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Regina King on the Significance of ‘Watchmen’ and the Paradox of Sister Night’s Coolness

HBO's series is both a celebration and condemnation of onscreen heroes, so IndieWire spoke to King about her remarkable role that can’t betray reality.

Watchmen Episode 5 Regina King Tim Blake Nelson

Regina King and Tim Blake Nelson in “Watchmen”

Mark Hill/HBO

When viewers are first introduced to Sister Night — the heroic moniker chosen by Regina King’s “Watchmen” character, Angela Abar — she drives to her secret hideout, dons her leather uniform, and speeds to a local trailer park. As the music pulses and her long coat swirls in the wind, Sister Night kicks in a door, punches the napping Tulsa citizen square in the face, and drags the guy into her trunk, all without a warrant or even a warning.

Why?

“I’ve got a nose for white supremacy,” she tells her boss, Chief Crawford (Don Johnson). “And he smells like bleach.”

Shortly thereafter, wouldn’t you know it, Sister Night is proven right. The guy is working for the white supremacist group who just shot one of her fellow officers. When she looks at her boss, she doesn’t need to say much. Just one word: “Bleach.”

Every second of this extended sequence, from Angela’s transformation into Sister Night up through the interrogation of her suspect, is fucking cool. It’s exciting. It’s clever. It’s the kind of television that makes you chuckle to yourself because you’re watching awesome people do awesome things. And yet, like just about everything else in “Watchmen,” there’s another side to that coin. Sister Night didn’t just go out and catch a bad guy; Angela Abar illegally broke into a private home and beat down a fellow citizen, using her shield as a free pass because she had a hunch — because she “smelled bleach.”

When asked about how easy it would be for that line to sound too scripted, too unnatural, too cool, King remembers the challenge behind it right away.

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“[Someone could easily] fuck it up!” she said in an interview with IndieWire. “Look, to be honest, that’s the beauty of editing. The first couple deliveries felt like, ‘Yeah… drawing out ‘bleach’ doesn’t work because I’m hearing myself say it.’ I feel like that’s a sign I pay attention to: If I feel like I’m hearing myself saying the dialogue, then I’m saying the dialogue — I’m not internalizing it. I’m not being it. It’s not actually me.”

While that may sound like a common sentiment for any actor who wants to keep their character grounded, that’s not often a concern when playing a would-be superhero. But it has to be in “Watchmen.” Damon Lindelof’s HBO series doesn’t want you to simply enjoy those moments where masked heroes decide how to carry out justice on their own. It wants you to question them, too.

“The rogue cop is a hero archetype,” Damon Lindelof said in a separate interview. “In ‘Lethal Weapon,’ Mel Gibson is the fun one, and Danny Glover is the [by-the-book-cop] — the by-the-book cop is never the guy that you’re rooting for. Even in something like ‘Beverly Hills Cop,’ where Axel [played by Eddie Murphy] is constantly breaking the rules, ultimately you’re just waiting for him to get [his partner played by] Judge Reinhold to break the rules. So we want cops to break the rules in movies and TV shows, but in the real world, we want cops to never break the rules.”

Watchmen Episode 7 Regina King HBO

Regina King in “Watchmen”

Mark Hill/HBO

“Watchmen” set its protagonist as someone you’d instinctually get behind. Not only have you been trained to root for this figure by decades of entertainment, but you’ve got Regina Freaking King playing her — and who doesn’t want to root for Regina King? She’s a three-time Emmy winner, an Oscar-winner, and an all-around amazing human being. Beyond that, the role is groundbreaking in and of itself: There aren’t many black female superheroes, and fewer still who lead their own show.

In an interview with Salon, Lindelof acknowledged the significance of King’s casting.

“I think that people who follow culture in general, particularly in terms of storytelling, but also just in terms of news reporting, attach a certain level of heroism to the idea of, ‘This is the person that’s going to rescue us.’ That person is almost always male and almost always white, and that is what we’re trolling the idea of,” he said.

That makes it easy for the audience to get behind Angela, Sister Night, and King for all the right reasons — just as Sister Night is a figure perceived as bigger than Angela Abar, Regina King is playing someone who’s far bigger than herself. She’s a symbol of progress in a genre that barely breaks from patriarchal traditions.

But that doesn’t mean Angela has to be perfect. Angela is still a person wearing a mask and exacting her own form of justice, so King couldn’t lean too far into what makes Sister Night seem superhuman, infallible, or just cool.

“Her eyes are the audience’s window into this world,” she said. “We’ll see how sometimes the lines between each mask get blurred. When we cross the line, just as we’re switching our masks — sometimes one mask doesn’t quite come off before the other one comes on and then you’re in that gray area. I think we do a pretty good job as a team, meaning the writers and actors especially, with that relationship — and you see it in a lot of the characters.”

Delineating between identities stood out as a unifying trait to King. It’s something everyone does, whether they’re conscious of it or not.

“Reading the pilot, what struck me was this woman is kind of a reflection of all of us — meaning all humans — in the regard that we are always wearing masks in our lives,” King said. “We are putting on different masks, whether it’s school, a family reunion, a job, whatever. We’re always doing that.”

Damon Lindelof and Regina King on the set of "Watchmen"

Damon Lindelof and Regina King on the set of “Watchmen”

HBO

King saw three masks in her character: The Angela we first meet, at her son’s school, isn’t the true Angela. She’s a more censored version of herself, not unlike many people try to be when out in the world. At home, with her husband Cal (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), she’s more honest. Sister Night is a combination of both: uncensored to a fault, and unchecked by anyone, including herself.

“I thought it was fascinating that Damon was able to capture all of that in just one episode,” King said. “That blueprint was set for me. It kind of was like the lighthouse that gave me direction on how to put her together; how to perform her; how to make her real, moving forward.”

“The more interesting idea in their world is: Why become a cop?” Lindelof said. “Are you becoming a cop because you believe the law is something virtuous, or are you becoming a cop because you like beating the shit out of people and not facing consequences? Those are the same questions that apply in our real world, and by making our masked heroes also cops, it felt like there was potential to explore a new facet of the idea.”

King’s performance is critical to “Watchmen’s” success. Too cool, and the show detaches from reality. Too casual, and the audience isn’t invested in Sister Night’s central quest: to figure out who killed her captain, and who’s behind “an insidious conspiracy” plaguing her city. “Watchmen” is both a scathing commentary on hero culture and an enticing mystery led by our new favorite masked vigilante. The duality is as complex as it is essential, but for King, the show was always about more than that.

“I think there’s a family legacy story that’s also part of this story, and just getting that right [was important to me].” she said. “Some of it is a metaphor for the history of being black in America — of that experience. […] And we still managed to throw some comedy in there! We still managed to throw some love in there, we still managed to throw some sci-fi in there. It was really important to me to be able to capture the legacy of family — [of] black families, in America — and still be able to do all those other things. I think we’ve done it. I hope we have.”

There may be three sides to her character and even more perspectives in “Watchmen,” but only Regina King could keep Angela grounded, and make Sister Night fly. With three episodes left, the sky’s the limit — for her and the show. Tick tock.

“Watchmen” airs new episodes Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.

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