Right before Empire star Taraji P. Henson announced that Regina King had won the Emmy Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or TV Movie for her work on American Crime, producers cut to a split screen of King and her five fellow nominees, a Who’s Who of the best and most interesting performers in television last year: Kathy Bates, Angela Bassett, Zoe Kazan, Mo’nique, and Sarah Paulson.
When Henson gasped with excitement and revealed that King had won, her competitors erupted with such jubilant glee that a .GIF was created celebrating the adorable moment, a handful of seconds that represented decades of goodwill for one of Hollywood’s most underrated actresses finally getting her due.
After Sunday night’s episode of The Leftovers, King might want to make sure she’s free on Emmy night next year, too.
King, most famous for her roles in Boyz n the Hood, Jerry Maguire and Ray, before the gritty cop drama Southland kicked off a recent television boom for the actress, joined HBO’s critically hailed series, about the aftermath of a mysterious event in which 2 percent of the world’s population vanished, at the beginning of the current second season.
She plays Erica Murphy, the matriarch of a family living in a town that’s been renamed Miracle because none of its residents disappeared on that fateful day. But when Erica’s daughter goes missing and people start questioning whether she’s the victim of another “Departure”—and the miraculousness of Miracle itself—the steely mother begins to unravel.
It all came to a head in Sunday night’s episode, in which Erica explodes at her community’s foolish belief that they are safe because they are within Miracle’s city limits. The hour ends with the season’s most intense and riveting scene to date: a two-hander with Carrie Coon’s Nora that reveals there is far more to Erica than anyone thought.
When King arrives to chat about the episode and her current career windfall, she’s resplendent. At one point, her giddiness about the state of her career brings her to tears as she remembers that Emmy night. After all, it was just five years ago that she penned an essay for The Huffington Post titled “The Emmys: As White As Ever,” decrying the award ceremony’s lack of diversity. Now, she’s the award show’s most celebrated winner.
So as we all digest Sunday night’s powerful The Leftovers, here’s what King had to say about shooting the episode’s two big scenes, how it feels to be an Emmy winner, and the one episode of television we think every person should be forced to watch: her wild, very tipsy appearance on Bravo’s Watch What Happens Live with Jackée Harry.
I’m losing my mind a bit over Sunday’s episode.
Minds blown. Some questions answered. It’s going to keep going, too.
You have these two showcases right now, The Leftovers and American Crime. What is it like to have these at the same time, these rich programs giving you award-worthy showcases, after so long in the business?
It’s pretty amazing. I have to be honest and say that sometimes I pinch myself. Like, wow. This 2015 is something else. This year there was a little bit of overlap with shooting Season Two of American Crime and The Leftovers. I’ve been working on two projects simultaneously, but I’ve never had to go from one set to another in a day. I had to do that I think three days this year. If you would’ve asked me would I do that, I would say never. It takes too much out of you. But you never know what you’re capable of until an opportunity is presented. There’s no surprise to anyone who’s followed my career these past 10 years I’m attracted to ensemble pieces and dark stories that push people to think. To be able to have two in the same year, that’s kind of awesome. I really don’t have words for how lucky I feel.
Was there ever a frustration through the years that projects like these weren’t plentiful, that these showcases weren’t around?
Look, let’s face it. Actors, we’re always hoping for another project that is as significant as that special show or that special movie. After Southland I don’t think I was frustrated because things weren’t coming. I just knew that I wanted to be a part of something that moved me the way that I was moved by Southland. I wasn’t frustrated, just hopeful. I’m lucky that I worked consistently for 30 years. There was one time between 227 and Boyz n the Hood where I was frustrated. I think people just looked to me as the little girl from 227. “So cute!” But not as an actor. So that would be the only frustrating time that I think of.
Let’s get into Sunday’s episode of The Leftovers. That monologue at the fundraiser where you were yelling about how the residents in Miracle weren’t safe. What was that like? Shooting that in a room with so many extras and cast members, not to mention a goat?
