Regina King Photograph by Emily Shur
Missy Schwartz
March 23, 2005 AT 05:00 AM EST

At a private bar in Los Angeles’ Staples Center arena, a tall blond woman knocks over a glass of red wine onto Regina King’s brand-new, white leather jacket. ”She’s lucky this didn’t happen 10 years ago,” King mutters as the blonde, who has clearly downed one too many this evening, stumbles away without apologizing. Ten years ago, you see, a more impulsive King (now 34) and her sister Reina (29, who is currently helping Regina wipe off the stains) would have resolved the matter in a less…diplomatic manner. ”It would not have been cute,” quips the elder sibling.

And then she does it: shoots the tipsy reveler that Regina King cut-you-down-to-size look familiar to anyone who’s seen even one of her 17 movies. Ice Cube got it in Boyz N the Hood, as did Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde 2, and now, Sandra Bullock in Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous. ”People tell me it’s a signature look,” King says during a pre-Lakers-game dinner earlier that night. ”I think every woman has a moment when she can relate to that look. I’m sure Hillary Clinton had that moment, the one that made [Bill] get his s— in check.”

King may have grown ”more patient and thoughtful” in recent years, but she’s still no-nonsense. Since debuting at age 14 as Marla Gibbs’ daughter on the ’80s sitcom 227, the L.A. native has made a career out of playing bold, willful women — most recently as Ray Charles’ fiery collaborator and lover Margie Hendricks in Ray.

”My mother was a single mom, and most of the women I know are strong,” says King, mother to a 9-year-old son with husband Ian Alexander. ”It just doesn’t appeal to me to play that [submissive] girl.” In the ’90s, she appeared in a handful of so-called black films, including three with Boyz director John Singleton, before dazzling mainstream audiences as Cuba Gooding Jr.’s feisty wife in Cameron Crowe’s 1996 smash Jerry Maguire.

But it was costar Renée Zellweger, not King, who enjoyed an express ticket to the A-level actresses’ club. And still, after 20 years of rave reviews and plenty of fan support — during dinner, well-wishers drop by nonstop, offering high-fives and ”You’re the bomb!” — King can’t seem to graduate to leading lady. ”There’s a difference between actresses of color and actresses not of color. If you look at how big my movies are,” she says, referring to such hits as 1998’s $112 million-grossing Will Smith thriller Enemy of the State, ”it’d be interesting to see if it would have made a [career] difference if my character had been white.”

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