When Regina King won the Golden Globe for her work as mother Sharon Rivers in If Beale Street Could Talk, she touched on its impact with a brief observation from her own son, Ian: "My son said to me when he saw [the film] that it was the first time he really saw himself," she explained at the podium. It was perfectly in line with Sharon's drive to do right by her daughter, Tish, and Tish's fiancé, Fonny. Like King's work, it was subtle, but impactful. Throughout her decades-long career on both the big and small screens, King has spanned genre and challenged stereotype; she has won three Emmys, including Best Actress in a Limited Series for her work in 2018's Seven Seconds. In W's annual Best Performances package, she reflects on how she and Beale Street director Barry Jenkins brought Sharon to life, her first acting role, and the moment she knew she wanted to be an actor for the rest of her life.
How did If Beale Street Could Talk come to you?
It came my way first and foremost because of my relationship with Dede Gardner, and Jeremy Kleiner at Plan B. We did a movie years, years, years ago called Year of the Dog, and have been wanting the opportunity to work together again, and finally this project came my way: “Barry Jenkins is interested, and it's a screen adaptation of James Baldwin's book, If Beale Street Could Talk. Barry Jenkins, Plan B, James Baldwin…. How could I not take that meeting?
What was that meeting like?
It was absolutely amazing. One of the things that made it the most amazing is that we weren't even in the same room together. Technology!
You were on Skype?
Yes. I wanted to read the book before I met Barry, even though our agents on both sides said, "You don't have to. All you have to do is read the script." And I said, "No, this is Barry Jenkins, and this is James Baldwin. I must read the book before I talk to him." He was in Montreal, I was in Mexico, and we had this amazing Skype call that was supposed to only last 30 minutes. We ended up being on there for an hour. We didn't want to get off. We immediately felt a connection as collaborators. And here I am.
You famously took a big break from film for a number of years. Tell me about that.
I didn't take a break from acting, but I took a break from film because my son, Ian, was entering the age of... you know, when kids are starting to really spread their wings and feel themselves, around that sixth-grade year. I felt like, I don't want to travel and miss things. At that time, that was when our film was moving out of L.A., so everything that was coming across our desks were things outside of the city, except for TV. And television just treated me so well. I found the stories that were coming my way to be so full, so I was in this television world for a good 10 years.
So, do we call this a comeback to film? Or no?
When I hear people say, "Do we call this a comeback?," I like to use a LL Cool J line: "Don't call it a comeback! I been here for years!"
[Laughs] So, let's go back in your life. What was the first audition you ever nailed? The first one you ever booked.
The first audition I ever booked was a McDonald's commercial. I had to be somewhere around the age of 10. And that was my first experience of the spit bucket, for when that quarter-pounder with cheese that tasted so good at 10:00 a.m., at 11:00 tastes like dirt. So you bite into it and "Mmm!” Spit.
Did they tell you to do that, or did you at first start swallowing?
I'm a kid! I'm 10! I'm going for it. My mom didn't really let us eat McDonald's, so I'm like, I have won. I have struck gold. But I think they just saw this little girl's face getting sour. And they let me know, "Well, you don't have to actually eat it." I was like, "Wow!"
Did you do a lot of commercials?
Actually, from there, um, I was doing a lot of plays in L.A. I went to this theater group called Cambridge Academy that was run by Betty Bridges, Todd Bridges' mother. And I know people in New York are like, "Theater in L.A.? Ha ha ha ha ha!" Well, it exists! And I am a product of it.
There's a lot of theater in L.A.
Yes! There is.
The Mark Taper Forum, now there's The Geffen...
This wasn't quite the Mark Taper Forum, or Dorothy Chandler, or The Geffen, but...
But you were working.
It was me learning, and I had the opportunity to audition for a play called 227 starring Marla Gibbs. When she and the writer sold that play to NBC, I auditioned for Marla Gibbs' daughter. I got the part 14 auditions later.
And did you think you'd made it? Were you convinced you were a star at that point?
I wasn't really so much convinced that I was a star, and I still don’t think that today. I love to perform. I definitely was aware, at a very young age, that God had given me the gift of understanding how much joy you get in being somebody else. [laughs] 227 was an affirmation, a confirmation that this was something that I was supposed to be doing. I still wanted to be a dentist when I grew up. I didn't think that acting was a career choice. It was just fun, and I got to do it.
Dentist. Look at these choppers.
What was the first movie you booked?
Boyz n the Hood was where it all started. John Singleton and I both went to USC, and he used to see me across campus. When Sony brought me in to audition, I just said, like, four or five lines to the casting director, came back later that day and auditioned for the director and producer. My acting coach always said, "Soon as you finish your audition, you get outta there. You don't try to hang out and try to get to know people. You did your job, go.” So I'm trying to walk outta there as quick as possible, and I hear someone go, "Regina." And I just keep walking. Then I hear, "Regina King," and I'm like, "I gotta stop." I turned around and I remember it like it was yesterday: John was standing at the top of the steps, and he says, "You got it.”
Now that moment was like, yeah, I'm supposed to be an actress. At that moment, I knew this is what I wanna do. This is the world I wanna be in. This is the culture I wanna be a part of. This is the community I wanna be a part of for the rest of my life.
Well, thank God you're here. So tell me about the scene in Beale Street with the wig, because it's such a powerful scene. It's so exquisite, and also, I think, really speaks to the soul of the character.
Sharon is in Puerto Rico, trying to fight for her son-in-law's life, and she's there alone. There is a scene where she's getting ready to go talk to the person can possibly decide the fate of their family. And it's played right into the camera, which was the fabulous Mr. Jenkins's choice.
Sharon is the woman in this film who... you get the sense that if it can be handled, she can handle it. She's like Olivia Pope of 1974. And here she is that she's not feeling really Olivia Pope-ish. She's trying to put on that armor, that confidence that's gonna get her through, that's gonna get the win. And she's never been more terrified. I think so many of us have those moments where we used all the tools and devices to get us through these moments when we're scared or uncomfortable. And they don't always work out.
There's also something interesting, because it's about hair.
In the book, she has a shawl. She puts the shawl on, then she takes the shawl off. And after I read the book, that sat with me. After I had my initial conversation with Barry, I called him, and I said, "You know, I have a thought about this scene. What if it was a wig? Because what I know and what I remember of my grandmother, she had a wig that she wore when she went downtown to handle business. She had a wig that she wore when she was dressing up to be a night on the town with my grandfather."
One for church.
A wig for church. And sometimes, just wearing her own hair for church. [Barry] loved the idea. And that's how it ended up being a wig. Especially for black women, we love to change our looks. We also feel like a new person each time we make that change. And, y'know, when we receive that compliment, just even from another woman, "Girl, your hair."
We were in 1974. And that's so much of what it was: women were deciding what jewels they were wearing, what little scarf pin to put on. All of those things and details were really important, especially in the ‘70s, and I wanted to embrace that.