Follow us wherever you get your podcasts:
Though she’s had a long career, Aunjanue Ellis has only recently broken through to widespread acclaim. Now, she is nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in “King Richard” as Oracene Price, the mother of tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams. In this “The Envelope” podcast interview, she talks about fighting for her character to receive her due as a coach of the Williams sisters, the perks of being nominated for an Oscar, and her approach to playing nonfictional characters.
Mark Olsen: Hello. I’m Mark Olsen.
Yvonne Villarreal: And I’m Yvonne Villarreal. You’re listening to “The Envelope,” the L.A. Times podcast where we go behind the scenes with your favorite stars from TV and film.
Olsen: So Yvonne, as you know, Academy Award nominations have been out for a couple of weeks now, and I don’t think anyone was shocked to see that “King Richard,” which tracks the rise of tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams, received several Oscar nods. The film, which was directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, was nominated for best picture, best actor for Will Smith, best original screenplay for Zach Baylin, best film editing, best original song and best supporting actress for today’s guest, Aunjanue Ellis.
[Clip from “King Richard”: ORACENE: You’ve done your job, and whether you want to see it or not, I’ve done mine, but this is Venus’s life. You got to let her decide, is if you don’t trust her to do that, she’s going to be the one leaving you.]
Olsen: Ellis plays Oracene Price, Venus and Serena’s mother. As the title suggests, the film is really focused on Richard Williams’ perspective while Oracene in the film and in real life is kind of an unsung hero. But in Aunjanue’s performance, moments like this one, reveal her influence,
[Clip from “King Richard”: ORACENE: I’m working two shifts so I can put food on your table. That open stance? You got that from me. RICHARD: Oh, you did that. Oh, OK. ORACANE: And I fixed Serena’s serve because you messed that up. RICHARD: Oh you did what? ORACENE: Yes, I fixed that toss because you messed it up. I’m here. I’ve been here dreaming and believing just like you. You just don’t want to see me.]
Olsen: For many people, this film will be the first time they learn about Oracene. And in our conversation, Aunjanue told me that she is no stranger to waiting for recognition herself.
Olsen: I’ve heard you refer to this as the biggest roll of your career and that, you know, you’ve had a very long career.
Olsen: But it’s only in the last handful of years that you’ve been seeing more widespread acclaim for “When They See Us” and “Lovecraft Country” and now with the nomination for “King Richard.” When you took the role for “King Richard,” were you thinking that, like, this would be the role that would lead to this kind of attention and acclaim?
Ellis: Oh, my God. No, not at all. Not at all. I mean, I just wanted to be in the movie so badly, you know, and I had to fight for it. And you know, that’s OK. That’s what I do. I fight for roles. And then we started shooting it, and every day I said, “OK, this is too good to be true, so something bad is going to happen.” And then the pandemic happened. And I said, “See? See?” And I said, “We’ll never finish the movie.” Every week I was like,” This movie is going to shut down. We’re never going to finish it. We’re never going to finish it.” But then, you know, we finished it. We finished it. That, to me, was a miracle, just finishing the movie. So all of this just feels like, you know, someone just gave me a piece of pie that I did not expect.
Olsen: What was it like working with Will Smith? I would imagine both as a producer and an actor, it must have been exciting to see him up close like that.
Ellis: It was. It was exciting, and exciting for a lot of reasons, you know, when I walked into the first day of rehearsal, there were Post-it index cards on the window of his office, and these Post-its were every note, every moment, every beat in the entire film. And it was just remarkable to see his work ethic in that way, to see how he worked, how seriously he took playing this character, to see how seriously he took telling the story.
Olsen: Not a lot of people outside the world of tennis have really known who Oracene is. She kind of existed in the shadow of Richard Williams, King Richard of the title, Venus and Serena’s father. How would you kind of describe Oracene‘s character and her role in the story of “King Richard”?
