How has Regina King Maintained a 30 Year Acting Career? “[I’m] an actor, not a celebrity”
“I saw that I was being stereotyped. I saw that a lot of us were being stereotyped. I didn’t want to be part of that” – Regina King
Though Regina King has been acting since she was a teenager — she appeared on the NBC sitcom 227, which ran for five seasons –the forty-four year-old actress received her first Emmy nomination and win this past year for her role as Aliyah Shadeed on the drama American Crime. Last week King was also received her first-ever nomination for a Golden Globe for the same role. In a career-spanning interview with Vulture, King spoke about her breakthrough role in Boyz n the Hood, how she transitioned to adult roles in Jerry Maguire, and how she has sustained a successful career when so many other actresses struggle to do the same.
Even after her success as a teenage actress King didn’t immediately consider a continuing career in acting as a foregone conclusion because she was aware of the lack of roles for African American women. She explains, “Acting was a hobby for me when I started out, or maybe it was because there weren’t a lot of examples of me when I found an interest in this art form.” It wasn’t until her audition for Boyz n the Hood that she felt confident enough to pursue a career as an actress as an adult. She recalls, “The casting director called me in to audition just to see if I could ‘get ghetto’ — that’s what she said. ‘Get ghetto.’ I was like, ‘Watch me; just watch what I can do.’ I read three lines and she was like, ‘Okay, you can come back to audition for the producer and director.’ “It needed to happen that way so I could say, ‘Okay, this is good for you, and you’re supposed to be an actor.’”
Unfortunately, after Boyz n the Hood she realized that like many African American actors she was mostly being offered stereotypical roles. She remembers, “I saw that I was being stereotyped. I saw that a lot of us were being stereotyped. I didn’t want to be part of that — that’s not the narrative I was creating for myself.” To combat that, she attempted to give her characters richer backgrounds, like Iesha in 1993’s Poetic Justice, from director Boyz n the Hood John Singleton. King says, “She was a young alcoholic; it was sad, so she wasn’t the same girl [as Shalika]. Maybe she thought she had love at one point, maybe she lost a baby. A lot of people didn’t see it that deeply, but that’s how I saw it. I would pass on roles if I didn’t think I could build an honest backstory.”
She took that approach to one of her most successful roles three years later, playing Cuba Gooding Jr.’s wife in the hit Jerry Maguire. She reveals, “I saw that this was the time to be looked at as a woman, not as this girl. Some people in our business want to play young as long as you can. I just wasn’t interested in being a 30-year-old playing a teenager. [My new agent and manager] got me, and understood that [I’m] an actor, not a celebrity. When someone understands that, they generate things that are interesting for you.”
That attitude of being an actor and not a celebrity has paid off for King: unlike actresses over thirty who find it difficult to land roles, King has never really left the public eye and has reached a new peak with her Emmy win. She says, “It’s very interesting to think I’ve been in this business working successfully or consistently for 30 years, and that we still have a lot of the same conversations or disparities going on. It’s really unfortunate.” However, regarding this year’s Emmy Awards, which saw King, Viola Davis and Uzo Aduba take home awards, King adds, “I am witnessing some shifts — obviously, with this past Emmy celebration. That was A+ for our industry. Well, not A+. I’d give it a B, B+, maybe.”