When the cast of If Beale Street Could Talk gathered onstage at the Apollo Theater for the movie’s U.S. premiere in October, the dozen or so actors spoke reverently of James Baldwin — the movie is the first English-language adaptation of his work — but they spoke about Regina King like they were making a special, near-spiritual offering. Less fluttering compliments, more devout appreciation: “There’s a holiness in Barry Jenkins’s work,” Brian Tyree Henry told the audience. “But I was willing to pay any amount of money to work with Regina King.”
In her big Beale Street scene, King — so long a staple of procedural dramas — seemed to shrink before Jenkins’s lens. As the movie’s matriarch Sharon, King is on a mission to right a wrong, and Baldwin’s text describes her as “trying to sort things out.” But King takes it a step further: Her Sharon, staring in the mirror, alone in her hot hotel room, is trying to sort herself out. Sharon’s daughter Tish (KiKi Layne) is trying to get her boyfriend Fonny (Stephan James) out of prison after a false rape accusation, and Sharon has been sent to Puerto Rico to reason with the accuser, to gently suggest that it’s worth it — for all of their sakes — for this woman to stand up to a crooked, racist cop, and let Fonny go free. Everything that served her at home in Harlem is another loose end here, and somehow she’s woefully unprepared for a delicate assignment. King has no scene partner here, she’s just, movingly, a woman considering herself.
King created her Beale Street character alongside Barry Jenkins. “Sharon started with me thinking about my mom, and who she was,” she told Vulture the morning after the movie’s premiere. “From there, I just built her with Barry, and his thoughts of his mom.” I saw a flicker of my own mother in Sharon — bits of both my grandmothers and all my aunts. How rare it is for a movie to capture a black woman of a certain age this way: not reserved or stoic, but uneasy and searching. King told Vulture about adapting Baldwin, motherhood, and how her final scene in the movie is one she’ll never get to experience in real life.
Let’s start with first time you met with Barry about Beale Street. Do you remember what that meeting was like?
We were trying to meet in L.A., and I was getting ready to go on vacation soon. I wanted to read the book before I met with him, because I’d only read the script at that point. My agents were like, it’s fine, you know, [the production company] Plan B said it’s fine. But I said, “No, I’ve never met Barry Jenkins and he seems like the type of guy that if I’m going to have a real discussion about a project I need to have it all and know it all.” So I read the book and we ended up both leaving the city of L.A. and our first meeting was on Skype. He was in Montreal, and I was in Cabo. We ended up talking for like an hour. I was like, If it’s not this one, Barry, it’s the next one. I’m going to work with you.
From everything I’ve read about you, you’re a master at development, and matching yourself with like-minded creators. How do you make it happen?
I think it’s just being honest to what moves me. Just because I like it doesn’t mean someone else has to like it, or if I don’t like it, it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t like it either. So if whatever the piece of art is, whether it’s music, literature, film … if it speaks to me, then I want to have a deeper connection with it. Or with them. I just love art and artists.
Had you read a lot of Baldwin’s fiction before?
I’d read Giovanni’s Room, I think that’s everyone’s entry to Baldwin. But honestly I’ve read more of his essays. Beale Street was so different than everything that I had read prior because it’s such a love story. In Barry’s version, he pulls out the love that just permeates throughout the black experience in Baldwin’s book. I was impressed, as I think all of us are, when you’re reading anything that Baldwin writes. His words, they’re just timeless.
Tell me a little bit about figuring out this character. How did you begin to consider Sharon, and what you could bring to her?
I was really thinking about my mom. I was a baby in the ’70s, but my mom was Sharon in the ’70s. I was thinking about my memories of my mother and her friends and our family — and wigs, you know. That wasn’t necessarily something in Baldwin’s book, but Barry and I were talking and looking at hairstyles. I was sending him pictures of a little Afro, and he’s like, “No, I don’t see that. Ernestine [Teyonah Parris] is going to wear an Afro.”
I really thought about it, and I remembered my mom or her friends had great heads of hair, but they all had wigs. You had your church wig, and your wig for when you go out and handle business — most women had at least two wigs that had two different purposes. Instead of the scarf that she takes on and off in the book, you know, we played with wondering what that would be like using a wig? Barry was like, Hmmm… I like that! I like that. This was before we even started shooting, so by the time we got to the Dominican Republic and we’re shooting that scene he’s like, “So, we’re going to do the scene with you looking in the mirror, but you’re looking in the camera.” I was like, Oh! Okay, all right, Barry. You like that so much that you really are putting me there.
Was there a line or a mannerism that made you stop for a moment, thinking, “This is directly from my mom, I sound just like my mom”?
That happens a lot, more because I think I start to see my mom in myself more and more the older I get. I didn’t see it before. The way I’m always rubbing my legs, those mannerisms remind me of my mother. You just don’t see it that way the younger you are, like, “I do not look like my mom! I don’t do that like my mom!” You’re offended by that when you’re a kid. But as you get older you see the beauty of it and joy that it brings.
When did you start to feel that change? Like, “Oh, this is like my mom, and maybe that’s a good thing?”
When I became a mom. I would say by the time I probably hit 17 or 18, I really really began to appreciate how special my mom is — was, is, she’s still alive. When you’re a teenager and preteen you’re just living life and you’re not really paying attention to everything out there. At that age, if it has to deal with you, that’s what you’re paying attention to: my friends, my this, my that. But the awareness started happening around 17 or 18 years old, as I started paying attention to relationships that my friends had with their parents and their mothers, things their mothers did or didn’t do, things that my mother did or didn’t do. I started noticing things that she said no to, things that I hated her for in the moment but, but became so grateful for.
