'Watchmen' Star Regina King on Bringing a "Wonderful Story of Legacy" to Life

Watchmen Still 4- HBO Publicity-H 2019
Courtesy of HBO

[This story contains major spoilers for the series premiere of HBO's Watchmen, "It's Summer and We're Running Out of Ice," as well as the Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons graphic novel on which the show is based.]

It's October 2, 2019. Regina King sits in a hotel room in New York City. Across from the award-winning actress is a poster featuring her in full masked crime-fighting regalia, front and center at the heart of HBO's Watchmen marketing campaign. "Now that," she tells The Hollywood Reporter, "is freaking cool."

Some time earlier — a year and change at the least, maybe more — King hears word that a former collaborator of hers — Damon Lindelof, with whom she worked on The Leftovers — wants to send her a script. The word from her agents, according to King herself: "'He wants to send you something that is huge, and he wants to send it directly to you.' It was a delivered script. My agents didn't get a chance to read it. No one. It was specifically for me."

It's October 4, 2019. Lindelof and King are at New York Comic Con, alongside much of the rest of the sprawling cast of Watchmen. (The veil of secrecy is such that Jeremy Irons is credited onstage as "Probably Who You Think He Is.") The premiere has just finished screening, more than two full weeks before it airs on HBO. King tells the tale about receiving the mysterious script from Lindelof. It included a sealed envelope that read: "Don't open until you get to this page. Don't cheat!" Inside the envelope: an artist rendering of King as Sister Night, her character's alter-ego. 

"I had never seen anyone like her," King tells THR days earlier, recalling the experience of both reading and then visualizing the Sister Night persona. "The idea I would get the opportunity to bring her to life was huge. Because she's not in the source material, I didn't have to feel any of that pressure. I've been wanting to play a superhero all my life, ever since I saw Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, the cartoon. And here's my opportunity. I have the opportunity to design her, along with the creator, to make her into who we think she should be. I really don't have the words to put that into what it means."

It's the moment King laid eyes on Sister Night for the first time. While it's an important moment, it's not what cements her interest in HBO's Watchmen. As she tells it, she had already made up her mind.

"I still have the letter he wrote to me — this most amazing letter," she says, remembering Lindelof's clandestine offer. "I'm paraphrasing, but it said, 'This is what I'm working on, and I can't see this without anyone other than you.' I was like, 'I don't need to read the script. Just tell me what day we start.'"

The day comes, and when she starts, King is thrust into the thick of a world where, three decades earlier, a man-made telepathic squid landed in the middle of New York City and convinced the world of an imminent alien invasion, changing everything forever. As Angela Abar, alias Sister Night, King becomes a police officer who must disguise her identity in order to protect her loved ones; years earlier in the context of the story, Tulsa police officers were targeted and assassinated by a white supremacist group called the Seventh Kalvary, boasting masks of their own, modeled after legendary Watchmen antihero Rorschach. In the pilot, King, like many of her contemporaries in the Watchmen world, plays an individual on two sides of a mask.

"Angela and Sister Night are the perfect representation of human beings," she tells THR. "We have to put on masks to protect ourselves through all different aspects of our life. I joke, but I'm serious when I say we put on masks at the family reunion. You have on a mask when you're at school. She represents that. When we first meet her [in the pilot], the woman we're meeting at her son's school is not the Angela she really, truly is. The Angela who is the closest to the essence of Angela is when she's with [her husband] Cal (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). We as humans usually have that, that one safe space, where you really know it's not the representative; it's the real person. That's what rang for me when I read the pilot. How do we tell that story? It's all on the page. It's just me making sure it's coming from an honest place."

It's October 20, 2019. The world watches as Watchmen unfolds. Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Pore Jud Is Daid" scores the closing moments as Angela, separated from her Sister Night persona, looks on in horror as her friend and colleague Judd Crawford (Don Johnson) swings from a tree, hanged to death. In her first pass reading the scene, King feels weighted down with questions, first and foremost being: "Am I going to die next?"

"I was not familiar with the source material, so I didn't really know what to do with it," she says about the pilot's chilling final scene. "I was like, 'This didn't really happen, right? We're going to find out that he's still here, aren't we?' Because there's this wonderful relationship between Judd and Angela. Why are they so close? Why do they have this banter? Why do I love it so much? Why do I want to see more of them together? And just when you're feeling that, it's taken away."

