The prolific actor who portrays Paul Cohen, the first coach Richard Williams hired to teach Venus and Serena, in the new filmKing Richard steps into the Boardroom Spotlight.
It always feels as if it’s snuck up on us. But we ought to know by now that once Halloween has come and gone and we all boot up the Google machine to figure out what the hell spatchcocking a turkey actually means, it’s inevitably that time again: Oscar season.
And the biggest buzz emanating from Hollywood this week surrounds King Richard, the Will Smith-led biopic about the man that saw superstardom in his daughters, Venus and Serena Williams, and built an utterly audacious blueprint for their success that somehow, without any precedent whatsoever, came to fruition.
And one of the foundational steps in bringing the Williams family’s dream to life? Recruiting accomplished tennis coach Paul Cohen to take their game to the next level.
As King Richard hits theaters and HBO Max Friday, Boardroom caught up with actor Tony Goldwyn (Scandal, Tarzan, The Last Samurai), who portrays Cohen, to get an inside look at the film, his firsthand account of Will Smith’s unmistakable aura on set, and what surprised him most in learning more about the incredible Williams family story.
SAM DUNN: How does your character, Paul Cohen, enter this story?
TONY GOLDWNY: Paul Cohen was the first professional coach that Richard Williams brought Venus and Serena to when he’d taken them as far as he could when they were little girls. He researched the top coaches in Southern California and Paul was coaching [John] McEnroe and Pete Sampras. We know a lot of other coaches just sort of laughed Richard off; Paul agreed to take them on — specifically Venus. He really focused on Venus because Serena was a little younger.
SD: If I had to guess, I’d assume it was an easy sell?
TG: I think that Paul appreciated a few things. I mean, the sheer athleticism of these two young girls and the distance Richard had brought them teaching his kids by himself, that was super impressive. Seeing the relationship that this father had with these girls and the determination that he had, bringing these kids to train in Compton on a public tennis court and bringing them into an all-white sport, basically, I think Paul was impressed and intrigued by this family as much as anything else.
SD: How does your preparation differ for a real-life person versus a fictional character?
TG: If you approach it a little different than when you’re playing a real person to a fictional character, and first of all, there’s material you can look at to tell you who your character is, as opposed to having to make it up yourself. In this case, I always start with research. I was reading up about Paul Cohen, who’s a very interesting guy and has had a really interesting career, and I found an email address. So I just emailed him and said, ‘I’d love to talk to you,’ and he was thrilled. He wrote me right back.
We spent several hours on the phone together and on Zoom, multiple conversations and emails back and forth. He was incredibly generous, informative. It’s a real gift, and on the flip side, you do feel a certain responsibility to get it right when the actual person is going to be watching.
We had a lot of pictures and references of how Paul dressed and what his personal style was, and those did dictate the looks — and definitely my tennis. My tennis style, how I was hitting the ball, and how I was coaching was completely driven by what Paul Cohen did.
SD: Have you gotten to know the Williams family?
TG: I met Venus Williams and I met Isha [Price], one of her sisters who was on set every single day as a producer — was a tremendous asset to have Isha there. It was very, very collaborative, and she had constant input: ‘Yeah, that was the way it was,’ ‘that’s exactly right.’ She would just be genuine with me, very encouraging. ‘We’ve got that, that feels so right.’ Or she would make little adjustments to say, well, ‘it really would have been more like this.’
She was just very, very hands-on, so it gave me a sense that we were in really secure hands. And the fact that the Williams family was deeply involved, you don’t get athletes more iconic than, than the Williams sisters. So to know that the family was behind this, it just felt like we had a solid foundation.
SD: The Williams sisters’ origin story is well-known, but did you come to learn anything about them that surprised you?
TG: I thought I knew a fair bit about Venus and Serena because I’d followed their careers. And how could you not? And I knew that Richard Williams had coached them, but if you just handed me the script, I would have said it was fiction.
