Aunjanue Ellis interview: ‘King Richard’

When the 2022 Oscar nominations were announced on February 8, “King Richard” star Aunjanue Ellis wasn’t among those watching the live stream. As a result, it would be hours before Ellis found out she had landed among the five nominees for Best Supporting Actress.

“I just didn’t want to disappoint anybody, you know, if I didn’t get nominated, so I just cut my phone off and cleaned my house all day,” Ellis, a first-time Oscar nominee, tells Gold Derby of her choice to enter a cone of silence on the day of nominations. Watch the exclusive video interview above.

But the act of self-care had some unintended consequences, which Ellis realized when she turned her phone back on that evening.

“My sister called me immediately because she had been trying to call me all day. So she was just like, ‘Where have you been, I’ve been worrying about you,” Ellis says with a laugh. “So it was not really about the Oscars. It was just like, ‘Are you okay? Like, I’m about to send somebody there to make sure you’re all right.’”

Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green and written by Zach Baylin, “King Richard” focuses on the early days of tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams, as their parents, Richard Williams and Oracene Price – played, respectively, by Will Smith and Ellis – struggle to make their dreams of sports success a reality. But while the film is named for Smith’s out-sized character, the origin of the Williams sisters goes far deeper than just the contributions of the family patriarch. Price was a coach as well and a key figure in her daughters’ successes on the court as well. Ellis says she was “embarrassed” by how little she knew about Price prior to playing her in “King Richard,” and the actress sought to use one of her standout scenes – a conversation with Richard late in the film that lays bare his personal failings and underscores Price’s role in the family – to give the real Price a voice.

“I just thought, if I do nothing else in this film, I want to say that for her,” Ellis says. “A lot of times the stories are told about us through the voices of people who don’t necessarily care about us. So I wanted to correct that in my way. I was like, ‘I’m talking for Miss Oracene today.’”

Ellis adds of the importance of getting to play Price, “There are going to be so many more stories told about Venus and Serena…. but how many times are people going to be told a story about their mother, and particularly while she was alive? So I really wanted to do justice by Miss Oracene. And so that’s what I tried to bring to the scene.”

“King Richard” received six Oscar nominations this year, nods for Ellis and Smith (in the Best Actor category), as well as recognition in Best Original Screenplay for Baylin’s script, Best Editing for Pamela Martin, Best Original Song for Beyonce, and Best Picture. For Ellis, her nomination is a high point of a lengthy career that spans stage, television, and feature films. (Ellis is also a two-time Emmy Award nominee in her career.)

“It would be great if it had happened, you know, for other things as well, sure. But it is particularly special for this,” Ellis says when asked what the nomination for “King Richard” means to her. “I think of myself as somebody who wants to expand how women are looked at historically. So imagine for me the convergence of that: that I get to be on camera and do that kind of work and then to be rewarded for it and to be acknowledged for it. Because the way I see it, my getting this nomination feels to me like Miss Oracene is getting nominated. Because she’s always been in the stands cheering for her daughters. Now, people are cheering for her, you know? And that’s what’s so special to me.”

Final Oscar voting starts March 17. The 2022 Oscars take place on March 27.

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UPLOADED Feb 18, 2022 7:55 am