The first time Saniyya Sidney met Venus Williams, whom she portrays in the new movie “King Richard,” it was completely by surprise.
Sidney and costar Demi Singleton, who plays Serena Williams, and Will Smith, who is their father Richard, were on set one day when the Williams sisters stopped by, about a month into shooting.
“I was quite nervous at first because I didn’t know what to expect. But they’re a beautiful family and they’re the funniest people ever,” Sidney says. “They would tell us dating advice as if we were really them. They were like ‘when you get this age, don’t date this guy.’”
Sidney is just 15 years old, and is the breakout star of the Oscar-bait film, which tells the true story of the Williams sisters’ rise into tennis. The Los Angeles native had never played tennis prior to landing the role but after weeks of training — and getting to embody one of the greatest tennis players of all time — she’s now hooked. And though a fan of Venus and Serena before, she’s somewhat of a superfan these days.
“I grew up with Venus and Serena. I’ve been inspired by them since I was little,” she says. “They changed the game in general. Not just in tennis, but literally they opened doors for young girls like me. And also they were making fashion trends that not a lot of people saw at that time, like the beaded look. And things they would wear on court, it wasn’t just your typical polo, cute shirt and cute tennis skirt. They would come out in a jean skirt, or something with jewels on it. Something that made them stand out, but it was never to change anything at all. It was just like, ‘this is who we are.’ That’s something that stood out to me so much. They were making a difference. And I wanted to, too.”
Sidney has been acting since around age five, after her toddler self told her mother that she was interested in performing.
“She was just like, ‘no, you’re not going to act.’ She was like, ‘it will change in a couple weeks,’” Sidney says. As she grew up she would memorize episodes of “Grey’s Anatomy” with such precision that her mom started to think maybe her daughter was onto something.
“So then I got put into acting classes, and it kind of just started from there,” she says.
Sidney was 13 years old when shooting “King Richard” (her costar, Demi Singleton, was 12). It’s a big story and big characters to take on for such young actresses, but Sidney says the two of them felt more excitement than pressure.
“I mean, we’re both so blessed that we got to even tell the story. But at the same time, I think that’s the coolest part of our job, is that we get to step into things that you wouldn’t see a lot of 12-, 13-year-olds doing. So it’s just a blessing to us,” Sidney says. “I think the pressure was just making sure we got the story correct. We wanted Venus and Serena, the whole family, to watch it and see themselves. That was the most important thing out of all of it.”
Following up her performance as Venus she takes on another real-life figure, Sasha Obama, in the upcoming series “The First Lady” (Viola Davis plays Michelle Obama and Lexi Underwood plays Malia). She dove into research about life in the White House, and despite growing up with Obama as president for half her life, she didn’t know much about the family dynamics behind the scenes.
“Something that I loved about President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama is that for Malia and Sasha, they made sure they had a childhood. Even though they lived in the White House and everything, it was very much away from the cameras, and they just were themselves. So that was the biggest thing that I loved. And you’ll see it in the show,” Sidney says. “And they’re very smart and intelligent girls and I think it’s going to be a beautiful story.”
She’s yet to meet the Obamas, but word through the grapevine is that the former first family is aware of who she is, which is more than enough for her.
“Ms. Michelle and Ms. Viola, they talked on the phone quite a bit, so they know of us,” Sidney says.
Both Venus and Sasha are people who are quite known in the public eye, but in private are actually rather shy, Sidney says, something that interested her.
“For Venus, she was really shy when she was little, but as she grew more into a young woman, it was just that confidence to her; she knew of herself. So she just walked with her head high. But for Sasha she was hiding into her mom, and just a little girl,” Sidney says. “I’m different ages in each episode [of ‘The First Lady’], and they are different years so you see the evolution of who she was, too. I mean, she goes from a shy little girl to a teenager. That’s how it was for Lexi Underwood and I. We were teenagers toward the end.”
And while being first daughters — and tennis stars — was all research, being a teenager is one thing Sidney knows well.