TNT’s Animal Kingdom is a boys’ club led by a powerful matriarch in Ellen Barkin, but for Tuesday night’s episode of the recently renewed freshman drama, another strong actress made her mark on the set. Regina King, who has found critical success with her current roles on ABC’s anthology drama American Crime — she won her first Emmy Award for the series’ first season — and HBO’s The Leftovers, stepped behind the camera, returning to the network where she starred for five seasons on Southland.
EW talked to King about the responsibility she feels when in the director’s chair, why she keeps returning to American Crime, and what excited her most about joining The Leftovers.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Your acting career is keeping you quite busy, so what is it about directing that makes you carve out time to pursue it?
REGINA KING: Because I get the opportunity to work with the entire crew. As an actor you don’t get that opportunity and I love working with people, I love bringing ideas together, and as a director you really get the opportunity to do that.
Besides Southland and Animal Kingdom, you’ve directed episodes of Scandal and Being Mary Jane. Is there something specific you look for in a directing job?
Just shows that are interesting to me. I kind of use some of the same decision making things that I use as an actor when it comes to material. It just has to be something that I’m interested in and it feels like a good story. I don’t think that I would do a project a good service if I’m not excited or inspired by the story.
Having said that, what specifically got you excited about or inspired by working on Animal Kingdom? Were you a fan of the Australian film it was based on?
Well, John Wells and the cast. I did not see the movie. I made the choice not to see the movie because I felt like I didn’t want it to influence anything that I would do. I just kind of wanted to respect the tone that John Wells had already established and keep consistent with that. But everyone that I know that had seen the movie had said wonderful things about how gritty it was and how dark it was, so I don’t think that there is any secret that I am into dark and gritty things. [Laughs.]
For years you worked on Southland and even directed an episode. Not only is Animal Kingdom on the same network, but it also shares a dark, gritty feeling to it. Did your experience there help on this show?
Yeah, definitely. I feel like more than anything because Christopher Chulack is the producing director on Animal Kingdom, so there was a shorthand when it came to communication that probably helped for them as well as with me. When it’s a new show and it’s finding its legs, anything that you can do to make the process of finding your legs as a show easier or less time consuming, I would say is always welcomed. I would just say that was probably one of the reasons I was the first director [on Animal Kingdom] that was not a producer.
Recently in Hollywood there has been a big push for diversity among actors, but also behind the camera. As a veteran of the industry, have you noticed a difference?
I would say it’s changing probably more on the acting front than on the directing front. I feel the demand for having more women behind the camera and having more people of color behind the camera because that push and that conversation is happening so strongly now — it’s been a perfect time for me to start this journey as a director. I didn’t purposely time it that way, but it’s worked out that way, and I just feel like with the opportunities I have that are coming it does bring on even more responsibility, because if I don’t do a good job then that could make a situation where, “Well, you know what happened when we hired the last woman,” or, “You know what happened when we hired the last black director.” At the end of the day I would be putting my best foot forward and doing the best job I can do either way, but it just makes it a little more intense, more necessary to improve the show.
Along with Shawn Hatosy, you were one of the few mainstays throughout Southland’s run. Even though you didn’t share many scenes together back then, what was it like reuniting with him here?
It was amazing because I think Shawn is an amazing actor. I feel like, obviously, we didn’t get the chance to dance like I would have loved to on Southland, and when I was able to come over on Animal Kingdom, I just felt like it was an opportunity to work with him in a deeper way, but I still wish I had more scenes with him.
Now that it’s been a few years since Southland ended, how do you look back on it? It reached five seasons, but it never seemed to get the attention that it deserved.
Yeah, I mean, we would have loved to do more episodes or seasons. Southland was a singular experience. Even though it did not get as much of the viewership as we would have liked, I think it did set a tone for a lot of shows that you see today, doing things like not using music and not using typical over-the-shoulder shots, being more fearless with putting the camera in different places. I think Southland did a lot of that, and a lot of shows that came after started following some of the same styles that our DP and Head Director Christopher Chulack laid out in the five years that we were working on the show.
It was recently announced that you’ll be back for season 3 of American Crime. What can you reveal about the upcoming season, and why is this a show you find yourself returning to?
Well, I can’t say much about my role for next season, but I can speak to why I keep coming back. To have the opportunity to reset and play a whole new character, it’s just amazing to be able to come back and know that you are going to be with actors that are at the top of the game, that are serious about storytelling, and serious about being a part of something special and realizing it’s special because of a lot of people involved, not just because they’re involved. So when you know that’s the team you’re coming back to, that’s the group, the company that you’re coming back to, it just makes you excited to come to play.
Besides American Crime, you joined The Leftovers for its second season. What was it you have enjoyed about that experience?
It was pretty awesome to come in and join Leftovers. One of the things that was really exciting to me was that Damon [Lindelof] was going to write in this family and that they were going to be black, but that has nothing to do with who the Murphys are in the storytelling. Although The Leftovers is very strange and very out of the box, in real life your neighbors can be whatever they are — they’re just your neighbor, race doesn’t have anything to do with it. So it was exciting to me to be a part of two shows at the same time that are reflective of what the world or your day-to-day life looks like. So I still just feel like I hit the lottery being able just to be on those two shows in the same year.
What can you tease about how the events of last season will affect the Murphys in the upcoming final season?
I can just say, expect some changes. [Laughs.]
Animal Kingdom airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET on TNT.