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For Actress Regina King, A Childhood Gig Launched A Career In Hollywood


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Two TV series, ABC's "American Crime" and HBO's "The Leftovers," have proven what a great actress my guest Regina King is by giving her the opportunity to play three different complex characters.

She's been acting professionally since she was a teenager when she played the daughter in the 1980s sitcom "227." Then she co-starred in the 1991 film "Boyz N The Hood." In "Jerry Maguire," she played Cuba Gooding's assertive, protective wife. In the Ray Charles biopic, she played Margie Hendricks, one of his backup singers and lovers. She starred in the series "Southland" as an LAPD detective. She's recently started directing, including an episode of "Scandal" that will be shown Thursday night.

Let's start with "American Crime," which just ended its second season. It's an anthology series which, in the first two seasons, featured the same leading actors, but in different stories and different roles. In season one, Regina King played a convert to Islam whose brother is addicted to drugs and is accused of murder.

In season 2, King played a successful corporate executive who lives in an affluent community. Her son is the captain of the basketball team at a private school. But when he's implicated in the bullying and possibly rape of a high school boy, the lives of all the families affected start to unravel as the parents try to defend their children. In the process, a hacker leaks private emails, including those of Regina King's character. After her emails become public, she's called into her boss's office.


JOE NEMMERS: (As Anderson) This isn't a comfortable conversation. We've known each other a long time. I want you to know what's happening now, it's a business decision. Your family's gone through a lot, but there are things that have come out online...

REGINA KING: (As Terri LaCroix) OK. Let me stop you. My son has been exonerated in connection with this assault.

NEMMERS: (As Anderson) Terri...

KING: (As Terri LaCroix) Hold on. Kevin has been cleared. And as far as we know, those medical records - they came from the Leland School. So anything anybody's saying about Michael...

NEMMERS: (As Anderson) This isn't about your son - or your husband. There are any number of emails out there where you say some pretty - there are ugly things about people, particularly - particularly whites.

KING: (As Terri LaCroix) My family has been through an ordeal, and you want to talk to me about personal emails? OK. There are - for people of color, there's a world that we live in that's different than yours, one you'll never, ever experience.

NEMMERS: (As Anderson) Terri...

KING: (As Terri LaCroix) And the way we express those experiences - out of context - can be taken to mean something that they don't.

NEMMERS: (As Anderson) I wouldn't want anybody going through my emails. But you talk about white trash. You talk about white entitlement.

KING: (As Terri LaCroix) That's nothing compared to what my family and families like ours deal with daily. Money or not - status or not, we deal. And it may not sound correct, but I have a right to my privacy.

NEMMERS: (As Anderson) You do, but this is a publicly held company.

KING: (As Terri LaCroix) We told the truth. You're going to punish us for that?

GROSS: Regina King, welcome to FRESH AIR. As we heard in that scene, "American Crime" has really tried to take on issues that are difficult to talk about like race, class, gender, sexual orientation and the kinds of disagreements, misunderstanding and violence that erupts. And I'm wondering if you've had to, in character, say things that ever made you uncomfortable saying, or that people responded to in ways that really surprised you because they didn't quite get the point that you or the script was trying to make.

KING: No. But I will say that there are things that Terri and her family discuss that are things that are discussed in real life in my family, in families across the country who aren't white. And race is a very sensitive subject.

And what happens a lot of times when - let's just speak specifically white and black - when white or black people feel misunderstood when it comes to talking about race, they immediately get defensive. And just because someone doesn't understand doesn't mean they don't want to. It's an honest place to be if you don't understand someone else's experience, but there's no way for the other to understand if a conversation or an explanation isn't made.

GROSS: You got an Emmy for season one of "American Crime." I'm interested in your reactions to protests that surrounded the absence of African-American Oscar nominees this year. Where is the problem, do you think, in terms of there not being more movies with African-American characters, African-American directors and writers? Do you think films like that don't get greenlighted because of preconceptions that there won't be a big enough audience or it won't do well internationally? Or - you have to step back and say that there need to be more films.

KING: Right.

GROSS: So there's a lot of talent out there. How come there aren't more films, do you think?

KING: Well, I think it's a combination of not being enough films that are telling stories that deal with other cultures and other races. And there's also not enough films that are more of a imitation of what real life looks like. Like, for example, when you look at "American Crime" and you have the character Terri LaCroix is a pharmaceutical executive - why does that character always have to be white? So it's looking at things like that as well.

The good news for me is that I have an amazing team behind me, and they've been with me for 20 years now - almost 20 years. And they have seen me as an actress, not necessarily just a black actress. So I have been lucky enough for them to see me that way.

And they have pursued things that were written white, and I ended up getting them. "Southland" was not written for a black woman. "Legally Blonde 2" wasn't written specifically for a black woman. "Year Of The Dog" was not written for a black woman, but they read those scripts and they approached those writers and those producers and, cut to, I was doing those films. I think I've been lucky in the regard to have a team that sees me as an artist.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is actress, and now director, Regina King. And she got her start on the sitcom "227" in the '80s. She went on to co-star in "Boyz N The Hood," "Jerry Maguire, "Ray." And more recently, she stars in the anthology series "American Crime" and in the HBO series "The Leftovers."

