It’s not every day the average teen gets to spend Halloween weekend celebrating their birthday by promoting their buzzy film—but for Saniyya Sidney, her recent 15th birthday was one for the books. The actress had just flown down to Savannah, Georgia, for a screening of King Richard, in which she plays a young Venus Williams on the cusp of tennis superstardom; Will Smith plays her dad. “It was like the cherry on top,” she said of her birthday celebration this year over the phone.
At just 15, the actress is already used to the attention that comes along with starring in a major project—Sidney appeared in the Roots reboot as Kizzy Waller when she was just 10 years old, and soon after that she went on to star in American Horror Story: Roanoke, Fences, and Hidden Figures. Given her penchant for historical dramas and period pieces, it seemed only natural that her next big move would be to star as one of the greatest tennis players in American history. “That eye of the tiger Venus had was extraordinary to me,” Sidney said. “Getting to know her heart and that quiet confidence she had was so cool.”
Quietly confident is probably the most apt way to describe the version of Williams that Sidney embodies in the film. The biopic, which also pays special attention to Serena Williams (played by Demi Singleton) in addition to Venus’s journey to championship as a young teen, takes place mostly in the early 1990s and follows the family’s story until Venus’s 1994 debut as a professional tennis player. And in Sidney’s research for the role, she discovered the two sisters as she thought she knew them are actually quite different.
“You would think Serena was the quiet one, but it’s the total opposite,” Sidney said, adding that she’d learned the two tennis players were, in fact, not competitive with one another. “Venus is very quiet, especially when she was younger. She always made sure everybody was okay before she checked on herself, which I thought was such a sweet quality.” The actress, who also has siblings of her own, said she felt she could relate to the Williams sisters. “They are so humble and don’t really talk about themselves. But with how much they did for me and girls around the world, they opened a door and changed history for us, and I am so inspired to continue to do what they did,” she said.
Sidney had never picked up a tennis racket before she snagged the role in King Richard, but once she started training for the audition, she couldn’t stop. The most difficult bit, though, was learning how to play right-handed, like the athlete she portrays in the film. Sidney is left-handed, and had to work against her nature to play the sport. “I fell in love with tennis,” she said. “And when you understand the sport, you understand why Venus and Serena fell in love with it, too.”
The film boasts quite the A-list cast—Will Smith and Aunjanue Ellis play the parents, Jon Bernthal plays one of their coaches, even Tony Goldwyn and Dylan McDermott make appearances throughout. Sidney said she learned a multitude of lessons from the cast. “I love, love, love how big of a heart Mr. Will has,” she said of Smith. “He told us to make sure with any movie, you get to know the crew, the production assistants, everyone. Everyone is involved—it’s an ensemble. You’re not the only one making this movie. I love how he created a relationship with everyone on set so now, with every movie I do, I’m going to do what Mr. Will did.”
Up next, Sidney will portray another American icon in the making—Sasha Obama—in Showtime’s series The First Lady. The series was shot in a replica of the White House, which the actress said felt exactly like the real one. “The costumes are amazing,” Sidney promised. “O-T Fagbenle plays Barack Obama, and you guys are going to go, wow he is Barack Obama! He has the voice and mannerisms down.”
She’ll star in the series alongside Viola Davis, who plays Michelle Obama, and with whom she worked on Fences in 2016. “Getting to talk to Ms. Viola again, I hadn’t seen her since I was nine, so she was like, ‘Oh my goodness, my baby is grown!’,” Sidney said with a laugh. “We had such an amazing time and amazing conversations about ourselves and growing up in this industry as young women.”
Sidney has yet to meet the Obama family, but heard from Davis, who would have many phone calls with Michelle Obama throughout the production, that the former President and First Lady are aware of who she is, “Which I’m totally cool with!” she said. “I learned that it was very important for President Barack Obama and Mrs. Michelle Obama to make sure that Sasha and Malia had a childhood,” she added. “There wasn’t a lot of film that we could find of them because they had a private life, but I love that so much.”