Regina King in Her Element
September 9, 2021
Article taken from Vanity Fair.
I was a child the first time I saw Regina King onscreen, and she was a child too: The first thing I noticed about her character, Brenda Jenkins in 227, was that she looked like me. She wore her hair the way I did: large bangs falling across her forehead, top pulled back in a ponytail, hanging on the bottom, probably bumped with a curling iron. Her smile almost too big for her face. Even though 227 (1985–1990) wasn’t my favorite show, I liked watching it, mostly for Brenda, who resonated with me in a way the children of The Cosby Show or Good Times didn’t. The Cosby kids were too innocent, too precocious. The Good Times kids seemed kids in name and body only; so much of their actions and reactions were adult in orientation—too wise, too quick, too knowing. It is difficult to hit the sweet spot of truth writing children—they are often too naive and quirky, or too worldly. But through King, Brenda was the real deal. She was frank and inappropriate and funny and oblivious and messy and naive. She was genuine. There was much about her that I wanted for myself, most notably the ability to speak plainly from her perspective to adults, which was something I never saw in my world.
The next time I saw King onscreen, in John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood (1991) she had grown up, and so had I. Shalika, Doughboy’s outspoken friend, was my teenage opposite in almost every way: from her fashion, bold and confident, to her demeanor, brimming with agency. She took up space with her sharp mouth, her cutting eyes. She was quick to go blow for blow in spats with Doughboy, refusing to be demeaned or shamed. I envied her power of assertion even as I hid in plain sight in classrooms, under those childhood bangs. I lurked in libraries. In nearly every confrontation, I demurred. Rebuttals stuck like dry food in my throat. I wore shame like a shirt. In my secret teen heart, Shalika was everything I wanted to be.
Every time King is onscreen, she is real and immediate. There has always been an aspect of her characters I wanted for myself: Brenda’s humor, Iesha’s bluntness (Poetic Justice, 1993), Dana’s offhand humor (Friday, 1995), Margie’s passion (Ray, 2004), Sharon’s wisdom and tenderness (If Beale Street Could Talk, 2018), Angela’s self-assuredness (Watchmen, 2019), King’s own poise when she opened this year’s Oscars broadcast—a role she had only 24 hours to prepare for. King embodies her characters so fully, imbues them with such power, that it’s jarring to see her materialize on my computer screen, dressed casually. She seems smaller in real life, even in Zoom real life; something about the baseball cap she wears and the shifty focus of Zoom (no one knows where to look) gives her a guarded, vulnerable air.
King has been involved in many seminal Black projects in front of and behind the camera, all of which have informed my own life, and many of which were, like much Black American art, rooted in reality. Such art helps us confront and explore the realities of our existence; such art helps us navigate it. Her newer work seems to signal a flowering of experience beyond the real and into the surreal. Angela Abar in Watchmen is a superheroine. Erika Murphy’s world in The Leftovers is one shot through with mysticism. This, too, is a necessity; venturing into the fantastic enables us to envision what our lives could be.
“We’re not a monolith. We are quirky people. We can be the athlete and the nerd; we can be the athlete or the nerd,” King says, when I ask if these sorts of roles have been a conscious choice. “I just have a desire to tell stories that speak to me, you know.” She continues, “Even if it’s a fantastical story. I still feel like the story has to have some bit of heart in it in order to draw people in and keep people there.”
King realized early in her career that she didn’t land the part if she didn’t feel for it, innately. “Somewhere around in between Boyz n the Hood and Poetic Justice, having gone on a few auditions, a light bulb came on in my head and I was like, You know what? If it doesn’t speak to me on the page, if I’m not feeling that connection to it, I’m not going to audition,” she says. “It’s not fair to myself. It’s wasting the casting agent’s time, the producer’s time—and wasting my time, to be quite frank.” King wants her projects to have heart, and later I think that her early TV work probably taught her to value those moments of connection. Her favorite scene from 227, she recalls, “was an episode where Brenda has a moment with her dad. She is crying and he is very tender with her, and wipes the streaked makeup she isn’t supposed to have on from her face. I don’t really remember what it was about, but I know it was a moment that we rarely saw on TV.”
