Boasting a career spanning multiple decades, Aunjanue Ellis is on the cusp of Oscar glory for her turn in the Will Smith-led King Richard, portraying Oracene “Brandy” Price, the mother of tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams.
While King Richard primarily follows the life story of the sisters’ father, Richard, the film highlights the wide scope of Oracene Price’s work and the important role she held in making her daughters the greatest tennis players of all time. Ellis delivers a dynamic, moving, and multifaceted performance that transcends mere biopic impersonation; instead, it taps into something deeper and rawer.
Ahead of the Oscars on Sunday, where King Richard is up for Best Picture, Best Actor (Smith), Best Supporting Actress (Ellis), Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing, and Best Original Song (Beyoncé), let’s take a look at the things you need to know about Aunjanue Ellis.
01. She’s Already Appeared in a Number of Oscar-Winning Films
Ellis’ ability to deliver memorable roles with such dramatic, poignant poise is evident throughout her filmography. Her illustrious career includes roles in Academy Award-winning films such as 2004’s Ray, 2011’s The Help, and 2018’s If Beale Street Could Talk, with all three of her performances garnering praise.
02. Her Creative Roots Are in the Church – and Acting Wasn’t Originally on the Table
Growing up on a farm in Mississippi, Ellis frequently sang in Baptist churches where her grandfather was a preacher. Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter’s “Awards Chatter” podcast, Ellis expressed that she always held a passion for creative writing, but she never imagined having a creative career – “I never wanted to be an actor…where I was from, I didn’t have permission to imagine something like that.”
03. She Began as a Theater Actor
While at NYU, she made her theatrical debut by portraying the part of Ariel in a Public Theatre production of The Tempest, which made its way to Broadway. She also appeared in Downing Crow in 2004 and the Hampton Players and Company production of Through the Crack.
04. She Broke Out Thanks to Television
While Ellis has been working for decades, her tirring, dramatic, and captivating performance in Lovecraft Country, specifically Episode 7, “I Am,”, brought her to a new level of attention.
Arguably the best installment of the series. Her portrayal as Hippolyta was an invigorating, thought-provoking journey through space and time in addition to being a call to action for racial equality, as “I Am” finds Hippolyta exploring her unlimited potential, acting as a commentary on the Black female experience in America over time. Ellis also made waves in the Ava DuVernay-led miniseries When They See Us, for which she received a Primetime Emmy nomination.
05. She Fought for Wage Equality on King Richard
During an appearance on Charlemagne Tha God’s The Breakfast Club, Ellis revealed that Will Smith made significant changes to the casting salaries in King Richard after she wrote him a personal letter.
As she told Charlemagne, “After you get the job, the fight is not over. You know you have to fight for equal pay… I did that job, and I’m thankful for it, but I could have gotten paid better… Not only did [Smith] address that with increasing my pay, but the other actors in the movie also got their pay increased, which is the proof of when the Black women do well, everybody does well.”
King Richard is streaming now on HBO Max. Find out where to stream the other films nominated for Oscars this year.