Regina King Interview: Emmy-Nominated "American Crime" Star on the "Uncomfortable Conversations" of Race and Class
Image attributed to Ross Ferguson
Los Angeles native Regina King began her television career as Brenda Jenkins in the NBC sitcom 227 (1985-1990) which starred Marla Gibbs and had a supporting role in the feature film Jerry Maguire (1996). Later in her career, King became known for The Boondocks where she provided the voices Huey and Riley Freeman and the crime drama series Southland where she portrayed Detective Lydia Adams.
In 2015, King began starring in the ABC anthology series American Crime for which she was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award. Other television appearances are The Big Bang Theory, Northern Exposure, Leap of Faith, 24 and Shameless. Films include Ray, Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous, Boyz in the Hood, Poetic Justice, Friday, A Thin Line Between Love and Hate, Enemy of the State, Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde and A Cinderella Story.
"Because the thing about it is at the end of the day, we can all agree that the conversation of race and the conversation of class are very uncomfortable conversations to have, but we have to have these conversations in order to get down to what it is we need to change. There’s a lot of healing that needs to happen on both sides. It really is something we have to be okay with talking about, and it’s not going to be this national conversation. There’s no such thing as that. But we can broaden the conversation within our groups and have more of them, which hopefully will evoke some change nationally."
The first season of American Crime received ten Primetime Emmy Award nominations including for Outstanding Limited Series, Lead Actress in a Miniseries or Movie (Felicity Huffman), Lead Actor in a Miniseries or Movie (Timothy Hutton), Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or Movie (King) and Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or Movie (Richard Cabral). The 67th Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony will be held on September 20, 2015, and will be broadcast by Fox.
In a bold move, ABC is bringing back almost all the cast for the second season of American Crime to play different characters in a whole different story, which is slated to premiere in 2016.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Regina, you are such an awesome talent. Congratulations on a well-deserved Emmy nomination!
Regina King: Thank you very much!
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Were you surprised when you heard the news?
Regina King: Yes, I was surprised. It is very exciting when you’re nominated on a show that receives ten nominations. That makes it even extra special because it just confirms why you got on board to do something in the first place because you believed in the show in its entirety, so that was pretty awesome.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): In the first season, the scenes between you (as Allyah Shadeed) and Elvis Nolasco (as Carter Nix) were riveting. Were some of those scenes submitted to the judges?
Regina King: Well, you submit an episode, so my agents thought that the episode where it starts off with Allyah putting on the hijab, and then she goes to the Masjid to give her speech about freedom, was the strongest episode because I’m in it all the way through. It was hard for me. I didn’t know what to choose, so I just left it in the hands of people who already had clients who had been nominated for Emmys and have won Emmys. I followed their lead.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Sounds like a great choice. A record was set this year for African American actors receiving Emmy nominations. Does this speak to the types of roles black performers are getting now more than in the past, or do you think those in power are looking to be more diverse?
Regina King: I think that there have been roles that were worthy of Emmy nominations from people of color. I try to be very clear that it’s not so much that the desire is just for more Emmy nominations for black people but for people of color because there are many people that aren’t white but are doing really amazing work out there.
I think prior to this year, there were a lot of performances that were worthy of being recognized that just weren’t. I just think that it has been that fortunately there have been many journalists that have been very vocal over the past couple of years about that lack of recognition, and people are listening and paying attention to more content.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Ten nominations on one show. That’s powerful. Why do you think the critics love American Crime?
Regina King: Yeah. That’s powerful. First off when you have a network like ABC that’s not really known for showcasing that type of material, that in itself gets looked at because they are going out on a limb in comparison to everything else that’s on the network. In my eyes, that was a risky move for them, and they did it anyway. That makes people pay attention a little more when you have a person, a network or whatever it is. People tend to pay attention when you do something out of the norm, and then the writing totally backed up the risk that ABC was taking.
John (Ridley) created a show that speaks to a lot of feelings that are happening now in our country, feelings that are things only talked about in close quarters with just friends and family. It hadn’t really spread to water cooler conversation because the subject matter is so sensitive. I think that show inspires more of those water cooler conversations within the critics’ offices (laughs). As heart wrenching as many of the scenes were, they were necessary in order to tell the story and in order to encourage conversation.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I think it’s very interesting that the actors from season one will portray different roles in season two.
Regina King: It’s different, but it’s exciting as an actor because you want to play different characters. That’s one of the biggest reasons you decide to become an actor, so that you can be a different person.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You will be paired with Andre Benjamin who will play your husband. That’s cool!
Regina King: Very cool.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): A happy couple, or a couple with issues?
Regina King: You never know with John Ridley. You never know what curveballs he can throw, but as of now, we are a happy couple that’s faced with an issue.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I believe your character’s son has been accused of sexual assault. Since you have a nineteen-year-old in real life, do you draw from your feelings as a mom?