For about five minutes there was a lot of anxiety with that fundraiser scene. That’s a room full of people! If you mess up, you’re messing up in front of a whole lot of people. If it’s not a great performance, it’s not a great performance in front of a whole lot of people. So I kind of psyched my mind out for about five minutes, which was probably not healthy. But then I got back to the character and Erica really quickly and really just focused on how everything she is saying is something that was just sitting right below the surface for a long time. Jerry comes in with that goat and it’s an explosion. It busts through the surface. I have to believe that when someone has that kirking out moment, once that seal has been broken it’s broken. There’s no one else in the room. It’s like diarrhea of the mouth. You’re just going. You don’t care who you hurt. You just are releasing, you know? So I stayed there. Nobody else was in that room at that point. It was just Erica and her emotions.
Without giving too much away about what’s coming up, how much will that outburst reverberate with her status in the community of Miracle? I imagine there’s some tiptoeing around her because she’s dealing with the disappearance of her daughter. But she also just put on blast everything the community stands for.
I believe in my own mind that the community’s kind of been tiptoeing around her before Evie disappeared because of who her husband is, what her husband has done. But Erica herself is such a pillar in the community because she’s the doctor of the town. So a lot of people know her and have to deal with her. I feel like, and I’m trying not to reveal too much, we are going to be left, in Leftovers fashion, wanting to know more about what’s going on in her head. You’re going to possibly get a little more of a taste about how broken this woman is. But I think there’s exploration—if there’s a Season Three that happens. You want to know just how broken she is. I think right now some viewers are only thinking that she’s broken because of Evie. But then they see Sunday’s episode and they’re like, “Oh, fuck. There’s more!” We need to know more. That’s what Leftovers does to you.
All of the revelations in the two-hander between Carrie Coon and yourself was shocking, like you said, revealing that there is so much more to Erica. It’s so rare to see a scene like that on TV. First of all, to see a scene that long and that dialogue-heavy, where there’s nowhere for an actor to hide is amazing. But second of all, for those actors to be two women.
They’re sharing in each other’s pain and also hating the “me” that they see in each other. The “I see myself in you” realization is terrifying in a lot of ways. With Nora, she’s still trying to put up her front until, finally, Erica hits her in the gut with a body blow. And she breaks. These are these moments that you really, really just pray for as an actor. When they come you just hope they’re with someone who is an amazing talent. Carrie and I, when we read the script, we got in the makeup trailer and just did a happy dance. At that moment, she and I both understood how much we both share the same passion for our art. The excitement that we had, you see it in each other’s eyes: “Oh. Shit. This is about to be fan-freaking-tastic.” There wasn’t a lot of talking about it. We understood where each other was as our characters. We just went in and, as heavy as that scene was, we had fun.
Both The Leftovers and American Crime deal with faith and justice and fairness and hope.
And all of that being in question.
Exactly. Doing those two things in tandem…
Did I lose sleep? (Laughs)
That. But also does it change your perspective on those big topics to be so immersed in series that grapple with them so intensely?
I think if it’s given me new perspective as much as it’s—especially with The Leftovers—made me consider that we’re more alike and have the same questions no matter how young, old, color, gender. Our faith gets put in questions so often. Other than when if you cut us we all bleed the same color, we all question, “Why did this happen?” I would say that it just reminded me that these thoughts we all have; it made me think less selfishly.
Have you watched your Emmy win back?
Meredith Vieira showed it to me yesterday.
So then you saw when they did the split screen of all the nominees right when you were announced the winner.
I saw the—what do you call it—the .GIF? I saw that.
So you saw how absolutely excited every single one of them was for you?
