This story about Aunjanue Ellis first appeared in the Awards Preview issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
Late in 2020, Aunjanue Ellis shot her final scene in “King Richard,” the biopic that chronicles young Venus and Serena Williams’ rise to tennis superstardom. It was the last day of a production that, thanks to the pandemic lockdown of spring 2020, had stretched out for a year. And during that year, Ellis gave everything she had to honor the woman whose story she’d been entrusted with: the sisters’ quiet tiger of a mother, Oracene Price.
She cherished the experience, but it was a long haul. “So by the end of it, girl, I was just tired,” Ellis said, laughing. “And I drove off from set with my costume on. They had to call me and be, like, ‘Listen, you gotta come back. Those are not your clothes!'” At that moment, the actress said, she hadn’t yet absorbed what the movie might mean to people. “There was no sentimentality, like, ‘What did I just [accomplish]?’ I was just ready to go. Go, baby, go!”
But she’s certainly feeling the film’s impact now. Since “King Richard” premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in September, Ellis has been earning some of the best reviews of her career, which has spanned almost 30 years and includes Emmy-nominated turns in “Lovecraft Country” and “When They See Us.” In a movie packed with standout performances—among them Will Smith as Venus and Serena’s formidable father, Richard Williams—critics have reserved some of their most effusive praise for Ellis’ nuanced portrayal of a woman who is just as heroic as the larger-than-life man of the film’s title.
Ellis reacts to the attention with the modest pragmatism of a journeywoman actor who knows how fickle the business can be: “Listen, they could be saying other things, they could be not saying anything, so I’ll take it. I’ll gladly take it,” she said, speaking over Zoom from her home in Mississippi. For Ellis, the recognition is especially gratifying because it means the world is finally acknowledging just how integral Price was to her daughters’ success. As “King Richard” makes clear, in scenes that show Oracene running drills on the tennis court with young Serena (Demi Singleton) or helping her hone her Thor’s hammer of a serve, Price was a bona fide coach with a laser focus. But unlike Richard Williams, the tennis stars’ vocal, public-facing coach, manager and protector, Price never sought the limelight. “She didn’t need that,” Ellis says. “She just wanted her girls to succeed.”
To prepare for the role, Ellis learned a bit of tennis (“I had to take lessons three times a week with a professional, and bless his heart, he did the best he could with me”); attended Jehovah’s Witness meetings to better understand the importance of faith in Price’s life; and pored over the hours of interviews that Smith, director Reinaldo Marcus Green and screenwriter Zach Baylin recorded with Price (whom she did not get to meet in person). In listening to Price reflect on the past, particularly her life with Williams, whom she divorced in 2002, Ellis realized she had the opportunity to be an advocate for her onscreen alter ego, “maybe in a way that she couldn’t have been for herself.”
That raised the stakes significantly for Ellis, who felt “all the responsibility in the world” walking onto the set each day. It came to a head in a much-talked-about scene that takes place in the kitchen, when Oracene, while making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (the most mundane of parental tasks), reminds her husband just how much she has shouldered as mother, breadwinner and coach. The scene is a master class in marital tension boiling over, and the actors shot it following the pandemic hiatus—without, it turns out, even rehearsing it.
“That time [during] the lockdown, that’s a lot of time to sit with the characters,” Ellis said. “Will likes to use the word marinate, and I like that idea because she was definitely stewing and I was stewing in what I was feeling. So it was the culmination of all the work that we had done since the beginning.” This was the moment, Ellis hoped, that she could “vindicate Ms. Price and say the things that we did not get to hear her say: ‘Listen, this is who I am in this marriage. This is who I am to these girls. This is who I am to this family. This is who I am to the God I serve.'”
If audiences leave the theater (or more likely, get up from their couches) feeling as if they have a fuller picture of where the Williams sisters’ greatness came from, Ellis is content. “There are going to be so many more stories told about Venus and Serena after you and I are gone,” she said. “But how many times in my life are we going to get to know the truth about Ms. Oracene? Now we have, in our humble attempt, a little bit more of a true expression of who she was and is.”
Read more from the Awards Preview issue here.