Regina King: For myself as an actor, you always try to draw from someplace even if you might not have had that experience. You try to draw from something that’s rooted in truth within you. Sometimes it’s harder to find that than others, but being a mom, it’s very real to think about what I would do or say if my son was faced with this. What would we do? Who would we call? Where would we go? What resources would we lean on? All of these questions are things that, if it was really happening, you would ask. Andre and I both have teenagers, so it’s something that could happen to us. What would we do if it did? You are going to dig into that “What would you do?” place.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Will season two continue to revolve around prejudices and bigotry?
Regina King: I think it will deal more with class like those who have more than others. Our family is a very successful family. They’ve worked very hard to have what they have, to be where they are. They have more resources than some of the other kids that are on the basketball team, so how class plays a part in situations like this is what we’ll be dealing with. Then we deal with the parents' experiences growing up in a time where racism was even stronger than what it is now and the difference between things that our son may not think about being black that we have to remind him about.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): American Crime is just a very gritty, realistic show. It reminds me of Southland.
Regina King: Yeah. It is very gritty and very realistic, and there are things that are generational gaps and differences. Sometimes we put on our children the experiences that we, as parents, have as kids, and sometimes they are blind to a lot of things that are happening now just because they’re being kids. I always feel like it’s very interesting to explore that in the TV or movie world. You don’t get the chance to explore that so often.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You have directed an episode of Scandal, and I’m in awe of Shonda Rhimes. What’s it like working with her?
Regina King: She’s another brilliant mind like John Ridley and Damon Lindelof (co-creator of HBO’s The Leftovers). Even though Shonda is juggling so many hats, it’s just impressive how clear she is. You know, clear with her intentions. That is very empowering to be around as a woman.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Absolutely, which brings me to discuss discrimination in the entertainment industry against women and the low percentage, in particular, of female directors. Do you see an improvement in that area within the next ten years?
Regina King: I don’t know if it will change over the next ten years. You just think about Emmy or Oscar nominations just for people of color. That hasn’t changed in decades. It’s just now slowly starting to change, and that’s decades. As far as women and seeing us more in positions behind the lens, I think and I hope there will be more evidence of change, but it’s going to be a long uphill battle, and it’s not going to be happening in ten years.
Do I hope there are going to be some differences happening in ten years? Absolutely. But I think how it’s going to happen is by the journalists and women that are making moves behind the camera continuing to be vocal about it. That’s the thing. Any change that has ever happened throughout time is because of being vocal and reminding people of the statistics and the lack thereof. That’s the only way it happens. We as women are going to have to continue to be vocal, continue to say that just because we want to make the same amount of money because we’re doing the same things, we should not want to be treated like women. That doesn’t mean that we should be treated like men or less than men.
There’s that whole thing of, “Well, you asked to be treated like a man.” No. We didn’t ask to be treated like a man. We’re asking to receive the same benefits for doing the same job. But no, I like being a women. I want to be treated like a woman. I want to be respected. There’s a difference between the two. One is to be respected, and one is to be treated like a man. I don’t think any woman wants to be treated like a man. We want to be treated like women but respected as a humans.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Great point. You know, I was watching a Scandal episode from last season, and in walked Marla Gibbs!
Regina King: I know (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Your first job on television was 227, so what did you learn, as a young actor, from Marla Gibbs during that time?
Regina King: I learned first and foremost just the importance of being a professional and just how important it is to be at work on time, to hit your mark and to give just as much to the actor or actors you’re performing with even when the camera’s not on you because the better their performance is, the better your performance will be when it’s all put together. I learned just all of these little nuggets at a very young age because I was working with one of the best comedic actresses of all time.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That certainly started your career off with a bang!
Regina King: Oh absolutely. Absolutely.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What sparked such an early interest in acting?
Regina King: I think because I was interested in so many things, and as a little girl, our mother always allowed us to try any of the things that we wanted to and were interested in. Then when I was going to acting classes and doing plays, I realized that in this art form, I had the ability to be all of those things I wanted to be. I could play the flight attendant. I could be so many different things.
It was just always intriguing to be able to make people feel things, to get emotions out of people, like the first time I saw Norma Rae and Sybil. I was just amazed that Sally Field could do that. She was just making me feel all types of things as a little girl. She made me want to cry and laugh. She’s so pretty, and she’s so sad. She was just so many things. I wanted to make people feel like that.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Your sister, Reina, is also an actor. Were your parents supportive?
