Long May She Reign: How Regina King Conquered Hollywood
On the Sunday morning before Christmas, Regina King shows up alone at the Villa Carlotta in L.A. That is, unless you count her dog, Cornbread, a 14-year-old Lab-Akita mix with yellow fur, one brown eye and one blue, and a walk that says he’s still too proud to start limping. Everybody on staff knows “Mr. Bread” at this private short-term residential hotel, a refurbished 1920s-era apartment complex where Hollywood luminaries such as the director George Cukor, the actress Marion Davies, and the producer David O. Selznick once lived. That’s because King holed up here for six weeks not too long ago, while work was being done on the home she owns nearby.
Given the history, it is a fine setting for a chat with modern Hollywood royalty, though it’s clear King doesn’t think of herself that way. After doling out greetings (hugs from her, sniffs from ’Bread), King, dressed in ripped jeans, gold Nikes, and a Baja poncho with the hood pulled up, bypasses the elevator for the stairs.
King is in town for only a few days before she’ll head back to New Orleans, where she’s in production on her first feature as a director. One Night in Miami is based on a fictionalized account of a real night in 1964, when Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay), Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown hung out in a hotel room after one of Ali’s bouts. Though she’s been working steadily for more than 35 years, the project caps a two-year period of peak Regina King. In 2018, she won her third Emmy, for her role as a mother whose son is killed by cops in the miniseries Seven Seconds. A few months later, she snagged an Oscar for playing another mom rocked by tragedy, in Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of the James Baldwin novel If Beale Street Could Talk. This past fall, she starred in one of the most talked-about TV series in recent memory, Damon Lindelof’s bold reinterpretation of the seminal comic book Watchmen. (Yes, she played a mom again, only this one was a masked vigilante who kicks white-supremacist ass for fun.)
The accolades have left King unfazed. The day before our meeting, she’d been at the 99-cent store buying toothbrushes. When we’re done talking, she’ll be doing a Costco run. One of the few celebrity perks King allows herself is occasionally hiring a driver (she’s had the same guy, Bryant, for 17 years), who she’ll send into a store if it’s mobbed.
“He’s not on call — it’s not, like, Beyoncé and Jay-Z,” she says quickly. She recounts advice she received from a friend of her mom, that she shouldn’t waste her paychecks on a big house. The advantage of making good money, the friend said, “is so you don’t have to deal with the bullshit. And you should always put yourself in a position to not have to deal with the bullshit, because you earned it. You worked for it.”
No bullshit pretty much sums it up. King is warm and disarming, but constitutionally incapable of suffering fools. If something hits her funny, she will not hesitate to let you know, no matter who “you” are. In 2010 — five years before #oscarssowhite — she published an open letter on HuffPost calling out the Emmys for routinely overlooking actors of color. When she won a Golden Globe for Beale Street early last year, she used her acceptance speech to call for gender parity, industrywide and outside of entertainment, vowing to start with her own production company.
She is just as forthright with her collaborators. Consider a conversation she had with Lindelof after she got the script for Episode Seven of Watchmen. It concerned a pivotal moment when King’s hero, Sister Night, a.k.a. Angela Abar, is coming down from an overdose of the drug Nostalgia. Barely conscious, she’s taken to the cavernous compound of the scientist-mogul Lady Trieu, the only person who knows how to extract the toxin from Abar’s body. In the script, Sister Night is in full costume when she wakes: tight leather pants, hooded robe, the paint of her spray-on mask melting down her face.
Arriving at the scene while reading, King called Lindelof. “ ‘Yeahhh . . . that’s some comic-book shit,’ ” she says she told him. “ ‘Lady Trieu’s not doing that. Lady Trieu is gonna clean this bitch up.’ ” In King’s view, the show had established Abar and Trieu as “powerful alpha women who move a certain way when they cross paths.” The idea that one would find her adversary in a vulnerable position and allow her to remain in her armor simply didn’t track. “To strip Angela from her comfort zone, from what she hides behind, is much more powerful,” she says. “That’s what Lady Trieu would do.”
In the show, Angela wakes wearing an emerald-green jumpsuit, face washed clean.
King is impossibly tiny compared with her screen presence, maybe five feet three, and looks easily a decade younger than her 49 years. She’s an expressive talker, clapping to emphasize a point and locking her golden-green eyes with mine as she takes in a question.
Growing up with her mom and her younger sister in the Windsor Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles, King was always “on punishment,” she says, grinning, as Cornbread slumps between us to solicit pets. “I would say I had a smart mouth. Probably caught a few backhands from my mom here and there. I was not one to mince my words. I was the kind of kid who would rather say nothing than to not share how I really feel.”
Because her mother was a teacher, punishment often consisted of being sent to her room to write an essay about her latest offense. While this house arrest was a breeze for her sister, Reina, Regina (both of their names translate to “queen”) hated it. “I would rather get a whupping and get it over with, because I did not want to stay in,” she says. “I like to be out and people-watch and breathe the outside air and walk barefoot in the grass. I’m an explorer.”
Until the third grade, she attended a school for Religious Science — “not Scientology” — a philosophy that holds that God exists in every aspect of the universe, and we can learn to harness that power to become our fullest selves. Her mom raised both girls in the religion, even after Regina moved to a different school. King says those teachings helped her to dispel the fear and self-doubt that cripple so many of us when we’re kids.
