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Regina King on Breaking Down Racial Barriers: ‘It’s Not a Black Story, It’s an American Story’

Regina King made her Hollywood debut at 13 (in NBC’s “227”), and hasn’t stopped working since. That’s given her a front-row seat to seismic changes in the industry for women and people of color, and this past year has been no exception.

She’s solidly booked behind and in front of the camera, on both film and TV — with high-profile projects like showrunner Damon Lindelof’s “Watchmen” adaptation for HBO and director Barry Jenkins’ new film “If Beale Street Could Talk.” “I’ve had to turn down things or pass on things, it’s tough,” she says. “I don’t fly by the seat of my pants, but I do like the unexpected.”

That unexpected may even include a comedy, she reveals — the next project that’s on her docket as a producer/director. Along with her sister, Reina, who’s also her producing partner, she’s found a writer with a “unique “ voice. “It’s so hard in this day and age to do something that’s never been done,” she says, “so the best we can do is look for content that is interesting for us.”

Here, King opens up to Variety about diversity in Hollywood (and the lack thereof), why she’s inspired by Serena Williams, and why she wants to work with Angelina Jolie.

What did the Emmy win for “Seven Seconds” mean to you?

It feels really, really good. So many people have said, “Come on, you could not have been surprised. Why are you always so surprised?” In all honesty, this win was the most surprising, and when I lay out the optics then I think you’ll understand why. The majority of the people that saw “American Crime” were white people, honestly. The members of the Academy are predominantly white. But with “Seven Seconds,” everywhere I went in my daily life, it was predominantly black people who had seen me. I recognized that and still did not take any of my joy or make me feel disappointed about everyone not seeing it.

I was in a category with some pretty amazing performances, [so] I was just happy to show up in my pretty dress. That’s really where I was. When [the win] happened, it was such a huge surprise, but what it did do for me is make me happy because while I thought with “Seven Seconds,” it was just preaching to the choir, I’ve learned in that moment that it did go outside of the church. It made me happy that I can actually believe that more people than I thought understand that “Seven Seconds” was not a black story. It was an American story. In that moment, it was like, “Ah, people who needed to see it did see it.”

Until your win, there was a definite lack of diversity among the winners. Do you think that the Academy has really turned a corner, or is it a conversation that still needs to be had?

I don’t know. It’s tough, because with television, because there are more outlets, I do feel like I’m having conversations with other actors of color and more of them are working. So when I look at it like that, that’s good, and if I just step back and think about over the past five years, it feels like more and more of my peers are working that are of color. But more people are working because there are more outlets, but because there are more outlets, a lot of people don’t have the time to watch everything. I don’t know how much of it is just because people didn’t see it or how much of it is because we still have these sections of black people for black people and white people for white people and Latin people for Latin people.

I feel like the bottom line is who’s watching what. Honestly, a couple of categories I did not vote in at all myself because I hadn’t seen it and I felt like that is not fair. I sat back and said, “Well, it’s just a popularity contest. People are just voting for who their friends are, not because of performances.” If I don’t vote for what I haven’t watched, I can’t be guilty of that either. If I did not have the time to familiarize myself with everyone’s performance in that category, then I’m not going to vote in that category. That was tough. I’m a big person about energy. Energy you put out, that’s what comes back. Be the change you wish to see. I don’t ever want to find out that I won the Emmy because I’m popular. I want to believe that people genuinely voted for me because they saw that performance and not because it’s a popularity contest. Because at the end of the day, then there is no change.

To your point about being the change you want to be, does that influence the projects that you want to create and put your name on?

Absolutely. 100%. 150%. A lot of times with TV, people just want to sit back and fricking just watch TV. They don’t want to feel obligated to watch. I understand that and I respect that. When I actually have some time to just sit back and watch TV, I get so overwhelmed with the amount of content out there that I end up just watching a “Golden Girls” rerun. Because it’s comforting to be able to be entertained and not feel like you have to feel a certain way about something. But even with that being said, it’s also important to be a part of entertainment that is making sure it’s shining a light on something or someone that an entire millions of people would not have seen if those creators, those storytellers didn’t say, “Yeah, well, we’re not doing it to make you laugh. We’re doing it to make you think. We’re doing it to make you consider the least among us.”

