The Hollywood powerhouse is one of EW's 2019 Entertainers of the Year.

By Sarah Rodman
December 11, 2019 at 12:00 PM EST
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Regina King does a little chair dance when she recalls her peak 2019 moment. It is minimal in movement, but radiantly joyful, her recollection suffused with an endearing mixture of pride, incredulity, and childlike giddiness.

If you have followed the actress-director’s distinguished career — from her formative years spent on the hit sitcom 227, to the long list of memorable roles in movies like Boyz n the Hood and Ray, to her indelible voice work on The Boondocks and Emmy-winning turns on prestige dramas like American Crime — it may not be the moment you think it is.

Credit: James Macari for EW

A few weeks before the Oscars, King — who has amassed a clutch of television directing credits, including Insecure and This Is Us — had just met with producers about helming her first feature film, One Night in Miami. “My agent called and said, ‘They’re going to roll with you, they don’t want to see anybody else,’ ” she recalls before launching into a series of big grins, shoulder shimmies, fist pumps, and a slide down in her chair. The 48-year-old L.A. native sits up with a laugh and says reassuringly, “It was my driving version of that. I did pull over. I can say it now, I was like, ‘If I don’t win the motherf—ing Oscar, that is okay. I’m about to do a film.’ ”

In perhaps the world’s best having-cake/eating-it-too scenario imaginable, King nabbed that mofo for her steely and anguished turn in If Beale Street Could Talk. And it just got better from there, with her deservedly buzzed-about performance as Tulsa police detective Angela Abar (a.k.a. Sister Night) on HBO’s Watchmen, the provocative series from Damon Lindelof that picks up the action in the world of the beloved graphic novel three decades later.

Credit: James Macari for EW

After appearing on the showrunner’s The Leftovers, King was down to suit up for him again. “[Lindelof] had the script delivered with a lovely note, saying that he sees me as this and would I take this ride with him,” she recalls on a recent Sunday morning during her EW cover shoot. “I started reading the pilot and five pages in I was like, ‘Oh, oh, he’s going here? Black Wall Street?’” she says of the harrowing opening scene depicting the 1921 Tulsa massacre. “I had to just sit with that for a second because it had been something that my sister and I, for a long time, had been like, ‘Why hasn’t this story been told?’”

That Watchmen went there — and several places beyond in both real and fictional American history — with regards to white supremacy is still astonishing to King. Plus, she loves kicking ass. “It is so much fun,” she says, which is part of why she enjoys telling people her age. “I’m waiting until I’m damn near 50 to be a superhero. What?”

Given her impressive (and impressively consistent) résumé, it seems plausible that King was bitten by a radioactive Cicely Tyson and Pam Grier in some bizarre community-theater/science-project mishap as a child. But her superpowers — empathetic eyes, finely attuned BS meter, and that air of around-the-way-girl realness she brings to every role no matter how elegant or gritty ­— are intrinsically hers.

Credit: James Macari for EW

She is excited to pour all of that into directing One Night in Miami, which is still in the early stages. Based on the play of the same name by Kemp Powers, it imagines what happened when Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay), Sam Cooke, Malcolm X, and NFL star Jim Brown holed up in the Florida city following Ali’s triumph over Sonny Liston. While she loves acting, a lifetime spent on sets made her want more.

“If the pinnacle was just to win an Oscar, then that’s kind of sad,” says King. “The award is great, but nine times out of 10, that is usually not the reason the person set out to express their art in a public way.” She laughs, then clarifies: “By no means am I saying, ‘Hey, you could take it back.’”

For more on Entertainment Weekly‘s 2019 Entertainers of the Year, the new issue will be available at select Barnes & Noble stores starting on Dec. 20, and all newsstands Dec. 26-27, or you can order a copy now. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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If Beale Street Could Talk

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  • Barry Jenkins

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