Yeah. I got chills. It’s really kind of how my life has been in this industry. I’ve always received so much support. As I’ve gotten older and better at my craft, the support has just broadened, you know? What I was just talking about—you just never know who’s watching and who’s paying attention. Afterwards I saw Kathy Bates and she was just like, “You so deserved it.” I was just like, “Oh my god.” Kathy Bates, this woman. [Pauses as her eyes well with tears] It just doesn’t get better than her performances. You know what I mean? It’s just makes me happy. It still makes me happy. Every step of that night, everyone I ran into, was as happy for me as I was for that moment to happen. It was just pretty cool to be me in that moment. And I don’t want to sound like an ass or something like that, or corny. [Wipes her tears] But I was just surrounded by a lot of love, by a whole lot of love, and just felt it. I felt it on the stage. So then to see the .GIFs was just like, “Oh god!”
I mean and then when you hear Taraji P. Henson [who handed King her award] start clapping and shouting “yeah!” when you were walking to the microphone.
Let’s just talk about that. I don’t know if they set it up that way. But to have someone that’s your sister—we’ve had some pretty powerful conversations over the years, both being mothers of single children. A lot of people, especially in this industry, don’t get the opportunity to lean on each other as much as you’d probably like. To have her be the presenter of that category, the moment she gasped when she looked at the envelope, my heart jumped out of my chest. I knew. “It’s me!” So without her knowing, I probably knew about .8 seconds before she said my name. But having Taraji give that to me, it couldn’t have been better. And with the success that she’s having right now, to be standing on that stage together, it was just amazing. [Wipes her tears] I’m sorry for crying. I don’t know where this is coming from. [Laughs] Somebody is cutting onions.
I remember reading The Huffington Post article you wrote in 2010, “The Emmys: As White As Ever.” And then five years later, you won an Emmy.
And honestly, I went back and forth before I pressed send on that. Because I knew that once I pressed send I probably would never get nominated for anything again. But how passionate am I about this? I felt like I had enough people just in our industry—not just the color thing—that felt like a performance they had seen from comedic performances to dramatic performances from people of all colors that they’d seen that hadn’t been recognized, and this was supposed to be our peer group! So I heard enough people say it that mirrored my feelings that I felt like I should stand up for something I believe is not fair. Don’t get me wrong, like I said before, I’ve had tremendous support and received amazing accolades from people in our business, just in passing. But everyone wants to be able to have that moment to have those couple months of going to awards and knowing my peers liked me. I thought it was worth it to me; it was worth it to send this.
But there are so many people who agree with what you said, but who wouldn’t take the stand. They wouldn’t press send. But you did.
And look. I’m still here. I didn’t melt. I think that part of it is bigger than just winning the award.
What was it like to get the award, then, on a night where so much of the conversation was about diversity and the advancements that are being made in representation and inclusion?
That made it even better. There are so many things that made that whole night special. The fact that there was a record amount of nominations this season, to be nominated in that history-making year was pretty awesome right there. Then the win. Then the win on the night that Viola Davis and Uzo Aduba win. I felt like the industry got it right that night, and hopefully we continue, too. Hopefully we can have more conversations that start with “we” and not “us” and “them.”
Selfishly, I need to talk to you about my favorite 30 minutes of television ever: your Watch What Happens Live appearance with Jackée Harry. I’ve been to Watch What Happens Live. Every single staffer there still talks about your appearance.
Oh, I was three sheets to the wind! We had fun. I think for me at first I was like, you got the memo! Did you have to drink on the plane and then as soon as you got there, too? As soon as you hit the door they’re like, “Are you ready for your drink now?” And you’re like, sure! At one point I was like, “Oh my god, my mom is going to cringe.” But then I watched it and felt like a lot of people don’t have a chance to see a side of me that’s fun. I am a fun person. So I felt like it didn’t hurt. People want to see the celebrities be real. And I was having a real good time.
That’s exactly what they said, too. On top of the fact that it was so funny to watch you be so tipsy, it was fun to see you let your hair down.
Maybe too far down at some times. (Laughs)
But it does change how people see you. You deal with some heavy stuff on The Leftovers. But now we know you’re really fun, too.
You know, I didn’t think of it that way. Because probably if that appearance didn’t happen, after Southland and American Crime and now The Leftovers, people would be like, “Does she ever smile? Does she ever have just a ‘fuck it’ day?” So people now know yes, I do.