Saniyya Sidney is a young star on the rise, and her strong performance in King Richard as tennis star Venus Williams proves that we’ll be seeing a lot more of her on screen for years to come. Before playing Venus, Saniyaa played Denzel Washington‘s daughter in the film adaptation of Fences. In King Richard, she more than holds her own opposite Will Smith who plays Richard Williams, the father who molded two of the most renowned tennis stars we’ve ever seen.
The film focuses on the Williams family before either sister reached their iconic status. Instead of a paint by numbers biopic, King Richard delves into the younger years of both athletes, and the father determined to give his children the tools they needed to achieve greatness. For Saniyya, it was an opportunity unlike any other. “Getting a chance to step into my childhood hero’s shoes was so exciting. I couldn’t wait for the world to see her story, not just as this amazing, beautiful person, but for the young girl that she was.”
Awards Radar spoke with Saniyya Sidney about stepping into Venus Williams’ shoes and her time on set with Will Smith.
Niki Cruz: You worked with so many prolific directors, from Denzel Washington to Theodore Melfi and now Reinaldo Marcus Green. That’s a pretty stacked list right there.
Saniyya Sidney: It feels amazing. I’m just so blessed to have the opportunity to work with so many amazing people, and like you said with Mr. Rei. Even when I was 10-years-old, working with Mr. Denzel Washington — it’s different when an actor directs you. And with Mr. Rei, I learned so much from him—it was incredible. He just did such an amazing job, and we all worked as a team.
NC: What did you learn from him? I spoke with Jon Bernthal earlier, and he mentioned the special environment he created.
SS: Oh yes, what I loved is that on set, we were the Williams family, but off set, we became the Team Richard — we were with each other for such a long time, we became so close. With Mr. Rei, he let us go there. Mr. Will [Smith] became Richard, and I became Venus [Williams]. He just kept the cameras rolling, so whatever happened, happened, and it kept those moments authentic. We captured something so natural that, at times, we didn’t even know the camera was rolling.
NC: You had the unique experience of playing a real person at a specific time in their life before they were an icon — before the grand slams and Wimbledon. I’m sure that didn’t take the pressure off, but how was that experience?
SS: It was a beautiful experience. Her family is beautiful, and Richard was so dedicated to the girls. My favorite part of the story is how important their dream was to Richard and how hard he pushed for his girls. Getting to call Venus a friend now is kind of surreal! [Laughs] but I’m so blessed that I get to know her and her beautiful family now.
NC: Is the relationship you have with Venus a mentor/mentee dynamic? Did she give you advice?
SS: Oh yeah, definitely. What I love about Venus is that she’s fun and has a bubbly personality, but she also has this quiet confidence. She told me to know who I am, stand my ground, and keep my head up high. She wants every young girl to know they can do whatever they set their mind to do. She also taught me to have fun because she finds the fun in everything.
NC: That’s amazing! And I’m sure getting to establish that kind of relationship help in getting to know what those early childhood years were like.
SS: Definitely, and her sisters were there every day, so there were things that if Venus couldn’t describe herself, Isha and Lyndrea would describe.
NC: I know you all had stayed in character while on set. What was that like every day staying that focused despite so much fun on set?
SS: What I loved so much is that Mr. Will was Richard Williams, so when I’d be at practice, he was really pushing me, and I was pushing myself to the limit that I didn’t know I was capable of. Each take I was more confident and I felt more and more like Venus. And with Jon [Bernthal], I got to have the opportunity to talk to the real Rick Macci, and to talk to Mr. Rick and then go back and think about how Jon was on set, I was like, “Wow, it is SO uncanny!”
NC: I imagine it might be intimidating forming a close bond with someone who is playing your sister, but Jon had said the two of you walked to and from set in sync. How did you create that bond?
SS: We got close naturally in general. I’m the youngest in my family and I had to become a big sister…when we met Venus and Serena, we saw how similar our bond was to them. I love Demi [Singleton] so much. She’s so talented, and I’m so proud of her. I always will be.
NC: As far as the sport itself, the physical endurance it takes to be able to train looks intense.
SS: Oh man, I had so much fun. I fell in love with the sport. Tennis is such an amazing sport, and I totally understand why Venus has such a love for it, but it was something I worked very hard on. I had an amazing coach. I trained two to three hours a day from Monday through Friday, and I felt like a pro after a while [Laughs]. I’m just so proud of the evolution of my tennis alone. That’s what really helped me become Venus, getting to know her serve. I had the eye of the tiger like her.
NC: You mentioned Will, and like Denzel, he has such a strong presence on screen. They’re both natural leaders. How was it taking that note from Will and being his daughter?
SS: For Will, he loved having five daughters. He said, “I love having five daughters because I’m just used to Willow.” He told us, “You all have such a beautiful energy that lights up the day.” He would just compliment us, which meant so much to us, but watching him become Richard was incredible because he pushed himself so hard. He’s such a real artist, and it inspired me every day to be better than yesterday.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]