When ‘King Richard’ star Aunjanue Ellis was approached to play Oracene ‘Brandy’ Williams (née Price) in a film about the early years of Venus and Serena Williams’ tennis career, the actor was especially thrilled to celebrate the first tennis family. Ellis describes the opportunity to play Price as “one of the greatest honors I’ve ever had as an actor”, but admits there was so much about the Williams family – and Price in particular – that she didn’t know.
“I only knew of her to be in the stands and have those sunglasses on every time. We see her, but I didn’t know her,” Ellis explained during a panel discussion with Price, moderated by Variety.
But once she started doing her research for the movie, Ellis learned the whole truth about the Williams family matriarch, including how much coaching she did for the girls on the court, after learning from her. -even playing tennis, in addition to her work outside the home as a nurse.
“To be able to be part of something that would shine a light on the absolutely incredible woman that Ms. Oracene Price is – how she helped change the sport of tennis, but also change the way we see black women in culture, it meant everything for me,” Ellis said.
For Price, the experience of having his story and that of his family told has been full of mixed emotions. After meeting the filmmakers behind the project, including director Reinaldo Marcus Green and screenwriter Zach Baylin, the Williams family played a vital behind-the-scenes role in ‘King Richard’, helping inform the script by sitting down for interviews revealing details about their lives and giving the film’s final endorsement as executive producers.
©Warner Bros/courtesy Everett Collection
But despite her involvement, Price was unsure if she would watch the finished film. “At first I wasn’t going to watch it, because I don’t want to see myself,” she confessed.
When the movie hit theaters and on HBO Max in November, people started contacting her about it.
“My sister called and she said, ‘It was you.’ And everyone who knows me said, “That was you,” Price recalled. “Sometimes we don’t see ourselves as we are, but when other people see the embodiment portrayed by someone else, I say, ‘Okay, that was me. “”
Price was particularly impressed that she and Ellis only talked about the role once.
“I didn’t come to LA [because] COVID and everything was happening, but she talked to me on the phone once and then she told my character who I was,” she said, praising Ellis. ” That’s what I wanted. I wanted someone to represent me for me, not something they were thinking of in their own minds, and she did a great job.
While Price’s endorsement is certainly the biggest boost Ellis could receive, many critics groups and members of the Academy agree with his assessment. Earlier this month, Ellis was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, her first nod and one of six the film has received.
Price and Ellis were joined for the conversation by ‘King Richard’ Green and Baylin (also nominated for Best Original Screenplay), who described how they approached telling the Williams family story through the tennis film .
Baylin noted that it was a “pretty labyrinthine journey” to nail Oracene’s character. The first draft of his screenplay came from reading all the press clippings and viewing all the interviews he could find at the time.
“Honestly, there weren’t as many videos of Oracene in those years as there were of Richard,” he explained. “I felt like I had a pretty good idea of how he spoke, from his point of view. But Oracene was a bit more of an enigma to me.
The key to cracking the code was personal meetings with Price and her daughter Isha, who served as executive producers on the film, as well as Venus and Serena, where they walked the filmmakers through scenes in the film to tell them how things were going. have actually passed. .
“The most important thing the family told me, Rei, Tim and the producers was how much of a backbone Oracene had been – not just being the breadwinner, being the person who really ran the family home, but also be a huge integral part of their tennis development, education and training,” Baylin said. “It was extremely important to everyone that this be accurately represented in the script.”
Anne Marie Fox
Armed with three or four hours of taped interviews, the filmmakers and Ellis worked on fleshing out the character to make sure Oracene felt truly alive and accurate.
“I never got a chance to tell you, Oracene, but thank you,” Green interjected. “Thank you from the bottom of my heart for allowing us to make this film. It has been a true honor to tell your story and that of your family.
He added: “I couldn’t think of a better person than Aunjanue Ellis to have played this role, to represent you in the film. I think she did it completely with honesty, truth and justice. ‘brings so much joy to see you on the screen represented in this way.
Price says she and her family trusted the filmmakers (including star and producer Will Smith) because “they were honest and wanted to know the real story.” From his point of view, the team was looking to get to the heart of things in an authentic and unrestricted way, not a “box-in-box” version. “I didn’t want any lies in the movie at all,” she noted.
As the conversation continued, Ellis, Green, Baylin and Price reflected on major moments from the film, including the “kitchen scene,” where Oracene and Richard realize the state of their marriage and family dynamics. .
“I thought it represented me because the things she said, maybe they weren’t the exact words, but it represented who I am,” Price said of the scene. “I’m silent in the background, but I don’t play; I am not joking. [Laughs] Don’t think I’m a pushover. I don’t like confrontation, but that doesn’t mean I’m afraid of it. And I try to avoid it. I try to be calm. And that’s about it, so I get on with my life, forgive and forget.
From an actor’s perspective, Ellis explained that the scene shows Price as a woman of conviction and as a woman of faith. As she continued to discuss what struck her most about Price in that scene, Ellis choked up.
“The reason I respect you so much is because…” Ellis began, hesitating to collect himself. “You are my grandmother, you are my mother, you are so many women, especially black women, that no one knows. And I must say that it hurts me not to know you.
“I had no idea that one of the reasons I’m so proud of Venus and Serena is because of you,” she continued. “It’s not just their tennis; It’s because you put those beads in their hair, and that’s the reason you put those beads in their hair. When I read Zach’s script, that was my favorite scene in the whole movie. Knowing the story behind that, and that you did that, I was like, ‘Yeah.’ “
So in this scene and throughout the film, Ellis took the responsibility of portraying Price especially seriously.
“There are going to be many more Venus and Serena movies before we are all dead and gone, and people will continue to tell stories about Venus and Serena, but how many times will we get the chance to give Ms. Oracene her flowers? How many times are we going to be able to do this, and have her see it for herself?”
Price thanked the team for their efforts, saying, “Thank you, because it was important that you put it in the family, because it was a family effort. Everyone was involved. Everyone had a role.
Watch the full conversation above as the group reflects on other defining moments from the film and Price reflects on the lessons and legacy she aimed to instill in Venus and Serena.
“King Richard” is now playing in theaters.
©Warner Bros/courtesy Everett Collection
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