Getting in the `Christmas' spirit

Actress sheds her typical strong roles to play a submissive woman

SPOTLIGHT ON Regina King

November 30, 2007|By Michael Ordona

For Regina King, the mightiest test in the ensemble comedy-drama This Christmas was allowing herself not to be mighty. "The majority of roles I play have the common thread of being a strong person. It was a welcome challenge to play submissive and do it convincingly," she said.

It's easy to see why King is typecast. She projects a sense of confidence and physical power, even over a relaxed lunch. That, coupled with a natural screen presence, helped her graduate from the world of TV sitcoms to film, where she delivered a stirring performance in the Ray Charles biopic, Ray. But King's turn as Charles' back-up singer/lover is miles away from her work in This Christmas, which tells the story of a family reconnecting over the holidays and features a cast that includes Delroy Lindo, Loretta Devine and R&B sensation Chris Brown. King plays Lisa, a woman so cowed in her marriage that she cuts her husband's food at mealtime.

"When I read the script, the first thing I said was, `She's cutting her husband's food? Seriously?' And [writer-director Preston A. Whitmore II] was like, `My sister did that,'" said King. So the actress accepted her character's behavior as the way she had come to make her relationship work. "I think we pulled it off, and it made the payoff better in the end."

That payoff comes in what will surely be taken as the movie's signature scene - a showdown between King's character and her husband that wasn't in the original draft of the script but was inspired by a close friend of King's. (To say more would reveal one of the film's most surprising sequences.)

"I felt like this is her swan song, so I suggested we do something bigger than what was there," she said. King had mentioned to the filmmakers how her friend had confronted her husband in a unique, specific and spectacular way, "and like a week later, Clint [Culpepper, president of Screen Gems], called and was like, `Would your friend be OK with [us using] that?'"

Given license to create this extremely important moment for the film, King and Laz Alonso, who plays her louse of a spouse, got together the night before the scene was to be shot and worked it out step by step, even writing dialogue.

King is likely to continue to have that kind of creative input in her future endeavors - she's tackling a new role, producer, through the company, Royal Ties, that she recently set up with her sister, and Culpepper is proving a key ally.

"We were in agreement that we needed to do more movies like This Christmas," she said, highlighting "the necessity of telling stories about black people that weren't necessarily black stories."

They're already at work on a remake of The Big Chill that Screen Gems is set to release in 2009. "Most people 35 and under have no idea what that movie is, so you've got a brand-new audience, and film lovers know it's a timeless piece that you could do again and would love to see it."

But with The Big Chill on hold because of the writers' strike, King is looking ahead to a dream project about the late New York congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, who in 1972 became the first African-American woman to run for president. But she's pragmatic about the realities of the business.

"Producing is a struggle," said King. "It's amazing that half of the producers aren't on Zoloft. Depending on the project, it entails a little bit of everything from managing to directing. There's a lot of people who take the title and don't do any of those things. That's not the producer I want to be."

Michael Ordona writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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