Regina King on Finally Directing Her First TV Pilot

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For five years, two-time Emmy winner Regina King has quietly built an impressive résumé directing episodes of popular dramas such as This Is Us, The Good Doctor, and Scandal, all the while keeping her eye on what she considered the real prize: directing a TV pilot.

King is currently in New York City directing the pilot of ABC’s The Finest, a drama based on the real lives of five black New York City Police Department officers who are sisters. She directed her first episode of television in 2013 on Southland, the TNT police drama she also starred in. But, as she told Vulture during a phone interview, her interest in directing was piqued long before that. In 2010, she agreed to appear in R&B artist Jaheim’s “Finding My Way Back” music video if he let her direct it. As a woman and a person of color, King knew she would have to work harder than her male peers to prove herself. This pilot season, King is one of 19 women who are directing 24 out of 75 pilots across the five broadcast networks; last year, women directed six of 70 pilots.

But as King warned, it’s not time to celebrate quite yet. She chatted with Vulture about getting her first pilot-directing opportunity, and why she never likes to direct while acting at the same time.

We’re hearing more frequently about actors wanting to work behind the scenes as directors. But that’s easier said than done. After being an actor for so long, could you tell me how you transitioned into directing?
No, it is not easy [laughs], but I will say that I definitely put in the work and aligned myself with people who understood my sincerity behind wanting to get behind the camera. And it not being just for vanity reasons, but because I truly felt that there was something I can give to our art form behind the camera as well as in front of the camera. So it really started with me being confident enough to say it out loud.

Did something happen to lead you in that direction? When did you know you wanted to direct?
It wasn’t just one experience. It was probably the experience of working with several really amazing directors. If anyone has the opportunity to connect the dots and look at the directors I’ve worked with, from TV to film, there are some heavy-hitters, from Taylor Hackford to John Singleton. Just having the experience of watching them work, of having a front-row seat, and actually being interested at a very young age in the entire process of filmmaking, allowed me to watch them beyond just working with me as an actor. You know, if you are interested in the entire process of something — and we’re talking about the TV and film industry, but this goes with any industry — if you look at it from a broader perspective than your own, then anything’s possible. As an actor, we have to be so vulnerable that it’s really hard to involve yourself with the other aspects of filmmaking. It’s almost impossible. It is impossible to give a performance that makes you unaware of the fact that you’re watching an actor and be really involved in all aspects of filmmaking. So on days when I only have two lines, I’m paying attention to what the director’s doing, what the director of photography is doing.

Because those directors were so strong, it made me notice their relationships with other department heads. I like working with people. I like talking to people. So it made me interested in things like, what’s the conversation between the director and the wardrobe designer like? The director and the prop master? Watching them, it sparked those questions. But I did not get the guts to actually speak out about it ‘til years later.

When you did, who opened those doors?
It wasn’t until Christopher Chulack allowed me and other actors on Southland to shadow him. And Nelson McCormick allowed me to shadow him. Of course, you shadow these directors on days that your character’s not working, but it allowed me to get those questions answered from an experiential place. It’s one thing asking those questions — a person can tell you about the conversations — but when you actually see them, the curiosity is answered in such a bigger way. It’s literally school. I had a wonderful opportunity from Paris Barclay when I expressed to him that I had directed a video and I really wanted to be a director. So he invited me over for lunch and he watched the video with the volume down, and he was like, “Oh, okay. You told a story. I think you are serious about this.” From there, he turned me on to the ABC directing program. I was able to get in, and from there was able to shadow on shows that I was not an actor on, which was an even deeper experience, because with that, you gotta shut up and just stay in the back and gather all you can.

But I was lucky again with that because Tom Verica — and all these men that I’m naming have been just incredible mentors. I was shadowing Karen Gaviola on Private Practice the day they found out they were canceled. So it wasn’t like the opportunity was going to be there for me to direct an episode if my shadowing assignment worked out well. After about three or four days, they said I didn’t have to continue, but I said I would stay for the episode. It’s not like I can’t still learn. So I think moments like that let people know oh, she’s serious. From there, Tom Verica [whom King met through Private Practice’s producing director Mark Tinker] invited me to shadow him on Scandal. I was there for the season two or three finale and that was huge. I was chock-full of knowledge from that!

