Glenn Wilson Netflix Shirley Regina King John Ridley

INTERVIEW: John Ridley Talks Regina King and Their Shared Journey to ‘Shirley’

“Regina is Regina and Regina is the real deal. Period. Full stop. Now that can be the headline…”

John Ridley

Recently, we sat down with Oscar-winning writer John Ridley to discuss his series for IDW, The Ministry of Compliance. Throughout the conversation, he brought up memories of American Crime, an ABC crime anthology series he did with Regina King, Felicity Huffman, Timothy Hutton, Richard Cabral, Benito Martinez, and Lili Taylor, among others.

John Ridley on the set of ‘American Crime.’ Credit: Bill Records, ABC.

“Writing graphic novels is so fulfilling, so I love talking about that. But the other thing I love, in a human way, is Regina King,” Ridley started saying before I finished asking my question. “Regina King is one of the most true, honest, amazing, hardworking, unstarrified [sic], down to earth. I mean, just any pro-positive adjective that you can find and throw in there, you can put it about Lady Regina, she is amazing.” 

Ridley wrote and directed a new film with Regina King releasing Friday, March 15. ‘Shirley,’ is a story about the first Black congresswoman, Shirley Chisholm, who campaigned to become president of the United States. He reminisced about the first time they ever worked together and how they got to this point. 

“Almost 10 years ago, we’re working together on American Crime. I never worked with her. I was so intimidated not by… she doesn’t show up intimidating, but you look at her body of work and you look at my body of work then, and I’m supposed to go on a set,” Ridley shared. 

“I work with a casting director, Kim Coleman, who is great. She put me with every amazing performer I’ve ever worked with: famous or fresh off the street, who has got talent for days. We’re putting together American Crime and Regina’s character wasn’t in the pilot. We had a lot of characters, but I knew I wanted this character. I knew I needed this character, this perspective, this person who’s going to show up and be unabashed about race.”

According to Ridley, Kim Coleman offered up the idea of Regina King taking on the role of  Aliyah Shadeed, a Muslim character in the first season of the anthology series.

Ridley said he was incredulous, asking, “Why the eff would Regina King ever want to work with me? Kim said you wrote a great script, that’s why and she loves, like anybody else, a great story.”

“I remember getting on the phone with Regina; never met her before. I remember where I was in my house. This was before Zooms, thank God, because I remember the sweat pouring off my bald head, on the phone with Regina, trying not to stutter, trying not to eff it up. She asked some of the most probative questions. Once she asked those questions when she showed up every day; she was like ‘it’s your show, this is your show.’ Regina, like any good talent, will push… I’m going on and on and you haven’t even asked the question,” Ridley said, laughing.

Ridley’s keen sense of self-awareness gives way to easy, flowing conversations like this. It also speaks to how passionate he is about people and projects he respects.

“Since then, we’ve remained friends and one of the reasons we remain friends is because we don’t call each other unless it’s necessary. We remain friends because she has been down for my wife,” Ridley explained, going further in-depth into his friendship with King. 

“We’ve had more failures, we failed on a lot of things. We have stuff we haven’t gotten off the ground. I think the proudest moment in my entire career was getting to see Regina take home two Emmys for American Crime. That show meant more to me and did more for my trajectory than any other thing because I’ve been a writer and I’ve had an okay career. Certainly the prize you get with 12 Years a Slave changes perception, but people will tell you, we thought you were a good writer, now we think you’re a better writer.” 

Ridley went on to describe the weight of “writing, producing, directing on a broadcast TV show that was unabashedly about race and could have failed miserably, with a cast of Oscar winners and Oscar nominees and Emmy winners and nominees. The best of the best… to wrangle that, and to get 24 nominations and multiple wins. Everybody on that show meant the world to me, but particularly Regina taking that home and to sit in the audience,” he continued.

