Jon Bernthal has played a surfeit of tough guys in massive projects like acclaimed television series “The Walking Dead” and “The Punisher” and hit films such as “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “Baby Driver.” So he wasn’t necessarily the first actor Reinaldo Marcus Green had in mind to play buoyant tennis coach Rick Macci in “King Richard.”
“He rolled up to our meeting wearing a hoodie and his sweatpants high above his ripped waistline, his pit bull, Bam Bam, riding in the front seat of his car,” Green told Variety in a recent interview. “He looked nothing like Rick Macci.”
But Bernthal and Green connected on the material and it’s now hard to imagine anyone else playing the part of Macci, who was instrumental in helping Venus and Serena Williams become the greatest tennis stars in the world.
“For me, I’m an ex-athlete, like the director, Rei Green, I played baseball in college,” Bernthal tells Gold Derby in a new interview. “I’m raising young athletes. This film sort of explores the whole spectrum of the beautiful and sublime to the toxic relationship some parents have with sports in this country. I’m so enormously grateful to athletics. But ultimately, this movie is this meditation on parenthood and family and fatherhood. It explores all the nooks and crannies of it. It didn’t shy away from the mistakes and the ugly parts and the hard parts.”
Based on a script by Zach Baylin and directed by Green, “King Richard” is a crowd-pleasing sports drama about Richard Williams, the father of Serena and Venus, who pushed his daughters to succeed when no one wanted to believe in their talent. Bernthal says the film’s message about parenthood was a driving force behind his interest.
“To me, there’s nothing more important in this world than being a parent. I think the number one rule for it is that you’re going to make mistakes, you’re going to mess up. I think having an acute awareness of these mistakes and admitting these mistakes and processing these mistakes with your kids is super valuable and important,” he says. “I love the role that athletics can bring to kids and I love that this explored that.”
Macci appears in the second half of “King Richard” after the Williams family has moved on from a prior coach. But while he initially comes off as someone whom Richard might not necessarily take seriously, Macci’s devotion to the family and the Williams sisters is evident.
“I loved that Rick was this character who really fell in love with these two young women, he fell in love with their family. He was a part of it,” Bernthal says. “Ultimately it wasn’t just about what they could do for his pocketbook, it was about what they could do for the game of tennis and what could the game of tennis do for this family that he really loved. I thought there was a real purity to him.”
Headlined by Smith in a role that has generated massive awards buzz for the star, “King Richard” features an ensemble firing on all cylinders — from Bernthal and Tony Goldwyn as coaches to Aunjanue Ellis as Oracene Price, the Williams family matriarch. Bernthal credits Green and Smith for fostering an atmosphere of creativity on set that leveled the playing field between all departments and star wattage.
Green “nurtures such creativity and is so positive. He directed this perfectly. He let everybody play. He didn’t just allow collaboration he demanded it, he was hungry for it,” Bernthal says. “A lot of the credit has to go to Will too. When you have this mega movie star who comes in so willing to play, so open.”
“King Richard” is arguably the high point of a busy year for Bernthal, who also appears in December’s “Unforgivable” opposite Sandra Bullock and played Johnny Boy Soprano, the father of Tony Soprano, in “The Many Saints of Newark.” Bernthal says “The Sopranos” was a formative show for him in the early days of his acting career, specifically the performance of star James Gandolfini.
“To me, Jim Gandolfini was a real titan, one of my favorite actors of all time,” he says. “Unbelievably important and meaningful idol of mine.” That Bernthal was able to share the screen with Gandolfini’s son, Michael Gandolfini, in “Many Saints of Newark” is an opportunity he won’t soon forget.
“I met Mike Gandolfini before we started this process. I fell in love with this young man. I was blown away by his wisdom, his courage, his unbelievable bravery, and the vitality that he went to approach this by getting to know his dad better and taking on this role,” he says. “I wanted to be there for him and stand by him, in front of him, and by his side. I’m so proud of him.”
“King Richard” is out in theaters and on HBO Max starting Friday, November 19.
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