How the King Richard Cast Matches Up Against the Real Players In Venus & Serena Williams' Life

Oscar nominee Will Smith toplines the cast of King Richard, which tells the tale of how Venus and Serena Williams' father charted their course to greatness—and they surpassed all expectations.

By Natalie Finn Mar 26, 2022 3:00 AMTags
Watch: Will Smith Thanks Venus Williams & the Cast of "King Richard"

What sort of fairy tale did King Richard serve up?

The rare kind that's firmly rooted in reality.

No one needed to apply a rosy-hued cinematic glow to Venus and Serena Williams' better-than-fiction origin story, which is now nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Will Smith. Also one of the film's producers, he's considered the frontrunner after winning a Golden Globe, SAG and Critics' Choice Award for his portrayal of the titular visionary, who started charting his daughters' rise to the top of the tennis world before they were even born.

In fact, it all started in the late 1970s when Richard Williams saw a tennis player get a big prize check and decided that was the path his future children with Oracene Price should follow.

We know that sounds like something Steven Spielberg made up, but that's just the beginning of the true story.

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Stars Playing Real People

In one scene, for instance, Richard doesn't like where his meeting with a sports agent regarding young Venus' future is going, so he signals his displeasure by farting. 

"If it didn't happen for real, you would think it was fake," Smith told USA Today. "You wouldn't believe that somebody would actually do that. They would be cracking up because he would do that if he wasn't hearing what he wanted to hear in the meeting."

Serena also told E! News that she was excited for audiences to see "just how amazing my father was. And the kind of person he really was and I think that really shows through the story."

Chiabella James/Warner Bros.

A story that multiple actors in the film would never have believed was real if they hadn't ended up making this film and interacting with actual Williams family members.

Asked what the most unbelievable-but-true plot point was for her, Aunjanue Ellis, Oscar-nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Oracene, told Collider, "They had daughters with the intention of making them tennis stars. And that sounds crazy, but that's what happened."

Check out the cast that brought this story you only thought you knew to life:

Will Smith as Richard Williams

As the legend goes, Richard, whose own mother was a Louisiana sharecropper, was watching a women's tennis match on TV and, when it was over, the winner was presented with a $40,000 check. That looked like a good plan to him!

So once Venus and Serena Williams were born, he made it his mission to turn them into tennis champions, no matter that they were learning to play on public courts in Compton, Calif., and not at some fancy country club. And the sport being historically a white person's game, much like golf, sure as heck didn't discourage him, either.

"I felt like I knew him immediately," Will Smith, who watched hundreds of hours of tape to prepare for the role, told USA Today. "He's very similar to my father in some ways. I understood what it meant to feel brutalized by the world and to have a dream that nobody believes in but you, and you're not going to let that deter you. I got the heart of him."

But, the actor noted, echoing what the Williams sisters told him about their dad, "Tennis was fourth or fifth on the list of priorities. He was using tennis to teach them how to survive in this world."

Richard has been largely out of public view in recent years while dealing with health problems, but Serena shared a video of him Nov. 9 in which he's (naturally) championing his granddaughter Alexis Olympia's efforts as she tests out her training wheels.

"A rare sighting, the one and only G.O.A.T. still motivating ... King Richard, but I call him daddy," Serena wrote.

Aunjanue Ellis as Oracene Price

A lesser known fact: Venus and Serena's mother coached them, too, long before she became a familiar stoic face in the crowd at tournaments around the globe.

Oracene and Richard divorced in 2002, but their marriage produced something rather spectacular.

"When I was doing my initial research for the part, I went to Wikipedia and saw that she was described as a coach, and I just remember having such a snarky response to that," Aunjanue Ellis admitted to IndieWire. "'Ugh really, you're calling yourself a coach, sitting in the stands and cheering for your girls, that's not really coaching.' And then when I found out the truth of the matter, I was so ashamed. I was so ashamed, just thinking, 'Aunjanue, you should know better. You should know how women are always underwritten, under told, you know what I mean? Come on.'"

