Grand Slam

Demi Singleton and Will Smith on the Making of King Richard

At the age of 14, Demi Singleton is already a showbiz veteran. An accomplished cellist who has starred on Broadway in both The School of Rock and The Lion King, Singleton still couldn’t tame her nerves for her latest project, King Richard. Not only was she starring opposite Will Smith, but Singleton was making her film debut as a young Serena Williams. The movie follows Richard Williams (Smith) as he perseveres to give his daughters Venus and Serena a shot a tennis greatness, which meant Singleton had to figure out how to portray a global icon before the world knew her name. She recently talked to Will Smith about how she pulled it off.


WILL SMITH: When was the first time we met?

DEMI SINGLETON: The camera shoot.

SMITH: I remember that. What was that experience like?

SINGLETON: I think I was fan-girling a little. I’m like, whoa, I’m friends with the Prince of Bel-Air. It was pretty amazing for me. I remember walking in there and feeling this energy. I mean, you walk into a room with Mr. Will, and there’s something about the way that you hold yourself. 

SMITH: I was impressed by your steadiness and certainty. That’s a hard thing. I’m sure you really wanted to do the movie, but you hadn’t lost yourself. You had full and total calm, cool, and collection. How was it playing Serena at that age, before she becomes the Serena we all know? 

SINGLETON: It’s more difficult than it would be to play her now. At that point in time, she was so young and hadn’t come into the spotlight yet so I had to do more research. There was just not a whole lot about her out there. But at the same time, she’s a woman that I’ve looked up to my entire life. So being able to help share her story and share parts of her life that the world doesn’t know yet about her, that’s pretty amazing to me.

SMITH: When you’re playing a real person, you’re trying to find a balance between the images that people think they know, those main personality qualities, but then you want to find an authentic core. But that’s also difficult, because different family members have different impressions, right? Someone’s mother will have a different impression of them than their sister. So it’s always like trying to balance that multifaceted thing and then coming to something that is still uniquely yours. It’s still your creation, but you try to meet everybody’s standards and exceed everybody’s ideas and impressions. It’s a really delicate balance .

INTERVIEW: After you play someone, do you start to perceive them differently? 

SINGLETON: I do see Serena in a different way. Maybe a year or two ago before this whole thing, I saw her as the amazing tennis champion who has opened so many doors for young Black girls, but now that I know her and I’ve seen her with her family, she’s still the youngest sister. I see that side of her. She’s still the baby. And I think that’s so sweet, because she’s pretty big now career-wise, but in a way she’s still like everyone’s little baby, and she’s still babied by her family. Even at the after party, Ms. Isha [Price, Serena Williams’ sister] was like, “I can’t go until Serena goes, because she’s my little sister, and it’s my job to look after her all the time.” 

SMITH: I feel like you look at people in a way that they may have never even looked at themselves. You have a different kind of impression and a different kind of insight. And for situations like this and for Ali also, when the person is involved, you both learn about yourselves in the process. And in my case, you develop friendships like I did with Muhammad Ali and with Chris Gardner and with Dr. Bennet Omalu. You just get to know one another in a really interesting way. It’s a unique relationship that develops if the person likes it. Fortunately I’ve never had one where the person didn’t like it, but it’s really hard to take this kind of journey together and not bond in some way.

INTERVIEW: What is it about performing that keeps you coming back? What do you get from it that you can’t get anywhere else? 

SINGLETON: Being in The School of Rock and The Lion King when I was so little, I just remember having so much fun every day. It’s something I’ve always loved doing. So being able to entertain a few thousand people every night, that was pretty incredible for me, and that’s where my professionalism started. I’ve been told by a lot of people that I come off as professional. I think that started because from a very young age, I’ve been working.

SMITH: For me, I think the center of it is a big part of something that is just innate for me. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t perform, so it has evolved into a process of self-exploration at this point in my life. Now I realize I can look at myself, and I can explore and examine the mechanisms of my heart and mind through my characters. Probably in the last four or five years it has expanded into almost a spiritual endeavor, but prior to that I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. That’s what I was put here to do. And there’s really no feeling like coming up with an idea and giving it artistic form and then watching people laugh, cry, and cheer.

INTERVIEW: Did your on-screen father-daughter relationship bleed into real life? 

SINGLETON: Definitely.

SMITH: Yeah, absolutely.

SINGLETON: Every day on set, I was always learning something new with you, Mr. Will. You were teaching us all so many lessons all the time. You would tell us things, but also just by watching you be who you are, it was amazing, and I think one of those lessons were probably to just stay true to yourself and remember where you come from, Mr. Will. You’re a phenomenal actor, but you’re so humble. And you respect everybody, you’re kind to everybody, and you appreciate everybody. That was one of the most valuable lessons I learned while being on set.

SMITH: Aw, thank you. When people are in these kinds of situations, I take it as my responsibility to help educate and to help inspire and instruct and anything that I can do that can be helpful for your development. And yeah, we definitely fall into the sort of character role, but you know, you came to this movie already well-developed. I was watching you. It’s always interesting with new young actors, the things that you don’t know yet are a big part of the things that make you special. You haven’t put certain limitations on yourself yet, and you haven’t been trapped by false rules and all of that. So it’s also fun to watch how you maneuver, not having been molded by the system yet.

INTERVIEW: Demi, were you more nervous meeting Serena or Will?

SMITH: It was absolutely Serena. I can answer that one. She was definitely losing it meeting Serena.

SINGLETON: I was freaking out the day I met Serena. As soon as she walked away, I ran in the room and cried. It was a lot. No, I was definitely more nervous meeting Serena, but her and Venus both, they’re like family now.

Hair: Vernon Francois. Makeup: Tasha Brown.