Regina King’s Whirlwind Oscars Journey Was 30 Years in the Making
February 12, 2019
Article taken from Vanity Fair.
After nabbing three Emmys in four years, the star of The Leftovers and American Crime pivoted back to film—and quickly became an Oscar front-runner for her moving performance in If Beale Street Could Talk. A visit with King in the midst of the awards-season swirl reveals a veteran performer learning some new ropes and contemplating what comes next.
It is the second day of 2019, and while the rest of the country is gently reneging on resolutions they made 24 hours before, Regina King is hurtling into the future. We’re sitting in a small room in a Beverly Hills mansion. She has spent the afternoon shifting from one soft power stance to another in a verdant backyard, making the unseasonably chilly day look warm.
With the photo shoot complete, King is readying herself to crisscross the country to accept various pieces of hardware for her resonant performance in If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins’s adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel that Annapurna is distributing. It’s the role that shot her straight to the front of the line for a best-supporting-actress Oscar.
First up is the Palm Springs International Film Festival—a star-studded gala where she will be shouted out onstage by an exuberant Timothée Chalamet. At the end of a long and grateful speech, the actress will wind things down. “I love being an actor,” she’ll say. Then she’ll pause, smiling before letting everyone in on an open secret: “It just feels good being Regina King.” A few days after that, she’ll be at the Golden Globes, accepting a statuette for supporting actress in a motion picture.
But before all this, in her cozy post-photo-shoot loungewear, King would like to know, genuinely, if what she’s experiencing is normal.
“How long has it been like this?” she asks, back in the rented mansion, referring broadly to the process of campaigning for film awards—which has, over the last few decades, morphed into an increasingly chaotic, if glamorous, obstacle course. Actors must serve untold hours of face time as their studios spend millions to net Oscar dreams, all while understanding that these dreams can be undone by the simplest gaffe.
King’s disbelief should not be mistaken for a lack of gratitude or total unfamiliarity. She has a trio of Emmys to her name and more than 30 years in the industry under her belt. It’s just that, for her, the relative major leagues of the Oscars race are uncharted territory. For years, she had thought the divide between film and TV—particularly the opinion that one medium was more prestigious than the other—had all but faded away. “It is very cool to be 47 and [have] this shit be new,” she says in that familiar voice, the one with the gentle rasp and native Angeleno curl. “Having this experience now, I see a whole ‘nother regard for film.”
King, a performer whose power is both daring and familiar, is uniquely positioned to know. Her career has been on a logical, steady ascent, one that has seen her go from solid supporting player to dominant scene-stealer. If you took a bird’s-eye view of it, you’d see a 33-year series of quantifiable upgrades—starting in 1985, when the 14-year-old with sunset-brown eyes joined the NBC sitcom 227. She cut her teeth watching star and producer Marla Gibbs command the show in front of and behind the scenes. “It was like college,” she tells me. “Marla was the first boss lady I got to see up close and personal.”
When the show ended, in 1990, King transitioned to movies and landed supporting roles in instant classics such as Boyz N the Hood, Poetic Justice, and Friday. This helped cement her place in the black imagination as an actor who is both regal and deeply knowable, like a member of your family—just transferred to celluloid. “Not everybody thrives in supporting roles. There are people who don’t see the value of them. Regina does,” says actress Holly Robinson Peete, who is among King’s closest friends.
“There are very few people that everybody categorically fucks with—and Regina is just one of those people.”
Then there were films like Jerry Maguire, Miss Congeniality 2, and Ray, which proved King could try on different genres with ease. These supporting roles were chosen with a specific purpose: after her son, Ian Alexander II, was born, King chose to limit herself to ensemble projects so she could spend more time with him. (Ian is now 23 and regularly accompanies her to awards ceremonies, including this year’s Golden Globes.)
That meant resigning herself to a career largely on television, a move actors of her caliber hesitated to make before the peak-TV era took hold. King dove in anyway, and came out on the other side with central roles in such shows as the critically acclaimed 2009 cop drama Southland and the beloved animated series The Boondocks. In the latter, King voiced brothers Huey and Riley; casting her as both “solved the problem of finding an actor who could keep up with Regina,” show creator Aaron McGruder says.