But then when I became a mom, it was like, Ohhhhh, wow. I’m aware of the sacrifice that mothers make, that parents make when you’ve made the decision to become a parent. That’s when I felt like, if I could just be half of the mother that my mother is, then my son will be okay. My mother making all of our food, so I made all my son’s food. I started trying to do things like her, where before I was trying not to be like her.
Has your mom seen the movie yet?
No, she hasn’t. She has not seen the movie yet. She’s excited. Everyone’s excited. I wish my grandmother was still here to see it, but my family’s really looking forward to it. My mother’s a teacher so any time there’s adaptation from an author that she’s a fan of, or there’s a story about our experience — that’s not slavery — she’s excited.
I’d like to talk more about the wig scene, because it really made me so emotional. What’s it like holding a close-up for Barry? Is it uncomfortable?
Barry is so gentle in his style of directing, and it allows you to be vulnerable even more than probably an average day of acting. Being an actor, that’s kind of what you are. You have to be vulnerable. The more comfortable or confident you are in the space, the more you can express that vulnerability.
When I came into the room, Barry’s being his Barry self: “All right, Ms. King.” I’m like, “Man, you making me sound old.” I’m just messing with him. He’s like, “You know you’re gonna look right down that barrel, just right down.” He knows how to get the bees with the honey. I just felt okay with him. I felt safe with him. It was just following his direction and trusting that it looks and feels right, I mean that’s all you can do. I think it’s really important to have that captain of the ship be a captain that makes you feel safe.
What do you think is going through Sharon’s mind in that moment? She puts on the wig, then takes it off and takes a long look at herself. Later when we see her again, she’s put it back on.
For me, this part was channeling my grandmother. Sharon has never been out of the country. She’s thinking, I’m bringing my good wig because this is the mission, but when she puts it on — normally I think with women even now, you put on your wig, you feel like a different person. Your posture changes. But that wasn’t happening for her.
In a very rare moment, you’re seeing Sharon terrified. I don’t feel like this was a woman that gets scared, that scares easy. I felt like this woman finds comfort in comforting, in solving things for others. And this is the biggest solve she’s ever been faced with. So she’s thinking: I’m scared and my armor is not working. Maybe I should just be myself. Who am I? All of these thoughts. I don’t speak the language. I can hear people in the room next door speaking Spanish. I was thinking of what would my grandmother feel like. My grandmother had not been to another country until way later in her life. If she had to go by herself, what would she be thinking? I thought how Sharon would be hearing all this Spanish and not hearing any English — I was thinking that this is probably a hotel where the walls are thin, where sound is carrying — and she’s feeling smaller and smaller and smaller just as the seconds go by.
You can feel that shrinking in the scene, too. It’s so moving. In every other scene, Sharon is the family’s mediator, the negotiator. Is that your role in your family?
No, not really. In my family, we take turns being that. It’s funny, my son is very good at the balancer. My mother shares that. They share that same quality. You find comfort talking to them.
But I think that’s a through-line in all of your work. You are that person in everything you do.
Maybe I do get a little bit of that from my mom. I get it from my momma.
I’d also like to talk about the birth scene, toward the end of the movie. I just love that image of these two women, alone, bringing this child into the world.
I got emotional because I have a son, he’s my one child. That moment that mothers and daughters have, what I love so much and what I had with my mom when my son was born — I’m not gonna have that version of it, because I have a son. He’s not bringing life into the world. He is, but not with his body. Filming that, I thought: This is going to be the closest thing I’ll get to it. So, I just leaned into that and settled into just having this special time with KiKi.
Watching this movie felt like a tonic. This week right now — everything with Trump, everything with Kavanaugh, you name it. How do you feel about it being released in this cultural moment?
I agree. I didn’t watch the film yesterday, at the Apollo premiere, but I did see it in Toronto. I still get emotional thinking about certain parts of it. More than anything, I wish I had this movie to see when I was 16 or 17 years old. We don’t get to see ourselves loving on each other like this onscreen.
Especially all of this happening to and between darker skin people.
Yeah, yeah. We don’t get to see that. To see it now, I really wanna be out there screaming about it from the top of the chapel. I want young girls to see this, to see how a man, their man, should love them, how their father should love them. It’s a beautiful thing to witness.
Colman was such a great dad, he seemed like such a great husband to you in your scenes.
It’s funny. As far as the Rivers family, we just like locked in step as soon as we met. Barry said it was going to be Colman and I was like, “Yes.” The same thing happened with Russell Hornsby in Seven Seconds. We’re telling this story about the black experience, and you want a black man to be that John Amos type of black man to be the father. Colman possesses that.
He has that great voice, too.
He’s got that daddy voice.
What’s the most romantic thing you’ve ever done for a partner?
Well, I don’t know how romantic this is, but it was from a place of love for sure. I was dating someone who had met three pastors throughout his life, three men who he he felt had moved him in different ways. He said to me one day that he’d love to have a conversation with all of them, but they’re all in different cities. So for his 48th birthday I flew them all out and surprised him with dinner and a conversation with them, just the four of them together.
Are you kidding? That’s incredible.
I guess so. I think the best gift we can give our partners is showing them that we are listening and that we are paying attention.
You started directing five years ago, and did the season finale of Insecure. What was your read on Issa hooking up with Nathan, and then him disappearing for a month?
Oh my gosh. Well here is the thing: When we see what’s to come next season, I think we won’t be asking that question of how should she respond. They are gonna go into place — and it’s beautiful because it’ll have the comedic tone — that we need to dig into.
So you can’t tell me what his deal is?
I don’t want to give it up, you are not going to trap me with that! But it is a space that we need to dig into just as a culture. Maybe I’ll tell you when you turn that off.
This interview has been edited and condensed.