Members of the media may have misunderstood Richard Williams as he propelled Venus and Serena Williams to superstar status on the tennis court in the early ’90s. But audiences who see King Richard will be assured that no matter what goals the headstrong patriarch set for his daughters, the highest priority for him was their protection.
It’s that understanding that guided Demi Singleton as she took on the role of Serena in the movie, which premieres November 19. “It was really important that I told her story properly, in the best way I possibly could—because I know that this family’s story has been told so many times by so many different people, and it hasn’t always been the truth,” the 14-year-old actress says.
Singleton stars alongside Saniyya Sidney, 15, who portrays a young Venus in the years before she turned pro at age 14 in 1994. Singleton admits to feeling “a bit of pressure” in stepping into the shoes of the athlete regarded as the greatest of all time. However, like the famous tennis duo, she and Sidney know about being prepared. Sidney started taking tennis lessons six months before she even auditioned for her part. “I don’t really play sports, but I wanted to be able to say, ‘I can play tennis,’” she explains. And Singleton, who has been acting since the age of 3 and got her start in School of Rock: The Musical and The Lion King on Broadway, took a liking to the sport during two-hour practices daily while filming. “I think it’s a hobby I might keep up,” she says.
While the teens take their roles very seriously, they had fun on set too—particularly while working alongside Will Smith, who stars as the titular character. Though Sidney has shared the screen with a number of acclaimed actors, from Angela Bassett in American Horror Story to Viola Davis and Denzel Washington in Fences, she admits that getting to act with the box-office giant was a big deal. “I was still kind of starstruck,” she says. “I was like, Oh my gosh, I’m working with the Fresh Prince.”
The young actresses were also treated to a surprise visit from the Williams sisters, who offered advice about boys and dating when they showed up to set one day. “It was the best experience,” Sidney says. “They’re both so funny. And it became so important to us to make sure we told their story correctly and let the world know exactly what they went through—and how positive they stayed through so much.”
As Sidney expresses gratitude for the way the Williams sisters opened doors and created opportunities for girls like her, Singleton reflects on her desire to be a gateway for others. “The world hasn’t always been kind to young Black girls,” she notes. “Through this movie, I got the chance to tell a story about a bunch of young Black girls, for a bunch of other Black girls-—to inspire other young people that look like me.”
This article appears in the November/December issue of ESSENCE magazine on newsstands December 14.