Coronating Regina King: How She Sidestepped the Child Star Curse to Become Hollywood Royalty

Ahead of the 2021 Golden Globes on Feb. 28, where she's only the second Black woman ever nominated for Best Director, a look back at how Regina King earned her Hollywood crown.

By Billy Nilles Feb 27, 2021 3:00 PMTags
Watch: Happy Birthday Regina King: E! News Rewind

Regina King is a workhorse.

There's no more delicate way to describe the sort of person who can sustain a career like hers, one that's not just still surviving some 30 years after it began, but truly thriving. The four-time Emmy winner has spent the last few years raising the game on television in prestige dramas like Southland, American Crime, The Leftovers, and Watchmen and snatched her first Golden Globe and Oscar wins for her work on the big screen in Barry Jenkins' If Beale Street Could Talk. But it's her work behind the camera of One Night in Miami... that just might have her make history at the 2021 Golden Globes on Feb. 28, where she's the second Black woman in the ceremony's 78 year history to be nominated for Best Director.

Amid all the accolades that have been thrown the actress' way these last few years—and rightfully so, mind you—it's easy to overlook how things could have gone quite differently for King if it weren't for her tenacious commitment to honesty, her unwillingness to settle for the sure thing and her unwavering need to keep the private things private.

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Regina King Through the Years

Born in 1971 and raised in Los Angeles, King's parents divorced when she was just eight years old and with her father Thomas, who had two older daughter from a previous marriage, largely out of the picture, it fell to mother Gloria, a special education teacher, to raise her and younger sister Reina on her own. "My parents' conduct during and after their divorce—from the constant fighting to their eventual estrangement— was very disappointing and hurtful to me. I was more disappointed and even more hurt when my father seemed to just drift out of our lives," the actress wrote in an essay for the 2017 book He Never Came Home: Interviews, Stories and Essays from Daughters on Life Without Their Fathers. "I only realized much later that the divorce really had little to do with that. It had more to do with who he was as a man."

While dad was drifting further and further away, mom was encouraging her daughters to follow their dreams, enrolling them in acting classes. "My sister and I were definitely allowed to dream big. My mother put no restrictions on that," King told USA Today in December 2018 before relating her own mom to her character in Beale Street. "As far as that comforting feeling that Sharon gives, my mom definitely had that." 

By 1985, she'd gotten her big break, playing the role of Brenda Jenkins in the hit NBC series 227, handpicked by star Marla Gibbs to play her daughter. That same year, Reina landed a gig of her own on the syndicated sitcom What's Happening Now!!, a sequel to ABC's What's Happening!!

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"It was an exciting time for us, but our dad wasn't around very much. I can count on one hand the number of times he came to any of our tapings," King wrote. "That was definitely upsetting, but I never spoke up about it. I guess I just hoped things would somehow get better."

Just barely a teenager and with her father becoming less and less of a presence in her life, King turned to a co-star for the sort of guidance a girl might look to find in her dad. "I credit my former co-star Hal Williams with being a wonderful influence. He played my father on 227, which aired for [five] seasons, and also became a father figure for me when the cameras stopped rolling," she explained. "He'd let me sit up under him and talk about teenage stuff and just be, which was something I no longer did with my dad. Hal is a warm, loving person and I really appreciate him for being there for me."

While she was busy learning from Gibbs—"She taught me how to be a professional. And I witnessed firsthand why it was so important to do so," she wrote in an Instagram tribute to her TV mama last June—and leaning on Williams, King was rocked by news out of her father's new life. "Around that time, I also had to deal with the fact that my dad married a woman who was barely five years older than me," she wrote in He Never Came Home. "At seventeen, that was a lot for me to process because, more than anything, I just wanted to be closer to him."

In 1990, 227 aired its last episode and King, encouraged by a mother who always insisted she stay in school even while becoming a star—"NBC wanted to put me in one of those schools, with kids from (the network). She didn't want to do that. She kept me in public schools," she told The Chicago Tribune in 2015—enrolled at University of Southern California while she figured out what she'd do next. While finding herself, she was out of work for a little over a year and it was in that time that something crystallized for King.  

"It was very frustrating...and maybe that's what helped me decide that I really did want to be an actor as a career choice because of that year of not acting and not knowing what I wanted to do at all," she said. And then came her first feature role in John Singleton's 1991 classic Boyz 'N the Hood. "And after I did that, it became clear as day that this is my career choice...I can ACT like a dentist," she admitted. 

