Regina King: ‘It’s one thing talking around your own kitchen table. Real change won’t happen until you get into conversations around other tables.’

The actor broke through with films like Boyz n the Hood and Jerry Maguire, but with Oscar buzz around her new movie, she’s really hitting her stride

In all the heat and light of prediction surrounding this year’s Oscar shortlists, one category appears easier to call than most. Regina King has long been an odds-on favourite as best supporting actress for her role in the adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel If Beale Street Could Talk. At 48, King is having something of a repetitive red carpet moment. Of the dozen nominations she has received for her performance from different award ceremonies, she has so far come out on top in 11, including the Golden Globes. When I spoke to her on the phone in Los Angeles, she was inevitably in the midst of hair and makeup for another round of accolades that evening. “I have never really been a part of this thing called awards season,” she said, with a low laugh. “It’s like a new full-time job. I’m not complaining – just stating!”

The proper recognition of King’s screen presence is stupidly overdue. Since her movie debut in John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood she has made a speciality of providing the emotional scaffolding of numerous films and TV series, the superstructure on which other, flashier talents can rely. The pattern was set in Jerry Maguire, where King played the kickass wife of a self-destructive American football star, and delivered a true beating heart to set against the hyperactive bromance between Cuba Gooding Jr and Tom Cruise. She has in the past decade graduated to pivotal roles in the garlanded TV series American Crime, and as the Emmy award-winning star in last year’s Seven Seconds in which she played, with ravaged grace, a mother fighting for Black Lives Matter justice for a son killed by a white police officer in a car accident.

All of that intensity is brought to bear in If Beale Street Could Talk, the film that director Barry Jenkins chose to follow the triumph of Moonlight. From the moment we are introduced to King in the movie – in the kitchen of a 1970s Harlem apartment while her young daughter prepares to break the news that she is expecting the baby of her boyfriend, who is wrongfully in prison – we know that we are in the safest of hands. King locates every quiet nuance of human drama in those pregnant pauses. Her eventual response, shaping the news within the family, is not only one of the most beautifully constructed scenes among this year’s Oscar films but also a kind of exemplar of compassionate motherhood. King’s performance is all about love.

She was contacted about the role while she was directing an episode of the TV comedy This Is Us, one of several recent ventures behind the camera. “I opened the email and read James Baldwin, Barry Jenkins,” she recalls. “So it didn’t take much twisting my arm. It was a ‘you had me at hello’ moment.”

As soon as she read Jenkins’s script and Baldwin’s book, she knew exactly the woman she was playing. It was her grandmother, with bits of her mother and auntie thrown in.

“My grandmother was similar to this character in that she was the type of human being that whenever you were around her you felt better about the situation you were in.”

In King’s other critical moment in the film she has gone to Puerto Rico to confront her son-in-law’s absconded accuser. The camera dwells on her trying to steel herself for the encounter in a hotel room, putting on and taking off a bobbed wig. In Baldwin’s book the character toys with a shawl, to see if it lends her authority, but the hairpiece felt right to King. “It was more reflective of the women of that era,” she says. “My grandmother certainly had one wig that she wore when she went to handle business and another if she was going out for dinner. And sometimes she just wore her own hair. They were different aspects of character. It’s something like what we do as actors, I guess.”

King grew up in the 1970s outside Los Angeles. Her mother, with whom she lived after her parents divorced when she was eight, was a special needs teacher. “My mom encouraged us to listen to what our spirits were saying inside and nurture that,” she says. “Me and my sister [Reina, also an actor] took every class. And Mom took us to see things. If the Dance Theatre of Harlem was playing LA or if Eartha Kitt was in town we would be there. My mum wanted to have us always work that muscle in between our ears.”

King was at college studying communications when she got her first TV role in the long-running sitcom 227. She learned alongside the black American actor Marla Gibbs, now 87. Gibbs was one of the people King had in mind when she wrote, in 2010, an outraged open letter to the organisers of the Emmy awards, which detonated the debate about the ongoing “whiteness” of such ceremonies. The immediate occasion was a wrongly captioned photograph that confused her with Rutina Wesley, another actor who attended that year’s ceremony, but the statistics she discovered came as a shock even to her. Of more than 1,000 nominations in four main categories in the history of the awards, only 53 had gone to non-white actors. “I try hard in my daily life not to engage in uncomfortable situations regarding race,” she wrote. “But sometimes it’s very difficult to find other reasons that better explain why certain events play out the way they do.”Advertisement

Looking back on that now she suggests it was written mostly out of accumulated frustration. “Partly just that sense: look, I’m many things in addition to being black.”

Does it feel that things have changed since then?

“Well I guess, but slowly. It will be a significant change when we see black women in roles more often not just because they are black. I wouldn’t put a time frame on that. Here we are with a screen adaptation of a story written 45 years ago, and in important aspects not much has changed. I am trying to remain optimistic that I will witness it in my lifetime.”

The story at the heart of this film reflects the continuing tragedy of young black men incarcerated through deliberative miscarriages of justice.

“So often with systemic racism, you have these stereotypes,” King says. “People hear someone has been wrongfully arrested and they still think he must have been looking for it, or he wasn’t educated, or he’s from a problem family. This young man in the film comes from love, as many men in this position do.”

When she made Seven Seconds, King spoke of the way she channelled fears she had felt for her own teenage son. I ask if those fears have been emphasised with the current political moment.

“I never thought that someone like Donald Trump could become president,” she says. “But while the country feels very divided right now I also think there are a lot of Americans who have come together, who might not have come together otherwise. You know, you have to try to find the beauty in the room.” Opposition helps to concentrate creativity, she suggests. “But it’s one thing talking around your own kitchen table. Real change won’t happen until you get into conversations around other tables.”

She hopes she can use the platform she has to amplify those conversations. In her Golden Globes acceptance speech she addressed that other inequality – of women behind the camera – and pledged to try to work only on projects with a 50/50 gender split.

“It is still the fact that every time a woman is behind the camera she has so much more to lose than a male director,” King says. “If she makes a mistake, you still hear ‘Oh yeah, we hired a woman before and it didn’t work out’.”

She hopes she can begin to redress that balance. She is currently developing a film, a comedy with her sister, that she plans to be her feature debut as a director.

Her mother must take enormous pride, I suggest.

“We have some really great conversations,” she says. “The conversations between a mother and daughter become much deeper once that daughter becomes a mother, I think.” Her mother does, inevitably, also worry that she never takes any time off. But she’s not about to stop – after the awards are done, she has a starring role in a new HBO series based on Alan Moore’s Watchmen, as well as her own film project. She is in her element.

“Honestly, I was never an actress because I wanted to win awards,” she says. “Or ever looking to be the first black woman to win this or that. I just love the electricity when a performance feels special. Not every performance feels like that, but I have been lucky to have a few. You will always find energy for that.”

We talk a little about the difficulties of scheduling movies with longer format TV series, how to juggle being an actor and a director. She laughs. “It can be hard,” she says. “But to be honest, those are champagne problems.”

If Beale Street Could Talk is in cinemas on 8 February