Regina King: Oh very supportive. She’s not an actress anymore. We have a production company, so Reina is working more behind the scenes now. We have produced a movie, which I directed as well, which will air on BET on August 29. That was our second project that we produced together, but our biggest project to date.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Cool. Do you worry about your nineteen-year-old son as a young black man being out there on his own, and is profiling and police brutality worse now than in the 70s and 80s?
Regina King: I think it’s worse because now we have all this technology that’s actually documenting it. But the unfortunate thing is that it has not slowed down. This has been happening … I never remember it not happening. It’s something that’s been very real in my experience and in the experiences of pretty much every black person I know growing up in America. There’s a light on it now because of where we are with technology, and it’s just crazy to think that with all of the video and all of the things that we’re seeing, even that has not made it slow down.
So unfortunately, yes, at a very young age, my son’s father and I had to have these conversations with our son on what to do, how to act, what to say, what not to say if and when you get pulled over. You’re very excited about your child’s growth and that they have their driver’s license, but now here’s this conversation that you have to have with your children that could be the difference between life and death. It’s not about safety on the road. It’s about what could happen if you get pulled over. For a lot of parents that aren’t black or that don’t have black children, the conversation is about road safety.
What is being recognized now is that we’re starting to see white kids being killed by police. I don’t want to see any child being killed by the police, but is that the only thing that’s going to make a change? I mean, God Bless America if that’s what it is. Oh my gosh! It’s terrifying as a parent to think that the people that have been put into place to protect and serve are some of them that … it’s not all police. That’s what’s unfortunate because all police are getting a bad rap, and it’s not all the police. But there are enough to have to warn your children of the possibility of what could happen. And now it’s not even so much just your children. The stories are coming out where its men and women that are adults that are being killed and have been being killed. Just the stories have been suppressed.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): On your Twitter page, you are talking about an organization called Justice Together. What is that about?
Regina King: It’s an organization of many of us who have been seeing each other on Twitter and who recognize the universal pain that is being felt about so many things in the world that are really hard to change. What if we can get together and actually put a group of people together that can make some type of change, and that change would start on a state level because so many laws are difference from state to state when it comes to body cameras, what footage is admissible, what isn’t admissible. In some cities you can have it, but it can never be used in court.
It’s about how we can put people in every single state that can work with us together, justice together, and create policy that is going to create change that will hold police accountable, and if the body camera is turned off, there would be a severe penalty for it. It’s going to be a very challenging thing to do, but we really feel like where we are with police brutality and it being a national story, a national narrative, now is the time that we can band together, not just as people of color but American people and make a significant change. We feel like the biggest way we can make change is to enforce policy on a state and federal level that is going to train police and hold them accountable. Depending on where you are, many of these deaths that are happening are just because the police are not trained. They’re just not trained properly.
It’s going to be a fight, but it’s one that we really think that we can win, and it’s one that we think we can see a change happening quickly unlike when we were talking earlier about the lack of women directors. That’s much different than this. You and I are probably very different, but the one thing that is the same is that we do see this is happening, and it’s a problem, and it has to change. When you have more people mirroring the same sentiment, I feel that we can evoke some type of change happening sooner rather than later.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I agree, and it’s definitely a step in the right direction. I hear you’ve joined the cast of The Leftovers.
Regina King: Yes, I’ve joined The Leftovers and am back for season two of American Crime, which as we talked about, is a provocative show. The Leftovers is one as well. It’s just a great ensemble cast and writing that makes you ask questions. I love the way Damon (Lindelof) and Tom (Perrotta) tackle religion and challenge religion because so many of us who are religious still believe different things within our religion. Some don’t have a religious base. Some have a spiritual base, and some people don’t believe in the spiritual. There are just so many different schools of thought when it comes to religion, and I just think it’s so elegant the way they tackle that in The Leftovers.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): As a television viewer, I really want to watch something that makes me think.
Regina King: Exactly, like after we watch it we can actually have a really healthy debate about it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Not just discuss what the main character was wearing (laughs).
Regina King: Yeah. Did you see what she had on? (laughs)
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I think American Crime most definitely has a hand in bringing some of these important issues out to be discussed around the water cooler.
Regina King: Because the thing about it is at the end of the day, we can all agree that the conversation of race and the conversation of class are very uncomfortable conversations to have, but we have to have these conversations in order to get down to what it is we need to change. There’s a lot of healing that needs to happen on both sides. It really is something we have to be okay with talking about, and it’s not going to be this national conversation. There’s no such thing as that. But we can broaden the conversation within our groups and have more of them, which hopefully will evoke some change nationally.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Sounds like a valid plan toward a positive common goal.
Regina King: It is. It really is, and it’s not to attack. It’s to bring light on the stories of the families who have suffered police brutality and to inspire people to want to get involved in some type of way to help make a change just within their district. If we make the changes in all of these different districts, then we can really make a move on the federal level, you know.
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