Now, as a director—for her feature debut last year, One Night in Miami…, she earned a Golden Globe best director nomination as well as one from the Directors Guild—King applies the same philosophy. “As the director, you’re dedicating even more time of your life, and you’re involved with every aspect of the filmmaking process, so you need to believe in what you’re doing.”
“Regina is full of life,” says Barry Jenkins, who directed her in If Beale Street Could Talk, a role for which King won both an Oscar and a Golden Globe for best supporting actress. (Jenkins was also nominated for adapting James Baldwin’s novel into the screenplay.)
BARRY JENKINS RECALLS HOW KING IMPROVISED TWO OF HIS FAVORITE LINES. “IT’S AN ELECTRIC MOMENT THAT OCCURS ONLY BECAUSE REGINA HAS TAKEN FULL POSSESSION OF THE CHARACTER.”
King, said Jenkins, is “really intense about taking ownership of the character, which, for me, is a terrific way for an actor to be. I say often to the actors, ‘The character is yours now.’ Myself or the screenwriter (if it isn’t me), once you’re cast, our shares in the character are diminished and it’s up to you to decide the degree to which you make them yours. Regina’s a ‘make them mine’ kind of actor. Which I love.”
He recounted a scene in which her character, Sharon Rivers, and Mrs. Hunt, played by Aunjanue Ellis, forget to take their coats amid the momentum of acting out the scene.
“Without prompting, Regina improvs two of my favorite lines in the entire film: ‘Get yo’ shit! Take yo’ shit with you.’ Teyonah Parris then follows Regina’s lead and takes the coats from the couch, tosses them rudely out the front door. It’s an electric moment that occurs only because Regina has taken full possession of the character. She’s wonderful!”
Jenkins added that King was ceaselessly on set (sometimes giving him the Dodgers World Series score—“she’s a sports nut”). Later, he realized she was “drinking everything in” because she would go from that job into directing One Night in Miami….
On either side of the camera, King keeps her audience by dint of not only talent and hard work but by what King says are “cultivating relationships that are going to be lifelong…15, 20, 30 years old.” (Though she demurs on whom those relationships are with: “They wouldn’t be long or strong if I talked about them publicly.”)
“Everyone in my tribe doesn’t have the same skin color, but everyone in my tribe definitely has the same sensibility,” she says. “So I’ve fostered really amazing relationships that run the gamut, that are not just all Black people, that are not just all women. It’s the totality of it all that has me where I sit right now.”
Damon Lindelof, who worked with King on The Leftovers and Watchmen, for which King won an Emmy, appreciates her belief in mutual respect. The film industry, he insists, can be a predatory place for actors, especially in TV. She seeks trust and true “partnerships,” as Lindelof says, which for him was initially jarring and ultimately refreshing.
“It’s basically like, ‘Hey, I’m sitting in this office with you because I’m open to the idea of essentially spending a year of my life playing this part—but I don’t know you. So let’s get to know one another.’ ” Her partnerships, he says, “become friendships, alliances, or whatever. But it’s like she’s an equal partner. And you kind of know that if you’re getting into business with her.”
“WHEN REGINA IS IN THE ROOM, YOU LET REGINA HAVE THE ROOM,” SAYS SANDRA BULLOCK. “EVERYONE’S GONNA BENEFIT FROM IT.”
Stars from across her decades-long career come forth to affirm. Renée Zellweger, who met King “100 years ago as big-movie neophytes” when they did Jerry Maguire, says she remembers thinking, “There’s a lot to learn from this rock star, and a friendship to treasure.” She’s admired her ever since—“genius, courage, beauty, kindness, grit.”
Sandra Bullock, who starred with King in Miss Congeniality 2 (a film Bullock immediately calls “a stinker”), says that their connection was immediate, and necessary. “Even in the bad films, you still need to be in sync, you still need to have a partnership where you’re supporting each other.”
“With Regina, there’s just a weight of knowledge she brings,” says Bullock. “I learned pretty quickly, you just, when Regina is in the room, you let Regina have the room. Everyone’s gonna benefit from it, even me.” Bullock says she and King are similar in that they take their work “insanely” seriously—not themselves, but what they do.