I had no idea the depth of that relationship. I did not know the story about Richard Williams getting this idea two years before his daughters were even born after watching a tennis match and saying, ‘we’re going to have two more kids.’ And he wrote a 78-page manifesto to plan for exactly how he was going to make them the No. 1 and No. 2 tennis players in the world. It was a prophecy.
I didn’t know that, and I didn’t understand the degree to which this family really got behind this project of fulfilling this dream for these two extraordinary women. That’s what the film is. It’s a family love story, and that’s what I think is so powerful. That was all a surprise to me.
SD: Have you seen the 78-page manifesto? Have you read it?
TG: I have not seen the manifesto. I’m not sure. I’m guessing it still exists.
SD: What’s the particular feeling that comes with sharing scenes with Will Smith?
TG: Well, when you meet Will Smith, he’s, he’s exactly like what you think he would be like. He’s got this kind of joyous spirit and a personality. He’s incredibly generous, and everybody in his orbit feels seen and valued and heard and all that, so he creates this great working environment.
The trippiest thing for me was [that] we’d be playing around and joking and it’d be time to work on a scene, and he would just morph into Richard Williams: His dialect, his physicality would shift. You know, everything. He just would become this other person that was Richard Williams, and it had all of that life force that is Will Smith because Richard Williams has an equally strong life force. It was amazing to watch him. The first rehearsal we had, I was like, ‘ohhh, okay, that’s how this is going.’ It was very exciting.
Also, just to see the way Will runs a set, the kind of leadership he provides, the way he was with the girls, Samiyya [Sidney] and Demi [Singleton], who played Venus and Serena, there were these incredibly talented, young actresses, but they’re teenagers. They all became family.
Aunjanue Ellis — who’s just mindblowing as Oracene, their mom — and Will and the girls, they all literally were a family off-screen and on, so there was this seamless thing. This is the environement Will creates.
SD: I want to hear more about the particular experience of working so closely with young actors like Samiyya Sidney and Demi Singleton.
TG: Working with kids, even teenagers, is really unique, really special thing. I love doing it. There’s two types of child actors: There are some that can be very good performers and they’re able to “do” their performance; maybe that tends to be slightly younger kids. But with children who are really actors, they’re artists, they are able to be very, very present in their work. And there really is no switch-over between when they’re just themselves [or] in the work.
They’re very relaxed and very present, and that’s where we all try to be as actors, so when you work with kids who are the real deal, the way that Samiyya and Demi are, it’s very humbling. They are so present in what they’re doing, and I find it really exciting.
SD: You mentioned Aunjanue Ellis’ perfomance as Oracene “Brandy” Price. What did you come to learn about her impact on this story and the ongoing story of her daughters?
TG: When you see King Richard, Richard Williams is the central character, but you will come to understand that Oracene — Brandy Williams — was the sort of lioness of that family. She really was the glue that held the family together, and in many ways, the bedrock of how this project of achieving Venus and Serena’s dream happened.
And Aunjanue Ellis, she just gives a performance no one’s ever seen. She’s been a great actress for many years, and I’ve always felt she should have been more acknowledged so far. She’s just so always been so good. But this is such a breakout for her. She gives a brilliant performance.
SD: I’ll watch Remember the Titans any day of the week, but it’s true that a lot of sports movies are vulnerable to falling into formulaic territory. What does King Richard do to sidestep this?
TG: One of the things that makes King Richard really special is [that] it satisfies all of the things you want from a sports movie, but it also defies a lot of the conventions and it’s full of surprises and nuance and things don’t go the way you think they’re going to go.
Of course, we all know where they ended up, but the story of the beginning for Venus and Serena, without spoiling anything, defies convention. It has genuine emotional grit. It is intensely spiritually uplifting, but there are some tough moments in it that feel really emotionally honest. You don’t always get that in sports films that sort of have a heroic, iconic figure at the center of it.