Saniyya Sidney as Venus Williams

Venus made her professional debut in 1994 at the age of 14. It took four years before she won her first title on the WTA Tour and broke the top 10, but once she did, she remained in it for most of the next decade, including 11 weeks at No. 1. Injuries and a diagnosis of the autoimmune disease Sjögrens Syndrome, which causes fatigue and joint pain, slowed her down in the 2010s, but she climbed as high as No. 5 in 2017 and 2018, and her career includes 10 Grand Slam singles titles and 14 Grand Slam doubles championships with sister Serena.

The bond between her and Serena on display in King Richard is "pretty much spot-on to what it was then and what it is now," Venus told USA Today.

Saniyya, who competed in track in school, not only learned how to play tennis for the role, she had to do so right-handed, despite the actress being left-handed.

"Tennis is totally different than any other sport you may think about," she told RogerEbert.com. "It's very mental, and occurs only between you and one other person, so when you're by yourself with your own thoughts, it feels like it's your own game."

Asked if she'd come away with any life lessons from playing Venus, Saniyya said, "I also liked connecting to the eye of the tiger that they have. When Serena is on the court, she is very expressive, as we know. She's always like, 'Come on!' But one thing I loved about Venus is that she's very quiet. When something bad would happen, she would maintain her poker face until she was in private, where she would allow herself to have a personal moment and cry or be openly mad. Venus never let anyone else see her cry. She was just like, 'I'm going to be the stronger person.'"

Demi Singleton as Serena Williams

When Venus was getting started on the WTA Tour, Richard promised the world that her younger (by 15 months) sister Serena was even better.

That seemed like quite a check to write, but it's been cashed countless times over, Serena going on to win 73 career titles (to date), including 23 Grand Slam singles championships (second-most ever), and bank almost $95 million in prize money—apart from what she's earned from rich endorsement deals and her own business ventures.

Over the course of her career she has spent 316 weeks ranked No. 1 in the world. And, incidentally, she leads Venus 19-12 in their head-to-head record. 

About to meet her big sister in the semifinals of Wimbledon (Venus went on to win the whole tournament), Serena told The Guardian in 2000, "Tennis is just a game, but family is forever. Ten years from now I don't think I'll even be playing tennis. I don't want to ruin something that should last a lifetime for something that just lasts a few years."

Well, no one ever called her a champion psychic.

Demi told RogerEbert.com of Venus and Serena, "They were very, very close. Even to this day, they are still best friends who are basically attached at the hip, and that's also a big part of who they both are. I feel like they both kind of lean on one another, so it was really important for us to show that in the film."

Tony Goldwyn as Paul Cohen

Richard sought out L.A.-based tennis coach Paul Cohen, a former junior champ and top college player known for his work with the likes of Pete Sampras and John McEnroe, when Venus and Serena were just 7 and 6. After hitting with them the first time, Paul said, "I had never seen a 6-year-old as strong as Serena and I'd never seen a potential woman champion as athletic and as graceful as Venus."

But Richard could only afford for one of his daughters to train with Paul, so he would tape the coach's sessions with Venus for Serena, who worked with Oracene in the meantime, to watch afterward.

That was "definitely hard, but also at the same time, I knew I wasn't on that level yet, just to be quite frank and honest," Serena reflected to USA Today. "I wasn't playing at the level that Venus was playing."

Goldwyn, who stepped into the role last year when Liev Schreiber had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts, admitted to Collider that he was actually shocked by just how inspiringly true this story was. Richard "wrote a 75, 80-page manifesto detailing how" Venus and Serena were going to become the best players in the world, and "if you'd told me that I would've said, 'That's crazy, that never happened.'"

Mikayla Lashae Bartholomew as Yetunde Price

Yetunde, the eldest of three daughters from Oracene's first marriage and a mother of three herself, was fatally shot in Compton in 2003 when she was 31. Venus and Serena opened the Yetunde Price Resource Center, a safe haven for at-risk youth and victims of trauma in Compton, in 2016, and the athletes have shared that seeing her brought to life by Mikayla in King Richard was a very emotional experience.

"Oh, I think I cried the whole time," Serena said on Jada Pinkett Smith's Red Table Talk, appearing with Venus and their mother. "Whenever she came on film, I just—personally, I just started, like—I mean, even still."

