A version of this story about Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton first appeared in “Dark Horses We Love” section in the Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
When they auditioned for a movie about a stern father and his two accomplished teenage daughters, Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton were told that they’d be going up for the roles of Veronica and Sophia, a pair of young Black spelling-bee champions. They didn’t buy it.
“We weren’t supposed to know any more than that, but it was pretty obvious what the story was really about,” Singleton said, laughing. “So we kind of knew already.”
What they knew was that Veronica and Sophia were actually named Venus and Serena, and the two spelling champs were in fact two of the greatest tennis players in history. “King Richard,” the movie for which they auditioned, was set in the world of athletics rather than academics, and their roles would be crucial to its success.
In a drama that stars Will Smith and Aunjanue Ellis, with a supporting cast that includes Jon Bernthal, Tony Goldwyn and Dylan McDermott, the audience won’t believe that they are watching a young Venus and Serena Williams on the road to tennis stardom unless Sidney, 15 (as Venus), and Singleton, 14 (Serena), can make us believe it — which they do.
The teens only had about four months to prepare for the roles, and neither was a tennis player when they were cast. Singleton had played lots of sports and been active in dance, but her tennis experience was limited to three lessons years earlier. “I consider myself to be athletic,” she said. “When I was younger, I did gymnastics for a really long time, and I’ve done volleyball and basketball. But if you ask, ‘Did we play tennis?’ No.”
As for Sidney, “I didn’t really play sports,” she said. “I did track around age 7, but I loved acting so much that it was all I did. Not until now, when I learned to play tennis, did I do sports.”
The training, they added, was a matter of getting Venus and Serena’s style of play into their muscle memory, starting with the way Serena holds her racket or the way Venus breaks her wrist on her backhand. “It’s hard to learn how to play like the greatest tennis players of all time in three or four months, and there were times when I felt like I couldn’t do it,” said Singleton. “I had to constantly remind myself, ‘This is not easy. Venus and Serena didn’t learn how to be great overnight.’”
The actresses rhapsodize about working with director Reinaldo Marcus Green and with stars Smith and Ellis – whom they call Mr. Rei, Mr. Will and Ms. Aunjanue, respectively – but they’re more starstruck when the conversation turns to Venus and Serena themselves, who are executive producers on the film and who showed up on the set for the first time three or four weeks into filming. “It was funny, because we didn’t know that they were coming,” Singleton said. “It was a surprise to us that they were going to be there. But once we spoke with them, we realized there was literally nothing for us to be worried about. We
had a great time with them, and now they’re super-protective over us.”