At just 15 years old, Saniyya Sidney is already making a splash: She recently starred as Venus Williams in the biopic "King Richard" and later in 2022 will play Sasha Obama in the Showtime series "The First Lady."
In "The First Lady," Sidney will act alongside legendary performer Viola Davis — and while she said she was "excited" to work with the Academy Award winner, it wasn't the first time the duo have shared a screen.
In 2016, Davis starred in "Fences," a film adaptation of the classic August Wilson play. Sidney, then 9, played Raynell, a young child who Davis' character eventually raises as her own. Sidney told TODAY that it was a gift to work alongside the star again.
"Not only have I grown as an actress, but I've grown as a person," said Sidney. "I got to sit down with Miss Viola and have, you know, grown-up conversations. It was really something special and something that I always cherish for sure."
Sidney said when working with Davis and Lexi Underwood, who will play Malia Obama, she was able to "dive deep" into the relationships between the three women. In "King Richard," she showcased the relationship between the Williams sisters and their father. While bringing these parent-child relationships to the screen, her mother, Malik Sidney, is never far from her side.
When asked about what it's like working so closely with her mom, Sidney laughed.
"Man, I love my mom so much," the teenager said. "I've learned so much from my mom. She's one of the strongest women I know. My grandma was my best friend, and a lot of the lessons that my mom has taught me are what my grandmother told me growing up as well. So there are two women that are important to me, and my mom's always by my side. She's molded me into the young woman I am today and I'm always thankful for that."
In addition to portraying the relationship between parent and child, Sidney said that she became close with Underwood and captured their sisterly bond. The two spent plenty of time exploring the set of the White House, and Sidney said that the fictionalized space was very similar to the presidential residence. To fully prepare for the series, Sidney did research into the historic building, and came looking for some notable spots.
"I (came to set) and was like, 'Where's the movie theater?'" Sidney said, referencing a small private theater in the White House's basement. "They were like, 'Oh, you know about that?' And I was like, 'Yes, I did my research.' ... And there were so many portraits of the former first ladies and former presidents and I loved, you know, looking up just who was who. ... It looked exactly like the White House. I felt like I was living in it for real."
In addition to her busy movie schedule, Sidney is also trying to make positive change in the world. In honor of International Women's Day, Sidney joined Care.org for its #HerVoice campaign, which aims to encourage and uplift women around the world.
"It's an amazing honor," said Sidney. "I grew up giving back, so to be part of this organization is something that's so special to me, being that I'm a young woman. I think it's so important to use my voice, and get to be a part of an organization that helps young girls and young women around the world."
That sense of activism also extends to the projects she picks. Sidney said that while working on "King Richard," she was able to bond with the real Venus Williams and "dive deep into" conversations about what the film meant to both of them.
In her next project, Sidney will play Claudette Colvin, a civil rights activist who in 1955 refused to give up her seat at the front of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, for a white woman. Colvin, 15 at the time, was arrested and charged. Her record was expunged in 2021.
“Activism definitely does affect the roles I choose,” Sidney said. “I want to tell more stories.”
Sidney said that there's a special joy in telling the stories of real women.
"I love getting to dive deep into their story and get to know them and who they are and their heart," Sidney said. "I fall in love with every character I play."