Regina King TV Director
Terence Patrick for Variety

“I just filmed my first car crash!”

It’s the fourth episode of ABC’s new thriller “The Catch,” the latest entry from Shondaland’s camp, and the director is excitedly recounting the weekend’s (mis)adventures to the assembled crew, regaling them with woes of rain and other production complications.

But no matter. The talent that Regina King brings in front of the camera is just as abundant behind it, which is where she can be most often found of late. The Emmy-winning actress — crowned last September for her work in ABC’s “American Crime” — has launched a parallel second career as a director. Since making her episodic helming debut on “Southland” in 2013, she’s been lining up credits on not only “The Catch” but ABC’s “Scandal,” BET’s “Being Mary Jane” and OWN’s “Greenleaf.”

“It’s an opportunity to be more involved in telling the story,” she says. “Having a little more control — that might have something to do with it.”

The idea of moving behind the camera was born when King was a guest on “The Mo’Nique Show” along with R&B artist Jaheim, who asked her to appear in one of his videos. She agreed — but only if she could direct it, too. When he asked if she’d ever written a treatment before, she bluffed — and pulled it off. Atlantic Records was thrilled with the final result for “Finding Your Way Back.”

Now she’s firmly a part of the Shondaland family.

“The best way to be invited back is to tell a good story visually, and to make sure you honor the tone the creator has established for the entire show.”
Regina King

Director Paris Barclay was impressed enough with King’s visual style to encourage her to enter a broadcast network directing program. “He said it would help people take me more seriously as a director if they know I was actively pursuing learning about it, outside of what I picked up being on set as an actor,” King says. She chose ABC’s training program for one reason: Shonda Rhimes.

“More terrifying to me than directing is sitting in front of a blank piece of paper and finding the inspiration to come up with a story,” King adds. “(Shonda is) just so exceptional at it.”

Indeed, the program gave her the opportunity to shadow directors in Shondaland; she was on the set of “Private Practice” the day the show was canceled. But that led to an introduction to “Scandal” producing director Tom Verica, who has become a mentor. “He saw something in me I didn’t see in myself,” she says. “Shadowing Tom was a crash course in psychology, directing, leadership — so many things all at once. He’s so good at what he does and remains a good person throughout.”

Verica, long a fan of King’s acting, is equally struck by what she brings as a helmer. “It’s quite overwhelming when you suddenly have an entire crew waiting to see what you want to do with a scene,” he says. “And I’ve seen her thrive in that position.”

“One of the biggest gifts we ever got was Regina King walking in the door,” says Betsy Beers, partner at Shondaland. “She’s got excellent taste and ideas. She’s done a tremendous job on the episodes she’s done for us. To have her in the director’s chair for us, nothing could make me happier.”

Her episodic directing debut on “Southland” was in itself a family experience; she was the first cast member to helm the series. “I’ve never watched more people want to see someone succeed than in that moment,” recalls co-star Shawn Hatosy. “She was the perfect leader. Her instincts were spot-on. She didn’t waffle in her decision-making process, and yet she was open to collaboration.” Hatosy, now at work on TNT’s new drama “Animal Kingdom,” hopes to see his former co-star behind the camera there, too.

On the set of “The Catch,” King huddles with stars Mireille Enos and Peter Krause between takes. Her tone is warm, encouraging, supportive. “That’s awesome!” she shouts from behind the bank of screens in video village.

Behind the Camera
King has quietly added some impressive helming credits to her resume
Southland
(2013) 1 episode
Let the Church Say Amen
(2013, TV movie)
Being Mary Jane
(2015) 6 episodes
Scandal
(2015-6) 2 episodes
The Catch
(2016) 1 episode
Greenleaf
(2016) 1 episode

Her notes to the actors are whispered in their ears, but it’s clear she’s telling them to experiment and be playful. Enos, who plays a private investigator in pursuit of Krause’s con man, offers up a take that’s sly, then sneaky, then outright badass. “Yeah, that was a good one!” says King.

Her own years of experience as an actor — her debut dates back 30 years to “227” — serve her well now in relating to her cast. Recounts Enos, “At the end of a long day one day, she said, ‘Thank you for your good work. I appreciate you!’ How sweet.”

Krause, too, appreciates what King brings to the set. “I love actor-directors,” he says. “They’re always very sensitive to performance and some of the difficulties that actors have from moment to moment that others directors are less aware of.”

King admits she has a learning curve ahead of her. “I’m still developing my style of director,” she says. “I do feel like I have a great grasp when it comes to communication with actors, but I’m still finding my strength in communication with cameras and d.p.’s.”

She strives to strike a balance between finding her own voice and respecting the voice of the show. “The best way to be invited back is to tell a good story visually, and to make sure you honor the tone the creator has established for the entire show,” she says. “Whether it’s your work ethic or the unique way you were able to get a performance out of a certain actor, or whatever that singular combination is that makes the show remember you, that’s what helps a show bring you back.”

Along the way, she’s soaking up all she can. In addition to Verica, she has effective role models in the directors of the shows in which she stars: Mimi Leder and Craig Zobelof “The Leftovers” and John Ridley of “American Crime.” King recounts an early day of shooting on the set of “Crime,” where Ridley was talking her through the introduction to her character, Terri La-Croix, the wealthy, successful mother of a basketball player who gets swept up in the scandal at the school. Once she took a look at the camera setup — which swept in the family’s home, the lush landscaping, her son pulling up in a BMW — she saw that it captured everything he was trying to convey. “It was the greatest gift an aspiring director could receive in an experiential way, just having that conversation with him,” she says. “I know that directors are telling a visual story. But because he’s a writer, he sees it as he’s writing it. That’s a gift he has, and it was a gift me to experience it.”

Her biggest challenge will be balancing her surging acting career with her own drive to direct. “It’s tough, because you don’t make as much as a director in the beginning stages as you do as an actor,” she admits. “It’s truly something I’m doing because I’m passionate about it. I’m making the choice to carve out the time.” There are acting offers she has turned down because she’s committed to directing — but, she says, “You have to have faith in the fact that the universe will create time for both, and so far it’s been working.”

Kudos Count
King already has had quite a bit of success in front of the camera
Emmy Award
supporting actress in a limited series, “American Crime” (2015)
Golden Globe Nomination
supporting actress in a limited series, “American Crime” (2016)
Screen Actors Guild Nomination
ensemble, “Ray” (2005)
Critics Choice Nomination
supporting actress in a drama, “Southland” (2012, 2013), “The Leftovers” (2016)

She credits ABC, in particular, with allowing her to balance her acting schedule for “American Crime” with directing. (As for acting on “The Leftovers,” she’s open to returning next season, if that’s where the story goes.)

But it’s clear her passion lies behind the camera. Just listen to her talk about filming that car crash.

“As an actor, you’re standing in your trailer catching up on conversations,” she says. “You’re not realizing that this shot may not happen because the rain that was supposed to be five hours from now is now happening an hour from now. You’re not aware how tense a situation is 50 feet from you.” She recalls a long list of crew members scrambling: checking weather maps, covering cameras with plastic, charting contingency plans. “I love the adrenaline rush that comes along when the variables change and make the situation more intense.”

She catches herself, and laughs. “I know it sounds ridiculous. Who would want to torture themselves? But I’m an actor. And we’re drawn to the drama.”

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