From 1991 to 1995, she would star in a total of three Singleton films, which in turn led to work in the '95 hit comedy Friday and the '96 Martin Lawrence film A Thin Line Between Love and Hate. But for King, the half-decade of work began to stick out for its overwhelming sameness.  "I saw that I was being stereotyped," she told Vulture in 2015. "I saw that a lot of us were being stereotyped. I didn't want to be part of that—that's not the narrative I was creating for myself."

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Regina King's Best Roles

Around that time, she'd begun dating Ian Alexander and, by 1995, was pregnant with their son, Ian Alexander Jr., born Jan. 19, 1996. And it was her pregnancy that prompted her to seek a shift in her career, going so far as to decline certain auditions. "I started saying no to things if the stories were too narrow, the kind that only depicted women as the kind of woman I was in Boyz 'N the Hood," she told the outlet. "It was a great role for me — I needed to do that to show the difference between what I did in 227 — but after that, that was enough."

And then along came Jerry Maguire

While pregnant with Ian Jr., she began a lengthy audition process for her role in Cameron Crowe's classic 1996 film, playing Cuba Gooding Jr.'s tough and intelligent wife Marcee, starting the process when Robin Williams was attached to the Tom Cruise role and Connie Britton the Renee Zellweger one. "I saw that this was the time to be looked at as a woman, not as this girl," she said. "Some people in our business want to play young as long as you can. I just wasn't interested in being a 30-year-old playing a teenager." Around this time, she also decided to change her agent and manager. "They got me, and understood that [I'm] an actor, not a celebrity. When someone understands that, they generate things that are interesting for you," she explained.

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While her career was entering its third phase, she was dealing with a new wrinkle in her relationship with her dad, who'd told her and her sisters years earlier that he'd been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. "By the time the disease really began to take over his mind and body, he was living in Panola County, Texas, with his fourth wife. I was pregnant when my husband and I went to visit him, and I was devastated by what I saw. The house was so unkempt and seeing my dad living in those conditions made me even more emotional than I already was," she wrote in He Never Came Home. "My husband didn't want me to be in that environment, nor did he like seeing me so upset, so he made up an excuse for us to cut the trip short. I couldn't get that whole scene out of my head, though, and once I learned that my dad's son-in-law had stolen a lot of his money, I knew something had to change. That's when Pat [her older half-sister] and I started planning to bring him back home to Los Angeles."

Taking care of the financials while Pat took care of their father, physically, King was struggling. "It wasn't easy for any of us; again, my emotions were all over the place," she wrote. When she married Ian Sr. in 1997, it was her grandfather who walked her down the aisle. "I regretted that he wasn't able to share in the special moments like my wedding...or the birth of my son or any of my professional achievements," she explained. 

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Regina King's Best Looks

Her career was continuing apace, with roles in films like How Stella Got her Groove Back, Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde, A Cinderella Story, Ray, and Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous continuing to earn her acclaim, despite the fact that they kept her relegated to the role of sidekick or wife. But two years after that last release, her personal life, which she'd always kept all the way private, began to unravel when she and Ian Sr. divorced in 2007.

"Just as I'd watched my parents arguing and fighting, my son watched his parents arguing and fighting. It was like history repeating itself, and I felt terrible about him having to witness that," she wrote in He Never Came Home. "It was such a stressful time in my life, and although I was thankful to have my mother by my side, I also wished that I could have been able to pick up the phone and talk to my dad. He was just too ill by then, though."

Now a single mom working on co-parenting after a divorce admittedly filled with "messiness"—messiness she and Ian Sr. have since overcome as they put in "the work it took to find our way back to a friendship" for Ian Jr.'s sake, as she explained in the revealing essay—she had a choice to make: follow her ever-expanding film career outside of Los Angeles for months at a time or switch it up. "I did not want to homeschool my son. I didn't want to have to leave him at home and miss out on all those little milestones and triumphs that happen in a growing child's life," she told SheKnows.com in 2018. "So I made the decision to not take any jobs that we're going to be shooting outside of LA, and that's how my TV career started."

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After a stint on 24 in 2007, in a role specifically written for her, she landed a starring role in the NBC-turned-TBS cop drama Southland, which debuted in 2009. And from there, a career renaissance began, with award-winning roles in American Crime, The Leftovers, and Seven Seconds coming one after the other. But as with all things, tragedy was lurking, too, and the same year that Southland premiered, King lost her father.