She came out of her TV-only period with three Emmys: one for her turn as activist Aliyah Shadeed in ABC’s tense anthology American Crime, one for playing the elitist Terri LaCroix in the same show’s second season, and one for portraying grief-stricken mother Latrice in the Netflix limited series Seven Seconds. She also produces and directs, having helmed episodes of series like Being Mary Jane, Scandal, Insecure, and This Is Us. When asked to name her directorial dream project, King says, “It’s tough, because now Viola Davis is doing it”—referring to an upcoming Shirley Chisholm biopic that Davis is producing and starring in. “It’s something that I’ve been working on for a long time. I’m still not letting it go.”
“If you came to this planet from Jupiter and you watched [Regina] on set, you would not know that her path to directing was through acting,” says Scandal star Kerry Washington. “She speaks so many of the languages of filmmaking as beautifully as the acting part.”
It tracks, then, that once King decided to return to feature films, her first role would be an Oscar-nominated turn in If Beale Street Could Talk. The story revolves around a young couple—Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James)—who are deeply in love; King plays Sharon, Tish’s mother.
Her biggest scene comes after Fonny has been falsely accused of rape and imprisoned. Sharon, desperate to help, follows his accuser, Victoria, to Puerto Rico, in the hope that she will recant. We witness Sharon preparing privately in her hotel room—standing in front of a mirror, putting on lipstick and her wig. Then she takes it all off and gazes painfully at her reflection, thinking of the ugly work ahead of her. The scene is simple and raw, bereft of vanity.
“In that moment, I didn’t have to give much direction. Regina knew exactly what she was doing,” Jenkins says later. “It’s incredibly vulnerable, powerful, and brave all at once.”
Despite her woes—financial burdens, battling racism—Sharon is a character buoyed by empathy, reminding Tish that love brought her into the world and will carry her through it. She and her husband, Joe (Colman Domingo), create a home that is both safe and progressive. “The Rivers family, with everything that they had up against their backs, they don’t operate from a place of fear,” King says.
Offscreen, the Beale Street cast bonded over dinners and chats in between takes. Some of the familial adoration they affected became permanent: “I don’t even call Regina ‘Regina’ too often,” Layne says. “When I see her, I call her Mama.”
Gabrielle Union has a story about snorkeling that ends with King rescuing her from a riptide, without hesitation. This is the kind of anecdote friends and co-stars often provide for this sort of magazine piece, intended to illustrate a subject’s likability. But Union’s comes with a borderline subversive punch line. A different black actress, she jokes, might have seen her competition drowning and turned away—the subtext being that this industry has a long history of pitting actresses (and especially actresses of color) against each other.
“But when I say she literally saved my life that day, she literally saved my life that day. That’s who she is,” Union says. “There are very few people that everybody categorically fucks with—and Regina is just one of those people.”
King frequently generates this kind of praise: that she’s not only real but real as hell. It’s vaulted her to a special place in the industry and especially among her black peers and fans, a recognition she finds deeply meaningful. King has a sixth sense when she’s out on the street and a black fan is about to approach her. “I feel the hug already,” she says. “It’s that family-reunion feeling.”
That feeling is on her mind when she’s plotting out potential future projects, like her Chisholm biopic, or one of her other dream movies—a black generational family story akin to Parenthood, Ron Howard’s 1989 dramedy. If this film ever comes to fruition, she wants to direct it and produce it with her sister Reina. Their company is called, naturally, Royal Ties.
King’s family has long been a source of support; Jackée Harry, who co-starred with King on 227, remembers the small army that would accompany the then teen actress to set. “She had her mom and her aunt and her sisters,” Harry says. “She had a tight bond, a tight family unit. She was taking care of them.”
But for all her talents, King still has a certain blindness when it comes to her status as a perennial awards front-runner. She never anticipated that she would be honored by the TV Academy three times: “Really?” she told the crowd as she took the Emmy podium that night to accept the third prize. “Say word.”
