King Richard: Actress Aunjanue Ellis, Oscar Nominee (Supporting Actress)

Aunjanue Ellis and screenwriter Zach Baylin discuss Ellis’ portrayal of Oracene Price, mother of Venus and Serena Williams.

Ellis had three decades of high-profile stage, film and TV experience, along with Primetime Emmy to her credit.

The collaborators discuss fleshing out Ellis’ role in a teaming that would ultimately earn each of them Oscar nomination: she for supporting actress, he for original screenplay.

Collaboration between screenwriter and actor?

Aunjanue Ellis: It was a gift. I wasn’t able to talk to Miss Oracene, but I had these recordings they shared with me. That doesn’t necessarily happen all the time, but Zach, director Reinaldo Marcus Green and star-producer Will Smith, they shared with me. It really became my audiobook for the length of our shooting, especially at the beginning. Toward the end, I didn’t need it as much. It was priceless. What Zach had written initially was really good. Sometimes — God bless us, especially women — you have to really just build it from nothing, but that was not the case. I had something in my hands that when I first read it — before I met Zach, before I had the job — I was just like, “I want to say these words.” I think that’s the mark of good writing for an actor.

Ellis: What made this movie stand out when I read it was that she had a presence, because a lot of times, you read these heroic male stories and the woman is just there to be a plot device, to move the story further for the guy.

Meaning to the greater world of a film telling the Williams sisters’ origin story?

Ellis: The Williams family, in my mind, are my extended family, even though they don’t know who I am — I mean, they know who I am now, but otherwise, they wouldn’t know that I existed. I can’t watch Venus and Serena’s matches because I’m so afraid of what’s going to happen; I have to watch the replay, and I can only watch if they win. I have so much invested emotionally in these women who do not know that I exist. They inhabit a space that beforehand, outside of Wilma Rudolph and Arthur Ashe, that had never been occupied by someone who looked like me. But then there’s also what they do when they’re not playing tennis: the fact that we can have these really substantive conversations about equal pay — not just in sports, but other places of business — and look to them as examples of that. This is how these women figure into my life as not just sports icons — because I’m not a big tennis fan, but I am a Venus and Serena fan — but also as cultural icons, as movers of this thing that we call the progression of women in this country. They are essential to that and what it looks like now. You don’t want to mess that up when you are playing their mother. This was my small way of repaying them for what they have done for me. There’s no gift that I can give these women, but I can hopefully do something that reflects their lives in a way that’s honest.

Pursuit of excellence, like the Williamses struggles?

Ellis: I think of myself as somebody who tries to do work that expands not just the possibility of what women are in our culture, but the truth of what women are in our culture. I do that when I’m off camera. Imagine my delight when I can do that on camera. It’s a convergence of that purpose from my personal life. The character of Miss Oracene is so exciting to me and was such a fantastic thing to play, because how do you share a space with someone who is as towering as Richard, who really figures as a king and sees himself as a king that takes up all the space in the room? How are you as powerful? How are you as affecting and effective as this presence — and do it in a way that does not match his energy in any way at all? That is so much fun to play. I’ve looked for those things in terms of what I’ve been trying to build. It’s the kind of work that I long to do and want to continue to do.