And, she adds, “we don’t take it for granted, and I think a lot of that comes from being a female. We’ve always had to be scrappy and put your head down and do the work and be grateful for what you have. As a Black woman, she’s had to do that a thousand times more.”
As pay and gender equity have become more common industry conversations, King expanded her ideas. “I have to be completely honest, I never paid attention to the pay difference until some years ago, when the conversations became very public,” she says. “I was embarrassed that I hadn’t thought about it before. I was just happy that I was making a career out of being an artist. I truly didn’t think outside that. I am so glad that women stood up and were vocal. That changed things for me.”
Later this year, King is back in front of the camera as “Treacherous” Trudy in Jeymes Samuel’s The Harder They Fall, which is set in the American West in the late 1800s. Though the feature will stream on Netflix, it will—COVID allowing—premiere to a live audience.
“It won’t be like One Night in Miami….” She pauses, and I hear tears in her voice. “We never got the opportunity to see our film with an audience. I’m grateful to be healthy. I’m grateful that all of our crew and cast are healthy. We got to be in so many different festivals…but we didn’t get a chance to share that, except through this,” she says, indicating the virtual realm. “That was disappointing. But everything is for a reason. I try not to question God’s will.”
“If you are a true film lover, there’s nothing like the theater experience,” she continues. “The postmortem is such a precious thing for filmmakers. When I say filmmakers, I’m talking about everyone involved with a film or part of making it. That’s special, to have that experience together. So it was tough for all of us. And when I say all of us, I mean all. of. us.”
The ensemble of The Harder They Fall is quite a lineup on both sides of the camera: Jonathan Majors as Nat Love, Idris Elba as Rufus Buck, Zazie Beetz as Stagecoach Mary, LaKeith Stanfield as Cherokee Bill. Jay-Z, Lawrence Bender, and James Lassiter producing. Boaz Yakin as Samuel’s cowriter. In the snippets you can see from the trailer, Black actors swagger, bejeweled, suited, and tough, through Samuel’s vision of the American West. It is dust-wreathed and red-rocked, sere and beautiful, flecked with snow. Cherokee Bill, Rufus Buck, Stagecoach Mary, and Bass Reeves are historical Black figures, but the music is as modern and propulsive as the action, wherein these same Black outlaws, some born into slavery, others not, exercise agency in every frame. They shoot, ride, quip, joke, and punch their way through a landscape that was fueled by an American dream that depended on their erasure and silence.
The older people in my family—my mother, father, and grandparents—love Westerns. I’ve never been able to watch them. They are always obscured by those enslaved men and women, those murdered Indigenous men and women, clustered just off the edge of the screen: invisible and present ghosts. For a time, every day I visited my mother’s house, she was watching the Western channel. They remind her of when she was a child, she told me once, because growing up in rural Mississippi, with access to at most two television channels, all she saw were Westerns. When I relate this story to King, about how so many older Black people I know love watching Westerns, she tells me, “Westerns were a definite nap. I just remember that I knew I was going to lay on the couch and fall asleep. Which is great. I mean, I was cool with it. I’m born and bred in L.A., so it’d be a hot Sunday, and the air conditioner was not going to be on. Hopefully a cross breeze would happen. So it’d be a definite nap, where you’d wake up and you’d be sweating because the sofa made you hot,” she says, laughing. “That’s my relationship to Westerns.”
Samuel changed that. He and King’s agent, Lorrie Bartlett, ICM’s head of talent, had been talking about the film for some time. When the script came around, King recalls, “I was like, ‘You know, it’s cool, but—it’s a Western, Lorrie.’ Then she was like, ‘This writer-director, he’s smart and something about him is special, and I really think that he’s going to do really big things.’ ” King promised to at least have a conversation with him.
She had been in Atlanta, shooting Watchmen, and the only way they were able to meet was over video. Samuel picked up his guitar to play some original music he’d composed for the movie. And they talked. He was “a force,” she says. “The way he was able to illustrate the landscape of the Western that he was going to do, and so clearly, I was able to visualize seeing all of these different shades of Black people just in a way that I had never seen before.”
