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After five nights of starry events, Hollywood’s AFI Fest closed out on Sunday with the premiere of Warner Bros.’ King Richard, plus two very special guests — the film’s subjects, Venus and Serena Williams.
The sisters — who are both executive producers on the story of their journey to tennis stardom, fueled by father Richard and his extensive plans for their careers — walked the red carpet alongside Saniyya Sidney, who plays a young Venus, and Demi Singleton, who plays a young Serena, as the cast reflected on portraying the famous family.
“I’ve loved Richard Williams for a lot of years,” Will Smith, who plays the patriarch, told reporters at the premiere, recalling how he saw an interview 20 years ago where Richard had interrupted a reporter going after Venus. “People were calling him a crazy father and I remember looking at that scene and I was like, ‘What’s crazy about that? That’s exactly how you’re supposed to protect and defend your children.’ So I loved him from that point and I’m excited to bring some of the nuances and intricacies of his life, his story and the Williams family in general to the screen.”
Aunjanue Ellis, who plays Venus and Serena’s mother Oracene, had similar goals after counting the athletes as heroes and “wanting to give them flowers.”
“I want people to know the truth about this family because people don’t know about them. They know what they see on the court, they know what they hear about them, but they haven’t spent time with them,” Ellis told The Hollywood Reporter. “So I hope these two hours are a chance for America to spend time with the Williams family, and I’m excited about that.”
Williams sister Isha Price was a producer on the film, and was on set every day to guide the cast and crew. Serena and Venus wanted to see the final version of the film before signing on as EPs, which Smith told Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show was “the worst two hours ever” waiting to hear their reactions after a private screening.
Ellis teased she felt the same nerves, saying “that would’ve been bad if they didn’t like it!” Sidney added that after getting close to the family during production, “I just wanted them to love it, that was my most important thing. I wanted them to feel like they were seeing themselves.”
Venus told reporters on the carpet how emotional she was reading the script, particularly reflecting on key family moments; producer Tim White said the sisters told them how “it brought back a lot of memories and they were amazed at how close Will was to their father.”
“The greatest compliment was they felt like we captured their lives,” added producer Trevor White, though he did admit, “however Will describes that moment [of waiting for their reaction], we were probably times 20 nervous.”
Inside the screening, held at TCL Chinese Theatre, director Reinaldo Marcus Green brought the cast — which also includes Tony Goldwyn and Jon Bernthal — to the stage, where Smith grabbed the mic and recounted the long journey to the premiere.
“We got shut down in the middle of the film with COVID, and Saniyya and Demi came back four months later an inch and half taller, each,” the star joked. “This film has been a pure joy and a pure labor of love, and the opportunity to honor the Williams family for all of us has been one of those rare career opportunities.”
He then brought Venus and Serena out to a standing ovation.
“We’re so grateful and so honored to be here. This obviously couldn’t have happened without this incredible story, this incredible team that we have — Will, everyone that was a part of the movie has been so amazing,” Serena told the crowd, thanking her sisters and her coach, who flew in from France for the premiere. “You’re really going to enjoy this movie. It’s such a team effort and everyone here seeing this will understand that. So many people here have been a part of that team effort and just thank you from the bottom of our hearts. As you’ll see tonight it takes a team to make this happen.”
King Richard hits theaters and HBO Max on Friday.
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