The actress Aunjanue Ellis is nearly 30 years into an onscreen career, but until about a decade ago, she thought it was all a fluke.
The 52-year-old Mississippi native grew up on a farm and had no drama experience outside of performing in Easter and Christmas plays at church. She began her undergraduate studies at Tougaloo College, the historically Black university where an acting instructor encouraged her to consider taking the craft seriously.
“My feet had no path and he just gave me one,” she said in an recent interview.
Now, she’s just weeks away from the release of a biopic that is generating Oscar chatter about her performance: “King Richard” is the story of Richard Williams (played by Will Smith), the father of tennis champions Venus and Serena Williams. Ellis plays Oracene Price, his wife.
Looked at in one light, it’s a typical part in a career that can perhaps be best characterized as a series of roles ranging from minor to supporting. But Ellis, who went on to earn degrees at Brown and New York Universities, has fully leaned into them and made them her own: whether that’s showcasing her comedic chops in “Undercover Brother” or gravitas in dramas like “Ray” and “The Help.”
In recent years she’s earned critical acclaim in productions like “If Beale Street Could Talk” and “The Clark Sisters: First Ladies of Gospel,” and Emmy nominations for her turns in “When They See Us” and “Lovecraft Country.” Her performance as Price may be another step on the awards path: she has been singled out by critics and Oscar pundits alike when it played on the festival circuit ahead of its Nov. 19 release on HBO Max and in theaters.
On a video call from Chicago, where she’s filming her next project, “61st Street,” a series set to air on AMC, Ellis spoke about what she hopes audiences take from her performance as Oracene Price and the pressure to choose roles that reflect well on Black women. Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.
Your first onscreen role was on the TV show “New York Undercover.” Do you remember how it felt when you got cast?
I say this with intention because somebody will hear this and feel themselves reflected in my story. My grandmother stood in line for government cheese, for peanut butter, just so we could eat — to sustain us. I was raised on AFDC [Aid to Families with Dependent Children]. I would hide because I would be so embarrassed that my grandmother was paying for our groceries with public assistance.
There was nowhere in my imagination that I would be making a living doing something creative. Absolutely none. I got the “New York Undercover” job, I just thought it was a fluke. It wasn’t probably until 10 years ago that I started to believe that I could sustain my life and my family by acting.
What makes you say yes to a role?
I’m real childish about this. Is it going to be fun? Am I going to have a good time? Can I do it and not be embarrassed and stand by the fact that I’ve done it? That’s a challenge I’m still navigating. I have a responsibility that the people I generally work with don’t have. I know what it’s like to have done a film and when it’s over, Black women are looking at you like, “Why did you do that? You failed us by doing that” and having to answer for that. I think Black women particularly have to answer for that in a way that nobody else does. Those are my considerations: Is it fun to play and am I doing a service to Black women?
How did the script come to you and what were your initial thoughts after you read it?
I know there were probably other candidates that they were looking at, that they were going to go to originally. I’m used to that. I just bided my time and waited for the possibility that I would get a chance to read for it — and I did.
The wife of the hero can be utterly boring to play because they are stick figures and their only purpose is to, as I’ve read somewhere, create problems for the hero. I felt that [the screenwriter] Zach Baylin had done something where that wasn’t the case with Ms. Oracene — she had a life outside her husband. I thought that was going to be fun to play.
How did you prepare for the role? Did you get a chance to speak to her?
I play the character of Ms. Oracene Price. I’m not doing a recreation of her life. So I approach it in the same way I approach any other role. The other great thing is that I have material to work with. There’s history there, information that I don’t just get out of my own head.
Zach and Reinaldo Marcus Green, the director, did extensive interviews with Ms. Oracene, so I listened to those tapes over and over again. She’s a particular kind of woman that is more of a challenge for me. When I play characters, I try to find things on the outside of them that I can capture like accents, how they walk, how they talk. But Ms. Oracene is a very interior person, so I had to rely on her words about herself. Her daughter Isha Price was on set every day, so she was a great resource as well.
I’m curious about what you’re channeling. Is it a person? Where does that kind of intensity come from?[On] Wikipedia she was referenced as a coach and I had such a cynical response to that. I thought, why is she calling herself a coach? Isn’t that an overreach? I mean, it’s great that she’s in the stands with her children and cheering them on, but that doesn’t make you a coach.
And hearing these tapes, listening to her daughters talk about her, you find out that Ms. Oracene was as much a coach to these girls as Richard Williams was. She was designing their approach to their play. I didn’t know that. I think 99 percent of the world doesn’t know that about Ms. Oracene.
Mr. Williams is the architect of the new face of the new generation of tennis; Ms. Price is the builder of that. Now she does all this while working two jobs — plural — and she trained herself for years so she could coach her kids. There are so many women living lives like this. I wanted people to know who Ms. Oracene Price was and is. That is what drove me. I’m speaking for this woman.
I wonder if you see parallels with your own career. Does it feel like your time?
I don’t know. It’s strange. I toiled. I was in a whole bunch of stuff that nobody saw and nobody liked. They let me know they didn’t like it. God knows I’ve been in things that were golden and glossy but I wasn’t as proud. But I’m so proud to be a part of something that hopefully gives this family their flowers.
What you brought to this role is making you a possible contender for the Oscars. How does that feel?
The reality is there’s a practical side of that, right? When that is next to your name, it helps you get more work. I lose jobs all the time to chicks that have that thing at the end of their name. If it happens, it would be great because it expands my job options and everything that comes with that. But the other side of that is, it’s a further extension for me to shout out Oracene Price. She stood in the stands and clapped for her daughters, but it would be so cool to hear people clap for her.
Are there any directors you’d like to work with?
Reinaldo Marcus Green of “King Richard” — I’d love to work with him again. Raven Jackson, a Southern woman, is doing her first feature. She’s a wonderful writer. I hope that I’ll have a chance to work with her.
There are things people send my way — my managers and agents — they come from these reputed directors. I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in Black folks who are hungry to tell stories about Black people and doing it in really interesting, innovative ways.
Would you do a buddy cop film or a romantic comedy?
Listen, there’s nobody throwing scripts my way. That sound you hear, that’s not people throwing scripts at me.
That might change.
Well not right now. That’s not my life. So if I had to choose, I certainly am going to choose a “King Richard,” I’m going to choose “When They See Us.” I get joy out of doing that kind of work.
Acting is not something that you necessarily do for a hobby, it is how you pay your rent. I do what I need to do to take care of my family. If I had to choose, this kind of work that I’m doing now is the kind of work I’ll continue to do.
Do you think about the kind of film you’d like to be the star of?
Certainly. There are things I’m working on right now and trying to make happen. I’m from the South, and one of the great travesties is the erasure of Black women who were so central in the freedom rights movement. And I say the freedom movement, not the civil rights movement, because they were two different demographics. So what I’m living to do is to correct that.