“I completely lost track of time. I’m so sorry about that,” says Demi Singleton effusively. She’s exactly eight minutes late for our Zoom interview, but for good reason. Beaming in from her home Los Angeles, laidback with a high ponytail and small silver hoop earrings, the 14-year-old has been focusing on school work all morning – a distinct change of pace from the whirlwind of her past few days.
Last Friday marked the release of King Richard, the biopic retelling of how Richard Williams created and followed a 78-page plan to raise two of the greatest tennis players of all time, Venus and Serena. Singleton plays Serena – no big deal – and is joined by a cast of Will Smith, who plays Richard, Aunjanue Ellis (Lovecraft Country) and her cinematic sister, Saniyya Sidney.
Not only that, but Venus and Serena are executive producers on the film. Their other sister, Isha Price, was also on set to ensure Singleton and Sidney’s performances were as authentic as possible. Then there’s the small matter of Demi’s musical idol, Beyoncé, writing a new song, Be Alive, for the end credits.
OK, it’s kind of a big deal.
But Demi hasn’t had much time to celebrate. On the day King Richard hit cinemas, she was jetting back to the US from London. She then spent the weekend doing interviews, after which she was obliged to catch up on that pesky school work.
“A lot of the kids at the school I go to have careers now. That’s what it’s for,” she explains. “They know how to handle kids missing a lot of school.”
Demi is more than familiar with juggling the two sides of her life, though, because King Richard isn’t her first rodeo. That came when she landed a part on Broadway’s School of Rock: The Musical at age 10. She then starred in The Lion King stage musical, playing Simba’s close ally Nala, before filming crime series Godfather of Harlem during the last week of her run. Back in 2019, Singleton even stepped into Serena Williams’ shoes before she was cast in King Richard, playing the tennis titan’s mini-me in a SuperBowl advert.
Booked and busy is one way to put it.
So how exactly did Demi prepare to play Serena, one of the best (if not the best) female players of all time? We stole a few minutes of her study time to find out.
Congratulations on King Richard, Demi! You’ve been in the business for a few years now. What made you want to get into acting?
I started acting at eight or nine years old. Right before I started acting, my mum had taken me to see Matilda on Broadway and I just fell in love with it right there and then. Because Matilda is a predominantly children cast, watching those kids do what they love and have so much fun on stage made me want to do it. A few months later, I started acting, going to auditions and found myself an agent. Then I booked my first role, School of Rock on Broadway.
It sounds like everything blew up pretty quickly. Do you think your experience of intense Broadway rehearsals helped you understand what it was like for Serena and Venus growing up?
In a way, I think so. One of the ways that I think I have a similar childhood to the one that Serena and Venus did is that we grew up in very supportive households. My entire family has always been by my side every step of the way. [They] are my biggest cheerleaders, especially my mum.
I also started playing cello when I was four years old. Actually, fun fact: I wanted to play violin, but the music school that I went to didn’t have any more spots available, so I had to choose cello.
But as I was saying before, one way that we’re very similar is that nobody expects a four-year-old Black girl to pick up the cello and start playing it. It’s just not something people expect from someone like me, the same way that nobody really expected Serena and Venus to pick up a tennis racket and become the best at what they do.
There were so many people out there who thought that what Mr. Richard [Williams] was trying to do for his girls was impossible. But they proved everyone wrong. I think that’s pretty incredible.
You also had to pick up a pretty intense tennis training schedule to prepare for the part. What was that like?
Yeah, Saniyya and I had a lot – a lot – of tennis. On the average day, we’d wake up at 7.30am to get to practice for 8.30 to 9am, every morning through Monday to Friday, for at least an hour-and-a-half. Sometimes we would even go up to three hours of training, which was crazy. We did that right up until the day we started filming. Our coach was also there on set and sometimes on the weekend they would ask us if we felt up to playing tennis.
So there was a lot of tennis going on!
You’ve learned to play tennis exactly the way that Serena does it. What key elements of her game did you have to master?
