Once you’ve earned a set of Oscar nominations for directing a celebrated movie, how do you put on a costume and move back in front of the camera to take someone else’s orders? For Watchmen star and One Night in Miami director Regina King, the move felt natural enough, because she’s made so many similar moves during her 35-year career. She’s gone back and forth between the stage, film, and television. She’s been on sitcoms (from 227 in the 1980s to The Big Bang Theory), crime dramas (Southland, 24) and genre TV both pulpy (The Strain) and prestige (The Leftovers). She’s done animation roles, voicing both Riley Freeman and his brother Huey on The Boondocks, and a feisty team-leader vehicle in the Cars spinoff Planes: Fire & Rescue. She’s 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’s had a 30-year career as a film actor, going back to 1991’s Boyz n the Hood.
And over the past few years, she’s enjoyed some of her biggest breakouts ever: She led Damon Lindelof’s HBO series Watchmen, as Angela Abar, aka the masked vigilante Sister Night. She directed her first theatrical feature, the stellar, Oscar-nominated One Night in Miami, a fictionalized account of a real-world meeting 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, playing a colorful, outsized version of real-life Old West pickpocket Gertrude Smith.
The movie’s cast is a packed roster of current Black movie stars — Idris Elba, Jonathan Majors, LaKeith Stanfield, Zazie Beetz, Delroy Lindo, Deon Cole — but King gets the movie’s biggest hands-on fight sequence, and some of its most intense one-on-one scenes. Polygon recently talked to King about becoming an action star, accepting direction after becoming a film director, and how she was sold on starring in a Western when she doesn’t like Westerns.
Between The Harder They Fall and Watchmen, it feels like your roles are getting much more active and physical lately. Did you ever picture yourself as an action hero?
Regina King: Yes, I did! Just — a long time ago! [Laughs] I didn’t think it would be happening once I was 50. I would not have thought I would be doing long fight scenes at 50. But did I want to be doing action? Absolutely. I’m a very physical person. I ran track in high school, I like to play sports, I like to challenge my body, but I didn’t think I’d be challenging it the way I am now. You know, the knees, I have to — it’s ice baths and things like that now.
You have the most down-and-dirty fight scene in the movie. What was shooting that like?
Being in a pandemic, we did not have as much prep as one would normally have had for a scene like that. It’s a long scene, and it’s a lot of physicality. So you really have to lean on your co-star in that regard, because safety is the biggest, most important thing, and trust comes when you’re sure about that safety.
Zazie [Beetz] and I were able to find a way to get the studio to make sure that — we had this break for the holidays, and both she and I decided, “Well, we’ll come back early so we can work together and get this right.” So literally we would be shooting all day, and then she and I would go with our stunt doubles after work, and go to the meeting room of a hotel, so we could work it out. We had boxes to mimic different parts of the set, and we’d go through it all. We’d be super-tired afterward, but we knew it was important.
Neither one of us wanted to hurt each other, neither one of us wanted to get hurt. We both had done action things before, so we understood — when you’re in it, when your adrenaline is going, you always leave the set with a new scar or a new bruise. You’re always saying, “How did I get that cut?” That’s going to happen for sure, if you’re in it. But we didn’t want it to be anything more than just the normal bruising we’ve gotten with action scenes in the past.
Did directing your first theatrical film change how you approach working with directors on projects like this?
Oh, no, that change started happening when I was directing for television, because while I am very, very serious about what I do, and I take everything that’s required or expected of me as an actor very seriously. We actors are kind of in our own heads, if you will. We’re not really concerned about any of the other things going on in production. We are concerned about our characters, who our scene partner or partners may be, and the arc of our character’s story. You’re part of the storytelling process, but you have a specific focus as an actor. And then as a director, you have to be focused on everything. So after the first time I directed something substantial, a television film, years ago, when I got back to set as an actor, I approached things differently. When a director would give a note, or when we’d show up for rehearsal, I would be like, “Okay, where do you want me?” As opposed to, like, “Well, why would she come from over there?” [Laughs]
Now, I still do ask those questions. If I do feel like it’s just not natural to the character, if it’s just a departure, I’ll ask those questions, and I’ll explain why, and we’ll have that conversation. But the little things I’m so specific about myself as a director — once 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 appreciative of the crew, but you appreciate them in a much deeper way when you get the opportunity to work with them as director.
Does having your own big breakout hit change the the math on the roles you take, in terms of what you find gratifying or interesting?
See, the thing with One Night in Miami was, we didn’t see this pandemic coming, so when the release happened and I was told, “You’re not gonna have a premiere. You’re 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 so looking forward to experiencing as a director, I wasn’t going to get any of those things. Finding out we were getting accepted to festivals and knowing we wouldn’t be able to go to them, it was a pit in my stomach. So for the film to have the success it did have, even in its small theatrical release, that was a reminder for me that as you continue on in your career as a director, you approach things the same way you have always approached them, as an actor: as an audience member first. You pick things you are passionate about, things you want to see as a viewer, and maybe things will continue to work out. I’m only one film down, so we’ll see whether adopting the same approach as a director as I did as an actor will work.
What was tempted you about this particular role? What did you see in it that you knew would be gratifying?
Oh, wow, the film on the whole was something I felt I had never seen before. And when I spoke with Jeymes for the very first time, and he walked me through his vision, what was on the page came to life in a whole 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 history, but we’re in a stylized space — he’s talked about the music he was going to 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 having done One Night in Miami, because over the past six or seven years, I’ve had this wonderful opportunity to act, then direct, then act, then direct. It helps you shed the role you’ve been playing, and totally switch that part of your brain off, and go into activating different parts of your mind. Trudy gave me the opportunity to play with an accent, because we don’t know exactly where she was from. I took on an accent I felt was heavily influenced by Louisiana, because I had just been directing One Night in Miami in New Orleans, and I have a love for that city. I felt like, “What if her voice is influenced by that, but she has the feeling of a woman who’s travelled?” She’s gotten on that horse and she’s been a few places, and she’s heard a lot of different dialects, and she’s broken bread with a few different people. Or maybe not broke bread, maybe left them for dead. So it was just fun to play.
What was Jaymes like on set? What as a director did he bring to you that you personally found useful?
His confidence. His confidence is huge, and it makes you feel secure as an actor. You want to feel like your director knows what they want. If the director doesn’t know what they want, it can make for an uneasiness on set. So that confidence was good. And so was his joy. He approaches everything with joy, and with a smile. And I dig that, because I’m one of those people where even if it’s a serious scene — don’t get me wrong, I’m not cracking jokes between takes, but I can’t remain in a heavy space for days in preparation for this big scene. It just sucks the life out of me. While I’m in the seriousness, I don’t want a lot of distractions, but I do appreciate a lightness on set. Even if I’m in the space where I have to be, it’s good for me to feel the positivity coming from the outside.