SPOTLIGHT November 2020: Regina King, Actress, Activist, Moviemaker

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awfjspotlightsmallsmallRegina King is on fire. There’s no denying it. Though her acting career started in 1985, when she was only 14, she’s been scooping up awards left and right in the last few years, winning a Primetime Emmy in both 2016 and 2017 for her role in American Crime, and another in 2018 for Seven Seconds. Then in 2018, she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance in If Beale Street Could Talk, becoming only the 8th Black woman to do so in Oscar history. Last year saw her winning another Emmy for her work in The Watchmen. Netflix, which released The Watchmen, was so taken with her that they renamed their Twitter feed for a time as “Regina King Stan Account”. On top of all that success as an A-list thespian, King has stepped behind the camera. She is committed to balancing her acting career with finding time to direct as well. She is rising to that challenge, even as it sounds like only a superhero could do so.

ONSCREEN EARLY

Born in 1971, Regina King spent most of her childhood in Los Angeles, where she lived with her mother. Shortly after she started taking acting lessons, she started working on her first tv show, 227, where she spent 5 years playing the role of Brenda Jenkins. It was there that she was inspired by her tv mom Marla Gibbs. “She was the first that I knew that was producing, starring, and selling her own show.” explains King. “227 was a stage play that she took to NBC and sold it, and I got to have a front row seat to see a Black woman do that.” After the show ended in 1990, she attended the University of Southern California briefly, but acting called again, appearing as Shalika in John Singleton’s 1991 film Boyz n the Hood, stealing every scene she was in. Shortly after, she worked for the director again in 95’s Higher Learning.

A CAREER WITH STAYING POWER

After a series of roles that made her feel typecast as one-dimensional urban Black women, so she switched management, and in 1996 landed the role of Marcee Tidwell in Jerry Maquire. Over 20 years later, it is a role that still gets mentioned as a highlight of her career. From there, she worked steadily in films of all genres, from dramedies like How Stella Got Her Groove Back to comedies like Legally Blonde 2 and Miss Congeniality 2 to critically acclaimed dramas lie Ray, and of course If Beale Street Could Talk, for which she won an Oscar. She has also excelled on the small screen, and has performed in a wide variety of genres there, as well.

ART AS ACTIVISM

Whether as actor or director, King has chosen more and more in the last few years to create within a framework that gives platform to issues that are important to her. It would seem that commitment agrees with her. She has won awards for many of her most recent performances, from Terri LaCroix in American Crime to Latrice Butler in Seven Seconds to Sharon Rivers in If Beale Street Could Talk to Angela Abar aka Sister Night in Watchmen. All these characters reflect an aspect of African American life rarely represented onscreen.

Regina King in BEALE STREET

King believes the secret to great acting is putting your heart and soul into a role, as is coming with the whole backstory she creates for every character. She explains, “It may not necessarily be talked about or discussed on-camera or in the dialogue, but for every character I’ve played, there’s a backstory: who their parents were, were they college graduates, where they grew up. All of those things help to inform what whoever I’m playing will or won’t do. There’s no such thing as being too prepared.”
 
 
Regina King’s activism doesn’t stop with her acting. During the pandemic, when there was a call to make change and find justice for, among many others gunned down and forgotten, Breanna Taylor, she took part in A Town Hall for Breonna Taylor #SayHerName on The Root, saying, “Black women are the most marginalized people on the planet. Not until George Floyd, did I even know about Breanna. That’s a big pill that Black women have to swallow, the way our stories are captured in the media, if they are captured. How do we change that? It’s our responsibility as a human race to change and to say a Black woman’s name when it happens and never stop saying it. It’s going to take people with platforms to inspire people to do that.”
 
 
She has also amplified the need for gender parity in film and television, and spoke about it during her acceptance speech during the Golden Globes after her win for If Beale Street Could Talk, where she vowed to produce only projects with 50% women represented. She added, “I challenge anyone else out there who is in a position of power, not just in our industry, but in all industries. I challenge you to challenge yourselves to stand in solidarity and do the same.”

EXPANDING HER KINGDOM

King has also been producing for over a decade, through her production company Royal Ties, which is a family affair, owned by Regina with sister Reina, who started out as a successful actor, but quickly moved into producing. Reina operates as the head of production at the company.

In January of 2017, she inked a two year deal with ABC Studios, for which she produced the pilot The Finest. In May of 2019, she signed a multi-year first look deal with Netflix to produce films and series through her production company. She is also the executive producing her new film One Night in Miami.

FALLING IN LOVE WITH FILMMAKING

As much as King loved acting, she increasingly heard the call to direct. She wasn’t sure how she’d get into the game, but she knew she wanted to play. On the San Diego Comic-Con panel Women Rocking Hollywood, she explained how her desire took shape. “The beautiful thing about being an actor is that while I didn’t go to film school, I’m in film school all the time. I’m a bit of a control enthusiast. Being that way, when I was around 30 or 35, I realized that while I still loved to act, I wanted to be more involved in the entire production. As an actor you pretty much work with the director, other actors, and the wardrobe designer.” She continues, “It was always so fascinating for me on set, when I would watch all the different people the director, which unfortunately was usually a ‘he’, would talk to and interact with and the decisions they would come up with. Then, working with directors that weren’t the best, and having that contrast between directors that really cared about the actor’s process and those that didn’t, inspired me even more to be a director. I was very much aware of directors that seemed to not do their homework, and that’s frustrating as an actor, and so that also inspired me to want to do that one day.”