Ellis When I started doing my research to prepare for the audition and she was described as a coach, I really, really had a very, very cynical reaction to that. I thought that that was an overreach on her part. Yes, you are a doting, devoted mother, but that doesn’t make you a coach. And then when I found out the scope, how she figured into not just the personal lives of her daughters as this incredible mother, but how she taught them how to play: People don’t know that. Mr. Williams is a P.T. Barnum of the situation, right? He’s a salesman. But Miss Price is the one who’s on the court teaching them how to play, and particularly Serena. And she taught herself how to play so she could teach her girls how to play. But here’s the thing, she was doing this and being all the things that mothers are expected to be in the home. You know, she was their seamstress, she was their cook, she cleans. She had other jobs. She was doing all of this, you know, and being their coach, you know, I mean, the dexterity that mothers have that they should get applause at the end of the day for making happen, but they don’t, you know? So yeah, yeah, it’s incredible.
Olsen: Once you had the role, how did you kind of go about preparing in, like, a deeper way because I understand that you did not meet her — like you didn’t personally talk to her in preparing to shoot?
Ellis: No, I didn’t. I didn’t get a chance to. But what I had was these recordings that Will and Rei and [screenwriter] Zach [Baylin] had done with her. And I just listened to those recordings over and over and over again. They were my audiobook, you know? And the great thing about that is that I didn’t have to learn anything about her second-hand. Because with these recordings, she just talked about her life, you know? And I think if I had asked the questions, I would have been editing. It would have been in service of: How do I play you?
Olsen: I’ve heard you talk about, for you, there’s a distinction between playing a fictional character, even based on a real person, and doing sort of a documentary reenactment of that person. And it’s something I’ve never really heard actors talk about before. For you, what is that distinction like? What’s the difference between those two approaches?
Ellis: It’s why people pay me. You know what I mean? There’s an approach to doing this kind of documentary-style filmmaking, you know, and it can be reenactments, which would involve someone saying, “Oh, she doesn’t sound like Oracene Price.” Do you know what I mean? Maybe, “She doesn’t look like Oracene Price.” You know? But I have to let all that go and and try to find something that tells the truth of her without me trying to re-create that. You have to pick and choose what you dramatize.
Olsen: I know this isn’t your first time playing a real person I’m thinking of when you played Sharonne Salaam and the mother of one of the Exonerated Five in “When They See Us.” Did you approach that part in the same way, like were they kind of the same?
Ellis: That was very different because Miss Salaam, I did talk to Miss Salaam and Miss Salaam was sometimes on set. The thing about Miss Salaam is that this woman’s child was stolen from her home by the New York justice system. So, you know, in that situation for Ava DuVernay and the rest of us who were involved in this. It was an act of restorative justice. And because of that, there’s a certain kind of demand on us. And it reopened that discussion that needed to happen about the injustice that happened to those young men. So it was a different kind of calculation. Where in Miss Oracene there was some liberty that I took there. That’s the character work that comes in. You know, how does someone, how does anyone, who has to share the space of someone like Richard Williams? How do they navigate that space? How do they do that? And I made sure also that I went to a church service, a worship service of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, because, at least at the time, Miss Oracene was a devout Jehovah’s Witness, you know, and doing that kind of work is really, really important.
Olsen: And as you mentioned, Oracene Price was self-taught as a tennis player and a coach. And I know you had to take some lessons to prepare for the role. And I’m just wondering, even just a little bit of training that you did, what kind of insight did it give you into what Oracene went through and how hard it must have been for her not only to teach yourself how to play, but to teach yourself how to be a coach. Like, what did you feel like you learned about her just through your own experiences playing tennis?
Ellis: Well, one of the things is that, you know, she was teaching herself how to play tennis, so that showed how seriously she took this dream. Mr. Williams was the architect of the dream, but Miss Oracene saw that, OK, we’re going to try to make this dream become real. We have to put in the work to do that, and that’s what she does. And that’s what she did. And the thing about it is she shared that space with him equally and with as much power. Oh, my God. When I think about that, I get so excited about that as an actor. But then I get so excited about that in knowing that that woman exists. You know what I mean? That, OK, you think you know the character of Richard Williams, the man Richard Williams, you know? Guess what? His wife was amazing as well. You know, and spectacular as well. But in a completely different way.
