Regina King’s First Oscar Nomination is Just Part of Her Trailblazing

Actress Regina King

Everyone, it would seem, loves Regina King.

In line at a Hollywood coffee bar, the barista offers the 48-year-old actress heartfelt congratulations on her Oscar nomination for “If Beale Street Could Talk.” While drinking her latte, King, wearing sweats so she can get in a quick gym workout before flying to Atlanta, where she’s shooting HBO’s top-secret “Watchmen” adaptation, is recognized by a woman at the next table. She leans in and offers well wishes.

“I’m nominated too,” she whispers, as if sharing membership in a secret society. It’s sound editor Mildred Iatrou, feted this year for “First Man.” “I loved your movie,” she tells King. “I wish it had been nominated.”

So it goes. At the Oscar luncheon last week, King received a thunderous ovation when her name was called, the rapturous response rivaled only by the applause greeting Spike Lee. Lady Gaga whooped for her. Mahershala Ali embraced her and then almost fell to the floor laughing at something she said. And King, dressed in a pink satin Prada gown, posed for picture after picture inside the Beverly Hilton hotel, taking it all in with an appreciation that has not diminished since “Beale Street” premiered in September at the Toronto International Film Festival.

“This thing called awards season, it’s something else, man,” she says, smiling. “It’s like running for office. Not complaining, just stating. And I had no idea.”

King owns three Emmys — two for her work on John Ridley’s raw anthology series “American Crime” and one last year for her portrait of a grieving mother on Netlfix’s limited series “Seven Seconds.” She likes to say she’s a trailblazer in bringing movie actors back to the small screen. After beginning her career with a five-year stint on the NBC sitcom “227,” King made her mark in movies, ranging from her debut in John Singleton’s “Boyz n the Hood” to prominent roles in “Friday,” “A Thin Line Between Love and Hate” and “Jerry Maguire.”

She returned to television in 2007, first playing the president’s attorney sister in the sixth season of “24” and then seguing into the acclaimed crime drama “Southland” for a five-year run as LAPD Det. Lydia Adams.

King says she made the career switch for primarily one reason: Her son, Ian, was 11 and she no longer wanted to be away from home or take him out of school. She told her agent she needed to stay in Los Angeles.

“My reps were, like, ‘Are you sure about that?’” King remembers. “I was sure. And it ended up being a blessing in every way. ‘Southland’ was life-changing. They became my family. Ian would come to work with me at 5, 6 in the morning, maybe take a nap, eat breakfast, and the Teamsters would take him to school for me. And after school, they’d pick him up. That’s what I mean when I say ‘family.’ And I got to play a role that was not remotely close to anything I’d played before.”

Flash forward 11 years from that initial decision, and Ian, now 22, is seated between his mom and actor Brian Tyree Henry at the Toronto International Film Festival world premiere of “If Beale Street Could Talk.” An adaptation of the 1974 James Baldwin novel, the movie focuses on Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James), lovers whose bond is ruptured when Fonny is falsely accused of raping a woman. King plays Sharon, Tish’s strong, loving mother.

“Beale Street,” written and directed by Barry Jenkins, shifts between moods of anger, despair and optimism. It’s a story of love between a man and a woman, between friends, between family, between community members. And watching it, King says, her son saw himself in Fonny, a young, sensitive black man, an artist devoted to his woman and his craft. And in identifying with Fonny, Ian told King that night in Toronto that he saw himself on screen for the first time.

“Movies, television a lot of times puts young black men in the same box — hard upbringing and from the hood and getting into the psychology of why they put on that front, that armor to protect themselves,” King says. “But there are young men — and I know, because my son is one of them — that are strong men but are also sensitive and know how to love with delicacy. And he hasn’t gotten to see that. He hasn’t gotten to see that young man who’s an artist that just loves strongly. So I thank Barry and Stephan for that.”

Playing Sharon, King thought of her grandmother and, particularly, her mother, a teacher who told King and her sister to dream big and that they were “only as small as their thoughts.”

“To this day, my mother is always telling me she’s proud of me,” King says. “As a kid, a lot of things I didn’t do was because I didn’t want my mother to be disappointed with me. That’s the most devastating thing, the times I’ve disappointed my mom. I don’t smoke cigarettes to this day — don’t get me wrong, if everyone else is smoking, I might have one — but as far as being a cigarette smoker, I remember getting caught by my mother and how disappointed she was. And being a teacher, she comes up with creative ways to express her disappointment.”

Jenkins calls King an “empath,” saying he needed her in the role because she could play a younger mother who’s “not a superwoman — but when she has to be, she is.” They first talked about “Beale Street” on a Skype call, mainly for Jenkins to make sure the vibe was right. King had put off the call because she first wanted to read Baldwin’s book and be prepared. When they finally spoke, she had a lot of thoughts and expressed them to Jenkins in what he calls a “soft but oh-so-persuasive way.”

“I am a bit of a control enthusiast,” King says, smiling. She says this by way of explaining her passion for directing, which she began in “Southland’s” final season. Since then, King has directed regularly, helming episodes of “Scandal,” “Shameless,” “This Is Us” and “The Good Doctor,” among other shows. She also has ambitions as a producer, recently selling a TV pilot episode for a series about the Holmes sisters, five black women, all officers in the NYPD. (ABC did not pick it up.)

After she finishes “Watchmen” in June (showrunner Damon Lindelof has sworn her to secrecy; she can’t even say what character she’s playing), King hopes to move immediately into one of several other projects she’s developing. And in doing so, she plans to make good on the vow she made while accepting the Golden Globe for “Beale Street” — that women will make up 50 percent of anything she produces.

King had not planned on the specifics of that promise before making that speech on that big stage.

“I finished, and I’m, like, ‘Oh, wow. Now it’s on,’” she remembers. “But everyone’s response was so positive and energized, the concern for what I said was fleeting. It probably lasted seconds. And, you know, I like a good challenge. It motivated and inspired a lot of people and, at the end of the day, the best gift a human can give is inspiration.”

(Article written by Glenn Whipp)