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What these young actors picked up from playing tennis superstars Venus and Serena

Actresses Demi Singleton and Saniyya Sidney who star as sisters Serena and Venus Williams in "King Richard."
Actresses Demi Singleton and Saniyya Sidney star as sisters Serena and Venus Williams in “King Richard.”
(Adam Amengual/For The Times)

They are fresh faces, but they aren’t new to the game. Saniyya Sidney, who plays young tennis superstar Venus Williams in the new release “King Richard,” booked her first job when she was 8, in the film “Fences.” Demi Singleton, who plays younger sister Serena, landed her first role in the Broadway musical “School of Rock The Musical” when she was 10. “King Richard” is her first film. The girls are all of 14 years old now.

When we first see the little Williams sisters onscreen, they aren’t new to the game either. Their father, the Richard of the title (played by Will Smith), has been nurturing their skills from a playbook he wrote before they were born.

“King Richard” examines his relentless devotion to his children’s training and upbringing, along with their sisters Yetunde, Lyndrea and Isha. And even though we know the outcome of all that effort — both the Williams sisters have frequently been ranked No. 1, Serena for more than 300 weeks, and both have multiple singles titles — the film manages to ratchet up the tension as Richard shepherds his children from the broken courts of Compton to the world stage.

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Key to that story, of course, are the girls in question. Sidney plays Venus from 10 to 14, and Singleton plays Serena from 8 to 13. Onscreen they possess the shy, giggly charm of sisters and best friends, who just happen to have astounding talent. Speaking via Zoom, they aren’t so different.

Demi Singleton, left, as Serena Williams and Saniyya Sidney as Venus Williams on the tennis court in "King Richard."
Demi Singleton, left, as Serena Williams and Saniyya Sidney as Venus Williams in “King Richard.”
(Warner Bros. Pictures)

As soon as they were cast, Sidney says, “One of the first things Mister Rei [director Reinaldo Marcus Green] told me to do was to reach out to Demi and immediately start talking to her,” to establish their rapport. The youngest in her family, Sidney had to learn to behave like the older sister; Singleton had the opposite challenge. “It was really cool to be the baby on set,” she says.

Preparing for the film, Sidney picked up a racket for the first time, and learned how to play right-handed, like Venus, even though she’s a lefty herself. Singleton also started practicing and was surprised by the effort involved. “All I saw were a bunch of athletes running around with a racket, hitting a ball — how hard can it be?” she recalls. “It was really hard!”

They both dove into online research and talked with Venus and Serena’s sisters Isha and Lyndrea Price about what the tennis stars were like as girls. “Venus was a free spirit, fun and full of energy,” Sidney says. “She’s the kind of person who would make sure everybody was OK before she checked on herself, which I think is so lovely about her.” The actress connected to her character’s warmth and watchfulness, “but not to the sports aspect. I’m not athletic.”

Singleton could relate to Serena’s ambition. “I’ve always had that strong passion for entertaining, in the same way that Serena has always had the strong passion for her sport. So in that way we are really similar. As well as the fact that I’m not afraid to speak my mind, at least around the people I’m really close to.” Sidney laughs in confirmation.

Actors Demi Singleton and Saniyya Sidney pose together.
Actors Demi Singleton and Saniyya Sidney bonded with each other playing sisters in “King Richard.”
(Adam Amengual/For The Times)

They learned from coaches on set as well as off. Tony Goldwyn plays Paul Cohen, Venus’ first coach. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m literally playing with the president of “Scandal!”’” Sidney says. “He was always like, ‘Let’s try something new.’ He pushed me so hard, like Paul did with Venus.”

Jon Bernthal plays Rick Macci, who coached both girls for years. “We loved him so much. He was so goofy,” Sidney says. “He would bring his dogs Bam Bam and Rocky. He never wanted us to stand still and cool off, he wanted us to stay warmed up, because once we got tired, we wouldn’t want to do tennis.” Adds Singleton, “We miss Bam Bam!”

But the biggest influence was King Richard himself. “It was Mister Will’s mission to make sure we were all close,” Sidney says. “He’d make sure we had ice cream, or we were dancing or singing.” Smith, also an executive producer on the film, always stayed in character on set. “Sometimes we would just stare at him in awe,” Singleton says.

Smith gave them career advice similar to Richard’s lessons to his daughters: Stay humble, sweet and treat everyone with respect. He also told them to stay away from boys. “He was telling us, ‘You do not need to go on a date. I will find you a nerd, and you will have a date, and I will make sure that he’s nice to you,’” says Sidney. The only area he didn’t give advice was about tennis. “He was learning too. When the cameras weren’t rolling, he’d practice his serve.”

Demi Singleton, left, Saniyya Sidney and Will Smith as tennis champs and father in "King Richard."
Demi Singleton, left, as Serena Williams, Saniyya Sidney as Venus Williams and Will Smith as their father and coach Richard Williams on a Compton tennis court in “King Richard.”
(Chiabella James/Warner Bros.)

Near the end of the shoot, Serena and Venus, executive producers on the film, visited the set. When the tennis greats told the girls they were proud of the work they were doing, “I was just floating above the Earth,” Singleton says. “The kind words that they told us meant everything to me, considering we were literally being them.”

Sidney adds that playing Venus changed her. “I feel more sure of myself, because Venus has this quiet confidence about her. She doesn’t have to let everyone in the room know that she’s a champion, she’ll go on the court and show you. I’m like, OK, whatever movie set I set foot on, I’m going to go out there and do my best, and know myself, instead of having to prove myself.”


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