Saniyya SidneyEmerging Masters

Saniyya Sidney: “This is what I want to do”

Short Profile

Name: Saniyya Sidney
DOB: 30 October 2006
Place of birth: Los Angeles, California, United States
Occupation: Actor

Saniyya, when did you first fall in love with acting?

I would probably say it was during the first audition that I've ever had, which was also my first self-tape, and I remember just being so free, and feeling like this is exactly what I'm supposed to be doing. I let my hair down; there was no one telling me to sit still or what to do… It was just right. The audition was for a commercial, and I remember I just had to sit there and laugh. And at first, I really forced it, but my manager asked me, “What is the funniest thing that could happen that will make you die laughing?” So she recorded me telling the story of what would make me laugh... And it was just natural. And it was just me. She got the best laugh ever, and that's what got me the audition because I was being myself. I realized that I don't have to be someone else to necessarily be a character, I can create them within, and grow them within myself.

How old were you at the time?

I was five years old!

It’s pretty incredible that you knew this was the path for you, even at such a young age.

Oh, my goodness, I always knew that I wanted to express myself or do something for an audience. I remember I watched E.T. when I was five, the same age as Gertie in the film, and it was one of those movies that pulled at your heartstrings! I always cried! I call it The Spielberg Effect, because anything Mr. Spielberg does, I'm always crying. (Laughs) That was something that really inspired me to just go out there and do something myself. I started asking my mom if I could take acting classes and she was always saying, “No, no, no, someday you're gonna grow out of this idea.” And she ignored me for a year until one day, I put my foot down, like, “Mom, this is what I want to do.” I started going to classes, and I was the youngest girl there. But it was like kismet, you know? That’s where it started, and it’s just grown from there.

“I felt ready, and I think that’s important. You don’t want to step into something that you’re not fully prepared for.”

And you weren’t shy or scared to be performing in front of people?

(Laughs) No, I recently found home videos where my aunt was recording me and my brother, and I was dancing and singing and posing. I’d make my little cousins pretend we were in a band. My brother used to play the drums with us, so it was like Fleetwood Mac. I’ve never really been shy about any of it!

What about when you had your first film role? Did it feel different being in front of a camera and on a real set?

Well, my first real big role was for the series Roots, I played the young Kizzy Waller. At the time I was just eight or nine years old, but I remember just sort of stepping into it. I was so prepared and I think that was a blessing because going to my first table read and doing my first fitting and all of that, I could have been nervous but I just was so ecstatic. The nerves were good because I felt so ready to get on set and see what it was really like. I felt ready, and I think that's important. You don't want to step into something that you're not fully prepared for. I'm really big on that. That definitely was a milestone for me, because it showed me that preparation is key.

What role does the film’s director typically play in helping you get to that place of complete and total preparedness?

For example, working with Mr. [Denzel] Washington on Fences, he really brought us all together and created a family before we stepped on set in order for us to fully embody and become our characters. We all flew to Pittsburgh and rehearsed for weeks with one another, every single day, talking about our characters and what was on our minds. We were going through the script, from beginning to end, just to find the freedom in it. I remember as well, one time he had us do the whole entire movie in British accents just to get that playfulness! (Laughs) And I think that was so important.

That familial feeling seems like it was present on the set of King Richard as well, no?

Absolutely, yeah. When I first met Demi [Singleton], I was 13 and she was 12, and working so closely together over the course of a couple years really grew us as actresses, and also as people. We challenged ourselves and we pushed ourselves to a point we didn't even know we were capable of. Especially watching Mr. Will [Smith] really become Richard, that gave us the freedom just to be Venus, and Serena, you know? We would talk in character even off camera, we would call Mr. Will dad… And sometimes the amazing director of our film, Reinaldo Marcus Green, just kept the cameras rolling and we didn’t even know because we were so into that world and those characters. It was cool in the end to see some interactions that we didn’t know were even being filmed! It was an awesome process.

Did it ever feel silly or funny to be method acting like that?

There was moments where we would laugh or think, “Yeah, this is kind of weird,” but at the same time, I'm so honored that we're doing this. That’s our job as actors! Something I’m focusing on is to not always make everything a problem. And it was conscious, like, this is what we have to adapt to, so we just hopped into it.

“A lot of people think it’s easy to just go and say a line and think that’s what acting is. But it’s the dedication, the preparation, and the drive as well.”

I can imagine that it was sometimes very emotionally draining or tiring to be inhabiting a character like that all day long.

A little bit, but whenever I felt tired, it meant that I was doing something right. If ever a scene was done and it felt tiring or draining, it’s because we were on such a high and we let all that energy out on the table — and that's incredible. Even learning tennis, that was something that was new within itself, because I didn't play sports and I'm also left-handed, so when I was playing right-handed like Venus, everything was backwards. That could all be draining, for sure, but it's a good drain because it means that I'm working hard and embodying this character.

Even though it’s gruelling work sometimes, it’s an essential step in bringing that authenticity and realness to your work.

Definitely. You can learn so much being within any character, and then you can always take that with you into the next character — so it’s really important to stay present when you’re on set. A lot of people think it's easy to just go and say a line and think that's what acting is. But it's the dedication, the preparation, and the drive as well. You really have to put 110 percent in it, commit to it, and be willing to work really hard.