And even after those nearly consecutive wins, King was not at all prepared for the Olympic-level sport that is running an Oscar campaign. She’s learning everything as she goes, including the existence of entities such as the National Board of Review, which in November named her best supporting actress for Beale Street. (“I’m like, ‘Yes—what’s the Board of Review?’” she later joked in her acceptance speech.)
For the most part, King has opted to leave the prognosticating to the prognosticators, approaching the race with a sense of humor. “What does it mean for Regina? She didn’t get a SAG nomination!” King jokes, mimicking those who were shocked to see her miss a Screen Actors Guild award, generally perceived as a crucial step on the road to the Oscars. “Well, I’ve never gotten a SAG nomination, so nothing new for me there.” The closest she’s ever come was in 2005, when the Ray ensemble was nominated for outstanding cast. (Washington, her co-star in the film, thinks King should have gotten Oscar recognition for that film as well. “I’m happy that the world is catching up,” she says.)
Even without the SAGS, King has spent just about every other day this winter delivering acceptance speeches. It’s an exhausting journey—luxuriously stippled, of course, with trophies and compliments and a level of glamour that most people will never experience. But King is trying to stay genial, even in occasional cringe-worthy moments—the kind that will probably sound familiar to many black actresses.
Take an event leading up to the Golden Globes, during which a Hollywood Foreign Press Association member struck up an awkward conversation. “He said, ‘So, the other members are telling me I should know who you are,’” King says. “I just let him keep talking, and he said, ‘Yes, and you just were stunning in the movie, just fantastic in the movie. But you’ve been working for a while. You’ve done some Tyler Perry films?’”
King pauses, recalling how she shook her head and tried to press through. “I said, ‘No, no, I’ve never done a Tyler Perry film.’ And it’s just that moment of, like, man—you could just say that you thought I was great in the movie. You want to be gracious, but then there’s a part of you that wants to say, ‘We’re not all the same person.’”
At the Globes themselves, King wore a shimmering rose-quartz disco ball of a dress by Alberta Ferretti. She ended up winning best supporting actress, using her time onstage to pledge that all of the projects she produces from that point on will employ 50 percent women. In a later phone interview, King says that numerous men in the industry reached out to her afterward to learn more about the initiative—including Perry.
“It was important for me to use that opportunity to challenge myself, but also plant a seed in people,” she adds, noting that she herself was inspired by the Time’s Up movement and Frances McDormand’s inclusion-rider shout-out at the 2018 Oscars.
King cares deeply about the Time’s Up movement, which has made her question things she previously hadn’t. If she had been involved in it when she negotiated salaries earlier in her career, for instance, “perhaps I would’ve asked certain questions like ‘So, is somebody making more than me here?’” she says. “Now I am being conscious about things that I wasn’t.”
She can also chalk up her old approach to the very real limitations of being a black actress in Hollywood. King had to spend plenty of capital post-227 simply to land jobs; demanding pay parity as well didn’t seem within her grasp. “I didn’t think that I was powerless,” King says carefully. “But I didn’t think that I was powerful.” Now, though, she’s comfortable owning her power, thanks both to her seniority in the industry and to her busy producing-and-directing career. Her roles reflect that shift: in May 2018, King was announced as the lead in the upcoming HBO series Watchmen, Damon Lindelof’s reimagining of the genre-defying comic.
Lindelof, who previously worked with King on HBO’s The Leftovers, always hoped she’d sign on for his next project; in early pitch meetings, he described the character as “Regina, if we can get her.” He also knew from previous experience that King doesn’t commit to shows beyond a single season anymore. But HBO ultimately didn’t care, Lindelof says: “Having Regina King be the star of your show is worth basically saying, Let’s take it one season at a time.”
The day before the Oscar nominations were announced, King had a lengthy conversation with Kenya Barris, the Emmy-nominated Black-ish creator who signed a lucrative Netflix deal in 2018. For years, the duo have talked about collaborating; now that they’re in the midst of career booms, things are actually starting to materialize. “Our names are coming up all the time and we recognize that,” she says. “There’s more on the table.”
It’s a change King is seeing across the board—less talk and more action from studios and power players. Everybody, it seems, wants to be in the Regina King business. And why not? Business is booming.