'Watchmen' star Regina King says superheroes are all around us

Wong Jia Min
Regina King as Angela Abar in "Watchmen" (Photo: HBO)

Most people might think of the 2009 film when the word Watchmen is mentioned, but it started off first as a graphic novel, and then a comic book series before it even made it to the big screen. However, contrary to popular opinion, HBO’s new television series Watchmen is nothing like the source material. It’s more along the lines of playing in the same sandbox, setting the story in an America where the outcome of the Vietnam war was very different, and where ex-President Nixon served five terms before Robert Redford succeeded him.

It’s in this setting that Academy Award-winner Regina King plays Angela Abar, a woman whose superhero alterego, Sister Night, works with the police in Tulsa, Oklahoma trying to bring a white supremacist group to justice. King won her award for portraying Sharon, a mother whose daughter’s boyfriend has been wrongly accused of a crime in If Beale Street Could Talk.

We chatted with King over the phone and asked her about her thoughts on superheroes, political awareness and how fans of the Watchmen graphic novel might react to the series.

How do you think fans of the graphic novel and audiences in Asia will relate to the show?

I don’t know, that’s a good question! I’m very anxious to find out. I hope that they’ll be entertained and also enlightened about history that took place in America almost a hundred years ago, and yeah. I can’t wait to find out.

Have you read the graphic novel before?

No, I have not. I was not familiar with it, and when we shot the pilot, (executive producer and series creator Damon Lindelof) asked if I hadn’t read it. And when I let him know I had not seen the movie, he asked if I would not see the movie because my character is not in the graphic novel. The way Damon and the writing team decided to frame the show was that the source material is the history of Tulsa, Oklahoma in 2019. All I needed was just the bullet points of the things that happened and Damon provided all of those things to me.

How did you feel when you first read the script for Watchmen?

I felt like it was something that I’d never seen before, that I never had read a story that just was even remotely close. I was not familiar with the comic book, and I’d never seen the movie, so the references and the parallels to the comic books were lost to me because I had never read them before. It just punched me in my gut and made me so excited. I feel like it’s really hard to have original content nowadays and not feel like you’re just duplicating something that already exists. The possibility of being part of a show that felt original was exciting.

I read a previous interview where you said when Damon wrote you a letter offering you the part, you replied, “I don’t need to read the script, just tell me what day we start.” I’d like to know how often does that happen for you, and if your response was out of character for you.

It does not happen often. I’ve been lucky in recent years to have had the opportunity to work with some of the most talented writers in the business, but because I had that experience and the opportunity to work with Damon on Leftovers, I was very familiar with his style of showrunning, writing and of allowing everyone involved to be collaborators. Just knowing that I could have an experience like that again is what made me feel like I didn’t care what it was, just as long as Damon is involved. And it doesn’t hurt that Damon is such an awesome writer.

Regina King as Angela Abar in "Watchmen" (Photo: HBO)

Do you think it’s important for actors to be politically aware if you’re taking on projects that allude to social issues like Watchmen?

I think no matter who you are, no matter if you’re an actor, a doctor, whoever you are, I think it’s important for you to be aware of what’s going on in your environment. That’s one of the problems where in America we get so caught up in the election of the president and forget about the local elections, which probably affect us even more in our districts. Yeah, I think it’s important as a human being to be aware of what’s happening politically.

In the U.S. there’s been a public discussion about racism, and I think it’s more apparent now with the current administration. When you take on roles like Sharon in If Beale Street Could Talk and Angela in Watchmen, is that your way of trying to keep the discussion going forward?

Oh, absolutely. It started even before there with American Crime, and I don’t think that I was actively saying to writers or to my agents that I only want to see material that involves subject matter that’s current and that continues the conversation or forces conversation about race. I think that just being black American and being the experience that I’ve had all my life and becoming a mother, I just kind of naturally gravitated to those parts when they came my way. They just spoke to me. Overall I feel like I’m lucky to have the opportunity to express my art through words and visuals that are holding a mirror up to society.

In the HBO series, Watchmen is more diverse in terms of the actors and actresses compared to the original graphic novel and the movie. How do you feel about this different approach?

I’m excited that the story that Damon and the writers have written require black actors and actors of colour in order to tell the story, but yes, it is an original story. Black people are not a monolith, so we are always actively trying to be in roles where being black is not just part of the character description. But in Watchmen, it is, but it’s a story you’ve never seen. In a way it’s exciting to have the opportunity to applaud or feel pride in being black, but still be in the story.

What was it about Angela Abar that attracted you to the role? Are there any similarities between you and the character?

