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Regina Hall might just be the best actress you don’t know

Regina Hall and Jemaine Clement in a scene from “People Places Things.” (Film Arcade)
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When directors talk about Regina Hall, they rave about her. Mention her, ask for comparisons and two names spring forth: Lucille Ball and Meryl Streep.

And yet, as recently as last year, in this very newspaper, a writer referred to “About Last Night” as possibly being a “break-out moment” for Hall, who at 44 has some 40 roles to her name.

What gives?

Hall, a D.C. native and Immaculata graduate, made her film debut in 1999 playing a stripper named Candy in “The Best Man.” She enters a penthouse suite bachelor party for Lance (Morris Chestnut), concealed by other dancers, and we see a flash of her face before she disappears into another room.

[Kevin Hart and Regina Hall look to reinvigorate the romantic-comedy in ‘About Last Night’]

Candy is the star of the show, with her own entrance music — Cameo’s 1986 hit “Candy” — as she comes out in a bustier and thong covered by a chain-like skirt. It was a tricky scene; by definition, bachelor parties are raucous, raunchy affairs, and this was a bachelor party for an all-star pro running back. It was undoubtedly the scene that net “Best Man” its R rating. At the same time, Hall had to show enough restraint that Julian (Harold Perrineau) is motivated to follow her into the street and quote Audre Lorde at her because he’s instantly smitten. She ends up being his date for Lance’s wedding.

Director Malcolm D. Lee recalled Hall’s audition for the part. “She had a sweetness and an innocence about her,” he said. “Her reading was more impressive than her dancing.”

Lee described a nervous Hall scurrying out of the audition room after the shoulder strap of her top broke, worried that she’d flubbed her chance at the part. But producer Sam Kitt saw something in Hall, and recommended to Lee that they call her back.

“It turned out that she was great for the role, and so much so that fellow filmmaker Gina Prince-Bythewood cast her in her first movie, ‘Love and Basketball,'” Lee said. “She called me and asked me ‘how did you get a stripper to act?’ I was like, ‘that’s an actress!'”

Since “The Best Man,” Hall has built a solid career as a comedic actress, but in some ways, she’s analogous to Judy Greer, a respected actress best known for her many supporting roles in romantic comedies. Last year, Greer published a memoir called “I Don’t Know What You Know Me From.”

Maybe you know Hall because she played Brenda in the “Scary Movie” franchise. Maybe you know her as Candace from “The Best Man” franchise, or (yet another) Candace from the “Think Like a Man” series. Maybe you know her from voicing Huey and Riley on “The Boondocks” — you don’t, by the way. That was Regina King.

Still, her ability to match the energy and zany antics of Kevin Hart in the 2014 remake of “About Last Night” netted Hall a new level of respect. There’s a scene in which an argumentative Hall and Hart play rock-paper-scissors to determine the priority of some in flagrante positioning. The script, according to director Steve Pink, simply said “Bernie and Joan make love,” but they worked together to turn it into a series of hilariously ridiculous bedroom escapades.

“Kevin would throw the kitchen sink at Regina and Regina did not flinch, ever,” Pink said. “She goes toe to toe with Kevin in every scene in ‘About Last Night’ to the point where she would just take Kevin down. She would just floor him.

“How is Regina doing that to Kevin Hart? Kevin is this force to be reckoned with, and she just reckoned with it, basically.”

Hart and Hall ended up stealing the show from Joy Bryant and Michael Ealy, the actors who play the couple in “About Last Night’s” main storyline.

“I think she’s one of the best actors working today, period,” Pink said. “I think everyone should know who Regina Hall is. I would cast her in anything and everything I ever do in the future.”

Multiple directors, including Lee, Pink and “Think Like A Man’s” Tim Story, cited Hall’s range, versatility and her attention to detail as big parts of her appeal. Lee said he’s learned to trust Hall when she comes to him and tells him what type of hair her character should have; she’s the reason Candace is rocking a prim, conservative little bob in “Best Man Holiday.” It’s a visual cue that lets you know instantly that Candace is no longer working as a stripper.

