Regina King on Child Stardom

Regina King has been a familiar face to television and movie audiences since she was 10 years old, when she first appeared as the sweet-natured daughter on the TV comedy "227" in the '80s. After that she worked regularly in some of Hollywood's most popular films, including roles as Cuba Gooding Jr.'s. wife in "Jerry McGuire" and Jamie Foxx's backup singer and lover in "Ray." These days the 36-year-old divorced mother of an 11-year-old son can be heard voicing the characters of both Riley and Huey in the animated cartoon "The Boondocks," as well as in the new holiday film "This Christmas," which features King as an unhappily married woman in the middle of a tense family reunion. King spoke to NEWSWEEK's Allison Samuels about being a child actor, going through a painful divorce and how she's perfected the voice of a nine-year-old boy. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Your new film "This Christmas" is such an honest and true-to-life depiction of family life. Is that what drew you to the role?
Regina King:
Yes—the fact there's this dysfunctional family that just happens to be African-American and how they try to correct it. I love that it showcased that families of all colors have the same issues and face them in the same way. That was an important message for everyone to understand, because it helps that divide that we feel way too much. And it was also great doing an ensemble film with so many great actors. It's been a while since I'd done that.

So is your hope that with the success of movies like those of Tyler Perry, you may get a big crossover audience for this film?
I'd love that, but I'm not sure that's where the country is yet. Most of the people I know who saw Tyler Perry's films were black, so it's a little disappointing that there isn't more crossover yet in the audiences. You always make a film with the hope that all types of people will want to see your work and that it doesn't matter about your color, but unfortunately it still does.

How difficult was it to portray an unhappily married woman in the wake of your recent divorce?
Not difficult at all. It helped, because I could relate to so many of the emotions the character was going through but hadn't figured out yet. I know in my own marriage I stayed in it to provide my son with what I thought was a stable background and to give him what I thought was the family life a child should have with two parents. But that isn't always the best way, and it took me taking my son to therapy after the divorce to really see it. The first thing the doctor asked my son was, "What is the biggest difference in your mom since the divorce?" My son answered, "My mom smiles more." I was so shocked, because I never knew he picked up on just how unhappy I was.

Speaking of Tyler Perry, what do you think his success has done for black women, given that he usually features African-American women in lead roles? Has it made a difference at all?
That's such a complex question, and it has so many answers. I think it's been great for black women to have Tyler do his thing and give black women the spotlight. In this business, roles for all women are tough to get unless you're the girlfriend, and Middle America isn't ready to see Tom Cruise with an African-American girlfriend. "Mission Impossible" with Thandie Newton got passed by a lot of people because she was European and mixed. All I can hope is that Tyler's success will prove that people are interested in our lives and that money can be made with black women in the lead. We know that's the bottom line: if money is made, the powers that be pay attention.

Aaron McGruder told me he initially hired you for the voice of Huey [in the television cartoon "The Boondocks"] but then decided you were the best person for both Huey and Riley. What do you think has made you so perfect for both roles?
[Laughs] Well, the fact that I'm raising a boy around the same age helped a great deal. Children at certain ages have distinct actions, and boys at certain ages have a particular way of acting too. So it was perfect for me, given my firsthand knowledge of what boys can do and how they can act. It's been such a fun process working with Aaron and with the process of cartoons and all the drama that comes with it. I know some people get offended by the language or the use of the N-word—but Aaron and I are really on the same page creatively.

How did you survive being a child star without the major meltdowns we've seen in Britney Spears and others? What was the key?
My mother, plain and simple. I was so afraid of disappointing her that I wouldn't dare do anything to embarrass her. She knew all she had to do was look at me with that face of disappointment and I'd crumble. That said, I also didn't have the constant media attention that these kids have today, and that makes a world of difference. Still, the credit is due to my mother, who made sure my money was protected and that everything was done in my best interest. She did things so well that I'm still in a place where I can be choosey about the roles I take. I owe it all to her.

So what's next for you—TV or film?
I'd love to have the stability of a television show. It keeps you in one place, and that's so important because of my son. Right now I'm preparing do a movie on the life of Shirley Chisholm for the production company my sister and I run together. It's an important role for me, because I talk to so many African-Americans under the age 35 who have no idea who she was, and I find that unacceptable. She was amazing, and that needs to be celebrated.