Olsen: You mentioned the kind of unsung nature of Oracene’s work, and there’s a scene where the girls’ coach is confronting Richard about Richard’s decision to pull the girls from juniors.
[Clip from “King Richard”: COACH: Venus is 63-0? OK, you pull her out of juniors. Now you’re going to ruin it, those girls need to play matches or they’re going to die on the vine. RICHARD: Yeah, I don’t need to hear about the risks, but this this junior circuit is worse than the ghetto. Kids out there cracking up, burning out. Their parents ought to be shot. COACH: What are you talking about? Your daughters are fine. RICHARD: Oh yeah, they fine now.]
Olsen: And Oracene waits until they’re alone. And then she expresses her sort of displeasure with Richard.
[Clip from “King Richard”: ORACENE: So we’re a team. RICHARD: Family is the best kind of team there is. ORACENE: You don’t think that that was a decision that you should have discussed with me. Discussed with Venus. Richard, my faith dictates that I stand by your side, but don’t mistake my silence for agreement. You do that again and I won’t be quiet. RICHARD: Don’t do that.]
Olsen: Can you talk about how you felt about that, that tension between her wanting advocacy and agency in working with the girls, but also in part because of her faith, feeling that she had to follow Richard’s lead?
Ellis: Yeah, you know, I think that Ms. Oracene embodied this kind of womanhood that gets discarded and looked over because it is a womanhood that is defined by a relationship with God that is defined by faith and that informs her marriage. It orders the kind of parent she is. It orders how she moves around in the world. Her marriage was in service to something bigger. Her marriage was in service to her faith and as who she was, and that’s what separated her. And so for her, her religion, her faith in God dictates that he, in the presence of other people, take the lead. And that’s what she was referring to. But after that is over, she tells them how she feels.
[Clip from “King Richard”: ORACENE: You don’t make a fool out of me. RICHARD: Who made a fool out of you? ORACANE: You made a fool out of me. RICHARD: What are you talking about? ORACENE: Don’t make a fool out of me. RICHARD: Ain’t nobody make a fool out of you.]
Olsen: There’s another moment when a neighbor has called Child Protective Services.
[Clip from “King Richard”: RICHARD: What’s going on? Everybody, OK? ORACENE: They got a call, said there was trouble in the house and that we were being rough with the girls and they needed to look. RICHARD: A call from who? ORACENE: Not at liberty to say.]
Olsen: And Richard sort of deals with the police and the officials that are there. But then later Oracene confronts the neighbor and we see like a side of her that we’ve really not seen before.
[Clip from “King Richard”: ORACENE: Hey, Betty. BETTY: Oracene. ORACENE: I’ve never been over here before. BETTY: You haven’t. ORACENE: That’s a shame. BETTY: It is. ORACENE: I know you know how hard it is raising a daughter. I have five of them. Five. Don’t make me come back over here again.]
Ellis: Yeah that was a scene we worked on, you know, bit more because we wanted the sourcing to have more presence in the scene. And you know, here’s the thing: That scene was stripped down. I don’t say a whole lot to her. You know, I don’t say a whole lot to her. I don’t read her the riot act. I don’t curse her out. Well, you know, I just say a couple of things to her. It’s not what I would have done at all. You know, because I was making all these suggestions of all the things I would have said and wanted to say to that woman in that situation. And Ray very brilliantly said, “No, she doesn’t need to say that. She doesn’t need to say that.” So we we just stripped it down, stripped it down, stripped it down, stripped it down, and I loved the simplicity of it, and I wanted Miss Oracene to have a chance to have her say, and Zach Baylin wrote something that did that.
Olsen: I’ve heard you say as well that you felt like you had to sort of stick up for Oracene at times and that — I don’t know, if you in fact got her sort of more scenes or if there were moments that you feel came about because of the conversations you were having. Because I know there’s been some criticism of the movie, you know, you told the Williams sisters’ story through the perspective of their father. But then when is someone going to tell the story of Richard and Oracene and have it be from the perspective of the parents?
