Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton in King Richard
Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton in King Richard Image Credit: Supplied

Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton, who portray the young Venus and Serena Williams in ‘King Richard’, are the toast of Hollywood these days.

The young girls, who play the teenage version of the two tennis legends in the upcoming sports biopic, appear to have served up a performance that would do Venus and Serena proud.

But becoming two of the greatest of all time was no easy feat for the young girls. They relied heavily on former ATP Tour player Eric Taino to help them with their tennis playing skills; however, both girls also got to go straight to the source for tips.

Both Venus and Serena, who also serve as producers on ‘King Richard’, met with the actors to share some of their tennis experience (in everything from stance to posture to backhand and forehand form), to help the young girls resemble the tennis legends during their teenage years.

Serena and Venus Williams Image Credit: Reuters

Here are excerpts from an interview with the two young stars who talk about meeting Venus and Serena, training hard for their roles and indulging in prank wars with Will Smith on the sets who plays their overbearing on-screen father Richard Williams.

Q. What kind of knowledge did you have of the Williams family when you came to this project?

A still from King Richard
A still from King Richard Image Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

Demi Singleton: My whole life, Serena and Venus have been tennis icons. So, I knew about them and I knew how great they were. I was a fan of theirs. They’re women that I still look up to today. As for their story, how they grew up and what they went through, I wasn’t as knowledgeable about that. I didn’t know the struggles they faced and what they went through growing up, so that was something I learnt while being a part of this project.

Saniyya Sidney: I watched Venus and Serena growing up. So, I knew they were two young Black girls stepping into something and changing the world. And that is something that always makes me so emotional, because watching them when I was little was like, “It’s so cool to see someone who looks like me gain these type of achievements.”

Q. How would you describe ‘King Richard’?

A still from King Richard
A still from King Richard Image Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

DS: I would say that ‘King Richard’ is about the father of Serena and Venus Williams, and how he basically planned for their success. There’s also elements of family in the movie, and it shows how important family is. I do believe that without the family, Serena and Venus wouldn’t have been as big as they are today. They have always been talented. They have always been capable. But, in tennis, where, back then, it was predominantly a white sport and it was almost impossible for two young Black girls to be the best at it, especially coming from their background.

Q. There’s a generation who genuinely admire these women and what they’ve accomplished. Were there any surprises when you read the script?

Will Smith in King Richard
Will Smith in King Richard Image Credit: Supplied

SS: What did surprise me was probably more about Mr. Richard, and about his plan for them when they were kids. Because I know how it feels to have a dream at five-years-old and just going out there and doing something you love… and not letting anyone else tell you, “You have to do something different.” So, I connected to that. And certain things that Richard did reminded me of my parents. My parents made sure that my brother, my sister and I went out there and did whatever we wanted to, that we were loved and made sure we flourished.

Q. Everyone in the world knows who Serena and Venus Williams are, but who are the Serena and Venus you play in the movie?

A still from King Richard
A still from King Richard Image Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

DS: I play young Serena Williams who is still trying to figure out who she is, at a point in time where her sister is in the spotlight. And she’s just trying to prove to everyone that she’s just as capable as her sister and just as ready.

SS: I play this girl who’s very quiet, shy and quirky, and she’s just a kid. Venus is an extraordinary woman and I’m always in awe of her. But when you meet her, she’s just a big kid who knows how to be professional when she is on the court. [There] she’s a beast. But, it was definitely important to me to make sure that people understood just what a quiet competence Venus has.

Q. How did you prepare for this role? Was a lot of tennis training involved?

A still from King Richard
A still from King Richard Image Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

DS: Other than tennis training — which was, at first, very difficult — just to kind of get into Serena’s head space and learn a little bit about who she is... I did some research on the internet and on YouTube and found as many videos as I could of her when she was young. Right now, there are hundreds of videos of her as an adult, but finding videos of her as a kid was a little bit more difficult. I watched those videos trying to learn all the little things that she did just to make everything feel as real as possible.

