Regina King never expected to be in a Western – in fact, the Oscar winner didn’t even like the genre before taking the pitch from first-time feature filmmaker Jeymes Samuel.
“I sat down and had a FaceTime with him, and by the time we got off that FaceTime, I was like, ‘Man could probably have talked me into doing anything,’” King tells Variety with a laugh.
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“He had such a clear vision. He knew exactly the music that he wanted,” she adds, recounting how the filmmaker broke out his guitar during the virtual meeting to give her a taste of the Caribbean music and Afrobeats that he planned to infuse into the film. “He was able to describe the shots that he wanted for particular scenes so vividly, and that was impressive and exciting.”
King was also excited by Samuel’s “Black and beautiful” view of the era, spotlighting real-life Black “cowpeople,” like Nat Love, Rufus Buck, Stagecoach Mary, Cherokee Bill and Bass Reeves, played in this epic western story by Jonathan Majors, Idris Elba, Zazie Beetz, LaKeith Stanfield and Delroy Lindo, respectively. Samuel cast King as “Treacherous” Trudy Smith, a character based on a little-known woman named Gertrude Smith.
“There may be only one image, and there’s not a lot of history written on her,” King says. “So, here I have a space to really just play. I don’t have to be beholden to any certain image or story when it comes to her, and [Samuel] just encouraged me to do that.”
King ultimately had the freedom to determine how Trudy would look, sound and occupy space within Samuel’s “New West,” and from the moment she appeared in the first footage from the western, it was clear to fans that this was a new type of character — she’s not a damsel in distress. She’s the boss.
“Regina King has long been one of my favorite actors,” Samuel says, explaining why he approached her for the part.
“From the scene when she got angry with her brother-in-law in ‘Jerry Maguire’ to when she was shouting at Ray [Charles] and then started singing ‘Hit the Road Jack,’ she is one of the best actors in the universe,” he continues. “So I want her as a baddie busting her gun.”
But it still came as a “jaw-dropping” surprise that the newly-minted Oscar winner (who picked up the best supporting actress trophy for “If Beale Street Could Talk” in 2019) would sign on for his movie — “something so bizarre as a Western,” Samuel quips — as her next acting role.
In the first shot in the film’s teaser, Samuel establishes Trudy’s fierce presence — her character raises a gloved hand and slowly points it to her right, directing her fellow horsemen to follow. The moment is a reference to a scene in Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X,” as the leader (played by Denzel Washington) directed his followers with the same wave of his hand. If that demonstration was “too much power for one man to have” (as Peter Boyle’s NYPD Captain Green notes in the scene), the same sentiment would be true for Trudy in “The Harder They Fall.”
For King, it seems half the fun of playing Trudy was building the character alongside Samuel. At her core, Trudy is definitely a tough-talking outlaw, but there are layers. Plus she has some serious zingers — the first line King utters in the trailer (“We ain’t no nincompoop.”) is delivered coolly after she initiates a train heist by parking her horse in front of a moving train and then shooting the conductor who begins to presumably call her a different word that begins with the letter N.
One particularly enlightening conversation was over Trudy’s place of origin. There’s a line in the script about the character being from the Barbary Coast, which King initially presumed meant Africa, but Samuel actually meant California. The initial confusion, however, created a new layer to the character’s backstory, as the director and actor agreed that Trudy would be a bit of a nomad, with her world view informed by having traveled the country.
The actor also relished the opportunity to develop how Trudy would sound, crafting an accent that’s “much further away from my normal dialogues.”
“Jeymes allowed me to say, ‘Okay, well, she can have an accent that’s mixed up with a lot of different things, because she’s traveled [to] so many different places and she’s had to spend time with so many different types of people,” King explains. “Whether she’s spending time with people who’ve made their way from Africa [or the] West Indies, you can even hear a little bit of that. Whether she’s dealing with the French or dealing with the English, her accent could be a bit of all of that.”
The accent was also influenced by the time King spent in New Orleans filming her own feature directorial debut “One Night in Miami…,” which she’d just wrapped before shifting her focus to “The Harder They Fall.”
“I loved the Louisiana dialect, because it changes from person to person, but it still has a little twang,” she notes, adding that the layered accent softens Trudy’s toughness a bit, causing audiences to lean in and peel back what’s below the character’s stern exterior.
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Then there were the physical challenges. To prepare to play in this western world, King and the cast underwent a cowboy camp, learning how to rope and ride like their characters. Though the horseback riding wasn’t really King’s forte (“But my horse, Cowboy, we got along, we had an understanding,” she says), the easiest element to pick up was working with the weapons — which she’d had some experience with on shows like “Southland.”