You’ve directed a lot of episodic television since then. But now you’re directing a pilot, which is an even bigger deal since you’re getting to set the stylistic template for the show. That requires more trust from the network, the studio, the creator, and other producers.
It’s something I’ve been working to do. My agents will tell you that when I started this, I told them I wanna be directing my own pilot one day. And look, this is a beautiful place to be, but there was this moment where my talent agents and my lit agent were like, okay, well, she’s got an opportunity to direct this show, this show, this show, and there’s an opportunity to act in this or do this movie. And they were like, “Regina, what do you wanna do?” Both! The answer is both. And when you have a team of people that hear that and understand that and make the decision that we’re going to work harder to help her realize that dream, you can’t ask for a better situation than that. If you look at all of the shows I’ve directed, it wasn’t just because they asked me to do them. Some of them I was actually interested in doing and we pursued them. Every show I’ve directed was picked with the intention of giving me the tools that I’m going to need once I finally direct a pilot.

Since you went into this project first as a producer, was it part of the deal that you would direct? Or did you have to work to get that gig like you would any other?
We have a development deal with ABC so it was not part of the negotiation. At that point, it was just about developing it. But when they brought it to me, from day one, I made it very clear that I don’t want to act in this. I want to direct this.

Did you ever think about doing both?
Oh, no. When I did both on Southland, that’s just a lot of work. I did not feel like I would do it a great service by acting as well. The prep is much more intense on a pilot than when you come in as a guest director. Intense in a great way.

How does it feel different than when you’re directing episodes of other shows?
The prep part feels different because the director of photography and myself, we’re designing the look and style of it. But here’s the thing: It’s a pilot, but you still have to stay within the boundaries that you have to stay within for the network. As great as American Crime was, it was out of the box for ABC. So as dope as it was for ABC to take that risk, I do understand the business of it — what show do they pair it with? And I respect that. And as a young producer, I need to understand that. That being said, you want to put your own signature on the show, but you still have to do it within the ABC Zeitgeist.

Can you describe your directing style?
At the end of the day, we are all pulling from the great directors, the great writer-directors, the great storytellers of all time, from Hitchcock to Kubrick and on and on and on and on. I think your style can change, especially with TV, based on where you’re shooting your show. And also at what point you got involved with the show. Are you involved at the beginning stages? Where, with me, we found our writer, and so we’ve been involved with this ever since our writer, the creator, has come onboard. My situation has been really great because as Pam Veasey was writing, we were getting a sense of how we each saw the show, and it’s very similar. That’s great because there are situations where the writer and director don’t see it the same way. We saw the city of New York playing a huge part in the way we tell the story visually by layering the frames. So in this pilot, you’re going to see a lot of layered frames — stuff in the foreground, in the mid-ground and the background — frames within frames. That’s probably the quickest visual clue I could give you now to describe what the style of the show will be.

I know that personally this accomplishment feels very satisfying to you. This year, there’s been a lot of conversation about the challenges women in the entertainment industry and people of color face all the time. Not just in terms of the sexual harassment and assaults that have come to light, but in terms of gender and racial parity when it comes to pay and opportunities. This year, 24 pilots are being directed by women as opposed to six last year. Does that feel like an anomaly, or do you think that real change is beginning to happen?
Obviously, those numbers show that there is a change. I think the most important thing at this point is to not allow it to be an anomaly. We have to keep the conversation going and keep showing those numbers and keep beating the drum. You know, people will say, “Oh god, here they go again.” Well, no change becomes a way of life without consistently making moves on it. So I think that, yes, we are seeing the beginnings of a change, but the beginning and an actual change are two totally different things.

The Finest is about five black New York police officers who are sisters, which means your first pilot involves many people of color and women. It seems like you are part of that change.
Yeah! We — the five women involved in the show as producers — are on the verge of something. Every woman I talk to, we do feel like we’re on the verge of something. I can’t think of a time when there have been five women of color starring in a show on TV. And here is ABC, taking a risk. And you’ve gotta applaud them for that. We, as producers, don’t look at it as a risk. We look at it as: Hell yeah! Like we were talking about, this is the beginning of the change.

And when we talk about the progress, there are 24 pilots being directed by women, but there are 76 pilots in total.
I know. Exactly. To simplify it, if I walk out of the room and change my clothes, when I come back in, it’s a total different look. This is not a total different look. This is more like a shoe change. [Laughs.] By 2019 when they put the numbers out, maybe we’ll have a jacket and earring change.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Regina King on Finally Directing Her First TV Pilot