Recalled Venus, "She knew how to have fun. She was original Team V. Before there was a Team V, she was Team V."

In July 2018, Serena heard that Yetunde's killer, Robert Edward Maxfield, was being released on parole after serving 12 years of a 15-year sentence for voluntary manslaughter. Moments later, she suffered a 6-1, 6-0 defeat in the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic.

"I couldn't shake it out of my mind," she told TIME about the obvious effect the news had on her game. Serena further explained, "No matter what, my sister is not coming back for good behavior. It's unfair that she'll never have an opportunity to hug me. But also…the Bible talks about forgiveness. I'm not there yet. I would like to practice what I preach, and teach [my daughter] Olympia that as well. I want to forgive. I have to get there. I'll be there."

Moreover, "it was hard because all I think about is her kids, and what they meant to me. And how much I love them."

Daniele Lawson and Layla Crawford as Isha and Lyndrea Price

Venus and Serena remain close to their other half-sisters from Oracene's first marriage, who were on the set of King Richard most days to ensure that the action on camera was an honest depiction of their real lives.

"Their journey was my journey because I had to wake up too," Lyndrea, a web designer, recalled to ESPN in 2016. "When Venus and Serena left [the house], I left. It was a family effort. We didn't have a hopper, because those were expensive, so I would shuffle the balls with my racket and pick them up. I wasn't playing, but I was out there every day."

In 2018, Serena shared a Vogue photo of herself with daughter Olympia, Venus, Isha, Lyndrea and their mom, all in matching PJs. "Women. They are so prominent strong and vital to my life," she wrote. "My mom raised 5 women (one passed) and 3 grand children. I love this photo because we have a close bond. This is what keeps me humble. They are not afraid to tell me anything after all I am the youngest of 5. I'm so happy Olympia has my mom as her grandma (of course she has Alexis [Ohanian's] Stepmom as well) and I'm happy she has aunts like my sisters Venus , Isha , Lyn and Alexis' sisters Amy and Hayley. Alll women! Coincidence? I think it not. She will fit right in."

Venus and Isha, an attorney, vacationed in Barcelona together this past summer, and all the sisters attended the Nov. 15 King Richard screening at AFI Fest.

Kevin Dunn as Vic Braden

The Williams family had watched Vic Braden's Tennis Our Way instructional video, boasting the mantra "You'll be famous by Friday," and the tape Richard made in hopes of getting 8-year-old Venus and 7-year-old Serena an invitation to Braden's renowned tennis camp survives.

The not-quite-villainous but initially skeptical Braden, a player turned instructor and broadcaster who was posthumously inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2017, was proved very wrong in one respect (if, as in the movie, he really told Richard that the cost of coaching his girls to that elite level might be prohibitive) and prescient in another.

Braden reportedly once said, "I received a lot of criticism when I stated that Serena would win more titles then Venus very early in their career. Apparently I was given this tape by Richard during a telecast, but only saw it years later while archiving my collection."

Jon Bernthal as Rick Macci

Over the course of his storied career, veteran tennis coach Rick Macci trained dozens of future pros, including five eventual No. 1 players: Jennifer Capriati, Maria SharapovaAndy Roddick and the Williams sisters.

In fact, Richard moved the family to Florida so Venus and Serena could train at the coach's namesake tennis academy, which remains a destination for young players to this day.

"I think the day will come when both kids might play each other in the final of a Grand Slam," Macci predicted in a 1992 interview. "Richard's very fortunate: It's lucky to get one [prodigy] in the family but he's got two."

Yet in a recent interview leading up to the King Richard premiere, he admitted that he didn't see anything particularly special happening when he first saw Venus and Serena in action.

"My baseline of what greatness was, was as high as anybody," he explained. "So I'm looking at these two girls hit the ball and five minutes into the lesson I go, 'What in God's name am I doing in Compton, California, on a weekend?' I'm going, 'They're not any better, they're not any worse than kids [ranked] 50-60 in the nation for their age.'"

(An earlier version of this story was published Nov. 19, 2021, at 9:34 a.m. PT)