King compared it to “like what I felt when I saw Pulp Fiction—like, I’ve never seen anything like this before. In this day and age, it’s really hard to come up with something that you’ve never seen before.” And so, she says, “I felt like, You know what? I’m going to take a ride with this cat. Either it’s going to be awesome or it’s going to be terrible. But I’m willing to take the ride. I’m going to go through the fire with him.”
Now, King can’t wait to watch it—no, she hasn’t seen a final cut, or any cut. She doesn’t like watching herself, she doesn’t like hearing herself—“for double digits of years, something that I’ve acted in.” She will walk the red carpet, she will do this cover of Vanity Fair, but she won’t stay for a premiere. For this film, however, there will be an exception, as there was for Beale Street.
“I just felt like Barry probably wasn’t going to be my friend any more if I didn’t see Beale Street,” she laughs. “Barry…was like, ‘You got to see it; you can’t not see it.’ And I was like, ‘I know, but….’ He was like, ‘I understand that you don’t like to watch yourself.…’ And I’m so glad that I did. I saw it with my son. Watching how it moved him as a young Black man was powerful.”
DAMON LINDELOF SAYS KING CAN MAKE ANY SCREENWRITING “COME OUT SOUNDING AWESOME. IT’S THE GREATEST GIFT IN THE WORLD.”
I tell King that before researching some of the real-life Black outlaws in The Harder They Fall, I had no idea that people like Stagecoach Mary and Cherokee Bill existed. “The way to think about it is that our town, the setting in The Harder They Fall, would be the beginning of a Tulsa. You know what I mean? The beginning of an Elaine, Arkansas,” she says, referring to the 1919 massacre of more than 200 Black sharecroppers who dared to ask for fair wages. “Everything has to start somewhere.”
Stagecoach Mary was born Mary Fields, an enslaved person who became the first Black woman to carry mail for a U.S. star route. Like so many Black Americans who sought freedom in the West, she was seeking not just to survive the trauma that had been inflicted on them but to thrive in spite of it. This is why they went West. I never learned any of this in school, in history class.
“That’s where we are as a nation. We are now interested in revising the revision,” says King. “We are thirsting for the true story.”
Treacherous Trudy is a revision and an amalgam. King has taken all of the trappings of the Western hero and made them Trudy’s: She is hard-eyed, quick-witted, ambitious, crafty, and seemingly directed by a unique moral compass. King sees Trudy as a departure from her other characters. “I can see how someone could watch Watchmen and see a bit of Lydia Adams that I played in Southland, see a connection between them in some ways,” she says. “Someone might see a bit of the Sam Fuller character in Miss Congeniality 2. I could probably see a little bit of those characters having similarities.”
The cast had to learn how to ride and shoot for The Harder They Fall. RJ Cyler—whom, along with Stanfield, King saw as her “little brothers”—learned gun skills on roller skates. Unfortunately for him, Elba is allergic to horses. Whenever they had to be on horseback, Elba had to dose up with Benadryl or Zyrtec. “And you could tell when the antihistamine or whatever that he was taking would start wearing off, because he would start to get nasal, and his eyes would start to get red.”
There will be no naps during this Western. The music is hip-hop, injecting Samuel’s fictional world with all the boastful swagger and bravado of the music genre. The title, The Harder They Fall, evokes Jimmy Cliff’s 1972 reggae classic, “The Harder They Come” (also the name of the film starring him):
The oppressors are trying to keep me down
Trying to drive me underground
And they think that they have got the battle won
I say “Forgive them, Lord
They know not what they’ve done”
’Cause as sure as the sun will shine
I’m gonna get my share now, what’s mine
And then the harder they come
The harder they fall, one and all.
