Paul Cohen is a legend in the tennis world. He coached Venus Williams, John McEnroe, and Pete Sampras, to name just a few. Prior to coaching, he was a dominant force as a junior player, competed in NCAA championships, played in two Grand Slams, and became the first touring coach on the ATP men's tour. As the film "King Richard" accurately depicts, he's one of the best at what he does.
Starring Will Smith in the titular role as Serena and Venus Williams' father and tennis coach, Richard Williams, "King Richard" gives every side character their due. Cohen is played by actor and filmmaker Tony Goldwyn, known for "Scandal" and a long list of films, and Goldwyn's performance makes you believe Cohen is truly one of the coaching greats. No small task! Recently, Goldwyn told us about bringing Paul Cohen and his coaching techniques to life, as well as starring in the recent Broadway production of "Network."
'They Would Be Invincible'
Paul's approach to coaching was very egoeless. He wanted his players to become sufficient enough that they didn't need him. How'd you want to convey that belief?
Yeah. That's so interesting that you said that. I reached out to Paul when I got the part and I was researching him, and about what you were talking about. I saw there was an email address. And so I wrote to him and said, "I'd love to talk to you." We spent several hours discussing his approach to tennis.
Paul had a very systematic approach. I'll get the number wrong, but he said, "I'm going to teach all of my players. There are something like 237 shots, and I'm going to teach you every single one of those shots." And what he would do is he would grid out the court and he had them all numbered. It was shot number 136 or whatever. He gridded up the court and there was a certain position on the court, an angle of your racket that you needed in any given situation.
He was imparting this knowledge to his players and he felt with his technique, they would be invincible. And the combination of this knowledge, and this refined technique and intense physical conditioning, they would be unbeatable.
He was very, very committed to it, but I was really stunned that he had it all quantified. We were going into tremendous detail about it. Exactly where your racket position should be, and it was very scientific. You know, Paul is an analyst. For the bulk of his career, he was a very successful financial analyst. And that was stemmed from the way he broke down the game of tennis. I thought it was absolutely fascinating.
He also seemed adaptable, too, depending on the players he coached.
I think that they sound contradictory, but they're not. It's like, here are all the tools you'll need. If you take these tools and you're in intensely good physical condition, you will win, but then you have to adapt it to your game. Everyone has certain strengths and weaknesses and quirks and things that they need. He was talking to me about McEnroe and what his whole issue was with McEnroe's game when McEnroe came to him. McEnroe came to Paul at a time where McEnroe had this extraordinary career before he was 25 years old. And then things started to falter a little bit.
McEnroe, in Paul's view, had lacked a certain discipline and it was all raw instinct and he was brilliant, but Paul wanted to give him these tools to give him some real structure and discipline to work within. To be himself. To be his best self. It's a totally different thing working with, I think, Venus might have been seven years old when she first went to him. Maybe was a little bit older in the movie, but he was teaching Venus this same system. Now, Richard had a lot of disagreements with the way. He would insert himself a lot.
Yeah, the guys really respected each other and Paul tolerated — even though he disagreed with him — he tolerated him because he had incredible respect for Richard Williams and Richard's advocacy for his girls and the way that he parented them the fierce love and how protective he was over them. Paul wanted to support that. And that again, that's another example of going, okay, "That's what this situation is. This is different. I got to go with what's happening with this family and support what they're trying to do."
I think it was physical conditioning and mental toughness, but then he even had a different thing with Sampras. He said with Sampras it was about certain things about Sampras's serve. Paul said that there were certain adjustments he was trying to give that he felt made Sampras's serve the powerhouse that it came to be. So, everybody's different.
'The Williams Sisters … Really Changed The Game'
Even though Paul isn't as famous as, say, Elvis, do you still want to get as close as possible to him as a coach?
Yeah. The difference really is when you're playing a very famous person, you have a certain responsibility, or at least you have to decide, "Am I going to speak the way they speak and move the way they move?" It's going to be a distraction if you don't. They're like, "That's not Franklin Roosevelt. He doesn't talk like that." With a character like Paul, that people don't really know, you don't have to worry about that. It's better in a way for me, because it's more about getting inside of him and trying to honor the spirit of who he was and what he was about in this story, which I felt was pretty accurately portrayed in the script.
