Navigating a busy Saturday night at The Grove, the ultra-popular outdoor shopping mall in the heart of Los Angeles, can easily make or break any relationship. Luckily for the young stars of King Richard, Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton, it was the former.
“We’d go to The Grove every weekend,” remembers Sidney, 15, who plays tennis superstar Venus Williams in the Warner Bros. movie about the early lives of the Williams sisters (Singleton plays Serena) and the unrelenting drive and vision of their father, Richard (Will Smith).
The duo would brave the crowds for weekly dinners and trips to the movies before and during the film’s early 2020 shoot. Says Singleton, 14, “It was really important not only to us but our director, Mr. Rei [Reinaldo Marcus Green], that our chemistry was real and that our sisterhood was shown onscreen.” Even when the production had to shut down in the middle of filming due to COVID-19, the two remained in constant contact.
Sidney and Singleton talked to THR about their sisterly bond, tennis training and getting to meet Venus and Serena.
What did the audition process look like?
SANIYYA SIDNEY I started auditioning on self-tapes, and it was originally for [characters named] Sophia and Veronica. It wasn’t Venus and Serena. After a while, I kind of caught on. I think the dad’s name was Ron and they were spelling bee champions.
What was involved in the tennis training?
DEMI SINGLETON I had never played tennis before. Neither of us had played tennis before. That was a very new sport for us. Learning to play in the amount of time we had was not easy, especially playing two of the greatest athletes of all time. That made it a bit more difficult. I feel like if we were just learning to play like Saniyya and Demi, rather than Venus and Serena, it would’ve been a bit easier.
SIDNEY We had to be very specific because Venus and Serena have different styles of play. We had to mimic a lot of their hits and their serves, so that’s what we focused on most.
What was it like when you first met Will Smith?
SIDNEY I was just like, “That’s a Fresh Prince!” What I love about Mr. Will is that he makes you feel so comfortable. He’s 100 percent himself, and he trusts his artistry. Even at the chemistry read, he was still getting used to getting comfortable and trying to get into Richard’s head. So, we were all creating our characters together.
SINGLETON When I first walked in there for the chemistry read, I don’t know what I was expecting. When you think it would be these big celebrities, you think of them as being closed off, but that wasn’t the case with Mr. Will, at all. He was so kind and so welcoming and very humble.
SIDNEY Mr. Will stayed in character, but at the same time it made us stay in character. “Let’s step on set and be better than yesterday” — it was like that. He would never call us Saniyya and Demi. It was very much Venus and Serena, or Junior and Mika, their nicknames. He became our dad.
The film had to shut down in the middle of production. What did you do with that downtime?
SINGLETON We were down for quite some time. The shutdown happened in March and then we didn’t come back until October 19. I hated quarantine. I don’t like to be stuck in one place. But I feel like it gave me more time to grow with my character. It actually worked out [well], in a way, because we had filmed all the scenes where Serena and Venus were younger. When we came back it was when they were a bit older, and we had grown in that time.
SIDNEY It definitely gave me time to dive into who Venus was. There were nights when I was bored, and I literally would watch matches from 1996 to 2001.
Did you get to meet Venus and Serena during filming?
SINGLETON The first time that I technically met Serena was when I played [a younger version of her in] a Super Bowl commercial in 2019. But I didn’t really get a chance to speak with her. When they surprised us on set, that was the first time I had actually gotten to speak with them. We didn’t know what to do with ourselves; we were all over the place. I was crying in the corner. It was a hot mess. But I feel like [Saniyya and I] both realized that there was no need to worry. We see them as these amazing athletes [who] just don’t have time to play around, but outside of that, they’re just normal people.
What did you learn about yourselves from playing Venus and Serena?
SINGLETON They both have this confidence to them, and you could feel that coming off them every time they walked in a room or stepped onto a court. I feel like playing somebody who’s that confident helped me grow my confidence within myself.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.