In the first episode of I’ll Fly Away, the historical drama set at the dawn of the civil rights era, Regina Taylor’s character, Lilly Harper, accepts a housekeeping job with a prominent Southern white family. Before she leaves the room, she politely signals to her new employer how she expects to be treated. “My name is Lilly,” she says. The spirited role won Regina, 62, back-to-back Primetime Emmy nominations for Outstanding Lead Actress and boosted a career that has extended into theater, films, playwriting and directing. “I truly love all of it,” she tells Closer. “It works as a whole body. One part speaks to the other.”
This TV season, Regina elicited fresh Emmy buzz for a guest-starring role as the mother of a murdered child on CSI: Vegas. “They did a beautiful job etching out a story that is very heartfelt and powerful,” she says.
Tell us about the character you play in the ‘CSI: Vegas’ episode “The Promise.”
“Raquel is a mother who lost her daughter years ago, and they can’t find the body. I think it’s about the tenacity of a mother’s love. When she meets [Paula Newsome’s character Maxine], she finds someone who will hear her and champion her. To me, it evoked feelings of grief, anguish, sorrow, rage, and then the blossoming of a relationship where she finds relief.”
Is there a message you hope viewers will take from the episode?
“Yes. The tenacity of love crosses all boundaries.”
When you were young, what did you want to be when you grew up?
“I did not know that acting was something that I would pursue. I was a writer, and I think, personality-wise, I’m an introvert, which is very good for writers. I went to college at Southern Methodist University in Dallas to do just that, and then I fell into acting. I blame it all on Henry Fonda.”
Why Henry Fonda?
“He was at the school filming a live broadcast of The Oldest Living Graduate. I was following him down the hallway, too shy to say hello, and an agent saw me stalking him and asked me who I was. I told her I was an actor because I took one class, Acting 101. She said, ‘There’s this audition this weekend. Would you like to go to it?’”
“I got the job. It was a made-for-TV movie starring Joanne Woodward about the first students to integrate the Arkansas school system. That summer, during my school break, I got on my first plane to go to Arkansas to film in the actual location where these very courageous students were ushered in by militia. And I became an actress.”
‘I’ll Fly Away’ won you two Emmy nominations. What do you remember most fondly about starring on the show?
“That was one of my favorites. It was my first time playing one of the leads in a series. I felt very passionate about playing this woman who I recognized in my own family — my grandmothers, aunts and my mother. It also had great writing and great cinematic storytelling.”
Do you have a favorite memory from the set that you can share?
“I remember first meeting Bill Cobbs, who played my father on that series. Bill has been in everything, and he’s a wonderful jazz guy — he played the drums. It was my first time in Atlanta, so he was always taking me to these dives to listen to somebody play. He gave me a wonderful little lesson on jazz. I adored him.”
Do you have any other favorite roles?
“I have been really fortunate. These flashes of light into the human spirit, that’s what I’ve gotten to play whether it was doing Juliet on Broadway [in Romeo and Juliet], or playing Samuel Jackson’s wife in The Negotiator, or doing Courage Under Fire with Denzel Washington. Man, I loved working with Spike Lee in Clockers and having that burst of insanity to beat up a drug guy in that movie. More recently, I’ve loved Lovecraft Country and playing Michelle Obama’s mother with Viola Davis in The First Lady.”
Have you ever worked with one of your childhood idols?
“I did a project with Sidney Poitier. It was known as A Good Day to Die, and was about the migration west into Oklahoma. He played a black cowboy. I think that was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had because I grew up with him. To actually have scenes with him was like a dream.”
What do you like to do when you’re not working?
“I like gardening. During COVID, I spent a lot of time in my mother’s flower garden. The things she planted continue to come up every year even though she has passed away. During COVID I started growing vegetables, too. It’s been very nurturing.”
What do you like about being the age you are today?
“I have a birthday coming up, and I will soon be at the age that my mother was when she passed. I was trying to wrap my mind around that — how I looked at her and her age back then, and how I look at it now. I’m about to step into that moment. I cherish this life. I have no regrets. Every morning, I am grateful. Everything is a lesson.”
You’ve been married before. Do you think you’d ever consider marriage again?
“At this moment, I am not thinking about marriage. A friend of mine went to a wedding and the couple was in their 70s. I said, ‘That’s a very great age to embrace all of that.’ It made me think that I would not deny marriage. If it happens, I am open.”
What’s on your bucket list?
“There are places I’ve never been. I’ve always enjoyed traveling. Recently, the world changed in such a way that I don’t do it to the extent that I used to. But there are some places I have to figure out how to go to. There are points in Africa that I’ve never been to and parts of Hawaii. I haven’t been to Australia yet.”
What’s the greatest life lesson you’ve learned?
“My greatest life lesson is to be true to yourself and to have a generous spirit in sharing yourself, but save some room for yourself in the sharing.”