As much as she’s lauded for her comedic abilities, she’s also capable of shining in emotional dramatic scenes. In “Best Man Holiday,” Candace confronts her husband after all of their friends have been passing around a video in which she appears to accept cash in exchange for sex. When Candace faces Julian she feels hurt and betrayed because he didn’t stand up for her. Immediately, Candace has you on her side as she explains to Julian that she didn’t have any money at the time.

“She’ll bring so much more to the page than what’s there,” Lee said. “Making movies is difficult. And when you have people around you in the process and collaborating with you like Regina, it just makes it easier because she’s not there to push her own agenda. She’s there to help you achieve your vision.”

So then why don’t more people know about Hall? Is it because she’s been in a bunch of movies with ensemble casts? She’s not an unknown. She is, as Lee characterized it, “definitely black-famous.”

“I feel like I’ve had a bunch of careers in one career,” Hall said. “I’m not a new face but to some people, I am.”

The simplest and the most obvious question is easy: Would Regina Hall be a bigger star if she were white? But it’s not the only question, because outside of race, success in Hollywood — that rare, A-list, everything is coming up roses, seven films a year type of success — is a matter of luck, timing, hard work, and these days, a hefty dose of online self-promotion. Hall rarely tweets, though she’s warmed to Instagram.

“I think it’s the nature of the business,” Lee said. “Black actors in general don’t really get the rising star treatment that their white counterparts do. I would say that’s especially true for black women.

“I think think that when you want to be a star, you’re cultivating that,” Lee said. “You’re pushing that. You’re doing social media. You’re out and on the scene. You’re self-promoting and Regina’s never really been like that. I think she kind of likes some of the anonymity that she’s never really wanted to be a star. I think she wants to be an actress and do her work and be recognized, like we all do, for her work.”

Race does enter the equation, though, as does gender. According to a University of Southern California study released earlier this month, 30.2 percent of speaking roles in the top 700 grossing films from 2007 to 2014 were female. Only 11 percent of those films had gender‐balanced casts or featured girls or women in roughly half of the speaking roles. When you consider 2014 alone, only 21 percent featured a female lead or equal co-lead. In last year’s top 100 films, 12.5 percent of the characters were black. Even fewer were Latino, Asian, Native American or Middle Eastern.

So how does this translate on screen?

There’s a general problem with the dearth of roles for female actors period, and that dearth becomes even more exaggerated when broken down in terms of race.

While black men are able to cross over to become bona fide mainstream stars — think Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Will Smith, Idris Elba, Michael B. Jordan, David Oyelowo and Anthony Mackie — the list of black actresses who can move throughout Hollywood with an equal amount of ease and fluidity is much shorter. It’s not even a list. It’s Halle Berry and Zoe Saldana.

In recent years we’ve witnessed a spate of black actresses who have enjoyed mainstream breakout success in television despite the fact that they are all quite deep into their careers: Kerry Washington (“Scandal”), Viola Davis (“How to Get Away With Murder”) and Taraji P. Henson (“Empire”). All of them are prodigious social media users.

At the same time, there’s something to be said about the non-existence of the black ingénue, as Lee noted. The closest approximation in recent years would be Lupita Nyong’o, whose vibrant, carefree red carpet ebullience charmed the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as much as her portrayal of Patsey in “12 Years A Slave” impressed it.

But Nyong’o, a product of Yale’s School of Drama, was 31 years old when she won her first Oscar as a relative newcomer. Jennifer Lawrence, by comparison, netted her first Oscar nomination in 2011 for “Winter’s Bone” before she could legally drink, won the Best Actress Academy Award for “Silver Linings Playbook” two years later, and was nominated against Nyong’o for “American Hustle” last year. Until the 15th of this month, if Lawrence was a non-celebrity plebe, she wouldn’t easily be able to rent a car — she just turned 25.

