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Regina King has had the kind of slow and steady career arc that should prove as an inspiration for any actor willing to play the long game in a business that often overemphasizes youthful flashes in the pan. The 44-year-old got her start as a main cast member on all five season of the sitcom 227 before transitioning ably into film with roles in Boyz n the Hood and Friday. Since the turn of the millennium, King has added some amazing lines to her resume, including her award-winning turn as the on-again-off-again lover and background singer for Ray Charles in Ray and Detective Lydia Adams in the acclaimed crime drama Southland.
2015 has quickly turned into one of the best years of King’s career. She has earned some richly deserved accolades—including her first ever Emmy award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or Movie—for her portrayal of Aliyah Shadeed, the converted Muslim sister of the accused murderer Carter Nix in the first season of American Crime. And she’s also joined the cast of the high-profile HBO drama The Leftovers. In this series, she is Erika Murphy, the matriarch of a household that at first appears like the perfect nuclear family but slowly reveals skeletons in the closet, and (spoiler alert), in the case of the father figure John, a serious dark side.
Paste recently spoke with King as she prepared to start production on Season Two of American Crime and to direct another episode of Scandal. The actor talks getting inside the character of Erika Murphy and how she navigate the politically sensitive terrain of playing a Muslim in America.
Paste: What attracted you to the role of Erika Murphy?
King: The writing first and foremost. Damon Lindelof is a brilliant writer and what he did with Tom [Perrotta] in the first season I thought was pretty unique. It’s hard nowadays to come up with unique subject matter. Especially when almost everything now is a mashup of a bunch of different things, or a reboot of something old. I feel like Leftovers is dealing with subject matter that’s kind of taboo, when you’re talking about religion and faith. They found a way to make it mysterious and intriguing without making people upset (laughs).
Paste: Was it any easy thing to jump on board a show that was already a known quantity with an established cast?
King: It was easy for me to come on board. When I read the first episode for Season Two, I felt like it stood on its own. I felt like if you weren’t a person that followed the show in Season One, you could still get drawn in. That was what made it easy, for lack of a better word, to come in as one of the new kids on the block. There’s a mystery that surrounds Jarden, Texas that is just as mysterious as discovering that this departure took place and putting a microscope on the city of Mapleton. I think Jarden is equally mysterious. If not more so, in some regards.
Paste: I have heard that you don’t get all the information about where the season is going and where these characters are going to wind up right away. Was that a difficult thing to get used to?
King: You don’t, but I think Damon is very good when you have those questions. A lot of the questions are more just to make sure that you’re not selling yourself short or putting yourself in a corner. Damon is really good at keeping the mystery, but giving you just enough information so that you don’t feel like you’re floundering.
Paste: It seems very obvious that Erika knows about John being this strange kind of enforcer of the status quo in Jarden. Do you feel like she’s understanding of it, or is she just going with it because it’s her husband?
King: I think she’s a religious woman in addition to being spiritual, and when you’re married to people that are really rooted in religion, faith, you take them at those vows. You have to honor them. And I feel like there’s a lot of that going on.
Paste: One interesting aspect of the character is that she’s dealing with hearing loss. How was that for you to play as an actress?
King: For me, it just adds something else that’s not treated like a characteristic that’s worn on your sleeve. There are many people that live with being predominantly deaf or 50% deaf and those of us who are fortunate enough to not have that disability, we don’t even notice that they do. The hearing aids that they wear are so much smaller than even 10 years ago. I did not realize how many crew members were wearing hearing aids or were deaf. Because there’s nothing about them that feels different. I was able to lean on them just for a couple scenes, like “What is the world like when you take your hearing aids off? How often do you take your hearing aids out?” The way it’s written is interesting, the way it’s addressed or not addressed is as simple as someone being very very tall or very very short. It’s a part of you. It’s not a part of the story. It’s a part of Erika Murphy.
Paste: There’s such a subtlety to what you bring to this role and the role of Aliyah on American Crime. You speak volumes with such tiny details. Where does that come from?
King: I’m constantly listening to the creator or the director. When you have that first meeting with the creator, I’m listening to what they’d envisioned with the character. Of course, no matter who’s playing the character, there’s going to be a slight difference. It’s just Regina playing it. If it’s Susie playing the character, it’s going to be her interpretation. It’s your interpretation with direction from the birth father, in this case, and the director. I just feel like I hear what Damon saw, and ask questions that would help me put my signature on Erika and just go from there.
Paste: Considering that research that you did for Erika to address her hearing loss, how deep did you get in researching the role of Aliyah, a Muslim woman, in American Crime?
King: Pretty deep. I was able to have communication with a Muslim woman, born and raised Muslim. The Islamic faith was not something that she found. It was something that she was born into. But her appreciation for it is not something that she felt like she had to have because her parents were Muslim. What I found with a couple of other people that I met, some that were converts and some that were also born into the religion, was the inner strength. A lot of women that wear the hijab and cover up have that because they don’t lean on their physical attributes. It’s really more about who they are inside that emanates. There’s just a calm that I found with most of those Muslim women that I met along the way. I felt like it was very important when I was playing Aliyah that I didn’t use my hands a lot and didn’t make huge gestures because most of the Muslim women that I met were very controlled, very in control. I use my hands a lot when I talk, so not using them helped to convey a woman that’s in control.
Paste: Did it weigh on you to be careful in your portrayal of Aliyah considering the strain of anti-Islamic sentiment that is running through part of the world right now?
King: Part of the reason that we have that tension is because such a huge group of people in the world feel that if you don’t know about something, it must be bad. Specifically talking about Islam, we, as a country, really have to be honest that we do that on a really grand scale. I felt like it was important to stay rooted and confident in the choice that this woman made to change her name, to welcome Allah into her heart. This was a woman who was probably born and raised Baptist or something like that. What was it about this religion that made her change? There has to be something beautiful about it. I felt like if I always remember that that’s where she started, that any thoughts that she may have that may be perceived as radical thoughts are still rooted from a really beautiful place.
Paste: Outside of your acting work, you have been working over the last couple of years behind the camera, directing episodes of Scandal and Being Mary Jane. Is that something you always wanted to do or did you discover an itch for that later on in your career?
King: It was something that I discovered that I wanted to do maybe 12 years ago or so. But when I think about who I am and who’ve I been and the type of little girl I was—yeah, probably directing was always in the cards for me (laughs).
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste, and the author of Empire: The Unauthorized Untold Story, available in bookstores now. You can follow him on Twitter.