Witnessing “the person that you were most nervous about landing, the person you were most sensitive to” was a significant moment to him. Earlier I asked him about writing for Black female characters like the lead in his new IDW series, which led him to expanding on writing for King’s character in the first season of American Crime

“You asked about writing for a Black woman, writing a character that clearly identified as a Black woman and Muslim at a time where…I look back on that, I could write a decent character, Regina was going to deliver no matter what,” Ridley said. “Neither of us was Muslim in an environment where you’re starting to see Muslim representation and obviously a lot of it is better because it’s coming from voices that are much closer to that. But who would have thought you know, in 2016, 2017, that would have been considered a bold move. To have Regina win for that and win two years, should have should have won three. Everybody on the show should have won but I’m not, I can’t be objective.”

john ridley directs netflix movie shirley starring regina king
‘Shirley’ starring Regina King, directed and written by John Ridley. Credit: Netflix.

“To turn around and be able to do Shirley with her and, in my opinion, for her. I would never do anything like that again, except for someone like Regina. I can’t lie and Regina will say that was the toughest shoot that either of us have been on. None of the shoots are… I don’t care if it’s a $100 million, $200 million movie that you’re trying to sell around the world and the pressure that comes with that. Or you’re doing an indie film and you don’t have any money and you’re scrambling every day. It’s hard. Nobody goes into it saying I’m going to make the biggest stinker in the world,” Ridley continued.

Ridley reiterates that this film couldn’t have been done without the King sisters and there was little chance he would be involved without them.

“This one was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, professionally speaking. None of us could have done it without her and Reina [King], her sister. I wouldn’t have wanted to do it. I could not be more proud of… I couldn’t be more impressed with her. She kept it together. I think there are two scenes she’s not in. Being an actor, you’re in the chair, five o’clock in the morning, you’re heading home 13 hours later. We could not have done it without Regina. I don’t think she’s ever been better,” he said, cautiously. 

With regards to the film being about Shirley and who she was, “I don’t think it’s ever been more necessary. It’s always necessary to know about Americans and people around the world, who’ve gone out and done things, but for a lot of people Shirley Chisholm is just a name. But specifically, what did she do? And more importantly, biopics that are just about ‘the what’ are not good. It’s about ‘the who’, truly ‘the WHO’ underneath the good, the bad, all of that.”

Ridley mentions that the nature of the biopic is changing, showcasing more of the person beneath the headlines and official quotes, especially with people like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks.

“We see that more with Dr. King. No, he wasn’t a perfect person. But all I know is he gave his life so I could vote. I want to know that totality. I want to know all of it. I want to know the good and the bad, because to me, he shouldn’t be a god. Rosa Parks shouldn’t be a god, they’re human beings. To me, when a human being could take all that complication and can still do the thing that I couldn’t,” he explained.

“That was her [Regina’s] desire from the get. It’s not just going to be a hagiography about Shirley Chisholm. She goes there and not in a negative way. There are scenes where she goes there, because as a performer, as an actor, as a human being, she doesn’t know how to not,” Ridley continues with his King praise. “Seriously, there are days where I’m prepping, ultimately turning on the camera, we’re just gonna let it roll, because you can have all the wardrobe and production design and all that is great. I can do all my prep as a director. I hope it’s okay, but there’s no substitute for the right person in the right role.”

In a trailer released February, King commands as Shirley Chisholm, barreling her way through numerous obstacles as a Black politician, with the assistance of Lance Reddick, Lucas Hedges, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Christina Jackson, Dorian Crossmond Missick, Amirah Vann, with André Holland and Terrence Howard.

“Regina and Reina produced their film and they did not want to shy away from being honest about Shirley and the people around her. Regina is Regina and Regina is the real deal. Period. Full stop. Now that can be the headline, but Regina is the real deal,” Ridley said. Mic drop.

‘Shirley’ has a limited theatrical release this Friday, March 15 and streaming on Netflix, March 22.

Glenn Wilson Netflix Shirley Regina King John Ridley
John Ridley on set with Regina King. Credit: Glenn Wilson, Netflix

Interview edited for clarity.