It's October 27, 2019. The world will watch as the second hour of Watchmen unfolds, as King's Angela begins the process of solving the mystery of who killed poor Judd. The resolution, such as it is, is not clean.

"We start with the answer, and now through the series, we're going to find out the questions — and some of the answers are very dicey," she warns. "This is one of those shows that, when you get to the end, you're going to want to go back to the other episodes. You're going to see where all of us as actors provided a hint, but you didn't know it then, as you were just following the story."

Questions, answers, more questions — all will drop in unequal measure as the mystery surrounding Judd's death continues, with Angela right at the heart of it, alongside another enigmatic figure: Louis Gossett Jr.'s Will Reeves, the man in the wheelchair who survived the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, featured at the start of the pilot in harrowing, heartbreaking fashion. King says the relationship between Will and Angela will "open up your heart and break it at the same time."

"There's a wonderful story of legacy that's about to unfold," she teases of what's to come. "Legacy is one of those words you hear all the time in comic books, and it plays here as well."

It's October 4, 2019. Damon Lindelof takes the New York Comic Con stage alone, introducing the first episode of Watchmen to a crowded ballroom filled with people to whom Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' seminal comic book means different things, but, to all of them, means so much. ("If you ask the fan community what makes Watchmen Watchmen, you'll find a broad [answer]," he tells The Hollywood Reporter a few days earlier. "Watchmen is not a monolith.") Onstage, he delivers a speech that echoes the sprawling Instagram essay he first posts in May 2018 — an essay he reposts on October 20, 2019.

"Thirty-three years ago, my father handed a 14-year-old version of me the first two issues of a comic book," he says to the audience. "The first had a smiley face sitting atop a river of blood. The second one had a massive stone face. Both of them had a single word running vertically down the left-hand side: Watchmen. My dad looked at me with these two issues in his hand. He paused for dramatic effect and said, 'You're not ready for this.' He walked out of the room. It's a true story."

Lindelof walks out of the room, but Watchmen does not. It plays, shakily at first, as images from the first sequence skip like an incomplete orientation video. Eventually, projection issues resolve, and the air, like Lindelof, leaves the room. It returns from time to time where laughter is appropriate ("Were there any croutons?") and where gasps are better served. (Will Reeves or not, someone can lift 200 pounds.) Recognition washes in, too, as notions from the comic return in surprising ways: blood dripping onto a dead man's badge, like ketchup on a smiling shirt.

"I think Damon was very smart in the beginning to write that letter to remind them how dearly he holds Watchmen," King tells THR about how she expects comic book fans to receive the new series. "The graphic novel has informed how Damon has written his whole career. If anyone's honoring the work, it's him: 'How am I going to take something perfect and make it better? You can't mess with perfection, but what I can do is pay homage to it and capture the feeling of it.'"

It's October 21. HBO's Watchmen is wide in the universe. Rorschach is still dead, but his face lives on in horrible fashion. The papers say Adrian Veidt is dead, but a certain cake-cutting ceremony suggests otherwise. The good Doctor Manhattan is still on Mars, according to news reports, though their veracity is also questionable. Nite Owl's legacy lives on in the form of police-branded airships. Laurie Blake, formerly Juspeczyk, is set to ride into town at any moment in the form of Jean Smart. The old guard remains on watch, in other words, in some fashion at least — but it's the new guard, and specifically Sister Night, who now watches over Watchmen

It's October 2, and King is still looking at that poster: "I've heard stories of people doing photo shoots for cover art, and then they just end up using the words. When they sent it to me, I got pretty emotional. It's popping up everywhere now. I'm sitting in my car, a bus pulls up, I look over and I'm like, 'Hey girl!'" 

It's October 20. Twenty-four minutes of the Watchmen pilot have elapsed, and the world is moments away from the first full look at Regina King's Sister Night. As Angela Abar, she walks toward a flourishing Greenwood Avenue, almost a full century after disaster. She passes a bus with a different superhero plastered on the side: Hooded Justice, the Minuteman who started it all. Though she does not hold a "The End is Nigh" sign, Angela nevertheless strolls past a different one on her way toward her transformation. The sign reads: "The Future Is Bright." Indeed it is. Indeed, nothing ever ends.

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