SS: I started playing tennis before I booked the role, because I wanted to have tennis experience. I started training with my right hand, because I’m left-handed. So, I wanted to learn how to get comfortable with my right hand [Venus is right-handed]. And then when I heard that I booked the role, I started going right into training, and I trained while we shot the movie and up until we were done and it was the best experience of my life.

Q. Tell me about meeting Serena and how she might have helped you further with your performance.

Serena Williams
Serena Williams Image Credit: Reuters

DS: The first time I technically met Serena was when I played her for a Super Bowl commercial. It was for Super Bowl 2019, but we shot that in 2018. She was really busy and was about to go film something, so it was just kind of a “Hi,” “Hello,” thing. We didn’t really get to speak.

But when I actually got to meet her for ‘King Richard,’ she and Venus actually showed up to set and surprised us all. I was nervous, because it was like, “Serena and Venus Williams are here and those are the sisters that we are playing!” So, it was a lot for Saniyya and I. But, after we finished filming the scene they came to see, we just had this lovely conversation — they expressed to us how excited they were for us and how proud of us they were.

We see Serena and Venus as these absolute beasts who dominate the tennis court and are the best, but they really are super kind people off the court.

Q. Saniyya, was it the same for you when you met Venus?

Venus Williams Image Credit: Reuters

SS: When I met Venus, the first piece of advice she gave us was to always stay humble. And she said, “I know you guys are going to go really far, but always be happy of your achievements, because your achievement is an award. Be proud of that.”

Also, she kept telling me, “Yes, I am a grown woman, but I’m a kid. I never grew up. I can be a grown-up when I need to. I can take care of myself.” But she said, “That young girl, that’s still me. She comes out to play all of the time.” Which I love. So, she can always just be herself. And that stuck with me so much, because I can relate to that.

Q. What was your equation working with Will Smith on ‘King Richard’?

A still from King Richard
A still from King Richard Image Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

SS: Working with Will is one of the most fun experiences you’d ever go through. There were some prank wars. So, he’s always scaring us and making sure that we were always watching our backs. But in all honesty, that’s someone who’s a friend and family now, and I have so much respect and love for him, because he taught us so much.

He gave us the best advice when he told us to make sure to always be thankful to the crew. He was very big on that. He’s so amazing when he’s on-set — he makes sure everyone feels included.

Seeing Will create Richard was just extraordinary. I mean, down to the walk, to the way he talked — he felt like dad. He was dad. It was great because we created that relationship like Venus and Richard.

Will Smith in King Richard
Will Smith in King Richard Image Credit: IMDb

DS: Working with Mr Will was really a dream come true. He’s, I would say, one of the best actors of his time, but he acts like he’s just any other human being. He’s so down-to-earth and hilarious.

And one thing that I learnt about him is that it is not easy to scare him. On set, we would do prank wars — we would go up to him and try to startle him, and it never worked. We later learnt that his father was in the military and he had taught him and his siblings to not overreact or move too much when you get frightened, to stay as still and collected as you can. I had a great time working with Will.

Q. Talk to us about working with director Reinaldo Marcus Green and his vision.

DS: He’s so amazing, so talented. This film truly wouldn’t have been the same without him, and I’m so grateful to have someone like him in my life.

SS: Mr. Rei is awesome. What I loved is that he treated me like an artist. He let us explore. It was my very first time — same with Demi — that we were playing real-life people who have changed the world.

Q. What do you think people will take away from this film?

A still from King Richard
A still from King Richard Image Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

DS: I think one of the really important messages of this film is how important it is to have a really strong support system and how important it is to have a great relationship with your family. Like I said, Serena and Venus wouldn’t be who they are without their family.

SS: What I hope they take away from this is that, “Oh, wow, I can really do whatever I set my mind to do.” For me, if you love something, never let it go. Just keep going, keep flourishing.

— With inputs from Bindu Rai, Entertainment Editor

Don't miss it!

King Richard is out in UAE cinemas on November 18