Was your role in “Watchmen” intended to be for someone of color?

I don’t think so. This is how it was presented to me: Damon [Lindelof] is a comic book fan, capital F-A-N. And he saw me as being a woman that could kick ass. It could have been anything, but Damon was inspired to create a story where a black woman was at the center, and her being black is who she is, so you’re going to see some of that. Him deciding that this character was going to be black, that allowed him to dig deep, and Damon likes to go places that people are scared to touch. The good thing about Damon is that he does have the ability to find levity, too. If not, he wouldn’t be able to go to the places that we are going if she wasn’t black. We get to touch on some pretty, pretty cool stuff. This has been a fantastic year, it really has. Just as an artist, I pinch myself, and I’m constantly giving thanks because this is the reason why I do what I do. I think about my mother saying, “Good manners go a long way, and relationships you build along the way, you want to make sure you foster those.”

What does it mean to you to be at that point in your career right now, to be getting offered parts like “Watchmen” and “Beale Street”?

It’s interesting because if you would have asked me this question a while ago, I probably would have done something to deflect and not own up to the fact that I’ve worked really hard, and that I can say that I do deserve to be here without feeling like I’m being an a–. I say that with all the gratitude that the universe has. I say that with all of that in my heart. I think that’s what happens a lot of times with women, we deny ourselves the opportunity to receive our flowers because we want to be humble, we want to not seem like we’re unappreciative of the moment. But you can appreciate the moment and recognize that you worked hard to get there.

That’s the reason why people like Serena Williams are so inspiring, because she demands her respect. Who gives a f–k if you don’t like the way she yells when she’s hitting that ball, or the way she stands up for how she feels about a point being taken away, or reminds you of what she’s been through throughout this whole ride of their careers, or reminding you just what the Williams sisters alone did for the tennis community. She deserves all that she is receiving. It’s because of women like her, it’s because of women like Ellen Pompeo vocally saying, “I appreciate the gifts, but I also worked hard for it. I didn’t just sit back and they just landed in my lap. Blood, sweat, and tears brought me here.” So now, when you ask me that question, I can say, “Actually, yes.” I deserve to be in this space.

What do you take away from working with a director like Barry Jenkins?

Barry is a perfect example of leading with grace. There is never a time on the set that you feel like he’s losing it. This is probably just an innate characteristic, he also just has the ability but to make the actors feel so safe, and as an actor you’re vulnerable. The best performances are when people allow the vulnerability to consume them and just let go. And he allows you to feel safe so that you can. Because letting go is almost like walking naked. And he makes you feel like you can walk naked and you don’t need to put on a robe. You could just go! That he possessed that was just a joy to be around and feel every day that we were working.

You turned in a very raw, emotional performance.

I really don’t like to watch myself. But when I saw that film in Toronto — I’m starting to get emotional now — I did not realize how much we as a people, and I’m not saying as a black people, I’m saying as a human people, need a film like this. With everything that’s going on in that story, the way it was shot and the way Barry sits, and you sit there with him in these moments and just lets the love just flow, it’s like a salve. I’m so proud to be a part of this. The first five minutes when Kiki [Layne] and Stephan [James] look at each other, with them coming down the steps and then we land on them looking at each other — if you’ve ever been in love, the chemistry between those two, it just sets the tone for the next two hours of the film. And you see it in so many different relationships — this family, to have that family on film seen, witnessing a family that is very clear there is no shame allowed in this house. [Her sister] Teyonah says, “Unbow your head, sister.” I just get choked up!

What goals do you still have for yourself? What do you still want to accomplish?

I would like for my career as a producer and as a director to be as respected as my body of work as an actor. I would like to be able to join forces with people that, if I just would remain an actor, I would not get the chance to work with. But now, because so many of us are producing, and doing a fine job of it I might add, that it increases the possibilities of joining forces with Angelina Jolie. I would love the opportunity as an actor to be able to just get down and dirty in a project that has myself, Thandie Newton, Viola Davis, and Alfre Woodard. I don’t know what the hell that is, but I know that is powerful right there. The fact that I’m in a place of power that I can help make that happen [means] I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.

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