Aunjanue Ellis hid her phone on the morning Oscars nominations were announced.
The actress who starred in “Ray” and “Lovecraft Country” had already been lauded for her performance as Oracene Williams in “King Richard,” earning Critics Choice and British Academy Film Awards nominations for best supporting actress. But the Oscars were another story.
“People in my life were really rooting for me to get nominated, and I didn’t want to let them down. I was just so scared it wasn’t going to happen, more for their sake than my own,” says Ellis. “So I had to hide my phone. That Tuesday was actually a very productive day. I cleaned my house, watered my plants, did some reading.”
But at 11 p.m., she finally turned her phone on and it blew up with more than 200 calls and texts trumpeting the news that Ellis, 53, had been nominated for her first Oscar.
“I was dancing in the dark in my house in Chicago,” says Ellis, whose nomination was among six for “King Richard.” The film about the childhood of tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams, who are executive producers, is nominated for best picture and best actor for Ellis’ screen husband Will Smith in the title role of father Richard Williams.
Ellis spoke to USA TODAY about honoring “King Richard” and her first awards season ride.
Critics Choice Awards:‘Power of the Dog’ wins best picture, Will Smith takes best actor
Question: You’ve worked for three decades on TV, films and theater. Did you think your work would be fêted in awards season?
Aunjanue Ellis: I sort of decided that these things wouldn’t happen in my life. That I would just be this actor who just worked. I’ve worked a lot and have been able to sustain my life and the people in my life. I just thought that these kinds of awards and consideration would elude me. But a couple of years ago, things just started to switch. I certainly didn’t anticipate what has happened in these last four months. Not at all.
Q: It’s a big responsibility to play a living person, much less the supportive mother of Serena and Venus Williams. Did they give advice for the performance?
Ellis: There were very hands-off and gave us space to play. Venus and Serena visited once, and came another time I wasn’t there. We had their sister Isha on set with us every day to keep us straight, and she did.
Jane Campion issues apology: For ‘thoughtless comment’ about Serena and Venus Williams
Q: Did they weigh in on the performance after seeing the movie?
Ellis: Will Smith knew, but I certainly didn’t know that they weren’t going to put their names on the film as producers unless they approved of the film. I’m relieved I didn’t know because that experience of watching it would’ve been a whole lot more stressful. After it was over, they were lovely as they always are to me. Miss Oracene, when I did meet her, said, “Good job.”
Q: Now you’re sitting at awards tables with Serena and Venus, and from the looks of it, having a ball. What’s that like?
Ellis: At this point, it’s a little familial. But I can’t say enough that I’m still weirded out about the fact I’m sitting next to Venus and Serena Williams. It is still utterly strange for me. And you will notice, I don’t turn toward them a lot because I don’t want to stare at them. But there’s a moment every time I’ve come home from these things where I think that I just sat at a table with three of the most famous people in the entire world, between Will, Venus and Serena. When I’m home, it’s like, “Wow, girl.”
Oscar tracker:Jessica Chastain’s SAG Award win could also predict an Oscar
Q: What’s surprised you about awards season?
Ellis: I didn’t know it would be fun. I didn’t think it would be boring or a pain. But I didn’t imagine that it would be a little bit of a party. I’ve been in rooms with famous people, but now I’m in rooms with people I look to show me how to do it. Those kinds of people are around me constantly. And it just feels good to not be in my house. Like so many people, I’ve been forced to be in my home for so long. It’s a joy to connect with other human beings.
Q: How steeped in planning for Oscars night (March 27) are you?
Ellis: I’m enjoying the moment and trying not to freak out about the clothes and that kind of thing, and working with some good people on that. I hate this expression, but it is what it is. I’m going to show up, I’m going to have a dress on. And my family’s going to be coming in soon to attend. That’s the most important thing.
You’re late on the Oscar race:It’s OK. Watch these movies tonight
Q: “West Side Story” star Ariana DeBose has dominated the supporting actress awards thus far. What are your expectations for the Oscars themselves?
Ellis: March 28 is going to happen, and I’m going to keep on living my life. I’m going to be happy for whoever wins. It’s wonderful, everything that’s happened with Ariana and her wins. The way I’m looking at it, my life has changed in a way that I hope will have resonance after this period is over – having those two words after my name (Oscar nominee), I’m hoping it will open some other creative doors. That’s what’s most important. Beyond the awards, beyond the nominations, I hope that my work continues to be my rallying cry.
‘Nothing too brutal’:Oscars co-host Amy Schumer reveals how far her jokes will go