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Regina King talks directing 'Being Mary Jane' and 'Scandal'

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It’s been a busy year for Regina King. The actress—whose career in Hollywood spans 30 years, including starring roles on the sitcom 227, the 1991 classic Boyz n The Hood, and the Oscar-winning 2004 biopic Ray—is currently starring on ABC’s drama American Crime and recently wrapped filming the FX pilot Pariah opposite Bill Burr.

The 44-year-old, who was recently honored by Essence magazine for her professional achievements, is also embracing a different kind of role as she takes her talent behind the scenes to direct BET’s smash hit Being Mary Jane. EW talked to King—who helmed four episodes this season as the drama’s first female director—about Kara’s emotional breakthrough, Mary Jane’s biggest challenge when it comes to love, and the complexities of shooting a sex scene.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve been the only female director of Being Mary Jane—a show with a very passionate following. What kind of conversation did [creator] Mara Brock Akil have with you about coming on as director of four episodes of season 2?

REGINA KING: I’ll give you the short story: It went from me directing two episodes to directing four. Prior to the second season of Being Mary Jane, Salim Akil directed all of the episodes. This is really Mara’s baby—not that The Game wasn’t, but a lot of her voice is in this show. So she was apprehensive about finding a new director. But I told her and Salim what I saw for the show, and I told them what a fan I was. I guess I was speaking their language, and they were hearing mine. It was kismet.

So you approached them about directing, rather than the other way around?

I approached them because I loved the show. When something is good to you, you want to create an opportunity to be part of it. It’s hard to even quantify it with words.

What did you say to Mara to convince her to let you have the reins?

They had originally reached out to me for a recurring role at the same time that I was reaching out to them about directing. Mara wasn’t expecting me to reach out about directing. She felt like, “Yeah, I think Regina can do it, but let me have Salim talk to her. I’m a writer, not a director.” I would say her interest was piqued when I reached out, and that Salim pushed her over the edge. [Laughs]

I love that story. Now that you’ve directed several episodes, would you consider returning to Being Mary Jane as a guest star?

No, no, no.

There was a huge moment in last night’s episode where Kara [Lisa Vidal] stops playing hard to get and opens up to Gael [Julian Acosta]. At the same time, Mary Jane finally stops looking for love in all the wrong places and moves forward with Sheldon. Which aspect of those dual storylines was most important for you as director?

I think the Kara/Gael situation was really important to me to get across. One of the wonderful things about the show is that I don’t think I’ve ever seen two budding love stories within one show from women that are both successful, but are hesitant about love for two very different reasons. Kara is much more guarded than Mary Jane, whose biggest challenge is finding a way [to love] without using her sexual appetite as a defense mechanism for dealing with the loneliness. For Kara, it’s all about work, work, work. So I felt that it was very important to take care in showing that Kara was finally comfortable enough to have sex with a new partner.

The sex scene between Kara and Gael was pretty sensual.

This was Lisa’s first love scene like that, and Gael was literally about to get married! But they just talked to each other, and then to me, and a scene that could have taken a lot of time was so fluid. They really nailed that feeling of the first time when two people get together: magical, sweet, and special.

Speaking of intimacy, I loved how Sheldon [Gary Dourdan] and Mary Jane [Gabrielle Union] are hot and heavy—but over the phone. Tell me about the complexities of creating chemistry where the actors aren’t even in the same room.

Or even shooting on the same day! That was a situation where we shot Gary first. The script supervisor made notes of all of Gary’s ad libs and we shared those later with Gabrielle so she could film her side. It’s always a possibility that you won’t have both actors there for a scene like that.

I know you’ve directed an episode of Scandal that airs March 26. Being Mary Jane and Scandal are alike in several ways, but they’re also very different. How did your experience in the director’s chair on both shows differ?

The biggest difference is that Scandal is a much bigger show, fiscally. [Laughs] And that makes a big difference—it means bigger sets and a bigger crew. Everything is on a bigger level because there’s more money involved. There are things I wouldn’t be able to do on Being Mary Jane, like ordering particular lenses or a crane, that I could on Scandal. And the other big difference is that the two shows are run by two different minds: Shonda [Rhimes] and Mara.

Being Mary Jane airs Tuesdays on BET at 10 p.m. ET.