“This isn’t Gunsmoke,” King says. “But as Jeymes would say: ‘But the film is bringing all the smoke.’ He loves when you just improvise. On a take, he’ll come over to you and say, ‘Oh, do that again! I want all of this smoke!’ ”
King’s horizon is all the smoke. She’s developing a feature adaptation of the comic book Bitter Root, about a family of monster hunters in 1920s New York City. When I ask King why she chose this for her next project, she extols the glories of Harlem in its renaissance, that dizzying, fruitful time when what we could be, who we could evolve to be expanded, exploded—a time when Hurston pulled us through world-ending hurricanes, Toomer sunk us in surreal Georgia fields, Ellison made us invisible men, and Hughes sang to us of rivers and dreams deferred. They transformed us through their art, and their possibilities for us reverberated through the decades.
Bitter Root is its own comic entity, belonging to neither behemoth, Marvel or DC. In that way, the project is reminiscent of Watchmen, which is its own brand universe with its own world building, its own history, despite being a DC comic.
“I totally appreciate comic books and graphic novels, but just even as a little girl, the way they read in the bubbles and things like that, I lose interest quickly. Now, as an adult, I will read them for the research. But I am a huge fan of stories that have been adapted from comic books,” she says, ticking off Wonder Woman, Superman, and the Incredible Hulk. And “I love cartoons that were adapted from comic books—love love love love love.”
King’s body of work shows that she is passionate about portraying all the nuances of the human spirit. She revels in humor and in joy. She recalls the fun she had doing a film called Year of the Dog as an airy, flighty woman who “probably doesn’t even watch the news.”
“Those people exist. They exist in all cultures and races,” she says. “There is a part of me that sometimes actually feels like that—like, I don’t really want to think about or talk about shit that’s deep.” She shrugs and relates it to an impulse to be comforted, and to comfort:
“You know what? I’m just gonna watch these Golden Girls reruns because they always make me feel good and they always make me laugh, and I always feel like I see me and my friends, my mother, my grandmother, in these women, some way, somehow. And, I want to tell those stories as well.”
We need that. It’s been a traumatic time for many these past few years, as violence and illness have taken our loved ones, undermined our most ordinary moments, uprooted them with paranoia and fear. Storytelling gives us connection. It allows us revision. We need stories to take us out of our lives for a moment, to alleviate our worries, if only for an hour or two at a time.
RENÉE ZELLWEGER, WHO MET KING ON JERRY MAGUIRE, REMEMBERS THINKING, “THERE’S A LOT TO LEARN FROM THIS ROCK STAR, AND A FRIENDSHIP TO TREASURE.”
Lindelof marvels at King’s work on Watchmen, her ability to bring vulnerability and complexity and humor. “The character was written tough. But I was surprised by how sweet she plays it…. You forget how funny she is…. That was something that surprised me,” he says. “Those scenes with, like, Lou [Gossett Jr.] in the second episode—she’s quite funny. But Angela isn’t trying to be funny. Regina the actor knows that it is funny. That’s 3D chess. When the actor is in on the joke and the character they’re portraying isn’t—like, that’s crazy.” If lines or a scene isn’t working, King “MacGyvers” the script, changing a few things here and there. “Imagine what it’s like for everything that you write, no matter how shitty it is, to come out sounding awesome,” he says. “It’s the greatest gift in the world, come on.”
King has worked hard to reach a place where she has agency and choice: how she presents herself to the world, including how she wears her power. That’s landed her on many a best-dressed list. For her Emmy win, she wore brilliant blue Schiaparelli couture. A glowing sea of orange in Christopher John Rogers for the Costume Designers Guild awards. Harper’s Bazaar praised her 2021 Oscars look, a winged Louis Vuitton with “modern-day Cinderella vibes,” as yet one more in a season of the star wearing “one legendary red carpet look after another.”
“I wouldn’t wear them if they had not taken the time to make the piece where it fits my body perfectly,” she says. “From Oscar de la Renta to Louis Vuitton and everyone in between, the moments have been special.”
I wonder how King envisions her future, whether there are other creative endeavors she wants to explore. King and I are of an age where it’s common to become soberly aware of time, where we envision the specter of years spreading away from us and our present sharpens into terrible, wondrous focus. She cites stars whose power has never dimmed, including Helen Mirren and Cicely Tyson, “rest her soul—she did it all the way, until the end, and fabulous all the way.”
And we can look far forward to watching King bringing all the smoke, all the time, all the way, too.