I think there are similarities between everyone and Angela, because she represents how we all wear masks. We switch masks daily sometimes, just to adapt to certain situations that we’re in, or we switch masks to protect ourselves. In the pilot we see her switch masks three times. So yes, I can relate to that, and I feel like most people can.

Could you tell us more about the casting or audition process for the role of Angela?

I didn’t audition so I can’t tell you more about the audition process of the entire show. I feel like we have amazing casting directors. My part in the auditioning process was with our casting director who was in L.A., Victoria Thomas, and a local casting director in Atlanta. When they were auditioning for the role of Cal (Angela’s husband in the show), I had to read with about four different actors. (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and I had chemistry immediately, it was like a no-brainer once he came into the room that he was the perfect Cal.

There’s been a lot of talk about superhero movies changing the business, and some believe it’s not a good thing that Watchmen is based on a graphic novel. What do you think about that?

I don’t really have much thoughts about it. I’m just interested in great storytelling, whether it’s inspired by existing work or whether it’s original. I feel like while I haven’t read the graphic novel, I know that we have a lot of nods and easter eggs in the show for those people who are true fans of the graphic novel. But my understanding is that this does not feel like the graphic novel or the film, it feels like its own piece of work. Myself personally, if it’s a great story, it doesn’t matter where it came from.

Regina King as Angela Abar in "Watchmen" (Photo: HBO)

Do you have any favourite superheroes that inspire you?

I was a fan of Wonder Woman and… I’m gonna keep it with Wonder Woman and Batman seeing as how I play a DC superhero.

Do you think our world needs superheroes now and who do you think comes the closest to being our modern day superheroes?

I think that we do have superheroes, and I think that superheroes change from person to person. For a lot of us, our mothers are our superheroes. That’s one of the things that’s really exciting about Watchmen, even if you take it back to the graphic novel, the majority of the superheroes are more anti-superheroes because they don’t have super powers, they just have super skills. They flipped it on its head and looked at what a superhero is from a different lens. Yeah, we have modern day superheroes in every era of history. We all have a version of a superhero in our lives, and most people that I know who have achieved any kind of success can attribute someone that was in their life that was like a superhero to them.

Something tells me that your costume in the show will become iconic. Do you remember how you felt when you first wore it, and did you keep the costume or anything else from the set?

No, I did not keep the costume! It was definitely empowering. Every time I put it on, my body language changed, my shoulders would be more erect. I believe that costume is somewhere under lock and key until possibly she needs to come out to play again, hopefully we’ll get to see it again for another season. I feel like you, if I see just one post of a person in the costume it’s probably gonna make me giddy like a child.

Was it uncomfortable?

Not uncomfortable as far as how it felt on my body, but I would get so hot when we were doing the fight scenes and I had to run for hours. They had to pull out this cooling vest to put on me because it got so hot and I would sweat so much. I used to believe that when people wear those suits to make them sweat when working out, I would think, “yeah that’s just silly, you’re not gonna lose any weight”. Well I had to eat those words because after the first day we did the scene at the cattle ranch, I literally lost so much weight that they had to take the costume in because I sweated so much.

You’re now an Academy Award winner. How would you like to choose your next project?

I would not like to change anything. I want to continue to only do things that resonate for me. I read a script just like how anybody would read a book, just to see how it makes me feel. I don’t ever want to change that, I don’t want to change things just because someone says “this is what an Oscar winner should be choosing”.

Can you share something funny or memorable that happened on the set?

I think the first thing that comes to mind is that I took several falls in that amazing costume because that caped skirt was not very convenient for fighting and running. So there were a lot of moments where the skirt kept getting tangled up and I kept falling, and the entire crew were kind of just holding their breath waiting for me to say that “I’m okay!”

The pilot episode has a 96% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (a few days after it aired). There has been a lot of positive responses. How do you feel about it and did you feel satisfied after watching the pilot episode?

Yes, I was very satisfied. I feel like it’s a show where each episode is worthy of watching again because you find things that you didn’t see the first time. I’m fine with the fact that the Rotten Tomatoes gave one score and the audience gave another score. I really don’t rest my expectations on those numbers because I feel like half of the world is like myself, we’re not actually scoring things. I don’t think that those numbers reflect everyone, just like every critic isn’t part of that score. There are a lot of critics out there that don’t feel the same as those counted in that Rotten Tomatoes score. I feel good about what I’m seeing on social media. [laughs]

Watchmen premieres same time as the U.S. every Monday at 9am (10am from 4 November) on HBO GO and HBO. Each episode encores on HBO on the same day at 10pm.