The teen actor plays a famous sister this month before taking on the role of First Daughter
How did she get her start?
Saniyya Sidney knew she wanted to be an actor when she was just 4 years old, but her mom didn’t take her requests for acting classes seriously. “So I memorized scenes from Grey’s Anatomy, because my mom loved that show, and I acted them out for her,” recalls Sidney, who turned 15 in October. “And my mom was like, ‘Oh, wow, she’s not kidding!’” Her mom relented, and within a year Sidney had a manager. By age 8, she had booked her first role, young Kizzy in the 2016 remake of Roots. “I didn’t know how important Roots was until I got it,” she says. “My parents had my brother, my sister, and me watch the original. It was very important for us to watch something that was a part of our history, and to understand how far our people came.”
Which projects has she worked on?
Roots kickstarted an amazing year for Sidney. In 2016 alone, she starred with Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in Fences and with Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer in Hidden Figures; plus, she had a four-episode stint on American Horror Story opposite Angela Bassett. Thinking of the famous costars she had before even turning 10, she can’t help but laugh: “Sometimes I have to pinch myself and see if I’m dreaming!” In 2019, she appeared as the lead in The Passage, a Fox thriller. The show may have lasted just one season, but, she says, “For me, that was a milestone and something I could check off the list and continue up that road. It was definitely something that I was very proud of myself for.”
How did she train to play Venus Williams?
This month, Sidney plays groundbreaking tennis star Venus Williams in the Will Smith–led biopic King Richard. The movie tells the story of how Richard Williams mapped out the dominating careers of his daughters, Venus and Serena, in a 78-page plan (seriously) that he wrote before they were born. Previous to auditioning for the role, Sidney spent six months learning to play tennis, which provided an extra challenge: “I’m left-handed,” she says, “so I had to learn tennis with my right.” The hard work paid off; in the film, she unleashes Venus’s powerful serve with aplomb, and she also gained a love for the game. “When I met [Venus], I was just like, ‘I totally understand why you and your sister love it so much!’”
Next up, Sidney will take on another real-life role: Sasha Obama in Showtime’s anthology series The First Lady. Set to premiere in 2022, the show chronicles the experiences of a few FLOTUSes, including Michelle Obama, played by Viola Davis. While Sidney wasn’t able to meet the younger Obama daughter, she notes that “Miss Viola talked to Michelle Obama, and she was grateful that we got to tell the story.” Looking beyond the White House, Sidney’s goals include working with Ryan Reynolds (“I think he’s hilarious”) and getting into comedy. “I want to show the world my comedic chops,” says Sidney, who counts among her favorite films Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. “I like to think I’m pretty funny.”