If Regina King competed in a beauty pageant, her winning talent would be tugging at your heartstrings.
A two-time Emmy winner for her emotionally charged work in ABC’s American Crime, the 47-year-old actress fights more American crime as Latrice Butler, grieving mother of a teenager killed by a police officer, in the new Netflix series Seven Seconds.
Also appearing in Barry Jenkins’ upcoming film adaptation of James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk, the former 227 resident could still snatch the Miss Congeniality crown, too.
Following The Leftovers and American Crime, Seven Seconds has cemented your status as the queen of depressing prestige television.
[Laughs] I’ll take that. It’s funny, because my sister’s my producing partner, and we’re in the process of developing a comedy for me. I told her, “This bitch has been doing drama and making people cry a long-ass time now, and she’s tired!”
After you debuted in the ’80 sitcom 227, it was campy comedies like Legally Blonde 2 and Miss Congeniality 2 that helped earn your gay following.
Absolutely. I started to become aware of my gay fanbase a little bit when I did How Stella Got Her Groove Back, but it became totally clear when I did Miss Congeniality 2. I mean, I played an FBI agent who had to go undercover as a Tina Turner drag queen.
What do you remember about lip-synching “Proud Mary” in a drag club with Sandra Bullock?
It was set in Vegas, but we shot that in L.A., and they brought in all kinds of drag queens and female impersonators. So for two days I got to spend time with those girls and really receive the love they had for me, which was amazing. My son was riding his skateboard around the lot while we were shooting, and this one queen took turns jumping on his skateboard, and they had fun together. It’s a great memory.
It sounds like you were fully prepared to be a guest judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race in season 4.
That was big fun. You’re always learning something around those girls, I’ll tell you that much. If you ever need some new beauty tricks, that’s where to go.
What was your introduction to the LGBT community?
There are more acronyms now, of course, but I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t aware of my gay sisters and brothers, men who dressed as women, or women who were more masculine. I have gay relatives, and I’ve always had people around me who were different and who helped me see the beauty of my own differences.
You were raised in Religious Science. Did that influence your views on homosexuality?
Probably, yeah, because my parents followed a philosophy that’s non-denominational and all-inclusive. There’s no room in Religious Science for criticism of other people or their beliefs: Everybody just is, because we’re all here to be.
A gay relationship challenges your churchgoing character’s beliefs in Seven Seconds. As a deeply spiritual person, have you ever had to reconcile your faith with your support of the LGBT community?
Honestly, I never think about it. When I have my conversations with God, what I hear most consistently is that God wants me to walk in my truth and respect others who are doing the same. That’s the best I can do.
The Boondocks, an Adult Swim animated series, addressed homophobia within the black community. You voiced 8-year-old gangsta rap fan Riley, who often used “You gay” as an insult. Were you concerned that might offend some viewers?
I never felt like we were poking a bear or being insulting. We went for everybody, so nobody was safe. We were holding a mirror up to American society, and I ultimately felt like we were creating a space that provoked conversation though laughter.
Your dramas Southland, American Crime, and now Seven Seconds have also provoked conversation with major gay storylines.
I’m definitely attracted to stories that cover a wide spectrum of people. How can you say you’re representing even a small slice of American life and not have gay characters? That’s why I feel lucky to have such a diverse fanbase, because it means I’m telling all-inclusive stories, and it shows how much we all have in common.
Have you ever played a queer role?
Girl’s been lucky to work for more than 30 years, so let me think. [Laughs] No, I don’t think so, but only because the opportunity hasn’t come my way yet. In recent years, though, I’ve discovered my ability to direct and produce, so that could be on the horizon.
You directed an episode of Scandal, “Put a Ring on It,” that featured a big gay wedding.
That was fun. The writers really wrote a love letter to Cyrus Beene. It was exciting to be a part of that, because it was a reminder that there’s no one way to love. There are still those who want to deny people the right to be themselves, so I love anything that forces them to see human beings for who they are.
You also sold sperm to Ellen DeGeneres and Sharon Stone in the 2000 HBO movie If These Walls Could Talk 2.
Right! Yeah, that was surreal. I haven’t thought of that in years, so I love that you reminded me of that.
In recent years you’ve been increasingly involved with stories that tackle important social issues. Is that what draws you to a project?
I can’t say I’m always conscious of that, but I’ve looked back and realized that I do gravitate toward those stories. Because American Crime, Southland, and Seven Seconds weren’t my only options at the time, but those were the shows I chose to do. Now I just need to find a way to make a social impact while having some laughs along the way.
Seven Seconds explores timely racial tensions between white cops and the black community.
We have to keep having these conversations in TV shows and movies until the conversation is actually being had between the people who need to be having it in the real world.
You’ve recently posted on social media about gun control, Time’s Up, and the Masterpiece Cakeshop Supreme Court case. Why is it important to let fans know where you stand on hot-button issues?
I feel like I have some influence. I’m not saying I’m Beyoncé up in here, but some people are interested in what I have to say. We’re all so busy—it always amazes me how much shit I miss—so for those who don’t read the Times or don’t have an app constantly feeding them headlines, I like to say, “Hey, check this out.” It’s about bringing more people into the conversation.
Let’s bring 227 into the conversation: Are you a Mary, a Sandra, a Rose, or a Pearl?
I’m somewhere between a Mary and a Sandra. I have a lot of responsibilities like Mary, but I can also let my freak flag fly.
I’m such a Pearl because I’m in everybody’s business.
Oh, I try to stay to out of other people’s business, because I sure don’t want them in mine.
Seven Seconds is now streaming on Netflix.