Regina King has finally arrived.
This sentiment may sound silly to those who have been following her career since she starred as the sweet Washington, D.C., kid Brenda Jenkins on NBC’s hit sitcom 227, but the woman who has been earning major roles in television, film and television again has slowly but surely been building a body of work that rivals any A-list superstar in Hollywood. Last Sunday, King won an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or a Movie. She took home the statue in a category where fellow nominees included Kathy Bates, Sarah Paulson and Zoe Kazan, as well as Angela Bassett for American Horror Story: Freak Show and Mo’Nique for Bessie. Not bad for a child actress who grew up wanting to be a dentist, but settled on a career in acting because she lived in Los Angeles and thought it was fun.
King’s Emmy win was for her role as Aliyah Shadeed on ABC’s critically acclaimed hit American Crime, on which she brilliantly played the role of the Muslim sister of Carter (Elvis Nolasco), a troubled individual who could not get it together or keep it together until it was too late. King brought intensity and integrity to a complicated character committed to saving the life of her brother.
Fans of King’s work in that role will welcome her addition to season 2 of HBO’s The Leftovers as Dr. Erika Murphy, the local doctor in charge of the urgent-care facility in town.
Her husband, John Murphy, played by Kevin Carroll, is a member of the town’s volunteer fire department. Their teenage twins, Evie and Michael Murphy, played by Jasmin Savoy Brown and Jovan Adepo, are close but couldn’t be less alike. Erika is a free spirit and John is deeply thoughtful and religious. King joins the remaining members from season 1 of the ensemble show, whose plot revolves around the aftermath of “the Sudden Departure,” during which 140 million people vanished from the world’s population three years prior. Season 1 took place in upstate New York. Season 2 moves to eastern Texas, population 9,261, where no one was taken during the sudden departure.
King, who is no stranger to ensemble shows, having starred in 24 and Southland, was attracted to the role of Erika Murphy because of the writing and the mystery surrounding the town and her character.
“The character and show are intriguing enough that it keeps you tuned into it,” says King. “In the very first script, you discover that there’s a physical challenge that is invisible. A lot of people deal with it, and I was curious to see where they went with that storyline,” she adds. “The show is not so mysterious that you’re like, ‘Oh, the hell with it, I’m tired of trying to figure this out.’ It keeps you there and you want to commit to finding out what’s going on.”
A lot is going on in season 2 of The Leftovers, and King’s character, Erika, and her husband are a big part of it. King, who only has a couple of scenes with series lead Justin Theroux, whom she calls a “cool cat,” spends most of her time playing opposite Kevin Carroll.
“I absolutely love Kevin, the entire family, really,” she says. “We kind of just fell into a groove really quickly. They were already shooting before I got to Austin. Kevin was already the father figure when I got there,” King adds. “He says he didn’t know what to expect from ‘Regina King,’ which I find really funny, but it worked out very well.”
King has played many diverse roles on the big and small screens. She voiced the characters of Huey and Riley on the Cartoon Network’s Boondocks, guest-starred on Showtime’s Shameless and CBS’ The Big Bang Theory, and played opposite film superstars Will Smith, Jamie Foxx, Sandra Bullock, Martin Lawrence, O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson, Angela Bassett and Cuba Gooding Jr. in a variety of projects. King chooses her roles based not only on the writing and quality but also on what’s going on in her life.
After working to transition from a child television actress to a dramatic-film actress, King chose to return to television because she no longer wanted to take roles that were taking her out of Los Angeles. Her son was starting junior high school and she wanted to be there on a daily basis.
“Nine out of 10 film roles were being filmed outside of Los Angeles. I made a conscious decision to pursue television again, because I wanted to be there for him,” says King. “At the time I made the decision, people were looking at me as an actor that only did film. They weren’t even looking at me for television roles.”
King’s agents worked to get her on 24, for which the show’s co-creator Joel Surnow created a role for her, and the rest is history.
The Emmy winner continues choosing quality roles while breaking down barriers for women in general, and black women specifically, on television in front of and behind the scenes. King has directed episodes of ABC’s Scandal and BET’s Being Mary Jane, shows created by Shonda Rhimes and Mara Brock-Akil, respectively, to whom King says she’s grateful.
“It’s exciting to see powerful black women characters on television. It gives us hope that the scope of television can mirror more of what things look like in real life,” says the NAACP Image Award winner. King also understands that as a black woman, when she refers to women of color, most people think she’s only talking about black women, but she’s also thinking about Latina and Asian women.
“You know when you look at Latina girls and black girls … how objectified we are in such a negative way,” she says. “I mean women period, but especially black and Latina girls—it’s concerning. So I feel like, when we have the conversation about the scope of roles, there’s more strength in having the conversation together.”
King’s collective outlook may be one of the reasons she thrives on ensemble shows. HBO’s The Leftovers is the perfect next step in the career of a woman whose talent knows no bounds, genres or formats.
Season 2 of The Leftovers premieres Oct. 4.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., a media scholar, is digital editor in chief at Grady Newsource and a faculty member of the Cox Institute of Journalism, Innovation, Management & Leadership at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. She is founder and editor in chief of the award-winning news blog the Burton Wire. Follow her on Twitter here or here.