“As a teenager, you don’t know why you’re having bad feelings or anxiety,” she says. “Maybe it’s hormones or, shoot, the freakin’ news. But my mother would say, ‘Well, when that’s happening, just change your thought.’ And it sounds like” — she rolls her eyes and sighs like Brenda, the teenager she played on the Eighties sitcom 227 — “but I started doing that, and it started changing how I felt. I may not have been able to articulate it at the time, but I was very much aware that I can determine how I want to feel. It was a very powerful way of thinking.”
This rootedness and moral clarity come through onscreen. King is the North Star of everything she’s in, no matter the role. In Jerry Maguire — a film that featured the world’s biggest movie star in Tom Cruise, was a breakout for Renée Zellweger, and won Cuba Gooding Jr. an Oscar — King’s Marcee Tidwell, wife to Gooding Jr.’s egomaniacal wide receiver Rod, is the emotional touchstone. She’s the one character who never stumbles, whose love, faith, and grit are unwavering. In Watchmen, her renegade cop Abar beats a man till blood pools outside of the interrogation room, and you still feel like she has the high ground every step of the way.
After five years on 227, King enrolled at USC, at her mom’s insistence. She liked acting but was considering becoming a dentist, until the director John Singleton cast her in his debut, Boyz n the Hood, and then in his follow-up starring Janet Jackson and Tupac Shakur, Poetic Justice. After that, she left school, and has had at least one credit every year since but one.
Along the way she worked with, well, everyone, and made friends on every rung of the Hollywood ladder. She became a big enough star to be a regular guest at Prince’s post-Oscars parties. Actually, she became a big enough star to drink a little too much champagne with Reese Witherspoon en route to one, konk out on a couch head-to-head with her while their embarrassed husbands played pool nearby, and still get invited back.
“Who falls asleep at a Prince party?” she says, tossing her head back and cackling at the memory.
Her self-possession, combined with what Lindelof calls “incredible taste,” allowed King to navigate Hollywood with basically none of the missteps and misfortunes so many actors experience. No scandal, no regrettable projects. Her life has not been without heartbreak — she endured her parents’ painful divorce as a girl, and then her own, in 2007, after 10 years of marriage to the father of her 24-year-old son, Ian — but rather than metastasize into lasting psychic wounds, it seems only to have fortified her.
“After she won the Oscar, a part of me was like, ‘Oh, that’s gonna be the thing that finally changes her,’” says Lindelof, who first worked with King on his HBO series The Leftovers. “But it somehow humbled her even more. She didn’t do that thing actors do, where they’re dismissive; she understands the Oscar means something. But she identifies the things that are real and authentic and doesn’t waste time on the rest.”
Her close friend of 20 years, Gabrielle Union, tells me, “Some people, their attitude, their personality, the access they allow, depend on how they’re doing. She’s been the exact same. With all the awards, the same. When you’re in a drought, the same. She’s consistent, authentic, and clear in who she is. And she’s fun as fuck.”
Directing a movie has King energized in a new way. She’s helmed plenty of TV episodes, but One Night in Miami is her first time being a field general on a project of this scale. “I’m a control enthusiast, so it works out really well,” she jokes.
Perhaps the only part of the process she’s not looking forward to is answering questions about whether she’s picked up the gauntlet she dropped at the Golden Globes: making the production 50 percent female. Though her company isn’t overseeing the film, she and her producers reached for parity — and ran into problems that plague so many industries.
“In a lot of places — construction, special effects, makeup, gaffers . . . there just aren’t women that even do those jobs,” she says. “So, I’ve been talking to the men who were hired in those positions about outreach programs. Because there are a lot of women in regular construction who probably have no idea that construction workers are needed to build sets.” She also plans to suggest that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences begin similar initiatives with performing-arts schools. “They have the tentacles to create [change],” she says, “but it probably takes a person like me to say, ‘Have we ever thought about this? What can I do to help it happen?’ ”
Of course, King knew from the moment she issued that challenge she’d have a steep uphill climb. And despite the obstacles, she notes that 74 of the 129 people thus far hired to work on One Night in Miami are either female or of color.
“I did say, ‘It’s not gonna be easy,’ ” she says. “But no one heard that. Women that understand this from an experiential place heard it and knew this was a call to action for all of us. But I saw a couple of writings, by white men, that were like, ‘This is ridiculous that she would say this.’ Well, just the fact that you said this is ridiculous means that you’re one of those people that’s the wall or door that we have to kick the fuck down, and say, ‘Stay down!’ as we go and get people on board to make sure we have a future that’s reflective of our population.”
The intensity of her gaze recalls a point earlier in our conversation, when she talked about the moment acting grabbed ahold of her as a young girl. She described seeing Sally Field’s Oscar-winning portrayal of a single-mom-turned-
labor-organizer in the 1979 biopic Norma Rae. “I just remember thinking, ‘I want to make people feel,’ ” she’d said, her eyes widening. “I was not old enough to really understand what was going on, but I knew she was fighting for something, and I knew she believed in it.”
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