"He was eighty years old when he lost his battle with Parkinson's and I think about him often, especially when I hear a Michael Jackson song," she wrote in He Never Came Home. "They died during the same summer, in 2009, just months apart."

Sometime shortly after her divorce, she began dating again, this time with fellow former child actor, The Cosby Show star Malcom-Jamal Warner. And again, she made it a point to keep her private life under wraps. "I have to keep something for me and that has to be my personal relationships," she told The Daily Beast in 2012. "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."

By 2013, though, the relationship was over, with a source telling Us Weekly that Warner ended things abruptly and asked King and Ian Jr. to move out of the house the couple shared. However, the actress took issue with the severity of that report, tweeting, "Hey everybody PLEASE don't believe everything you read. Me & [Warner] are good. Life Happens. Forward motion. Godspeed."

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2021 Golden Globes Nominations: All the Surprises

Since the split with Warner, King has stayed single, focusing on her craft and becoming a vocal advocate in the push for diversity in Hollywood. And finally, the awards began pouring in. Her first Emmy win, for work in the first season of ABC's anthology series American Crime, came in 2015, with another following suit a year later. At the same time, she began developing a serious passion for directing. Since helming a 2013 episode of Southland, she's gone on to direct episodes of Scandal, This Is Us, Shameless, The Good Doctor, and Insecure.

"My career right now is not a transition [away from acting], it's a hyphenate. In a lot of regards, it's just beginning," she told Vulture in 2015. "You guys haven't had a chance to see what I can do yet."

And that included her next major role, a reunion with The Leftovers auteur Damon Lindelof for his ambitious adaptation of the cult comic book series Watchmen, which debuted on HBO in late 2019 to great acclaim. "I'm like, 'I wait until I'm darn near 50 to be a superhero,'" King told USA Today with a laugh. "Thank goodness my body is still fluid, and I can run and jump and do some cool stuff." Her work as Angela Abar in series earned King her fourth Emmy. 

After Watchmen, King took her directing career to the next level, stepping behind the camera to direct One Night in Miami..., an adaptation of Kemp Powers' stage play imagining a meeting between Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown and Sonny Liston. The Amazon project was just scenes away from completing filming with the coronavirus pandemic shut down the industry a year ago. As she waited to return to production, the United States found itself in an overdue racial reckoning, which had King itching to return to set even more. 

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"That kind of lit a fire under it," she told The Guardian in January. "We always felt like this film would be timely, but we couldn't have predicted the powder-keg moment that was going to be coming. And so I was watching and just like: 'Oh, my God, we have got to finish this film and it needs to come out now.'"

The film clearly resonated, earning three Golden Globe nominations in total, as well as two Screen Actors Guild nods. That's to say nothing of the Oscar buzz its generating for King, who would become the first Black woman nominated for a Best Director Academy Award if it happens.

One gets the sense that, at 50, King is truly only just getting started. As she told Old Guard director Gina Prince-Blythewood in conversation for The Hollywood Reporter earlier this month, "Something I find often with Black women is that you give us a little window, we're going to kick it all the way open and take that moment. And sometimes it can be perceived as taking all the air out of the room or, 'Wow, she is so big, she's so [loud].' But it's also the very thing that makes us unique; it's the history of what the Black woman has had to endure that has become part of our DNA. So when you see that window just crack open, you push through."

Speaking with Variety in 2018, King said of her Hollywood coronation, "It's interesting because if you would have asked me this question a while ago, I probably would have done something to deflect and not own up to the fact that I've worked really hard, and that I can say that I do deserve to be here without feeling like I'm being an ass. I say that with all the gratitude that the universe has. I say that with all of that in my heart. I think that's what happens a lot of times with women, we deny ourselves the opportunity to receive our flowers because we want to be humble, we want to not seem like we're unappreciative of the moment. But you can appreciate the moment and recognize that you worked hard to get there."

As she told AOL in December 2018, the way she sees it, this latest resurgence is happening at just the right time. "I've been acting for thirty-plus years and the reality is—and I hope everyone feels like this about who's lucky enough to have their career be something that they love—that you're growing," she said. "I feel like I'm growing as an actor as these roles are coming. They're coming at the time that I'm prepared for them; the universe has prepared me for them, so I'm just riding it. I'm listening to the universe, and I'm riding love all the way."

(Originally published Jan. 3, 2019, at 9:47 a.m. PST.)

Watch E!'s Live From the Red Carpet coverage of the 2021 Golden Globes this Sunday, Feb. 28 starting at 11pm. Then catch the repeat airing on Monday at 9pm!