Sharon stares directly into the camera, directly at us. Solemnly, she pulls a brown stocking cap over her hair, making sure her ponytail is tucked in the back, secured. Then she grabs her wig, holds it for a moment, places it on her head. She fluffs it, fiddles with it, tries to look on. Then finally, she sighs. She pulls it off in frustration, contemplating the weight of what she has to do.
The scene takes place in director Barry Jenkins’ latest film, “If Beale Street Could Talk.” It plays out over only a few minutes, with absolutely no dialogue. Yet it constitutes one of the most important moments in the film — and one of the best performances of the year, by actress Regina King.
“That’s your armor, your costume,” King explained of the wig in the scene. “It’s not like we [black women] don’t have hair. We’re not wearing wigs because we don’t have hair. It’s just ... I am leading with how I want you to receive me. I’m handling business.”
King has been handling business as an actress for 30 years, turning in stellar performances in “Jerry Maguire,” “The Boondocks” and “American Crime.” At this point in her award-winning career, she has reached legend status, but she said she chose to take part in “If Beale Street Could Talk” (based on the James Baldwin novel of the same name) as an opportunity to learn something from Jenkins, whose “Moonlight” won the Best Picture Oscar in 2017.
“Beale Street” has already nabbed several nominations of its own, including a Golden Globe nod for Best Motion Picture, Drama. King also earned a Globe nomination for her supporting role as Sharon, the mother of a woman (played by KiKi Layne) attempting to exonerate her fiancé (played by Stephan James), who is falsely accused of rape.
Before the film’s release this December, I spoke to King about her experience on Jenkins’ set, how vulnerable she still feels as an actress in Hollywood and the powerful politics of hair:
I want to start by saying congratulations for the film. The New York Film Critics Circle just awarded you Best Actress, which is really exciting. How does it feel for this particular performance to be recognized in this way?
I feel like we need to see this movie. And when I say “we,” I’m saying we as a human race need to see this film. I just know how much love and family have gotten people through things, throughout the history of life itself, and this is a beautiful portrait that represents that.
And then dialing it down to just being black in America and all the things that we have accomplished with so many things, back up against so many things. Still to this day, 45 years [after Baldwin’s novel was published], we’re talking about the same thing. But we still manage to smile. We still manage to laugh. We still manage to praise. And this is an example of why this is a beautiful tribute to who we are.
Were you familiar with the book before the movie?
I did not read the book until after I read the script. I read the script, and then I read the book a couple of days later. I’m obviously familiar with James Baldwin but had not read Beale Street. I was just amazed at how great of a job Barry did. I didn’t feel like I missed huge things in the script. Probably a lot of people will have something to say about this, but you know, I haven’t felt like that about a book adaptation since “The Color Purple.” I remember I was going to the movie theater [to see “The Color Purple”], like, let’s see what they do. And I remember [leaving bawling]. Oh, my God. Yeah. So this is the first time since then that I’ve had that feeling.
It’s funny because Jenkins does take liberties in the film, but they’re the right liberties.
Exactly. Exactly. I just think because Barry is so, so aware and he’s an artist, he’s very much in tune with what’s going on at all times.
Barry probably wouldn’t say that he’s a tastemaker, but I say that he is. Just because Barry is always reading and always up to the minute on things that matter in the world and the culture. That’s I think the reason why he’s able to know what liberties are the right ones to take. Which ones will resonate the most with people.
You recently mentioned that part of what made you take this role was a feeling that you would learn something from Jenkins. What did you take away most from your experience working with him?
Again, the listening. Being more in tune with what’s going around further than my circle, my bubble. I just think that humans ― we’re conditioned to just be in [our bubble]. You know, a lot of people throw that around, that that’s the entertainment community. No, it’s every community. That’s one of the big things that I took away from him. And also, his ability to deliver information while still taking in information.
What does that mean?
You know how a lot of times you talk to people ― or just [take] anything that you’re working with someone on ― and you express a feeling or a thought, and the other person is quick to want to give their thoughts? We’re all guilty of that. He’s able to take that information that you’ve given him, give you what his original thought was and apply what you gave him and how it may have changed his thought ... He just does it so effortlessly, so it seems to me. So quickly.
