Who watches the Watchmen? Not Regina King. At least not initially.
When the Academy Award-winning actress agreed to join HBO’s new “Watchmen” series, she had not seen the 2009 film of the same name directed by Zack Snyder. She also hadn’t read the ’80s DC Comics tale by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, widely considered to be one of the greatest graphic novels of all time. Not that she didn’t like superheroes — she was an avid fan while growing up, especially of Spider-Man’s early-’80s animated adventures.
Showrunner Damon Lindelof was planning to give the “Watchmen” story quite a twist — so he told King to use her unfamiliarity to her advantage. It’s a different approach compared with many actors who land superhero roles and are immediately handed a stack of comics.
“He didn’t want me to confuse how he saw this world,” said King, who worked with Lindelof on HBO’s “The Leftovers.” “He was right.”
“Because I did watch the film after [filming the pilot], and I would have been confused,” she added. “They stand on their own. They don’t even feel related to me in any way. Which I think is a great thing. I think that’s the beauty of Damon making the choice of using the [comics] as canon instead of trying to duplicate, from my understanding, something that was already great.”
“Watchmen,” debuting Sunday on HBO, departs from the original story’s nuclear-war fears of the ’80s. The series instead leaps from the Tulsa race riots of the 1920s to a present-day battle between vigilante cops and a group of masked white supremacists. King said the sensitive subject matter is a way of addressing present-day issues while also paying homage to Moore and Gibbons’s creation. It’s a topic bold enough to carry the “Watchmen” name.
The show “is using the current [political] climate to help tell the story,” said King, who plays Angela Abar, a police officer turned vigilante who’s also known as Sister Night. “In all honesty, of the other big things that are happening in our country right now, I don’t know what really is bigger than [white supremacy]. Everything is just bubbling up right now in real life. There’s no more hiding in plain sight. People are wearing their racism on their sleeves.”
In “Watchmen,” Robert Redford is the president of the United States — he doesn’t play the president, he is the president, although he does not appear as himself, at least through the first six episodes made available (his candidacy was implied at the end of the original comics run). He has handed out reparations, called “Redford-ations,” to African American descendants of those who suffered from racial violence in Tulsa. Rising out of that attempt to make amends is a hate group called the Seventh Kalvary, which wears the iconic “Watchmen” Rorschach mask (in the original comic it was worn by a crime-fighter). King’s Sister Night is a part of the police force tasked with hunting them down.
King said the show isn’t just about race. “There’s a bit of a love story in there. There’s a historical story in there. It’s a [mix] of quite a few genres. As the story goes, I hope it becomes a little more meta. I hope that people receive it that way. It’s provocative.”
“Watchmen” will feature some classic character appearances, such as Jeremy Irons in the role of Ozymandias (who was played by Matthew Goode in the movie), the mastermind behind the world-altering scheme that killed millions in the original story, but King’s character, along with the majority of the cast, are new to this universe.
“At first I kind of felt, like, how are those die-hard fans going to feel about the introduction of a new character?” King said. “I also felt a little bit of relief that I don’t have to feel like I have to live up to a character that’s so beloved.”
This won’t be the only time King will be a part of a comic-inspired series for HBO, which is picking up two seasons of the acclaimed animated series “The Boondocks” (formerly on Cartoon Network) for its upcoming streaming service HBO Max.
King, who voices “The Boondocks” kid brothers Huey and Riley Freeman, says she can’t wait to see what creator Aaron McGruder has been working on.
“I told Aaron, ‘Your voice has been missed.’ [He] left a lot on the table there,” King said. “We needed to hear [his] commentary through a lot of this [political] stuff.”
King is proud to be playing a black superhero inspired by a popular comic book universe in a post-“Black Panther” world. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who plays her husband on “Watchmen,” was a major villain, Black Manta, in the billion-dollar grossing “Aquaman,” which starred a biracial titular hero in Jason Momoa. A lead couple of color is yet another example of comic book adaptations’ efforts at inclusion.
She also wouldn’t mind making a trip to Wakanda when director Ryan Coogler’s highly anticipated “Black Panther” sequel arrives in 2022, even if it means going up against King T’Challa herself.
“Even if I was a villain, I would love to be in ‘Black Panther 2,’ ” King said with a laugh. “Look, I will find a way to make it happen.”