Even Lucille Ball, the actress to whom Hall gets compared, didn’t start “I Love Lucy” until 1951, when she was 40 years old. By that point, she’d been a top-billed film actress for more than a decade, enjoying a breakout year in 1938 at age 27. As for Streep, well, she made her film debut in the Oscar-winning “Julia” in 1977, appeared in the “The Deer Hunter” in 1978, dazzled opposite Dustin Hoffman in “Kramer vs. Kramer” in 1979, and truly broke out with “Sophie’s Choice” in 1982 at age 33.

Will Henry (Jemaine Clement) is a newly single graphic novelist balancing parenting his young twin daughters and a classroom full of students. (Video: Film Arcade)

“You can get into the broader context of that question and say, how many roles are written for women? How many roles are written for women of color? How many movies are being made for her to shine in? I don’t know,” Pink said. “I would say less and less and less. It’s always been the case. Maybe’s there’s just not enough great roles for her. Let’s create more great roles for her.”

That’s what Jim Strouse did with Hall’s latest film, “People Places Things,” an indie that premiered to enthusiastic applause at the Sundance Film Festival. In it, Hall plays an early American literature professor at Columbia whose daughter Kat (Jessica Williams) sets her up with Kat’s graphic novel professor (played by Jemaine Clement) at the School of Visual Arts.

[‘People Places Things’ is not your typical romantic comedy. That’s absolutely for the best.]

Strouse knew right away that he wanted to cast Hall and Williams. He likened Hall to Anna Faris, Lake Bell and Lizzy Caplan — all great talents, but also grossly under-appreciated.

“They’re really distinct, and they kind of need things written for them because they don’t fit in the normal boxes or limited roles that are out there in comedies or just in movies in general, especially for women,” Strouse said. “It’s a shame because Regina is a really distinct, unique talent and having worked with her — her range is really incredible. I think she can be in just about any type of movie. She’s a really well-trained actress that can take really minute direction.”

More than anything, Lee said, he thinks Hall just likes working and everything else is secondary.

Whenever you see red carpet photos of Hall, her eyes are widened and she always looks slightly surprised, as if taken aback by all the camera flashes, or as though she’s trying not to blink. She’s a veteran, but she still hasn’t quite mastered the art of making the totally manufactured atmosphere of the red carpet, with its explicit focus on self-promotion, seem natural and ordinary.

She still gets caught off guard when fans approach her for pictures.

“They’re really sweet,” Hall said. “The only hard part is I’m always walking out looking half homeless and they always want to take a picture and I’m like, ‘oooooh. It’s kinda rough for me to take a picture.’ I guess I’m going to have to start going out the house a little better.

“I’m never really” — Hall takes a dramatic breath — “properly done is what I’ll say. People have camera phones all the time,” she said laughing. “And you don’t even mind the picture, you just know it’s going to get posted, so you’re like, ‘Dag. I’mma be on a bunch of sites looking really rough.'”

Hall is filming “When the Bough Breaks,” a thriller she’s helming with Chestnut, her “Best Man” colleague, and Theo Rossi of “Sons of Anarchy” that’s scheduled to arrive in 2016. This summer, she appeared in “Vacation,” and she’s filming “Barbershop 3” with Lee.

“She can do anything. I want people to recognize that she can do anything and start to make her — ” Pink trailed off and sighed. “I don’t know what it takes. You’re right. She breaks out in everything she does. It’s just showing all of us that she’s as great as she is every time. And maybe she’s not breaking out in everything she’s doing. Maybe she’s just great. Maybe saying she’s breaking out in this could be construed as a bit condescending. No, she’s not breaking out. She’s incredible. She’s an extraordinarily talented actress. You don’t say about Meryl Streep that she’s breaking out in each thing she does. You’re like, ‘oh, there’s another amazing thing she did because she’s that good,’ and I feel like that’s true of Regina.

“I want her to be a household name because she deserves it and she’s that good.”