How Regina King Tapped Into a Mothers Pain in Seven Seconds
As Emmy nominations approach, Vanity Fairs HWD team is once again diving deep into how some of this seasons greatest scenes and characters came together. You can read more of these close looks here.
THE SCENE: SEVEN SECONDS SEASON 1, EPISODE 2
The first season of Netflixs grim but compelling anthology crime series—a sort of languorously paced, socially conscious take on Law & Order—can be rough viewing. The unintentional death of a teenager at the hands of a cop, a grieving and galvanized mother, a prosecutor buried in guilt and addiction, an intractable justice system—its a lot! And there are times, watching the show, when you want to push away from all that heavy, somber stuff, wishing for a little levity, or at least a zesty Jerry Orbach one-liner, to break the gray mood.
But many other times on this richly realized series, the viewer is so drawn in by a moment or a performance that its dark material is not only manageable—its cathartic. The series perhaps best exemplifies that transubstantiation—from TV melodrama to the real stuff of articulated human pain—at the close of its second episode. The scene stars the great Regina King as Latrice, a mother mad with worry and grief for her coma-stricken son, who returns to his hospital room after a hopeful day—only to be met by the worst news.
Kings masterful performance should surprise no one whos been familiar with her work over the years. But whats so unexpected in this scene, written by series creator Veena Sud and directed by the late legend Jonathan Demme, is its restraint—how pensive and quiet and sad it is, rather than histrionic. There are no screaming hysterics (those come later on the show), no pleas to the heavens nor recriminations toward those responsible for this crime. Instead, King simply whispers and accepts, tears flowing from a genuine, heartbreaking source. Its quite a piece of acting, bitterly credible and nuanced, and we spoke with King about how she got to that harrowing place.
How It Came Together
Kings inspiration was simple: “Just being a parent,” she said. “A lot of it is pulling from that right there. Look: in all honesty, there is nothing that I feel like you can do to prepare—when youre a mom in real life—for playing like your child has passed away. Its terrifying to do, because the last thing you want to do is think about your actual child passing away. But you kind of have to.”
Working with good people helped, and King cites the collaborative, intimate rapport she shared with Sud and Demme. How did they decide to pitch Latrices reaction to her sons death at such a reserved register? “That was a conversation between Veena, Jonathan, and myself,” King said. “It was really special that it was Jonathans episode. There was that extra, added layer of the teamwork that goes into a project. Sometimes, [the writing] felt like it should have been a bit different based on research Id done—my conversations with a woman whod actually lost her son to police brutality. Sometimes, some things would change based on that, or just on gut feelings I would have. But that scene in particular, Veena [wrote] it as a quiet pain, a quiet release, and Jonathan agreed as well. He said, How about you just come in the room and lets see what you do? Thats how that came to be: we went through it at half pace, and we just kind of found it together. It was a closed set. It was only Veena, Jonathan, myself, and the nurse.”
King said that the creative benefits of a closed set can outweigh the practical drawbacks. “Talking on set can be distracting. Depending on the scene, that distraction . . . you cant get through that. You cant get to where you need to be. Other scenes, you can. And when I say a lot of talking—its not the crew being disrespectful or negligent in any way. Theyre trying to do their job; theyre having conversations about where to put lights, or [doing] measurements. A lot of things are happening. So, not allowing those things to take place [on a closed set] means that you are possibly adding a little more time in the day, [schedule-wise]. But that care that youre taking, and that time that youre adding, it shows up in the final product.”
It was also important that King let the emotion exist as naturally as possible. “The worst thing to do is try to cry,” she said. “Thats when you fall into the trap. The thing to play is the emotion. If the tears arent coming, or if the tears stop, then you continue with that real thing thats happening. Thats just how that take went. We did maybe three or four takes of this scene. Each one was very different. None of them were big and loud and screaming, like a funeral scene or something like that. One take had a quiet anger. One take was just silence—not really many tears. The one they used was crying, then controlling it, and then just sitting there. What would a mother do? She would never want to leave her sons vessel.”
That vessel was crucially played by an often-unsung collaborator on a TV set: a photo double, in this case portraying the newly lifeless body of Latrices son. “The young man that was the actors photo double was just an amazing, giving young man,” King told us. “He lay so still, and looking at him being so still, and in my mind—Hes not there? Hes not alive? It was haunting. So I rode that emotion he helped set before me.”
Riding that emotion couldnt have been all that fun. “Its pretty exhausting,” King conceded with a laugh. But she had ways of coping on set. “After the first take, I did go off to the side and just cry—like a hard cry. You gotta release that. In real life, people holding on to things is what causes cancer sometimes. As an actor, you have to release that. Ive read about powerful actors who werent able to shake roles, and how that affected them, or their family, or they ended up in divorce. Weve heard all of those stories. Not that I was really conscious of that while we were shooting, but I would naturally emote in between takes. People would have to be kind of on standby and let me go through it, before they would clean me up to do [the scene] again.
“I did a lot of calling my son while shooting the show. Just checking in. Calling him with weird stuff. He told me later: You would just call me, like, Are there any more bananas? And hes all the way in California, you know? It was just to hear his voice, and hear the joy in his voice. That was also very helpful in getting me through the role.”
King more than gets through it, giving a forceful and carefully modulated performance that has her firmly in the running for an Emmy nomination this year. Should she get a limited-series nod for Seven Seconds, it would be Kings first time competing in a leading-actress category. Seems like a just reward for a lot of grueling, tear-stained, invaluable work.
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Richard LawsonRichard Lawson is a columnist for Vanity Fair's Hollywood, reviewing film and television and covering entertainment news and gossip. He lives in New York City.