Once you’ve earned a set of Oscar nominations for directing a famous movie, how do you put on a costume and move back in front of the camera to take someone else’s order? To Guards star and One night in Miami director Regina King felt the move was natural enough because she has made so many similar moves over the course of her 35-year career. She has walked back and forth between the stage, the movie and the television. She’s been on sitcoms (from 227 in the 1980s to Big Bang theory), crime dramas (Sydland, 24) and genre TV both pulpy (The tribe) and prestige (The remains). She has played animated roles and has voiced both Riley Freeman and his brother Huey Boondocks, and a feisty team-leader vehicle in the Cars spinoff Aircraft: Fire & rescue. She has directed episodes for a dozen different TV shows, including Scandal, This is us, Shameless, and Insecure. She made a TV movie, The finest, about black women in the NYPD. She has had a 30-year career as a film actress dating back to the 1991s Boyz n the Hood.
And over the last few years, she’s enjoyed some of her biggest breakouts ever: She directed Damon Lindelof’s HBO series Guards, as Angela Abar, aka the masked vigilant Sister Night. She directed her first theatrical feature, the star-studded, Oscar-nominated One night in Miami, a fictional story of a real-world encounter between Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, NFL player Jim Brown and boxing legend Muhammad Ali. And she’s back in movies with Jeymes Samuel’s Netflix western The harder they fall, who plays a colorful, oversized version of the real Old West pickpocket Gertrude Smith.
The film’s cast is a packed list of current black movie stars – Idris Elba, Jonathan Majors, LaKeith Stanfield, Zazie Beetz, Delroy Lindo, Deon Cole – but King gets the film’s biggest hands-on fight sequence, and some of its most intense. -on-one scenes. Polygon recently spoke with King about becoming an action star, accepting the direction after becoming a film director, and how she was sold to star in a western when she dislikes westerns.
Between The harder they fall and Guards, it feels like your roles have become much more active and physical lately. Have you ever imagined yourself as an action hero?
Regina King: Yes I did! Just – a long time ago! [Laughs] I did not think it would happen when I was 50. I would not have thought I would make long fight scenes as a 50-year-old. But did I want to do action? Absolutely. I am a very physical person. I ran track in high school, I like to play sports, I like to challenge my body, but I did not think I would challenge it as I am now. You know, knees, I have to – it’s ice baths and stuff like that now.
You have the most worn-out fight scene in the movie. What was it like to shoot?
When we were in a pandemic, we did not have as much preparation as one would normally have had for a scene like this. It’s a long scene and it’s very physical. So you really have to lean on your teammate in that regard, for security is the biggest, most important thing, and trust comes when you are sure of that security.
Zazie [Beetz] and I was able to find a way to get the studio to make sure that – we had this break during the holidays and both she and I decided, “Well, we’ll be back early so we can work together and get this right. .” So literally we would shoot all day and then she and I would take our stunt doubles after work and go to the meeting room of a hotel so we could figure it out. We had boxes to mimic different parts of the set and we would review it all. We would be super tired afterwards, but we knew it was important.
None of us wanted to hurt each other, neither of us wanted to be hurt. We had both done action stuff before, so we understood – when you’re in it, when your adrenaline goes, you always leave the set with a new scar or a new bruise. You always say, “How did I get that cut?” It’s definitely going to happen if you join. But we did not want it to be more than just the normal bruises we’ve had in the past with action scenes.
Did the instruction of your first theater film change your way of working with directors in projects like this?
Oh, no, that change started to happen when I directed for television, because even though I’m very, very serious about what I do, and I take everything that is required or expected of me as an actor, very seriously, we actors a little in our own heads, if you will. We’re not really worried about any of the other things going on in production. We are concerned about our characters, who our stage partner or partners may be, and the arc of our character’s story. You are part of the storytelling process, but you have a specific focus as an actor. And then, as an instructor, you have to be focused on everything. So after the first time I directed something significant, a TV movie, years ago, when I came back to the stage as an actor, I approached things differently. When an instructor would give me a note, or when we showed up for practice, I would be like, “Okay, what do you want me for?” As opposed to, like, “Well, why should she come over there?” [Laughs]
Now I still ask those questions. If I feel like it’s just not natural for the character, if it’s just a departure, I’ll ask those questions and I’ll explain why, and we’ll take that conversation. But the little things I’m so specific about myself as a director – when I came back as an actor, I was much more open to what everyone else has to do to get to the finish line. I’m always grateful for the crew, but you value them much more deeply when you get the opportunity to work with them as a director.
Does having your own big breakout hit change the calculation for the roles you take in terms of what you find pleasing or interesting?
See, that with One night in Miami was so we did not get this pandemic, so when the release happened and I was told, “You are not going to premiere. You are not going to be able to go on a press tour with your actors.” All the things I experienced as an actor that I was looking forward to experiencing as a director, I was not going to get any of those things.To find out that we were accepted to festivals and knew we would not be in able to go to them, it was a hole in the stomach.So in order for the film to have the success it had, even in its small cinema release, it was a reminder to me that as you continue in your career as a director, you approach things the way you always approached them, like an actor: like the audience first, you choose things you’re passionate about, things you want to see as a viewer, and maybe things keep working. I’m only a film down, so we’ll see if it will work to use the same approach as a director that I did as an actor.
What tempted you to this particular role? What did you see in it that you knew would be pleasing?
Oh, wow, the movie at all was something I felt I had never seen before. And when I spoke to Jeymes for the very first time, and he guided me through his vision, what was on the page came to life in a completely different way. And he made me appreciate Westerns, which I’ve never really been a fan of. So the idea that these characters actually existed in the story, but we are in a stylized space – he has talked about the music he would put to it. He even pulled out his guitar and started playing some of the music he had already written for the film. And I was sold, I was sold.
Digging deeper and really figuring out who Trudy Smith is was just a lot of fun. It was a great exercise, after doing it One night in Miami, because over the last six or seven years I have had this wonderful opportunity to play, then direct, then perform, then direct. It helps you to let go of the role you have played and completely turn off that part of your brain and go into activating different parts of your mind. Trudy gave me the opportunity to play with an accent, because we do not know exactly where she came from. I got an accent that I felt was heavily influenced by Louisiana because I had just directed One night in Miami in New Orleans and I have a love for that city. I felt like, “What if her voice is affected by it, but she has the feeling of being a woman who has traveled?” She has come up on that horse, and she has been to a few places, and she has heard many different dialects, and she has broken bread with a few different people. Or maybe not bread bread, maybe left them dead. So it was just fun to play.
How was Jaymes on the set? What did he bring you as an instructor that you personally found useful?
His confidence. His confidence is huge and it makes you feel confident as an actor. You want to feel like your instructor knows what they want. If the director does not know what they want, it can create unrest on the recordings. So the confidence was good. And that was his joy, too. He goes to everything with joy and with a smile. And I dig that, because I’m one of those people where even though it’s a serious scene – do not get me wrong, I do not make jokes between the recordings, but I can not stay in a heavy room for several days in preparation for this big stage. It just sucks the life out of me. While I’m in seriousness, I do not want many distractions, but I appreciate a lightness on the set. Even though I’m in the room where I need to be, it’s good for me to feel the positivity coming from outside.