She set her mind to finding a way into that part of the industry. Then, something landed in her lap. “I was doing an interview on The Mo’Nique Show, and there was this artist on there called Jaheim and he asked if I’d be in his video, but I told him I didn’t do videos, and then I thought about it and realized it could be an opportunity. We had exchanged numbers so I called him later that evening and told him I’d be in his video if I could direct it. He asked if I’d ever directed before, and I said, ‘no, but I can do it.’ But my heart was racing. So Atlantic got in contact with me and asked if I’d ever done a treatment before and I said, ‘sure. yes!’ and they asked me to send them a treatment. Then my heart was really in my throat. Luckily I have a lot of writer/director friends so I reached out to them and asked where to start. One of my dear friends (producer/director) Tim Story, who I went to high school and college with, he said to tell a story with the song. So I just sat with the song for a few hours and just started writing and trusted myself to do it. That was the first thing that I did and it gave me the confidence to stop saying that I want to be a director and start saying I am going to be a director. This is not a vanity thing, I truly have stories to tell.”

Tim Story directed her to the Warner Brothers Directors Workshop and the ABC Directing Program, a program that fosters diversity for people of color and women. She shadowed Christopher Chulack and Nelson McCormick the producing director and director on Southland, and ultimately directed an episode of the show. She relates that she has had some very positive support by men in the industry. “It’s funny because I’ve had men be such huge champions for me and told me I could do it. Sometimes we feel like we need permission to do something, even though we don’t necessarily need it.” Committed to finding time for both acting and directing, King found an agent in another department in the same agency as her acting agent, which has proved a great move for her. “I’ve had really strong support even from my agents. It’s been this wonderful dance where the two departments in my agency work together and want to see me win and succeed in both acting and directing. We do a pretty badass dance to make this acting and directing work.”

KING’S REGAL FEATURE DIRECTORIAL DEBUT

The results bear that out. Her latest project, One Night in Miami, which is her feature directorial debut, is releasing in theaters on December 25th and on Amazon January 15th, and it has already been getting strong Oscar buzz. Adapted from the play of the same name by Kemp Power, the story is a fictional account based on a storied night that actually happened in 1964, when Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown all spent an evening together after the soon-to-be-called Mohammad Ali defeated Sonny Liston at the Miami Convention Hall. King explains what made her choose this film as her first feature as director. “I knew I wanted to do the film because we don’t get the opportunity to see Black men celebrated in such a complex way that often in film and TV,” explains King. “Normally when we see Black men in film or on TV, we are not able to see them be vulnerable and strong at the same time. That is something I felt Kemp captured so amazingly well. I became a part of the project because I was so inspired by the script which gives the opportunity to explore and respect these men in a moment and truly see who they were as men beyond and behind their iconic images.”

Still from ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI

According to those around her, she has more than achieved the goals she set for herself as director, to be collaborative, to be an actor’s director, and always to be prepared. When she is told how in sync she is with her stars, she explains, “There is a shorthand, there is a sensitivity that I have with the journey an actor has to take. By being an actor, you are deciding to do something where you have to be vulnerable. Perhaps being an actor’s director helps me better understand that vulnerable moment.” Set decorator Janessa Hitsman speaks to King’s spirit of collaboration and enthusiasm for research. “Regina is very approachable, thoughtful and really open to ideas. And one of the great things about her is that she is one of the most well-researched directors I’ve ever worked with and that is such a relief coming from the art department,” adds Hitsman. “Regina would see a reference book that I had and she would buy it and she would read it. She was constantly doing her own research which was amazing. So, I totally trust her instincts and her requests for what she needs to tell the story.”

As to King’s ongoing commitment to raise those around her, she has put her money where her mouth is, hiring women as part of her crew on the film. “There are so many artists who are women and people of color out there who aren’t getting an opportunity to work because of how they were born. I feel like if I am in a position that I can create an opportunity for someone that normally wouldn’t get it – but actually deserves or qualifies for it or has done the work – it is in a lot of ways my responsibility to do whatever I can to provide that,” she says. “No one gets to a place of success without someone else providing an opportunity. There are a lot of people of color, a lot of women who are ready for the opportunity but just don’t get it.” One Night in Miami is also in line with the projects she has chosen that amplify messages needed for our time, especially in 2020, with Black Lives Matter. “Obviously, the conversation is still going on about the need to stand up and speak out when so much of what Dr. King and Malcolm X were speaking, writing and preaching about still hasn’t changed,” says King. “There are a lot of parallels between what was happening 60 years ago and what is happening today.”

WHY WE CHOSE HER

Regina King has built a career on authenticity and staying true to herself both professionally and personally. She has climbed to the top of the actors A list with a filmography that shows many facets, and represents Black women with depth and meaning. Never one to settle without trying everything she feels passionate about, she has expanded her reach to producing and directing, showing herself to be a talent with vision in both spheres. She is also someone who raises those around her, both in her own industry and beyond. For that reason, she deserves not only this spotlight, but our continued fascination. We can’t wait to see her more break barriers, make history, and climb the carpet to take home awards as director. awfjspotlightsmallsmall

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Leslie Combemale

Leslie Combemale

Leslie Combemale writes as Cinema Siren for websites including LikeABossGirls.com, where she promotes women in film with her own column. She is in her third year as producer and moderator of the "Women Rocking Hollywood" panel at San Diego Comic-Con. Find all her interviews and reviews at cinemasiren.com.