A version of this story about Regina King and "Watchmen" first appeared in the Emmy Hot List issue of TheWrap's Emmy magazine.
Damon Lindelof's "Watchmen" may be a limited series about superheroes based on a comic book, but it in many ways it's also the timeliest and most prescient piece of television in the past year. A drama set in an alternate version of America that diverged from our present world in the 1980s, it deals with issues of white supremacy, police misconduct and vigilante justice; it also takes place in a world where some people wear masks, and it begins with a scene of the 1921 mob killing of Black citizens in Tulsa, Oklahoma (the "Black Wall Street Massacre"), which landed in the news after the series premiere when Donald Trump held a rally there in June.
"When I read the script, I got through the first three pages and then stopped and thought, 'Oh, my God, is he doing Black Wall Street?'" said Regina King, who plays a masked police officer alternately known as Angela Abar and Sister Night, whose tangled family history involves fighting decades of racism inside and outside of law enforcement.
That family story intersects with a variety of other plot lines, including an omniscient being known as Doctor Manhattan (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a vigilante genius named Adrian Veidt (Jeremy Irons) exiled to a moon of Jupiter and a no-nonsense, anti-vigilante FBI agent played by Jean Smart.
"I didn't even have a specific genre to put it in," she added. "By the time I got to the end of the script, I was blown away and I could not wait to see what happened next."
King's character is part superhero, part vigilante and part product of years of injustice. "When I'm doing a role, I usually have a person as the blueprint to give myself a back story," she said. "With Angela, I didn't have that person or experience that I was specifically drawing from. But just recently I made the discovery that what I was pulling from was probably all the experiences, including my own, of being a Black woman. And as we got deeper into the process, I started to personalize her more."
For King, an actress known for being an active collaborator on her films and television projects, personalizing the character caused her to occasionally take stands on her behalf when she'd get new scripts. "Because of who she is as a Black woman, she has designed this safety zone to keep all of the painful things in her life away," she said. "She's trying not to deal with past pains or losses. And if she designed her life a certain way so that she wouldn't have to experience that, there are things she wouldn't say or do. Damon very much listened to me about that and would make adjustments to honor Angela. We were always honoring Angela."
Angela is both a hero who fights for good and a law enforcement officer who has no problem crossing the line--but that duality, King said, didn't create any tension for her. "I feel like every hero story, at least the best ones, come from a place of great loss," she said. The ties to present-day America, she added, were inescapable as soon as she read the script. "With the current administration, a lot of racists have come out of the woodwork," she said. "It was not lost on me that our show definitely shined a big spotlight on those types of people."
"Watchmen" led all shows this year with 26 Emmy nominations, including acting nods for King, Irons, Smart, Abdul-Mateen, Jovan Adepo and Louis Gossett Jr. It comes during an impressive five-year streak for King, who landed three nominations and won two Emmys for "American Crime," won another for "Seven Seconds" and took home an Oscar in 2019 for "If Beale Street Could Talk."
"When you look at it from a career space, winning awards is great currency," she said. "It definitely brings more opportunity and gives you more influence. I recognize that, and I don't take it lightly. At this point in my life, it's very welcome, and I hope I can use those shining, beautiful moments to help those around me."
King said she's proud to be a part of this year's record-breaking number of nonwhite acting nominees, but also wary of people attributing the number of Black nominees to the social justice movement and the increased awareness of institutional racism in the wake of George Floyd's killing.
"I think it's unfortunate that it has to be brought up all the time," she said. "The great work of a lot of the talent being recognized have achieved is being overshadowed if you the only reason why the nomination occurred is because they were Black. I think that's unfair, because when I looked at the work and the achievement, um, I was thoroughly entertained and moved."
Read more from the Emmy Hot List issue here.