about her life. How did they affect your performance?
Those recordings were my raw material. The beauty of those recordings is that I didn’t have to get any information about Miss Oracene secondhand. I was able to hear Miss Oracene’s testimony of herself from herself. She talked about how she was an athlete as a kid and how she was an incredible baseball player. When she would come to bat, they would be off because she was so good that she would always hit the ball way, way, way, way, way, way, way away. And they would have to chase this ball. What’s so great about that is that this was her estimation of herself. This was no one’s account of her. This was how she saw herself. And so that’s what kept me honest. This woman was an athlete. She was effing good at being an athlete, and her athleticism bled and designed the play that she created for her girls. For her, it was a lineage.
When King Richard shut down because of COVID-19, did you continue your research into your character?
To be honest with you, I didn’t know if we were going to come back. For a very long time, I didn’t think we would. So, I had kind of let go of the King Richard dream. I just said, “You know, it was great while it lasted.” I didn’t think we would be on set again. There were a couple of times when they were saying that we were going to come back, and that didn’t happen. So when that happened, maybe once or twice, I was just like, “Look, I’m going to stop thinking about this.” But during that time when we weren’t shooting, I really was — as everyone else in the world was — preoccupied with so many other things. And then when we were definitely coming back, I still didn’t believe it. When I was on my way to California, I still didn’t believe it. Because, you have to remember, when we went back to work, which was September of last year, we were going back to work when no one knew anything. It was so much uncertainty.
You weren’t going to believe it until the cameras were rolling.
I’ve got to say — I don’t know how it’s going to sound — but it’s just the truth: I cannot tell you how many times when we were shooting, before things got crazy, I looked at Will and these amazing young women, I looked at Rei Green, and I looked at the fact that I was playing this woman whom I had so much respect for, and I just felt that this can’t be true. It just felt unbelievable to me. So when the lockdown happened, I was like, “See, that’s why! I knew it was too good to be true!”
What was one scene you knew was important for the audiences to fully understand Ms. Oracene?
It was the scene in the kitchen. All the scenes were important to me, and it wasn’t just my scenes. With Ms. Oracene in that scene, it is not about vindication, but there is a certain kind of truth-telling that she is denied in the way that she lived her life with her husband. And just like we have this perception of her as being the mother, and what we think of mothers, particularly when mothers are overlooked in the [shadow] of a father who is the bright light. There’s so many examples of that in history. So she becomes this nonperson, and what was important to me, and what I was fighting for and getting on people’s nerves about up until the very last moment that we shot, is this would be Ms. Oracene’s prize opportunity where she lays waste to that myth of the silent mother. She gets to say, “Just because no one knows my name does not mean that I’m not necessary, does not mean that I’m not significant, does not mean that I am not a genius.”
A lot of times when these scenes happen, you have the woman saying to the man, “You can be better.” And to be fully transparent, that was in one of the iterations of [this] scene. We’ve seen these confrontations all the time, they’re pretty trope-y. The long-suffering woman has the confrontation with the man, right? In those scenes, traditionally, you have a woman saying to a man, “I deserve more from you. You are better than this.” It essentially becomes about him. And so what I refused to do was make this moment of truth be about Richard. And what I wanted to do our way — because I wasn’t alone in this is — is insist we hear Ms. Oracene’s truth about herself. And it wasn’t just about upbraiding him. It was about her. Her.
Have there been any responses to the movie and your performance that have stuck with you?
What I wanted for the film is that it would be one of those movies that families would watch during Thanksgiving. We always had movies that we watched during Thanksgiving and Christmas, so I wanted that so badly for this, and I’m glad that it timed out perfectly. And this young girl wrote me and she said that what Ms. Oracene did for her was so specific because of [her] being someone who no one knows, no one knows their name, but they’re also necessary. But we don’t know that they’re necessary until we finally hear from them. It’s a shame that it has to be that. And it’s a shame that we had to do a [multimillion-dollar] film for people to know who Ms. Oracene Price is, but so be it. And that’s what I wanted to hear. I wanted to hear from Black women who are reflected in Ms. Oracene’s experience.
This story first appeared in a December stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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