“I’m not a gun lover — even though people would probably go, ‘All the guns we’ve watched you shoot?’ — but with this our weapons are from the 19th century, so they’re revolvers,” King explains, noting the marked difference. “I have never shot a revolver before, and, if I have, it wasn’t a revolver that you had to reload after each fire, and then figure [that] out with the gloves on.”
Plus, how each character used their weapons was also indicative of their personas. While some of the cowboy characters, like RJ Cyler’s Jim Beckwourth are presented as a known quick draw, King says that Trudy just “gets it done.”
Likewise, King has been getting it done since 1985, with an on-camera resume that boasts classics like “Jerry Maguire,” “Boyz n the Hood,” “Friday,” “Enemy of the State,” “24,” “The Leftovers” and more.
Forecasting the movie’s awards future, Variety film awards editor Clayton Davis noted that King’s “Trudy Smith is given scenery to chew and delivers a sinister monologue that allows the veteran actress to shine once again,” touting her performance as a standout among the starry cast. The full group, rounded out by Edi Gathegi and Danielle Deadwyler, is set to be feted with the ensemble prize at the 2021 Gotham Awards on Nov. 29.
Last Thursday, King earned a prize all her own, when she was cemented into Hollywood history during her hand and footprint ceremony outside the TCL Chinese Theatre in honor of her three-decade career.
“I’m born and bred in L.A. When we got to see a film at the Chinese Theatre, it was always an event because we could put our hands and feet on the prints of the movie stars,” King told Variety ahead of the ceremony.
“I always wondered, was it hard to decide what shoe to wear?” she continued. “Who would have thunk I would answer my own question 40 years later …. yep! It is difficult to decide. I’m struggling between a pump and sneaker right now.”
The star ultimately opted to go barefoot in the cement – imprinting her hands and feet along with the words, “There’s No Place Like Home,” the opening line of the theme song for “227.”
In 2020, King nabbed her fourth Emmy for suiting up as Angela Abar, a.k.a. Sister Night, in HBO’s “Watchmen,” winning her second trophy for lead actress in a limited series, following the same prize for “Seven Seconds” and back-to-back supporting actress wins for “American Crime.”
In addition to earning 11 Emmy nominations, “Watchmen” is also credited with highlighting the 1921 Tulsa Massacre and bringing the long-buried tragedy back into public consciousness. “The Harder They Fall” is a fictionalized narrative and King again finds herself part of a project highlighting the untold history of Black people in America.
In the film, Trudy’s home base is the all-Black town of Redwood. The backstory King gave the location was that it was effectively Tulsa 20 years before, a town that Trudy and the Rufus Buck Gang were looking to turn into a Black Wall Street by any means necessary.
While the troupe of outlaws isn’t afraid to employ violence in order to make their dream land a reality, King notes that understanding what Trudy, Rufus and the gang are attempting to build in Redwood muddies the waters on whether they’re actually the villains of this story.
“While you may want to look at this as, ‘Oh, there’s the good guys, and there’s the bad guys.’ Are the bad guys really bad?” she teases. “Because what they are looking at is creating generational wealth. But the way they’re going about it may be questionable.”
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It’s a layered premise that requires a steady hand and King was certainly confident in Samuel as a director, even if not quite as sure as he was in himself, as the first-timer led the crew through the pandemic-affected production.
“He isn’t a flash in the pan, he’s the real deal,” King proclaims.
“There’s this nervousness that I remember having and most directors that I’ve spoken to have felt that as well,” she says, comparing the situation to her early days directing. “You put on a face, but sometimes people can see through the Maybelline like, ‘Okay, they’re a little uneasy there.’ And you find your feet along the way, each piece you do you get better and you get more confident.”
But King can’t remember Samuel ever seeming unsure, which was impressive.
She also points to the levity he brought to the set by playing music between setups instead of keeping things quiet as the crew reset for the next shot.
“It was tough, having to stay distanced from everyone every day until the cameras were rolling,” she says, recalling one particular night shoot. “He just started playing some jams and you just see like 60 people in the streets of Redwood, gigging and getting it, and we needed that moment.”
As an experienced director in her own right, King served a major support system for Samuel, who shares that she’d sometimes break character in between scenes to offer him advice.
“It’s almost like I had this protective veil from Regina,” he says. “She was literally making sure my headspace is geared for the task at hand.”
“I would just drop a few little things in his ear here and there, and he was always open to hear it,” King confirms, initially hesitant to take too much credit for things.
But lending a helping hand simply made sense to King, who sees filmmaking as a team sport. “I want everybody to win,” she explains. “If Jeymes wins, then I was better. You can be acting your ass off, but if your co-star’s struggling then the performance is not going to land as well. So, I’m a firm believer in when you win, I win, we all win.”
“The Harder They Fall” is now playing in select theaters and begins streaming Nov. 3 on Netflix.
Additional reporting by Sharareh Drury.
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