Will Smith Surprises 'King Richard' Costar Aunjanue Ellis at Essence Black Women in Hollywood Awards

"If there is a central word that describes Aunjanue Ellis, it is integrity," the actor said while introducing Ellis at the awards, where she was an honoree

ESSENCE Black Women In Hollywood Awards
Photo: Leon Bennett/Getty

Will Smith made a surprise appearance at Thursday's Essence Black Women in Hollywood Awards to present a very special honoree.

The actor, 53, became emotional while introducing his King Richard costar Aunjanue Ellis, who was one of the award recipients at the event.

"I'm so excited to be here for my friend Aunjanue Ellis," Smith said of Ellis, also 53. "I'm over 50 now — once you get over 50 you don't get a whole lot of new friends. For me to have found a new friend at this age is really special."

Smith, who like Ellis is nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in the movie, went on to tell anecdotes about the actress's unwavering commitment to the rules, and how she called him out on the King Richard set when he wasn't wearing a mask.

"The one thing, if there is a central word that describes Aunjanue Ellis, it is integrity," Smith said. "She don't care about money, she don't care about making our day on set, she cares about treating people right. She does not play injustice, she does not play brutality, physical or otherwise, and at the core of Aunjanue is a fierce, noble integrity."

"What is beautiful about being friends with Aunjanue is she demands it of you in the most loving way. In the few years that we've been together she has awakened this thing in me where she mirrors back to me the best version of myself," the Ali star continued. "She mirrors back to me what I'm supposed to be."

After exclaiming that he "wasn't going to be up here crying," Smith said it has been an "honor to work with" Ellis and "to deliver love to the world" with her.

"She keeps me focused on what we're supposed to be doing," he added. "It's been a pleasure and an honor. With the movie, we had to shut down due to COVID and start back up again with COVID protocols and stuff, so we've been like war buddies these last few years. I'm honored to stand here with you and beside you and for you."

In King Richard, Ellis plays Oracene Price — the former spouse of Smith's titular character and mother to his children, Venus and Serena Williams.

RELATED VIDEO: Serena and Venus Williams Join Will Smith at 2022 Producers Guild Awards to Celebrate King Richard

Ellis is nominated for Best Supporting Actress at this Sunday's Oscars ceremony; Smith is up for Best Actor for his performance.

The nod marks Ellis' first, while Smith now has four Oscar nominations under his belt. Two are Best Actor nods for 2001's Ali and 2006's The Pursuit of Happyness, in addition to his two this year for Richard — one for Best Actor, and one for Best Picture as a producer of the film.

A fellow Essence Black Women in Hollywood Award honoree on Thursday was actress Nia Long, who also addressed Ellis when she was on stage.

"If you don't win that damn Oscar, I'm gonna kick somebody's ass for real," Long, 51, said while accepting her award. "Not that you need it to be great, but it's your time."

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For her part, Ellis shared what she took away from working with Smith on the acclaimed film as part of PEOPLE's 2022 Oscars portfolio in this week's issue.

"It's very holistic with him, you know, who he is on camera with Richard Williams and how much he doted on those girls was how he doted on those girls when we weren't shooting," she said. "They fell in love with him, 'cause it's easy to do. It was great."

"What surprised me most about him was the first day that I went into rehearsal with him, he had Post-It notes of every scene broken down of the entire movie. ... I just thought, 'He doesn't have to do that,' " added Ellis of Smith. "It just shows his level of commitment even at this stage of his career. I was so impressed by that."

"The other thing that I loved about him and the experience of working with him is that it's an education in how to be a great superstar, how to be a great movie star," she continued, "but with him, it's really an education in how to be a great man. That's not celebrated enough."

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