Well, Serena and Venus both play open stance, whereas a lot of other players play close stance, and that was something that was very important to both their mother and their father. They discovered that, while playing in open stance, you’re able to hit the ball with more power. They still play that way today.
Another thing is their serve, which is very specific. We even practiced the rituals they used to do – no rituals, but that’s what we called them – every day during practice. They usually bounce the ball a few times, they stop, they look at their opponent, and then they swing backwards in a slower motion and accelerate as their arms go up. That was something we really had to practice. Venus has a serve of 129 mph and Serena’s is 128.6 mph, so they are very, very powerful. It was really important that we were able to capture that.
What else did you do to prepare for the role?
I would just do research and find as many videos and photos I could of Serena and Venus as little girls. I will say it was a little bit more difficult to find photos of Serena, because she wasn’t in the spotlight as early as Venus was – the first time Venus was in an article was when she was nine years old.
There’s one video of them on a tennis court, which is depicted in the movie, and the interviewer asks Venus and Serena what they want to do [with their careers]. Venus says she wants to win Wimbledon as many times as anyone’s ever won it. When they ask Serena who she wants to play like, Serena goes: “Well, I would like other people to want to play like me.”
I think that’s my favourite video of them as young girls. It’s so sweet and their confidence is just so radiant and vibrant. You can see it through the screen. That was one interview I kept at the back of my mind, like: “Serena’s so confident, so remember that whatever you do.”
[Serena and Venus’ sister] Ms. Isha was on set everyday. Once we got to meet and get to know her, she provided everyone with everything they needed. She’s part of the family, so she had photos and videos, things that you wouldn’t be able to find on the internet, and she would just share cool stories with us.
I heard you guys got into some prank wars on set. Who pulled the best prank?
I think Sanniya and I did the best prank. One day we were at craft services and someone brought out this box, which a rubber rat would pop out of when you opened it. They pranked Sanniya and I, but then we were like: “Oh my God, can we take this?” That day, we went around scaring as many people as we could. Everyone was terrified. Ms. Isha had the funniest reaction – it’s not hard to scare her. She screamed right out of her chair!
We never got a reaction out of Mr. Will [Smith]. It was kind of annoying, because we would always try to scare him. Later, we found out that his father, who was in the military, had taught him and his brother not to react when they get scared, so he doesn’t jump. He would say he got scared, but we just couldn’t tell.
He must have a good poker face! You also turned the big 13 while filming. How did you celebrate?
I think everybody on set pitched in and brought balloons on stuff. Rose gold was my favourite colour at the time, so I had a big “1” and “3” balloons in that colour. That day, we were filming a scene in a diner, so we had my birthday dinner all together there, with burgers and fries. It was really nice.
You’re now 14, the same age as Serena when she went pro. Did she give you any life advice when you met her?
Honestly, not really. The first time we spoke, we were filming, and we just talked about everything but her career. Venus was there as well, so we spoke about their childhood, the boys that they dated, things like that. It was just a fun conversation, we didn’t talk about anything too serious, which I really appreciate because it’s a side of them that Saniyya and I have gotten to know – we know them as tennis icons, but we didn’t really know them as just Serena and Venus.
So that was really cool. We all love them so much. They’re really funny and really protective over us. Serena and Venus are like family now.
You can act, sing, dance and now play tennis like a pro. What’s next?
I’m definitely going to stick with acting, but I’m also going to explore my other passions professionally, like music. I’m hoping to get music out to the world sometime next year. That’s a part of me that I haven’t really gotten to share with anyone yet.
I have a lot of inspirations – like Drake, J. Cole and Aaliyah – but Beyoncé inspires me not just musically, but for, like, everything. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I’m one of the biggest Beyoncé fans. When I found out that she was a part of King Richard, I cried.
Originally we [had been] told that it was going to be a different person singing at the end [credits]. But then Saniyya and I had a screening with our families and our teams, and I was like: “It’s Beyoncé!” and she was like “I know!” And we both cried.
King Richard is in cinemas now. It’s ace