In Barry Jenkins’ latest — and deeply moving — film, King plays Sharon Rivers, a mother supporting her daughter whose fiancé is sent to jail for a crime he didn’t commit. The challenging role showcases King’s profound emotional breadth as an actor. So much so that King is being honored with the Chairman’s Award Jan. 3 at the 30th annual Palm Springs International Film Festival awards gala.
Past recipients include showbiz royalty like Tom Hanks, Jessica Chastain, Amy Adams, and George Clooney.
King’s work is often sublime if not thought-provoking. The actress received two Emmys for her roles in American Crime; she won the 2018 Emmy for Lead Actress in a Limited Series for her role in Seven Seconds; and she stars in HBO’s inventive and ambitious Watchmen series, debuting some time next year.
If Beale Street Could Talk has already given King some gold — a Best Supporting Actress award from the New York Film Critics Circle and National Board of Review, and a Best Supporting Female nomination for the Independent Spirit Awards, which take place in February.
She chats with Palm Springs Life about the awards wave she’s currently surfing and the inner workings of acting life.
How do you remain grounded with so much attention coming at you?
For the most part, I am grounded. But two things keep me grounded. One, I am so excited about the current project I am working on [HBO’s Watchman], and I want to make sure it’s good. I want to make sure that that’s where my focus goes. The other part is because I’ve been in the business for over 30 years and this [awards season] is all new, and I can appreciate it on a much more mature level than perhaps what was going on 20 or 30 years ago. You know?
Yes. Sometimes we want things to happen when we want them to happen, but they happen when they’re supposed to happen.
What were your thoughts when you found out that you would be receiving the Chairman’s Award?
To be honest, I am still learning about all the different [film] organizations and festivals that are in high esteem. Initially, I was excited because I’m from California. This is recognition from home. And then you hear the award is called the Chairman’s Award, and that is pretty special, and that it’s from the Palm Springs International Film Festival. It felt like receiving a hug from home.
“But subconsciously, my choices for what I’m attracted to are stories that provide social commentaries; things that are currently happening in our world and country that we can’t just throw headlines to. We have to actually have an active conversation.”
What did you find most interesting, or most challenging, in playing Sharon in If Beale Street Could Talk?
It’s hard to just make it about Sharon because this was the first American adaptation of James Baldwin’s book — that in itself was the most exciting part of the experience. And with Barry Jenkins at the helm. The most challenging thing was to not f— it up because this was really a huge responsibility — being the first to bring someone, whose words are so beloved, to the screen. We were all going back to the book, as the bible, making sure we were capturing all the nuances.
Is it true that you infused some of your own experiences as a mother into the role — the caring and devotion?
Yes. And it was really more of my experiences of being a granddaughter. My grandmother lived until 92; she passed a couple of years ago. There was never a time that I couldn’t remember that she wasn’t that [character] Sharon for so many people — for our families, for our church families, for friends. She had that same spirit. Sharon just reminded me of my grandmother.
We would all be lucky to have a Sharon in our lives.
I think that was one of the things that was special for us as a cast — that we all come from that kind of love.
What was it like to work with Barry Jenkins?
He’s always thinking and processing and creating. Always. He’s so in tune when he’s talking to you. His attentiveness. He creates a safe place for us to feel that “electricity.” He allows us to tap into a vulnerability that we, as actors, need to tap into. You don’t have to talk yourself up to get to that place [with Barry].
The breadth of your work showcases stories that may not have been told a decade ago, or 15 years ago. Can you talk more about the stories you now find yourself gravitating toward, and why that’s important for you?
I don’t think much has changed as far as me just wanting to tell stories that ring true or that come from a place of truth. Even comedies. The best comedies are funny because of the satire, or they’re rooted in truth. That’s never going to change about me. But subconsciously, my choices for what I’m attracted to are stories that provide social commentaries; things that are currently happening in our world and country that we can’t just throw headlines to. We have to actually have an active conversation.
As we move toward a new year and a new decade, what kind of stories would you love to see told?
Original stories. I love film and television. I think we can do more than remakes — and with no ill respect, because there have been good remakes. I want to see real original stories. Real stories. And let’s tell some stories about new people whose stories we don’t know.
What do you love most about acting?
You know when people say how they get chills over something? That kind of feeling is what I think we, as actors, are channeling. Finding the right emotions. At the end of the day, your soul as an artist is being fulfilled. Everybody can relate to that — tapping into that thing where your mind, your body, and your spirit are all aligned and doing this dance. It’s electric.
Let’s close on this: What’s some of the best of advice you’ve ever received?
I guess it’s to accept people for who they are. Don’t try to make people who they are not. It’s not fair to you or them.
The 30th annual Palm Springs Film Festival runs Jan. 3–14. Regina King receives the Chairman’s Award at the Film Awards Gala Jan. 3. For tickets, awards gala information, and film screening times, visit psfilmfest.org.