• Golden Globe Awards

Nominee Profile 2022: Aunjanue Ellis, “King Richard”

Aunjanue Ellis owes her unusual first name to the creativity of her mother, who lived in Bohemian San Francisco where Aunjanue was born in 1969: “It gets mispronounced all the time,” she laughs.
Despite her birthplace, Ellis, 52, is deeply rooted in Mississippi, the place where her family is from, and where she still has a house. Her upbringing was not untypical for the African American South: “I was in church at least three times a week from the time I was three years old until I was 18 and went to college. If you are raised Baptist in Southwest Mississippi in the ’70s and ’80s you don’t have a choice but to be an artist even if you suck – and God knows, I sucked! But you are forced to read scripture and recite scripture and sing in the choir and be in the Christmas play and the Easter play.” She went to Tougaloo College in Mississippi before going on to Brown University, where she got her B.A. in African American studies. Her acting began at a graduate program at NYU.
She is keenly aware of her roots; her ancestors were slaves who were brought over from West Africa, and her grandfather was a social activist. She told us, “My grandfather was someone who opened his church to the Freedom Riders in the early ’60s and as a result, his church was bombed: he was actually arrested for the bombing of his own church. He went to jail in the middle of the night in his pajamas, and some calls were made to some people in Washington, and he was able to come home. The deacons of our church stood outside of my grandmother’s house, the house that I still live in right now, with guns to protect my grandmother. That’s where I come from. I have to live up to that legacy.”
She has certainly done so. After taking several parts in successful and critically acclaimed TV shows (The Practice, Third Watch, True Blood, etc.), she was cast by Taylor Hackford in Ray and has chosen her parts very selectively ever since. She acted in The Help, The Book of Negroes, The Birth of a Nation, If Beale Street Could Talk and Lovecraft Country among others, before accepting the role of Venus and Serena Williams’ strong-minded mother Oracene in King Richard, which garnered her her first Golden nomination: “We did not do the trophy wife that we’ve seen a thousand times, where you have a heroic man, and the woman does not have a say. We all wanted to tell the truth because we wanted to give Ms. Oracene her flowers, her voice.”
Although she has been known as a character actress throughout her entire career, many reviewers have written that in a different world she would have become a star a long time ago. She is very well aware of this fact and sees both sides of the coin: “I would have liked to have larger roles in these movies but somehow I was always the character actor. But I love doing that stuff. If I had gone down this road of being the lead actor, then it would have limited me. I am always playing really crazy wild women, and that’s fun to me. I really, really enjoy that, whereas a lot of times when you’re playing the love interest, it’s dull. It’s not as fun.”
In 2022, we will see her in another character part as Courtney B. Vance’s wife in 61st Street, a series about a promising young high school athlete who falls foul of the infamously corrupt Chicago criminal justice system.