Ellis: Yeah, you know, I’ve said this a lot. There are going to be more stories. They’re going to be told about Venus and Serena because they’re just fascinating figures. They’re these two sisters who were incredible tennis players, incredible sports figures, you know? But how many times are we going to have a story where it focuses on their mother? And I wanted us to go even further because I felt like people don’t know who she is. Honestly, you know, I feel every time someone is talking to me, every time I get a nomination or something like that, I feel like it’s Miss Oracene’s nomination. People are hearing her name in a way that they have not heard it before, and she deserves that. She’s been clapping for her daughters her entire life. I’m excited about the fact that somebody is clapping for her now. You know she deserves that. When is she going to get that chance again? You know, the thing is, she didn’t care. She’s fine. She’s contented. You know, it is just not important to her. But it was important to me, you know, and I also felt like there’s so many Miss Orcenes in the world, you know, who were all in the stands cheering on. And no one knows the full measure of who they are and what they are and how they figure into the world that we live in. And I just felt that this was my shot to speak for Miss Oracene and to speak for those other women like her.
Olsen: I know that you sort of started your own career in New York after you went to school at NYU, but then eventually you did move back to to Mississippi. And I’m just wondering for you as an actor, was that a difficult decision to to make? Like what was behind that return back home?
Ellis: No, it wasn’t difficult at all. I had a sick family member who couldn’t live alone anymore and I had to go back home, and it was the best decision I’ve ever made in my life, period. You know, for so long in my career, I put my family first before anything that had anything to do with my professional life. It determined where I lived, it determined what kind of jobs I took. And I don’t regret that. You know, I feel like when I went home, everything came into clear focus. If that makes any sense, you know, I feel like I was just flailing in New York, you know, calling myself having an acting career. And God knows what I was doing, you know, working, but I wasn’t focused on what I was doing. But then when I went back home and I was dealing with my with my loved one who was not, you know, well, everything I did was in service of, first of all, keeping her alive. So that meant that when I was auditioning for jobs, I would send so many tapes. I needed to work because I needed to keep this person alive. And then on top of that, I was in Mississippi. And so I was living and dealing with 21st century Confederates. So I was embattled every day. So everything came into laser focus. So that was it. I fought harder in everything that I did and because I had a reason to do it. I reminded myself of who I was, you know, and I had forgotten for a long time and I became a better actor. I have no doubt about it: I became a better actor because I was in the incubator of my family and it became an acting studio. You know, they were helping me with auditions and helping me, you know, and they’d be bored and like, “No, you need to do that better.” And I didn’t have that. I didn’t have that in other places, wherever I was living at the time.
Olsen: But now I can’t help but notice that the recent projects for which you’ve had such success — “When They See Us,” “Lovecraft Country” and “King Richard” — all very notably come from Black creators. And I’m wondering for you, do you see a distinction in that? Like, have you noticed a difference in the projects you’re being offered or the way you’re being treated as a performer and a professional by having there be more sort of representation behind the scenes, behind the camera, as well?
Ellis: Oh, yeah. I feel like, you know, that experience that I had with being at home and, you know, as I said, fighting Confederates every day, it changed, it designed, it defined the kind of work that I want to do, but also somehow, I don’t know, maybe the world got wind of this other life that I was living, which was pretty public. You know, I was doing stunts on red carpets to bring attention to the fact that Mississippi had the Confederate flag. And, you know, maybe that got into the air a little bit. And then these directors, people like Ava, you know, wanted to work with me
Olsen: Because I’ve heard you say that when picking roles you ask yourself the question of: Is this role in service of Black women? And that’s a question I’m assuming your white counterparts are not asking themselves. And I’m just wondering, like, when did that become a part of your process? Like, when did that question in particular become something that enters your mind when you’re making decisions about what roles to take?
