Back when I first saw King Richard back in September, I didn’t know much about it other than Will Smith plays Richard Williams, the father of Venus and Serena Williams (played in the film by Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton). It’s about halfway through before Jon Bernthal shows up – you know, the guy best knows for playing the Punisher and, more recently, Tony Soprano’s dad – and he’s got knee-high socks, short shorts, a pretty fun mustache, and an “aw, gee shucks,” attitude – and, yes, it took me a couple minutes to convince myself this was actually Bernthal as the Williams sisters’ trainer, Rick Macci.
For what it’s worth, Bernthal has been getting a lot of that. It’s not the typical role for Bernthal, so much so that director Reinaldo Marcus Green wouldn’t see him until he asked for an audition, in which he lost 30 pounds from his Punisher physique in order to play the lanky Rick Macci. Ahead, Bernthal explains why he wanted to play a role like this, so different than what we are used to seeing, which leads to his own personal philosophy as far as his career path goes – he truly loves auditioning, which seems rare for an actor – and, why, to this point, his philosophy has paid off and when he gets a role, he feels he’s truly earned it.
I know this is not the way it works, but in my mind, you’re having a meeting with your team and you say, “I want to do something completely different where people don’t even recognize me at first. Get me that role.” And then you show up in this.
[Laughs] Wow, man. Nah, dude. It doesn’t go down the way it does in your mind, man.
Well, when they make your biopic, that’s the way it happens.
Are we at a fancy restaurant when that meeting happens?
Yes. In your biopic, that’s the way it happens.
“Come on, guys!”
And the audience watching your biopic then thinks, oh, that’s how that happened.
Look, take this for what it is. I really do not have a strategic bone in my body. And I think probably to a fault, as far as my career goes. I really do put it out there that I like to read everything. And when there’s something that I really dig, I want to go after it. I read this script, and I just thought it was this just beautiful meditation on family and on fatherhood and on faith and sports. You know, man, I’m an ex-athlete, and I’m raising kids right now who play sports and I’m seeing the full spectrum of how beautiful it can be and how toxic it can be. And then I went and sat down with Reinaldo and we kind of connected immediately. And, look, he didn’t initially see me for it…
Wait, so when you say he didn’t see you for it, did you had to talk him into it?
No, man. I was like, “Let me read for it.”
I mean, I was almost 200 pounds. I had just got done doing The Punisher. I said, dude, let me make this easy. Let me make you a tape. Let me show you. And I love that. The double-edged sword of getting to a place in your career where things come to you, rather than you go fight for them, is you lose the ability to go audition for stuff. There’s nothing I like more than auditioning.
Really? Because I’m under the impression most actors don’t like doing that.
Look, I can’t speak for most actors. I’m sure that’s true. I’m just not that way. The audition is the only time you get to go throw your version of the character down with absolutely no one else’s input…
Where no one else can say shit. It’s your version. And then you get to walk on set sort of feeling like, hey, I earned this, and I’m here for a reason. And, look, was this very different than other things? Yeah. But I knew in my heart, for me, it just meant a lot to me. It was important to me. For me, it’s this kind of mirror to the entertainment business. Where at first, you’re completely shut out, nobody wants anything to do with you, you’re an outsider. And then, all of a sudden, you get a little bit of success and a little bit of heat, and everybody wants a piece.
This is an interesting character because his relationship with the Williams sisters is so important, but the movie does not shy away from some things that happened to his other students, like Jennifer Capriati. So what’s going through your head? Because this involves real people.
Yeah, look, any time it’s real people, it’s sensitive. I think, ultimately, what I love about this movie is that this isn’t just a highlight reel of the greatest moment in the Williams sisters’ lives. It’s this real exploration of what got them there, and their family, and the inner workings, and the nooks and crannies of it. And to me, it’s not sentimental. It’s not delivered through this kind of only-positive lens. They explore the real mistakes. Richard Williams makes mistakes, and it doesn’t shy away from that. And the same with Rick. There is no question there are moments in this film where he’s got dollar signs in his heart.
Did you meet him?
What was that like? Because, again, the movie doesn’t shy away from his relationship with Jennifer Capriati and her troubles in that decade. What did you talk about with him about that?
Look, I think oftentimes… you know, I just got done playing a real character as well, who’s in prison right now, and I was doing extensive conversations with him as well. And I think that the danger in that… and I’ve run the gauntlet there. Like, Scorsese, he wouldn’t let Henry Hill on set. He wouldn’t let Jordan Belfort on set…
Wait, I thought Jordan Belfort, isn’t he in The Wolf of Wall Street? I guess they just let him on set for that one scene then…
Right, but they didn’t let him have any contact. Yeah, you know what I mean?
Okay, got it.
And so, I think that the problem is that anytime you’re going to be portrayed in a movie, you want yourself portrayed in a certain way.
And I’ve often found, one of the old techniques to character work in theater, they tell you the first thing you do is go find everything other characters say about your character, and that’s how you figure out who your character is. It’s not about what you say about yourself. You know, the first thing Serena said to me when I had talked to her about Rick, she said her time at Macci’s was one of the funnest times of her life, that he just made things fun. I loved working with Demi and Saniyya on tennis. I loved making them laugh. I loved when they laughed at me. I loved when they made fun of my short-shorts and my high socks and my goofy mustache. They would laugh at me every time I walked out of the trailer.
Speaking of the short-shorts, when you show up, it took me four or five minutes to convince myself that was you. I’m wondering if you’re getting that from other people, where they don’t recognize you?
Yeah, man, I definitely am.
And it’s not just the look, either. I’m talking about the whole character you’re doing. It’s just not what a lot of people are used to seeing from you.
Totally. And look, man, he’s out there. There’s no question. He is a larger-than-life character in real life. If you go onto his Instagram, if you look the guy up, if you talk to anybody who’s played at his academy, he’s larger than life. And he’s from this very specific place on the border of Ohio and Kentucky, where the accent is just this conglomeration of all these different things. And look, not enough people know who Rick Macci is, and it really mattered that I wanted to sort of get him right. I lost 30 pounds! I really wanted to look like him. I had just got off The Punisher…
I think I saw this right after I saw The Many Saints of Newark, so it was whiplash how different you look.
Yeah, and in The Many Saints of Newark I wore a fat suit to sort of makeup for the weight that I was losing for King Richard.
Oh, I didn’t know that.
Yeah, and also just getting the game of tennis in my bones was just this beautiful benefit to doing the movie, but so important. I was training three to six hours a day, every single day. And not just training tennis, but training on how to coach and learning how to feed, learning how to run drills, learning the vocabulary of that. I know how to coach tennis now! And what an unbelievable kind of opportunity. And you’re sort of halfway there, just at that, and I’m really grateful for it.
Always good to talk to you.
Rock and roll. I’ll talk to you soon.
‘King Richard’ will be in theaters this weekend and also streaming via HBO Max. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.