The audition process to find the young actresses who would portray Venus and Serena Williams in “King Richard” was so secretive, the young performers who went out for roles thought they were perhaps auditioning for a film about spelling bee prodigies. But for breakout star Saniyya Sidney, who landed the coveted role of Venus in the film, what drew her to the story was not its depiction of the world’s greatest tennis champions, but the core message about the Williams family.
“I knew of Venus and Serena because my family was a big sports family. But I didn’t know much about their family or their father or just how driven their father was for their girls,” Sidney tells Gold Derby. “That’s what made me fall in love with the story the most, the relationship between Richard and his girls.” Watch the exclusive video interview above.
Set in the early 1990s as the Williams sisters are on the cusp of greatness, “King Richard” details the lengths Richard Williams (Will Smith) and his wife, Oracene Price (Aunjanue Ellis), went to make sure their daughters had not just the best education possible, but also the necessary training and skillset to become tennis champions.
“We just felt so comfortable on set and we became a family. We became the Williams family. It felt real. It felt like we were in a fairy tale in a book. We were just these amazing people,” Sidney says of the bond that formed between the cast, which also includes Demi Singleton as Serena. “It was my intent every day to bring my best and 100 percent for Mr. Will. What I love about him is that he was like, let’s be better than yesterday. I stepped up to the net with him and left it all on the court, no pun intended.”
Indeed, during one pivotal moment in the film, Sidney and Smith meet at the center of the tennis court, on opposite sides of the net. Their conversation – about not just Richard’s worry about pushing Venus too far, but also being there for her in ways his own father was not there for him – has been cited as a highlight of the production.
“Will and [director Reinaldo Marcus Green] deserve huge credit for that scene,” screenwriter Zach Baylin previously told Gold Derby. In the sequence, Richard recalls how his father watched idly as Richard was beaten up by racists when he was a young boy. “Richard had gone through such tremendous trauma in his life. There were so many incidents that we could have chosen to tell his experience to Venus at that moment,” Baylin explained. “Will found that story of Richard and I wrote it up with him and I think it’s a beautiful scene.”
“That was such an evolution for Venus at that point of the story,” Sidney says of her perspective on the sequence, where Venus is heartbroken because she thinks her father doesn’t actually believe in her talent. “That was like, ‘Saniyya, how would you feel if your mom or dad was like you can’t do this anymore, and the thing you loved so much was stripped away from you.’ That was what helped me channel that mostly.”
“We were both just Richard and Venus, balling and crying,” she adds of working with Smith. “But each time we were doing it we got more and more into it. We were like, ‘Yeah, it’s definitely time to challenge each other right now.’ We would bring out different emotions in each other, that was what was so beautiful about that scene.”
Sidney is only 15 years old, but has already put together an enviable resume of top films – including working with Oscar winners Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in “Fences,” Oscar nominee Taraji P. Henson in “Hidden Figures,” and now opposite Smith and Ellis in “King Richard.” Her next project finds her reuniting with Davis for Showtime’s “The First Lady,” where she was cast as Sasha Obama. Asked what she has learned from those top collaborators, Sidney says “to stay humble and stay true to me and to trust the artistry.”
“What we do is so beautiful in our industry,” she adds. “I think it’s very important to make sure we lift up one another and reach out to storytellers that are trying to get their stories told in this world. That’s what I love so much, helping other collaborators create stories. I think bringing 100% to work, that’s something Mr. Denzel Washington would say all the time: speak the truth, be true to yourself. There’s nothing better than seeing a woman that knows themselves and has confidence in themselves. You don’t have to say it, you can just see it in them.”
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