When filmmaker Reinaldo Marcus Green finally got into a room with star and producer Will Smith to discuss “King Richard,” it was far from assured Green would walk out with the job. The project — based on a script by Zach Baylin about tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams that caught Smith’s eye after its inclusion on the 2018 Black List — had become a passion project for the actor. As a result, it meant Green, who grew up watching Smith in movies and on television, had to convince megastar he was right for the gig. Just one problem: Where to begin?
“What am I supposed to bring to this meeting? Am I supposed to bring a presentation? What should I talk about? How should I look even?” Green says he asked himself before their conversation. “It was a lot of thinking about that. It was like you know what, I just need to be myself.”
So Green came into the meeting dressed in a hoodie and leather jacket and talked to Smith and the producing team about his own background with competitive sports — like the Williams sisters, Green and his brother were top athletes in high school, and their father, like Richard Williams (played by Smith), pushed his boys to compete.
“I spent the first third of my life on a baseball diamond. I had a father who wore short shorts and could have been misunderstood by the public because he was an eccentric dad that ‘brainwashed’ his kids into being baseball kids,” Green says of his upbringing. “I understood that but I also understood what it was like having a loving father who was committed to his two children, never missed a game, gave us every possible thing he could give us, every tool, and equipped us with education as a fallback. Baseball didn’t work out for us, so if tennis didn’t work out for the Williams’s, they would’ve gone to Ivy League schools, as my brother did. I understood that uniquely well and intimately well. That was the pitch. I think he could tell I’m passionate.”
A short time later, Green was hired to direct. Two years later, it seems safe to suggest everyone made the right decision. Since its debut at the Telluride Film Festival in September, “King Richard” has sat firmly in the thick of the awards conversation, generating strong reviews and audience responses. In early December, “King Richard” was named to the AFI Awards list of 10 best American productions of the year. For Green, it’s recognition that proves there remains a desire for large-scale adult dramas, the kind of feature films the major studios used to release frequently in the 1980s and 1990s.
“They don’t make movies like that anymore. It’s sad, I grew up watching those movies, so I love those movies and I always wanted to make a movie that you could recite the lines to,” he says. “I hope for a generation of kids that maybe they’ll be able to recite ‘King Richard.’ That would be cool. How amazing would that be to be able to do that for a community or a generation of kids?”
Set in the early 1990s, “King Richard” focuses on the formative years of the Williams sisters before they became two of the greatest athletes of all time. Smith stars as their father, Richard, who, before they were even born, came up with a 78-page plan of attack that foretold their eventual success. He loomed large in the early stages of their careers, often making wild proclamations in the press and breaking with the previously established traditions of the sport. While the Williams family was involved in the production, “King Richard” often doesn’t shy away from Richard’s complexities, how he could be fiercely loyal to his family but also infuriatingly mercurial. It’s a high-wire performance that has given Smith some of the best reviews of his career.
“Will, I would liken him to Tom Brady leaving the New England Patriots and looking to go to Tampa Bay in order to [win] a championship,” Green says of his star. “I think he was really in pursuit of greatness. Sometimes you need to go younger, go with a younger director that has that kind of energy who you feel like is going to be with you on that journey.”
To help Smith achieve his performance, Green says there were two key factors — chiefly, Smith’s “desire to want to be good.”
“When I went into the meeting with Will, I didn’t know how available Will [would be],” Green says. “You hear these horror stories about actors who show up for five minutes and then you’re working with their body double for half of it. You hear these stories about whose available and who does how much work. Will was the exact opposite of that. He literally was like I have cleared the slate for this movie. We were talking every day for months before we got on set. Everything from the script and the intention in each scene to the character development.”
Green also sought to surround Smith with an ensemble that could match the star on his level. “Will had really formidable actors to go toe-to-toe in scenes with,” Green says, including Aunjanue Ellis as the Williams family matriarch, Oracene Price, and Tony Goldwyn, Jon Bernthal, and Saniyya Sidney as Venus and Demi Singleton as Serena.
“Will comes from the era of wanting to be directed. He very much is, ‘Tell me where to go, where do you want me?’ It’s not like, ‘I need to be here,’” Green adds. “Will is very intuitive and aware of circumstance and how things run, so long as you are guiding him to a space that feels safe, he is a kid in a candy store. He’s ready to go a hundred takes.”
Still, while Smith and the cast are operating on a high level, it’s the family story of “King Richard,” Green says, that makes the film ultimately work as well as it does.
“I think that’s what makes the film special,” he says of the bond of the Williams sisters and their family. “We don’t know their genesis story. We don’t know they had older sisters that were picking up balls and hanging signs and traveling to the court and spending as many hours as they were training. We don’t know their mom was not just a mom, she was also a full-time coach, not only providing the food but preparing the food and coaching full time. We discovered these attributes about this family which makes Richard’s plan that much richer. He had soldiers to execute the plan. They were the spine in a lot of ways to his plan.”
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