It wasn't like the script was creating a completely different human being, but we modeled my look after photographs of Paul and the way he dressed and the way he did his hair. And I was very attentive to what he told me about his stroke and the way he played because it was a very specific, traditional way of playing tennis that changed frankly, in the eighties.
And with the Williams sisters, they really changed the game along with some other players at that time. But the way Paul played was a much more traditional way and the strokes he taught them, the thing that's talked about in the script, of closed stance versus an open stance, the traditional way to hit a forehand with a closed stance and a backhand too.
And Richard was like, "No, they're going to hit open stance." And Paul really disagreed with that because he felt it didn't have power, but Richard thought it was more efficient. An open stance has now become the standard in tennis. Getting details like that right were really important.
It's kind of like the challenge of playing a musician, right? You have to be convincing as one of the greats.
Well, it's more like tennis people will know. My goal is always that someone who really plays tennis, who really knows the game would look at what I'm doing, go, "That feels authentic." That I'm relaxed while doing it. Obviously, for the really difficult stuff you have doubles. I had an amazing professional double who, when you needed to see me really hit the ball hard and accurately, he stepped in and you shot him from behind. That's the trickery of Hollywood.
If I was playing Andre Agassi or I was playing Bjorn Borg or a very famous tennis player, then everybody knows what that guy does. Paul, it's a little bit different. It was more about honoring the style of what he did and the spirit of it if that makes sense.
How about the way a tennis coach carries themselves? They just seem to walk and move with confidence.
That's right. Exactly. And that's an issue, being comfortable and relaxed. I did think about, "How does a coach stand? How did he stand?" Because they spent a lot of time standing on the court holding their tennis racket, just watching and commenting. A lot of it was just that. You want to do that in an authoritative way.
When you watch videos of Paul, there's one where he was watching in the French Open or something in the early '80s probably, and one of his players was playing and he's a fairly obsessive guy about technique and what's what, so I found that quite helpful and interesting.
'You're Definitely Buzzing'
Are you someone as, both a director and actor, obsessive with technique or is it more instinct?
No, I'm not. I work very hard. I'm very diligent, but it's kind of like athletics, I think. You work something so that you can forget about the work. It's a little different than coaching, I guess. Especially Paul had this real system that he was very quantified, and that's not the way my brain works at all. As a director, for example, when I'm working with actors, I want to help them just to spread their wings and stay out of the way as much as possible. And then if I need to encourage them or give them some guidance to do it with the lightest touch possible, because you want them to do their own thing. I'm not as systematic in my approach. I just kind of put my head down and grind it out until it feels effortless, I guess.
Are you going to direct again soon?
Yes. I'm working on a couple so we'll see. I really want to because I was doing "Scandal" for seven years. I had to sort of stop directing other than directing "Scandal'' now and then, so in the past couple years since we finished, I've been developing a couple of projects. Hopefully, in the next year I'll do another one.
By the way, you cannot see it but I have a playbill for "Network" way behind me.
Oh, do you really?
That was fantastic.
Wasn't that a great production? I loved doing that.
Just a thrilling experience. There's a scene where you and Tatiana Maslany are on the actual streets of New York City, being filmed and projected in the theater. I wondered, did passengers ever interrupt?
Oh yeah, a lot. Ivo Van Hove directed that production, just such a genius. We had cameras on stage, for people that don't know. And the actors on stage in this Broadway theater were projected on this giant screen at the back. It's a parody of television, a satirical story about the media. And there's this one scene where Bryan Cranston is doing a monologue and then it goes black.
And on the big screen you see me and Tatiana Maslany outside the theater, we're walking along 44th street doing a scene as our characters. And real people are just walking by and we're just on camera. Only one time did someone actually interrupt us, but people would stop and take selfies and comment on what we were doing. There was a kiss in the scene and people were hooting and hollering. It just depended on what was happening on the street. And then we walk down this alley and you're filming us. And all of a sudden we walked on stage and finished the scene and the audience was just blown away by it. It was really unique and fun to do.
How does it feel after performing a show as intense as "Network"?
Yeah, I always need a couple hours to come down off it. I always need a drink and some food. You're definitely buzzing. Any Broadway show I've done any time, you can't just go home and go to bed.
"King Richard" is now in theaters and on HBO MAX.
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