So you got your start - how old were you when you got cast in "227"?

KING: I think we shot the pilot of "227" when I was 13.

GROSS: So "227" was a family sitcom - you're the daughter.

KING: (Laughter).

GROSS: You're the teenage daughter. And so it's about the family and the other people who live in the building. Were you kind of mentored by the adults on there? And specifically, like Marla Gibbs had - she had been on "The Jeffersons." Had you watched that? Were you kind of in awe of her because of that?

KING: Oh, my, gosh - absolutely. I mean, "The Jeffersons" - that was, like, the greatest TV, you know. For me growing up, I loved "The Jeffersons." I thought that Florence was so hilarious. I loved the banter between her and George Jefferson. But the reality was that if "The Jeffersons" was picked up for one more season - the season that we shot the pilot of "227" - then "227" would not have gone. So because "The Jeffersons" didn't get picked up was the reason why "227" was able to be picked up. So it was kind of bittersweet because I loved watch...

GROSS: You mean because there was an opening in the schedule or because Marla Gibbs was available?

KING: Because Marla Gibbs would be available. And by then, you know, I was aware of all of the things that she was doing in the community. My mother was part of the whole - Marla used to have a - kind of like a jazz club in LA called Marla's Memory Lane. So that was, like, a place where a lot of people would meet. When entertainers came to town, they would perform at her club. So Marla was kind of like a pillar in the black community and as a trailblazer in Hollywood, doing things that a lot of other celebrities, especially female celebrities, weren't doing. It was pretty amazing.

GROSS: So you think that she gave your mother a sense of security that you'd be in good hands?

KING: Oh, absolutely - absolutely. Yeah because my mom - she was a teacher. And she was not the type of mother that was going to quit her job to be a set mom. She found someone that would be a guardian on the set with me that was a close friend of the family, that she could trust.

And then her conversation with Marla, you know, sitting down with Marla - and my mom just saying that, look, I don't want Regina to go to one of these small schools that NBC wants her to go to for kids that are on TV. I want Regina to stay in a regular public school because I don't want her to get out of touch. And Marla supported it. And so my mom felt, like, OK. This is a good space for her.

GROSS: So you went to public school. You continued there.

KING: I went to public - I graduated from publics - Westchester High. I'm a product of LA Unified.

GROSS: So once you started to become famous from being on "227," how did that change your stature in school?

KING: You know, it's interesting. It changed it somewhat, but not much. I had been going on auditions and things like that since I was probably 10 - 11 years old. So I felt pretty regular, I have to say. I felt pretty normal, and I'm really grateful for that because I still get my own dry cleaning to this day (laughter).

GROSS: Seriously? I know that shouldn't sound like a big deal, but it actually does.


GROSS: So what's it like to be 10 and feel like you have a calling - that you want to work professionally, that you know what you want to do?

KING: Well, you know, it's interesting. I did not know until I decided to drop out of college (laughter) that this is what I wanted to do as a career. At that time, probably from the age of 10 to 16, I still wanted to be a dentist.

GROSS: Really? OK.

KING: Yeah. And once I was in college, about - maybe the end of my first semester of my sophomore year, I realized that college just was not my jam and that I felt like I was learning more when is actually on set. And I think a lot of that had to do with - I was working while I was in college. I was on "227," so I didn't get a chance to really be immersed in the culture of my school.

GROSS: In 1991, you were in "Boyz N The Hood," which was directed by John Singleton, set in South Central, LA. And, you know, it's about young people who are in gangs, who drink a lot - and the kind of intentional and accidental feuds and fighting and problems that happen between them. And, I mean, what a cast. It was, like, Ice Cube, Cuba Gooding, Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett, you. You played Shalika. Describe your character.

KING: She was a girl in the 'hood who probably did not have as much parental support as maybe a couple of the other kids in that movie. She was like, I think, a lot of young people - finds that sense of family in the streets. That's who she was. She was the fun girl.

GROSS: So this was not your background. You were known in the entertainment industry as Brenda, the daughter on "227." Did the people who were doing the casting think it would really be a stretch for you to be credible in "Boyz N The Hood"?

KING: Absolutely, 100 percent. I mean, prior to "Boyz N The Hood," I was in such a box as Brenda that I couldn't get auditions for anything. So that was a really frustrating, like, year. And then Jaki Karman - I think was her name - was the casting director on - for "Boyz N The Hood." Maybe it might have been Jaki's growing up having seen "227" and was just a fan, so just curious enough to see what I could do. She allowed me to come in to read for Shalika. And I read, like, the first three lines, and she was like, oh, OK. Great. OK, I'm bringing you back for the producer and director.

GROSS: So how did you get the voice that you needed for this, which wasn't your voice. It wasn't your character Brenda's voice. And I'm not sure what kind of neighborhood you grew up in, whether people talk this way in your neighborhood.

