Will Smith on playing a ‘lion’ of a man in ‘King Richard’ and helping Aunjanue Ellis with her ‘poker face’ for awards season

Will Smith has Oscar advice for his costar Aunjanue Ellis: look less excited. “You need a poker face! Are you working on a poker face? Because you need one,” he chided with a roar. “The awards shows we’ve been going to,” Smith explained, “they announce her category and she starts yelling ‘Yaaaaah!’ before they even say her name. You need to dial it back,” he jokingly told a crowd of Oscar voters at a Crosby Hotel reception in SoHo in New York City. Smith was fresh off his Best Actor win at the Critics Choice Awards. Ellis was nominated there too but lost to Ariana DeBose (“West Side Story“). Still, both Smith and Ellis are obviously going to the Oscars on March 27.

“I did this film because 99% of the people out there didn’t know Ms. Oracene coached those girls,” Ellis revealed to moderator Tamron Hall. Ellis respectfully referred to her real-life counterpart, Richard Williams‘s then-wife Oracene Price, as “Ms. Oracene” throughout the interview. But while Price has seen the film along with her famous daughters, Venus and Serena Williams, Ellis has not. Well at least not most of it. “She still hasn’t seen the movie. She doesn’t like to watch her own work,” Smith revealed about his costar. “I’ve seen the last 15 minutes,” Ellis clarified. “I thought it was important to see Venus lose and then watch how her parents were there for her. That’s my favorite scene.”

Both Smith and Ellis seemed relaxed for being on the awards circuit all season. Amidst loud laughs and an impromptu rap, Smith told the crowd that the actors in the film had no idea the Williams sisters hadn’t given their blessing until just a few weeks ago. “I didn’t tell them,” Smith said. “They went to see the film and that was the hardest and longest two-hour wait of my life.” Obviously they liked what they saw.

Smith told a great story about the trouble with sitting in the same room as someone you are portraying. He said he sat right behind Muhammad Ali when the Greatest watched Smith play him in “Ali.” It was “nerve-wracking.” Incredibly, Richard Williams, according to recent reports, still has not seen “King Richard.” But Smith said he understood Williams was an odd character. And he said the more he learned about the man he would play, the more he understood his own family.

“Exploring my relationship with my children and Richard’s relationship with his, it was a perfect cocktail of evolution,” he said. “When you’re an actor you try to find something similar before you expand into your interpretation. One of the things that compelled me to make the movie was the video with Richard and Venus. We depicted it in the film. The reporter keeps asking her about her confidence and Richard interrupts the interview. And I kept looking at Venus’s face and you could see in her eyes that she had a lion and she didn’t want to sic her lion on you, but if you was acting funky, the lion could pounce down on you.” Smith told the audience his own father was a lion, “but he would bite me sometimes.”

If Will Smith does prevail on Oscar night, his speech may include something about his own family. He liked the way Williams looked after his girls. “I want my kids to feel like that when I show up. For a young girl to feel protected in that way is a super power. And I studied that and thought I want to be that.” We will listen for that. And watch for Ellis’s poker face. But if she wins too, we will also watch it vanish.

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