He knows so much, but he doesn’t give you that feeling of “I’m smarter than you” or “yeah, you’ve never done this, so ....” He never gives you that. Which I think is, for someone to be in his position, a wonderful personality trait.
Why is that valuable to you as an actress?
Because it makes me feel safe with expressing my discomfort when I’m feeling vulnerable. Because that’s being an actor — allowing the vulnerability to lead. If the creator has created a space where you can do that, then the performances are going to thrive, you know?
It’s valuable because when you’re feeling insecure, the way he expresses and the way he delivers information, you forget that you’re insecure about something. You just go on and share, “Look, I don’t want to do this because such and such, can you help me do this?” And that’s huge for an actor to feel safe. Because most of the time we feel like we’re out here on our own. You know, no one else has got to get naked. I’m the only one with just my panties on. Maybe you would talk to KiKi [Layne] more about this, because [she and Stephan James] did actually have love scenes. But they seem to feel so at ease. And I have to believe that that started with Barry.
We talked about what you learned from Barry, but I’m also wondering what, if anything, you gave to Layne. This is new for her, and you’re a legend. What were you able to impart to her during the shoot?
I think you would have to ask her that. [Laughs.] I don’t know. I’m just always honest with her, with any questions she ever had. Very supportive. I mean, there were definitely moments on set where Teyonah [Parris] and I both big-sister-mothered her, like we really were in those roles. And I would say, more than anything, probably just leading by example. She was lucky, KiKi, and we were lucky to have her, because she’s so young but so hungry just to be a great artist, not to be a celebrity. And that’s unique. So we were able to do this huge thing in a small amount of time with her and Stephan as the lead because they committed from the beginning.
So we were lucky in that regard, and I guess she was lucky to have a Colman [Domingo] and a Regina and a Michael [Beach]. Just some really strong actors around her — and actors that don’t have bad behavior. She got to be around this good behavior. This is what it’s supposed to be.
It’s interesting that you’re talking about this vulnerability and dealing with insecurity, because one of the most powerful scenes in the film is that whole section where you go off to Puerto Rico and you’re staring straight at the camera contemplating having to go find the girl who has falsely accused Fonny [James’ character] of rape. Like, there’s no filter. We see you grappling with the weight of what you’re about to do. Can you just tell me a little bit about what the whole process was like, filming that scene for you?
Well, I did not know that it was going to be looking into the camera until I got to set. Barry does not necessarily prepare you for that, which I think is good because I’ve leaned into that discomfort. But in the book, it’s a shawl that she puts on and then she takes off and puts on and takes off. And I asked Barry what did he feel about it being a wig.
So that was your idea. I was going to ask about that, because I think black women and hair — there’s just so much. So much can be said with so little, and I think that’s what was happening in that scene. Like seeing you adjust it. That’s really interesting. What made you want to do the wig?
Black women and hair. And my grandmother. You know, and even if you think of actors, actresses, white women and their wigs, you know ― that’s your armor, your costume. The grandma, you know, you got the wig that you wear when you go handle business, the wig that you wear when you go hang out at the lounge, at the supper club or whatever. So that was an example of how what we do is galvanizing and how the whole crew just leans in. I had that thought, shared it with Barry. Barry decided he was into it, and so that was the choice for that scene. And that was always going to be that.
And then with the wardrobe stylist and the hair designer coming in and sharing with them, “OK, this is what we’re going to do for this scene.” Ken Walker is our hair designer, and then he said, “Well, you know what? When we do the scene, when you guys go down to the lawyer’s office, she should have on a different wig.” Because what a lot of people don’t realize is black women ― we have a head full of hair up underneath those wigs. It’s not like we don’t have hair. We’re not wearing wigs because we don’t have hair. It’s just ... I am leading with how I want you to receive me. I’m handling business. So this is my handling-business wig.
In that moment, how it read to me in the book with the shawl ― [we’re] just taking it a step further with the wig. What if you put it on, you went through your three wigs [and you say,] “I’m going to bring this one. I think this is the best one.” This is when you’re in New York for you, getting on the plane and you realize what it is that you have to do. My wigs help make me feel better, because so often, you know, lipstick, wig, nail polish, clothes help. Your posture changes. Nothing was going to change in that moment what she had to do. It was so much bigger than that. So much bigger than how she looked.