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The 7 Things Aunjanue Ellis Suggests Doing Now

Will Smith's 'King Richard' costar gives tips on life and success after 50

Aunjanue Ellis
Nolis Anderson

Double Emmy nominee Aunjanue Ellis, 52, is an Oscar front-runner for King Richard, playing Venus and Serena Williams’ mother. King Richard, played by Will Smith, was their dad and — along with Mrs. Williams — their coach. A longtime churchgoer, Ellis tells AARP's Tim Appelo the lessons of her life. Preach!

1. Be a believer

I did not have faith in myself: I had no money and was raised by my grandmother on government assistance. But she believed in me, so I try to encourage other people who dim their lights to let their lights shine.

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2. Seek inspiration

Before I graduated from New York University, I was cast as Ariel in The Tempest with Patrick Stewart. I still wasn’t sure about acting, but I saw that as a prophetic moment, and it made me want to continue.

3. Be patient

It took me until age 50 to get nominated for anything — two Emmys, for When They See Us and Lovecraft Country. There’s no life expectancy on creativity, no time limit.

4. Raise up heroes

Oracene Price was someone no one knew — always in the shadow of Mr. Williams. People assumed she was just a cheerleader for her daughters, but she mentored Venus and Serena — as much as her husband did — and changed the face of tennis. I also deeply admire Fannie Lou Hamer, a Mississippi sharecropper who helped organize Freedom Summer. I'm writing a screenplay about her.

5. Ride on

Biking is essential to my joy. People always look at me and they’re, like, “Where’s your car?”

6. Honor thy roots

Mississippi will always be home. I live in the house where I was raised — bad pipes, rainin’ inside. But I have to keep my grandmother’s house going. And we need progressives down here! 

7. Keep singing

From age 3 to 18, I was probably in church up to six times a week. A song we sing in church goes: “I’ve come too far from where I started from / Nobody told me that the road would be easy / But I don’t believe He brought me this far to leave me.” And that’s how I feel.