KING: Right. Not far from my neighborhood, yes. And when I say not far, meaning, like, just on the other side of a very popular street called Slauson in Los Angeles. But, once again, when I said I'm so grateful for my mom just being adamant about me staying in public school - that is what allowed me to be exposed to so many different types of people. I went to a high school that was by the beach. I elected to do bussing my junior high school years. And my first year of high school, I would take the bus from my neighborhood to the beach schools. And at those schools, you had such a mix of so many types of kids. So there were a lot of girls that I was around that was Shalika.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear my guest Regina King in a scene from "Boyz N The Hood"?


KING: (As Shalika) Girl, he is fine. I's like to rush that. He go to Washington?

ALYSIA ROGERS: (As Shanice) Uh-uh. He go to Crenshaw.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Jamaica) Girl, I seen him before. He work at the Fox Hills Mall.

KING: (As Shalika) Do he got a girlfriend?

NIA LONG: (As Brandi) Yes.


KING: (As Shalika) Jamaica, girl, I was scoping on this [expletive] man. He fine anyway. You better watch his ass. Somebody might steal him.

GROSS: That's Regina King, my guest, in "Boyz N The Hood." She's one of the stars of the anthology series "American Crime," and she also is one of the stars of the HBO series "The Leftovers."

Let's take a short break then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with actress Regina King. She co-stars in the TV series "American Crime" and "The Leftovers." Her movies include "Boys N The Hood" and "Jerry Maguire," which I asked her about.

You played Cuba's Gooding's wife - his character's wife. And he's a football player whose agent is Jerry Maguire. You're his, like, loving, but also forceful wife who is pushing for the best contract for him. And you don't think that Jerry Maguire, his sports agent, is doing the best job for him. So in this scene, you're waiting for Jerry Maguire, played by Tom Cruise, in Jerry Maguire's office. Your young son is with you, and he's playing with all the sports memorabilia in the office and he's starting to, like, throw it around...


GROSS: ...And make a lot of noise. So finally, Jerry Maguire walks in, and here's the scene.


KING: (As Marcee Tidwell) Jerry, I'm glad to see you finally made it. Rod is very, very upset.

JEREMY SUAREZ: (As Tyson Tidwell, yelling).

KING: (As Marcee Tidwell) Tyson, no.

SUAREZ: (As Tyson Tidwell) OK, Mommy.

TOM CRUISE: (As Jerry Maguire) Tyson, hello.

SUAREZ: (As Tyson Tidwell) Hello, Jerry. Long time no...


SUAREZ: (As Tyson Tidwell) ...See.

CRUISE: (As Tyson Tidwell) How can I make your life better?

KING: (As Marcee Tidwell) Jerry, this is humiliating, and I'm pregnant. And I'm incapable of bull (beep). Where is our offer from Arizona?

JAY MOHR: (As Bob Sugar) Cronin's OK for lunch?

CRUISE: (As Jerry Maguire) Marcee, this is one of agents. This is Bob Sugar, who needs to learn to knock.

MOHR: (As Bob Sugar) Pleasure.

KING: (As Marcee Tidwell) You've called our house, right?

MOHR: (As Bob Sugar) I'm sorry to interrupt you guys.

KING: (As Marcee Tidwell) Now, I don't know what you do for your 4 percent, but this man - my husband - has a whole plan, an image. And when you put him in a Waterbed Warehouse commercial, excuse me, you're making him common when you know he deserves the big four - shoe, car, clothing line, soft drink. I know about the four jewels of the celebrity endorsement dollar.

CRUISE: (As Jerry Maguire) Wow.

KING: (As Marcee Tidwell) I majored in marketing, baby and so did my husband. We came to play.


GROSS: You're going to show him.


GROSS: What did you do to get in character for that?

KING: Oh, wow. Well, when I was auditioning for that, I was actually pregnant. I was about to get married, so I was definitely in the space of understanding how important the family you create is. It was kind of a natural space I was moving into.

GROSS: So you had your baby (laughter) and raised him for many years as a single mother. Did you ever feel like that you needed to give her son the talks about being a young black man in America and how to deal with police if you're stopped and, you know, all that stuff?

KING: Absolutely. I mean, it's - if you're not having that conversation as a black parent, you're doing your child a disservice.

GROSS: What kinds of things did you feel that you should tell your son?

KING: One of the things is that, you know, when Ian was coming up, he was going to a school that, you know, were a lot of affluent kids. Where my experience was more mixed, probably middle-class to lower middle-class, his experience was more upper middle-class to upper class (laughter). And just kind of had to let him know that this environment that you're in is not how things are everywhere.

And, for example, like, when you're having the conversation with your child about getting their driver's license. Well, a white family - their biggest fear is just that you're driving safely and that they're minding the rules of the road, whereas a black family - their biggest fear is that their child is going to get pulled over and treated unfairly for a reason that they won't understand.

It's my responsibility and Ian's father's responsibility to try to help him understand that just because it does not make sense to you doesn't mean that it's not possible that it would happen. And most of us have had that happen. And almost every black man or young black man has had that happen - at least I can speak for LA.

GROSS: Well, Regina King, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

KING: Thank you.

GROSS: Regina King co-stars in "American Crime" and "The Leftovers." She directed the episode of "Scandal" that airs this Thursday.

Coming up, the famous horses that starred in Hollywood Westerns. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.