To Play Serena Williams in King Richard, Demi Singleton Learned to Play GOAT-Level Tennis

“When I play tennis, I look like Serena and I play like Serena, because that’s all I know,” actor Demi Singleton says over Zoom. This is not a joke or an attempt at grandeur. For months, Singleton studied every aspect of 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams’s life, on court and off, in preparation for King Richard, a biographical portrait, out today, of Serena and Venus Williams’s father, Richard Williams (played by Will Smith, who delivers the patriarch’s stubborn, heartbreaking devotion to his family with aching perfection). Ahead of the final screen test, Singleton, who had effectively never held a tennis racquet before, took a few lessons. “My mom was, like, you have three tennis lessons to figure it out,” she recalls. “Work your magic.” A few days after the final screen read, Singleton got a call—the part was hers.

The film focuses on the dawn of Serena and Venus’s lives on court, before they were household names, when they shared a bedroom and their father was desperate to find a suitable coach for their talents. At 14, Singleton is now the same age that Serena was when she turned pro—and something of a prodigy in her own right. Already a decade into her career, she is, in addition to an actor, a singer, a cellist, a Broadway performer, and a classically trained dancer. She played young Nala in The Lion King on Broadway, acted opposite Forest Whitaker in the Epix series The Godfather of Harlem, and once appeared as young Serena in flashback during a Superbowl commercial helmed by the legend herself.

Singleton might not be a diehard tennis fan—“Until maybe two years ago, if somebody told me that the score was 40-Love, I would look at them and be so puzzled,” she says—but her love for Serena, who won her third Australian Open title just before the actor was born, has little to do with the sport anyway. “Serena Williams isn’t just a tennis player,” Singleton says. “She’s an icon. I distinctly remember seeing her play on TV when I was younger, and I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. She’s not afraid to do what she loves. I think that’s why I’ve always thought tennis was easy, because she makes it look so easy, right down to the outfits.”

GQ: Playing tennis like Serena Williams is a pretty good way to play tennis.

Demi Singleton: I really had never played before. Those three tennis lessons were all the tennis I had. So they had to train me a lot. It was an hour-and-a-half to two hours—sometimes three—of tennis every day, Monday through Friday, for a few months. We’d have the weekends off, which is when I would relax and whine about how sore I was. And now that I’m kind of familiar with the sport, I wouldn’t be able to play it like anyone else but Serena.

The tennis coach, the producers, [Serena’s sister] Isha Price, the director—they all helped me get there. Isha made sure that my facial expressions looked as real as possible. She knew how to watch my strokes, to see if the intensity of how I looked matched how Serena looked when she played. Sometimes she’d pop in on the lessons to see how I was doing. She’d hit with me for a little while and give me notes if I needed them, just to make sure everything felt real. That was the goal. We wanted everything to feel as authentic as possible. If I was doing something in a way that Serena wouldn’t do it, Isha would tell me about it and I would fix it.

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