Will Smith and Aunjanue Ellis (‘King Richard’) accept Performers of the Year awards from the Santa Barbara International Film Festival
Will Smith and Aunjanue Ellis, stars of the Oscar-nominated film King Richard, were honored last night with the Performers of the Year Award at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Smith and Ellis, each also individually nominated for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress, sat down with Scott Feinberg of The Hollywood Reporter for a lively and in-depth discussion of their careers so far, culminating in the presentation of their awards by their King Richard director, Reinaldo Marcus Green. The packed house at the Arlington Theater loved every minute of it, a reflection of their love of not only this popular film, but of these two veteran actors, who graciously returned the adoration in kind.
As Feinberg started the discussion, he indicated he would be walking through each actor’s filmography and Smith interrupted by saying, “just stay out of Wild Wild West,” jokingly referring to his 1999 big budget bomb (rated 16% on Rotten Tomatoes). Smith was loose and jovial the entire evening, cracking jokes and snapping off one-liners with ease. As for Ellis, she was much more low-key, but she was clearly at ease with Smith, their chemistry as evident in person as it is in the film, where they play husband and wife Richard and Oracene “Brandy” Williams, parents to tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams.
While Ellis may not be a household name (yet), Feinberg was quick to point out how many films Ellis has been in where she may have not played a lead, but her impact was no less significant. Clips were played of some of her most memorable performances, including Men of Honor (2000), Ray (2004), The Help (2011) and the scene-stealing moment in If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), about which she noted, “I liked that character so much because she was so unlikeable.” She said it was liberating and fun to play a terrible person.
A clip was also played of the 2019 television miniseries When They See Us, directed by Ava Duvarnay, which was about the wrongful conviction of the Central Park 5. About Duvarnay, Ellis said, “She is a social justice warrior disguised as a director.”
As for Smith, he admitted that, at the age of 21, “I wanted to be the biggest movie star in the world.” So, in order to make that dream happen, he fully committed himself to figuring out how to make that happen. He was already successful as a rapper and a television star, but making the jump to movies would take careful calculation. He and his manager watched the top ten box office champions of all time, to see if they could see what they all had in common. They found out, as Smith tallied off, “10 out of the 10 had special effects. 9 of the 10 had special effects with creatures. And 8 out of 10 had special effects with creatures and a love story.” Smith said his favorite comedian was Eddie Murphy and his favorite movie was Star Wars, so he told his agent, “I want to be Eddie Murphy in Star Wars.” So he set off to look for a script that would have all three of those critical elements for box office success which would also make him Eddie Murphy in Star Wars, which led him to Independence Day, Roland Emmerich’s 1996 box office smash, followed by 1997’s Men in Black, two worldwide blockbusters which set Smith on the path to superstardom.
Feinberg noted that, after that, Smith proceeded to go on a run of eight consecutive films that grossed 100 million dollars, a mind-bending statistic. “I was on a little bit of a run, there, Scott,” Smith wryly commented. “It was not planned. That was the universe at work. But I will say, I was ready.” Smith said he put all of himself into preparing for stardom, including not drinking, working out, preparing as if he were an athlete, so his body would be ready when he was called on to deliver.
But, long before Will Smith became movie star Will Smith, he starred in Six Degrees of Separation (1993), an independent film for which Smith received critical raves for his dramatic acting. It planted the seed that would germinate later in his career to balance the big budget blockbusters with thoughtful dramatic roles like Ali (2001), The Pursuit of Happyness (2006), and Concussion (2015), two of which garnered Smith Oscar nominations for Best Actor.
When Ellis mentioned that, at the beginning of her career, the first play she ever saw was Fences, starring Courtney B. Vance, Smith exuberantly noted that he had also seen Vance on stage, in the first play he had ever seen, which was Six Degrees of Separation. Ellis said she felt her career had come full circle when she found herself acting opposite Vance years later in the miniseries Lovecraft Country.
Ellis’s career trajectory was quite different than Smith’s, as she noted that, in the beginning of her career, she was struggling so much to find work that she was in a movie that literally grossed $400 total. She thought about quitting, “I didn’t have the luxury to stick it out. People counted on me to bring in the funds.” Smith agreed, “I have some of those people, too, and they are hungry. They look at you as food.”
But Ellis stuck it out, saying that, every once in a while, she would land a part that would keep her going and keep her passionate. She said she had made peace with the fact that she would be a journeyman actor, never getting the lead, but as long as she was having fun and working with who she wanted to work with, she was happy.
Feinberg was quick to note that all of Smith’s critically lauded dramatic performances are in biopics, playing people who were still alive at the time the film was made, including King Richard. When asked if that was a coincidence, Smith confessed that, having started out as a rapper and a comedian, he found drama to be a bigger challenge, so he found it helpful to have a model for the dramatic roles. “I’m much more comfortable as an actor when I have a model.” He finds it’s easier to find the character when he can look at the way they talk, the way they walk. “I can mimic well,” he admits. “The biopic is a comfortable space for me.”
Reflecting on their mutual experience making King Richard, Smith said, “From the first page, I knew it had the potential for magic.” As for Ellis, she gushed, “I am a humble actress and beneficiary of this magic convergence of artists and ideas.” Noting Smith as a producer of King Richard, Ellis said directly to him, “I’m grateful to you.” After a clip from King Richard played and the lights went up again in the theater, Smith said, “Aunjenue just told me that’s the first time she’s ever seen that scene.” When she confirmed she hasn’t seen any of King Richard, Smith teased, “You should see some of your movies, they’re fantastic!”
Ellis did note one disappointment with the process of making King Richard. While she was reading the script, she found herself recoiling a bit whenever her character referred to herself as a coach. Ellis didn’t believe that the Williams’ sisters’ mother could be their coach, but, when she learned about the family’s story, she found out that Orecene was indeed their coach, and largely responsible for their success, which made Ellis feel ashamed, but it also made her realize even more than ever how she had unconsciously been made to think certain ways about the roles of women. “The story of women is often told by men.” Ellis never got to meet Orecene, but she had made many recordings for Ellis to model from. The only request Orecene Williams made to Smith as the producer was, “Just don’t make me no poop butt.”
As for Smith’s portrayal of Richard Williams, which is the odds-on favorite to finally win Smith an Oscar later this month, Smith confesses the way into the character for him were Williams’ short shorts and tall socks. Of the entire production and subsequent critical reception, Smith says that “lightning struck,” and “everything went well.” Smith admitted that success “is part science, mostly art, and a little bit of luck.” He also added, with a smile, “This is not me being humble, because I don’t struggle with that.”
Smith said he feels that people connect with the story of King Richard because, “we all have dreams we are scared to say out loud.” He added, “I never thought I’d make a movie as good as The Pursuit of Happyness, and then I saw King Richard.”
King Richard director Reinaldo Marcus Green closed out the evening by presenting the Performers of the Year Awards to Smith and Ellis, as the three embraced, much to the delight of the audience.
While the festival is always a star-studded affair and a top stop as we head into awards season, its most important aspect is its year-round contribution to the Santa Barbara community, as well as its support for the film industry at large. The funds raised through the festival and affiliated events are vital to the community, providing direct support for SBIFF’s plethora of free programs that serve over 14,000 people annually and reach some of the most vulnerable members of society – including at-risk and underserved youth, low-income families and their children, cancer patients, and transit-dependent senior citizens. SBIFF screens Academy fare in the Arthouse theater throughout the year, even throughout the pandemic, to encourage people to come back to the theater in a safe way.
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