Talk about starpower.
“King Richard,” a feature film about Venus and Serena Williams — two of the biggest names in sports — starring Will Smith — one of the biggest names in Hollywood — has plenty of it.
Which is perhaps why the movie opening in theaters today could be one of the biggest roles yet for Magnolia-raised Aunjanue Ellis, whose star keeps rising.
“It’s a big movie because it’s about Venus and Serena and Will Smith is starring in it,” said Ellis, who plays opposite Smith as Venus and Serena’s mother, Brandy. “Not too bad to star opposite one of the biggest movie stars in the world.”
Ellis, who has had roles in “Ray” and “Get On Up,” not to mention a filmography spanning nearly three decades and two Emmy nominations, acknowledged her success in landing parts in biopics.
“Somehow I’ve come on their radar for these things,” she said of casting agents and directors. “The filmmakers on King Richard didn’t come to me. I had to work for that. I had to audition and do all the things to get that part.”
The work clearly has paid off, and Ellis says she believes her connection to Magnolia — a world away from Hollywood — has given her the authenticity that directors are looking for.
“I think there are some parts of my life that resonate with people who are saying and directing these films, and I’ve got to say, I think it’s my connection with Mississippi,” she said.
Ellis splits her time between the various places filming takes her, usually California, and Magnolia. When she’s home, she stays in her mother’s house outside of town.
Ellis returned home a few years ago to take care of her mother, who died following a lengthy illness in 2019. Around the same time, she was involved in statewide issues, and she was a prominent homegrown celebrity voice leading the charge to change the state flag.
“When I came back to Mississippi my life changed because I was home again and everything that mattered to me surrounded me and put me back on my feet,” she said.
When she returned to work on films, she said someone noticed a difference in her and asked her what changed.
“When I thought about it, that’s what happened: I went back home, I went back to what I knew and my family, and I was surrounded by family constantly and I was reminded of why I was doing what I was doing,” she said.
Ellis is one of literally dozens of people to come from Pike County and find fame, fortune and celebrity status, but unlike many of the other musicians, actors and pro athletes who were raised here, left and never resettled, she still wants to maintain that connection.
“I kind of had to divorce myself from the hometown girl does well and does the television thing,” she said. “I wanted to make the community of Magnolia and McComb and Mississippi proud. I wanted to make the state proud.”
But there was more to coming home — and working hard, she noted.
“I was there taking care of my mother so I had to work as hard as I could to get a job because if I couldn’t get a job I couldn’t take care of her,” she said.
But being in Mississippi hasn’t been easy for the past couple of years, she said. From a logistical standpoint, she had to work on the movie. From an emotional one, the loss of her mother simply makes it hard to return, she sad.
“It’s harder to be there now,” she said.
There will always be a permanent bond between Mississippi and Ellis. The only piece of property she owns is her mother’s house. Everywhere she stays she just rents, she said.
“I had a home to go back to because it was really my home,” she said. “I was renting in these other places where I was, but when I was home, it was my home. When I have to work prolonged periods of time I have to be there but when that stuff is done, I have to go back to my house. I like the idea for that when I’m home and when I come home that’s just my home.
“I’m in California at the moment because I’m here to do press for this movie, but when I’m done, I’m leaving here.”
The past couple of years have been tiring for everyone, and Ellis said she’s no different.
“I guess I have to be transparent and say I’m tired. These past few years have been very hard with me losing m mother, the triumph of getting rid of that flag,” she said.
She sees other issues on the horizon that need her attention, too, from women’s rights to voting rights and bridging the gap in broadband access in rural America, which is an issue that she knows firsthand.
“There are so many things happening in the South, with women’s rights being shaved away left and right,” she said. “You have all of these kids who weren’t able to be educated because they didn’t have WiFi during the shutdown. One of the reasons I came back to California during the shutdown is because I had to have WiFi. I live out in the boonies.
“All of these things really are the result of a world that doesn’t want to see the future happen. I’m one of those who wants a better future for everybody, not just for some of us.”