King Richard: Scribe Zach Balin, Osar Nominees

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.

Baylin, despite several years of pushing stories forward in Hollywood, had yet to see one of his screenplays produced before his Blacklist standout featuring the Williams’ story. But on King Richard, the two were able to enjoy the kind of creative volley that actors and film scribes are rarely allowed to indulge in.

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?

Zach Baylin: I spent two weeks with Oracene during the U.S. Open one year. I taped all those interviews and was able to revise the script and her voice based around what her experiences were and some of the insightful things she said to me. I was able to give Aunjanue those tapes. That was the beginning of the way we worked on building the character together.

Right up before we were shooting, we would look at the scenes and say, “Do we need all this dialogue?” Aunjanue is so powerful in the performance, and Oracene, the real woman, is so specific about her words. Oracene really holds her cards, but when she plays them, they’re very powerful and specific. In the scene where Aunjanue goes across the street and gives it to the neighbor, we wrote versions of that where a lot more was said. But then, as we worked together on it, we realized how powerful it is to just have it almost be a quiet moment. You see how much strength and conviction is in Oracene, and Aunjanue just nails that.

I never wanted to write something where Oracene was going to be just the person in his corner who picks him up when he is down and pushes him along. Once I started to research Richard and to realize how large a role Oracene had played in everything, and just frankly how wild a character Richard was, I became very interested to say, “Who married this guy? Who went on this road with these five girls and did this thing?” It just felt like she was just as integral a part, if not even more so, of what the family became and what they accomplished. I remember the night before that kitchen-scene shoot. We’d been rewriting that thing constantly. On weekends we would get together and workshop that scene, because we knew the movie was in some ways going to make or break with that moment. We kept running the scene, and you and Will kept saying, “How can we go further? What is the thing that she can say to him that is going to bring him to his knees and bring him to his lowest?” What’s in that scene came out of those conversations that we collectively had together, and these tapes that we had with Oracene. I took that last rehearsal that you guys did and rewrote. And the next day, it was magical on set. And it was just the true essence of what the movie was, which was just a real collaboration between people who really believed in what we were doing.

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

Pursuit of excellence, like the Williamses struggles?

Baylin: My life has been totally different from the Williams family’s, but there were things I connected with in the story that I wanted to write about. I have two kids; I was interested in investigating that experience of being a parent and what it means to have tremendous hopes and dreams for your kids without knowing exactly how to put them into fruition, or if you’re capable of being the person to mold them. Even more, I’m a big tennis fan. I’ve been an athlete, and so I knew there was an element of that dream that I really responded to.

But most of all, this project came to me at a point where I was in my late 30s and I’d been writing for long time and I’d never had a movie made. I had begun to feel a little bit like, “Is this ever going to happen?” I believed that I had talent. I knew I always wanted to be a part of making movies, but I hadn’t had that big breakthrough. There was some element in Richard’s journey that I really identified with, in terms of wanting to put yourself out there in a real way and make it happen. I locked in on a lot of that in his journey, and in that way I was bringing a lot of my own aspirations into the movie.