Regina King: ‘Southland’ Star Defies TV Stereotypes of Black Women

Regina King has broken TV’s mold for black women. Why is she one of so few women of color on prime time?

Doug Hyun / TNT

On the set of TNT’s Southland, Regina King is glad to be just one of the guys.

For the past three seasons, the 41-year-old actress has spent long days in her role combing the streets of Los Angeles in search of the ever-present “bad guy.” As Detective Lydia Adams, King portrays an no-nonsense officer with a penchant for becoming emotionally involved in her cases. Of course, King is no stranger to the rigors of filming a prime-time television show 12 to 14 hours a day. After more than 30 years in the entertainment business, there isn’t much King hasn’t seen or done.

But there are facts King admits to being baffled by. One big one—the mere idea she’s a rarity on prime-time television. Thirty years after appearing as 10-year-old Brenda on the sitcom 227, King says she can’t believe she’s one of the few of women of color with a starring role on an hour-long drama.

“I’m just really thankful to have the chance to portray a character you don’t see every day,’’ said King in between filming. “I have women come up to me all the time and say that exact thing to me. They say they love my character and how she is a real woman with a real career that they believe. People love to see themselves on screen in a way that makes sense and seems on point.”

Throughout her career, King has usually managed to be on point whether she was portraying the wise-cracking, braid-wearing girlfriend of Ice Cube in Boys N’ the Hood, or the wise, loving wife in Jerry Maguire. King’s “girl next door” persona and regular-woman demeanor seems to resonate with audiences no matter what role she tackles and that’s given the actress a title not many of her peers can claim—consistently employed.

“I’ve tried to be flexible in my career by doing a little bit of everything and that’s worked for me,” says King. “It’s incredibly hard out there for women of color. That’s why I do love being a woman of substance on Southland. Someone who isn’t a caricature and isn’t a stereotype. But remember she wasn’t written as a black character and that makes a big difference in how she can be portrayed.”

King credits the writers and producers of TNT and Southland for encouraging the development of characters based on true human portraits and not on preconceived notions and ideas.

“We’ve all worked together to make Lydia an interesting person that isn’t based on being a girlfriend or sidekick on the show, which is something totally different in terms of writing and acting,” said King. “It’s great to work and have those kind roles, but it’s also great to have the key scenes and be the key character. It’s good for it to be about you sometimes.’’

King has played her share of both girlfriends and sidekicks over the years, and admits it can wear very thin after awhile. She portrayed a loyal mistress in Ray and Sandra Bullock’s make-or-break costar in Miss Congeniality 2.

The Los Angeles native and mother of a 16-year-old son says she plans to expand her horizons soon with films she’s written and directed. Fascinated for years by the life of New York congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, King hopes to one day pen and star in a docudrama about the first major-party African-American candidate for president.

“The good part is I have time to play her because she lived a long time and did so much at different parts of her life,’’ says King. “Plus, as time goes by, there are so many different avenues to get the film made. So many options that weren’t available even five years ago whether it be TV, video, or whatever.’’

King’s nonstop schedule doesn’t mean she doesn’t have time for fun. Along with being a mom to a teenager that loves all things music, King also continues to enjoy a relationship with another well-known child star. After her divorce a few years back, King began a romance with Malcolm Jamal Warner, also known as “Theo” from The Cosby Show. The two have been a low-key couple in Hollywood for more than three years and King says they both plan on keeping it that way.

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“I have to keep something for me and that has to be my personal relationships,” says King. “Neither one of us is out there talking about it and we won’t be. It’s important to keep what we have between us. I respect others who do it differently, but that’s just not for me.”

One subject King will happily discuss is her role as the social-media ambassador for this year’s SAG Awards, which airs Sunday on TNT. She was picked to announce the nominations late last year and keeps fans updated on the behind-the-scenes happenings with the awards show via her Twitter and Facebook accounts. King will also present at the awards in a dress she’s spent weeks and weeks choosing.

“It’s been fun doing something new like tweeting,’’ says King, who has nearly 80,000 followers. “I was a Facebook girl for a long time but now I’m on Twitter more. I haven’t gone to a lot of awards shows so I’m learning about all it takes to get an awards show up and going as much as I’m tweeting.’’