Ellis: I would say, in earnest, 10 years ago when I went back home. You know, I think that actors have different, you know, they might be white but they might be incredibly driven by the climate crisis. You know, they might be white but they are, you know, they have concerns about racial injustice as well. But you know, for me, it is what I have to do, it’s what I have to do. And the reason why I say that I have to do it is because there is a concerted attack on women’s bodies, and when there’s an attack on women’s bodies, it’s magnified when it’s Black women’s bodies. When I say attack, I mean, what’s happening with reproductive rights in, particularly in the South, which is where I’m from. There’s an attack on voting rights. There’s an attack on education being used as a tool to tell young people who we are in this country, you know, there’s a concerted attack on that. So I feel I know that that is my job. It is my job to use cinema, to use film and television for the purpose of doing the work that the rest of the world may not want to do. And when you have great collaborators like Ava, like, you know, other people that I’ve worked with, it makes what I do not in vain, not vanity, you know? And that’s why I can get up and do it.
Olsen: It’s funny to think as we’re talking it’s only been a week since the Academy Award nominations came out, because you’ve also been open as you’ve been talking about “King Richard” that wanting a nomination, an Oscar nomination, that you were well aware of what that could mean for you professionally. It would get you different roles and might get you more money. I mean, and these are things that people don’t always talk about, the sort of practical realities of what that means. And I guess even in the time that the movie’s been coming out, it’s, you know, you haven’t been a nominee for that long. Do you feel like you’ve seen that change or have you already gotten some scripts or gotten in some rooms that maybe you wouldn’t have gotten in a year ago?
Ellis: Well, you know, since the movie has come out, that’s happened a little bit more than what was going on before. I think the measure of this nomination remains to be seen. But, yeah, you know, I hope so. I mean, my goal is to not work for anybody. You know, to me, I want to work for myself. So, you know, I want to activate, you know, this moment in service of that.
Olsen: The movie is just so positive, like it’s such an inspiring and uplifting story. Was that something that was important to you? I mean, so often, you know, stories of Black life, people often say, are focused on trauma and pain, and to see one here that really focuses on a family in a positive way and in a joyful way, was that important to you? Like, was the feeling of the movie something that really mattered to you?
Ellis: Yes, I feel that. You know, the Williams family, they are extraordinary, but they’re not rare. You know that they are, you know, this loving unit. I mean, it’s interesting, it’s beautiful to watch them even now and how they move around in the world. They are a loving family, you know, and I know loving families. I’m in a loving family. But, you know, we rarely see that portrayed in such an expansive way in two hours and 30 minutes on camera, you know, on screen. So, yeah, it was very important to me because it was reflective. Yeah.
Olsen: Also so often stories, sports stories that we see, you know, this depiction of this very high-pressure public life. In “King Richard,” they really both — Richard and Oracene — have this real concern for the well-being of the girls and, like, what the impact is on the girls, and that isn’t something that people were talking about at that time when they were young. And I think we see that conversation happening more now, say with gymnast Simone Biles or tennis star Naomi Osaka. Did you like that there was that message in the film about, you know, taking concern for what we’re doing to, you know, young athletes, young people, when we put them under this kind of pressure?
Ellis: Yeah, and I love the idea that this was done through their father. You know that it was their father who was insisting that they be young girls, you know, that he wasn’t this exploitative dude. You know, he wanted them to be successful tennis players, but he also wanted them to have a childhood, you know, and insisted on that. So I think, you know, there’s not enough that can be said for how he did that. And I hear of this, you know, why is it focusing on the father? But here’s the thing. That’s what he did, you know? That’s what he did, and there would be no Venus and Serena Williams as we know them. Sure, these women are spectacular women, but what we know of them as tennis players, he and Ms. Oracene, they made that happen. They made that happen. And I want us to have stories that are real and honest, true to the experience of women, but not in service of not being honest.
This episode was produced by Jazmín Aguilera and edited by Heba Elorbany. Our engineer and composer is Mike Heflin. Special thanks to Asal Ehsanipour, Shani Hilton, Clint Schaff, Tova Weinstock, Amy Wong, Chris Price, Ross May, Patricia Gardner, Geoff Berkshire, Elena Howe and Matt Brennan.