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Saniyya Sidney from “King Richard” (HBO Max)

Acting Up: Saniyya Sidney


Welcome to ACTING UP, the place where we celebrate standout performances in TV, streaming and film. Other than spotlighting exceptional work from recent projects, this feature also shines a light on how certain actors got where they are today. Have a peek and then check out these notable performances to help hone your craft.

 

The Snapshot:

Saniyya Sidney plays young tennis phenom Venus Williams in the real-life film drama about the rise of the Williams sisters in professional tennis in King Richard.

(The film premiered in theaters and on HBO Max on November 19, 2021.)

 

The Performance:

Whether it’s Will Smith in Ali (2001) or Chadwick Boseman’s turn as Jackie Robinson in 42 (2013), there have been a few (but not many) memorable films about iconic African American athletes who defied odds to make historic impacts in their respective professional sports.

King Richard is one of those films, but since the careers of Venus and Serena Williams are still playing out, this film centers mostly on their father Richard Williams (Will Smith) and his laser-focused 78-page plan to make his two daughters world champions of tennis. He wrote the plan before they were born. A rather far-fetched pipe dream until you realize that he ultimately did it by coaching them for years on shoddy courts in Compton, California (rain or shine), before putting them with world-class tennis coaches who helped take them across the pro finish line.

The role of young Venus is played by Saniyya Sidney, and she aces the role as the happy-go-lucky teen turned tennis phenom whose dedication to dad’s plan and hard work led her to become the first Black No. 1 tennis player in the modern era. The story of Venus is very real and the “girl dad” coach story is a must-watch for all dads with dreams of making their offspring a champion. Nothing comes easy on the road to becoming an eventual winner of 23 Grand Slam tennis titles for singles, doubles, and mixed doubles. But none of that seemed to bother the talented 15-year-old Sidney, who delivers a Grand Slam performance in the role.

She trained extensively to knock out the tennis part, which required Sidney (a born lefty) to master Venus’s right-handed forehand and serve. Hundreds of hours on the court later, Sidney got the form down well enough to master Venus’ strokes. So much so that by the time Richard finally lets Venus turn pro in the film after years of letting her live as a normal teenager, a poignant scene ensues that leaves not a dry eye in the house.

That’s when Richard tells her a story about how he once got beaten up by a slew of grown white men in the South — while his father ran away. That’s when he tries to impart the gravity of what’s about to happen to Venus. “You’re not just gonna be representing you, but every little Black girl on earth,” says Richard through tears. To which Venus responds, “Daddy, you always said I’d be number one in the world, right? Let’s go out there and show all those people that I can handle what’s coming. And I’m not going to let you down.”

Straight through, Sidney gives a great performance as Venus — from her early days on a Compton court using unconventional training methods amid inspirational signs plastered on fences (à la “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”) — all the way to her playing through juniors and training in Florida with Rick Macci, a role that Jon Bernthal nails in an ever-entertaining portrayal of the charismatic coach who once launched Jennifer Capriati to early fame at 14.

As Venus, and with the direction of Reinaldo Marcus Green, the promise of a young star aptly evolves to more pressure-filled matches and eventually her pro debut, which comes with its own set of challenges. But we’re there with her every step of the way thanks to Sidney’s performance.

If you’re going to play one of the greatest tennis players to ever play the game, you want to put it away like a volley at the net. And in King Richard, there’s no doubt Sidney slams it home.

 

The Career:

In a long and secretive audition process that started with a call to play “a spelling bee champion,” Sidney eventually went on to win the role of Venus Williams after a chemistry read with Will Smith. When that went well, she received a call from her agent that she landed the part — and she was obviously thrilled.

The talented young actress began her career several years earlier in 2016 with two high-profile films and a TV miniseries of the legendary variety. Amongst these coveted roles were the part of young Kizzy in a remake of the miniseries Roots. Sidney also got to portray the daughter of Taraji P. Henson in Hidden Figures and played the daughter of Viola Davis and Denzel Washington in the August Wilson play adaptation of Fences. It was a whirlwind year that led Sidney to attend the Oscars for both films in 2017. After which, Sidney got to sink her teeth into the lead role of Amy Bellafonte in the Fox TV vampire series The Passage (2019).

If the above list of co-stars isn’t impressive enough, Sidney has also been filming the role of former first daughter Sasha Obama in the upcoming Showtime anthology series The First Lady (2022). In it, she’ll co-star alongside industry vets Viola Davis (once again), Michelle Pfeiffer, and Gillian Anderson. Sasha’s sister Malia in the series will be played by Little Fires Everywhere standout Lexi Underwood. Ironic, because Sidney’s career is catching more than a little fire.

It will be interesting to see where her success spreads to next.

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Gregg Rosenzweig has been a writer, creative director and managing editor for various entertainment clients, ad agencies and digital media companies over the past 20 years. He is also a partner in the talent management/production company, The Rosenzweig Group.