How Joey King Went From Child Star to Bona Fide Superstar

Plus, find out how she got the industry to take her seriously along the way.

Joey King may have some growing yet to do, but at 22, the multihyphenate has a surer head on her shoulders than many of her decades-older colleagues. Whether she’s talking about maturing through the industry or developing projects under her production banner, she speaks with both a Hollywood veteran’s perspective and the OMG enthusiasm characteristic of Gen Z. 

“Don’t surround yourself with the ‘yes, yes, yes’ men. The most important thing for producing, acting—anything—is to surround yourself with people who aren’t afraid to tell you the truth,” she says. “Have crazy ideas, and don’t be afraid to say them. But don’t be a dick about it.”

“Don’t be a dick about it” is as good a mantra as any for finding success in showbiz, and King is living proof. She has been acting professionally for 18 years (your math does not deceive you; she began at the ripe age of 4) after getting her start in commercials. From there, the Los Angeles native began to book steady television and film work in kids’ and adult programming alike—a title role in children’s literature staple “Ramona and Beezus” and a substantial arc on “Fargo” among them.   

In 2019, she received an Emmy nomination for her work on “The Act,” Hulu’s limited series based on the true story of a mother with Munchausen syndrome by proxy who won’t stop making her daughter sick. 

While “The Act” marked a turning point in how the industry perceived her, King cites Netflix’s “The Kissing Booth” franchise as the most substantial shift in her career to date—not because it was one of the streaming platform’s biggest-ever hits, but because it allowed her to explore producing for the first time. 

King now has her own production company—All the King’s Horses, which is co-led by Jamie King and Dan Spilo—and a pair of unprecedented first-look deals with Netflix (as of last spring) and Hulu (as of 2020).

“That’s a really tough thing to do, to change the industry’s mind about you. I’ve worked my butt off, and I’ve had so much fun doing it”

The slate of projects she has helped bring into reality includes an adaptation of the sci-fi novel “Uglies” for Netflix, the limited series “A Spark of Light” for Hulu, and this month’s metaphysical romance “The In Between” for Paramount+. It’s all because she decided, unequivocally, that what she has to say is valuable.  

“I just had these opinions and felt a little uncomfortable giving them when no one was asking,” she says of what initially led her to producing. “Now it feels so good to be able to be like, ‘This may be a crazy thing to say, but I have the merit to say it, so let’s all just talk about it.’ ”   

Though her résumé argues otherwise, King doesn’t wear her confidence on her sleeve. She’s hyper-aware of the fact that she is part of an industry that, historically, has had very little interest in listening to young women, much less granting them power. While she acknowledges that becoming a young female producer likely would not have been possible even 10 years ago, that progress doesn’t change the fact that she often finds herself confronting condescension.

Young women, she insists, shouldn’t have to prove themselves to be taken seriously, but an “I’ll show ’em all” mindset still creeps in when she is on the job. “When I’m on new projects or when I’m pitching and in all these different meetings, I’ve come across so many people who still treat me like a child, and it is so upsetting,” she admits. “The thing is, I just try to remind myself that it says more about them than it does about me.” 

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Ever levelheaded, King also recognizes that her past as a child actor may inspire these preconceived biases. The friction she describes is one that nearly every actor will experience at some point in their career: getting the business at large to see you outside of the box it has placed you in. 

“People within the industry, when they’re addressing me and realizing that I have this role of producer now—I still feel like sometimes they think they’re addressing 15-year-old me,” she says. “My biggest struggle is trying to get people to see me.

“That’s a really tough thing to do,” she adds, “to change the industry’s mind about you.” Yet by all accounts, King has done just that. She now creates sophisticated work both in front of and behind the camera, and that is not an accident. “I’ve worked my butt off and I’ve had so much fun doing it, but I have been able to make that transition,” she says. 

In her performances, King now actively pursues characters “whose point of view people are looking through for the whole movie,” as opposed to what she calls the “daughter” archetype. 

Ironically, what has proven most useful in advancing her to a position of power is the fact that she doesn’t have a deep knowledge of the inner workings of the business. More than anything, she says, it’s crucial to acknowledge all that you don’t know and go from there: Seek out more experienced collaborators, figure out when to speak up and when to listen, and absorb information like a sponge. 

“I am still very comfortable saying that I have no idea what I’m doing,” King says. “For me, that is producing right now; it’s just picking up scraps of knowledge and giving notes and opinions where they’re welcomed. I don’t know everything. I want to ask questions. I don’t want to be that person that’s like, ‘Oh, I’ve got this.’ Don’t say that you’ve got it when you don’t. That’s the worst.”

King is just as happy to admit she’s still learning things as an actor, too, despite having “put in my 10,000 hours,” she says with a laugh. In some ways, producing has changed the way she views her place as a performer on set. But in other ways, acting is acting is acting. 

When she is serving as both actor and producer, compared with projects in which she is only an actor, King says, “It is so different. It’s also so not that different.” (The latter includes the upcoming action thriller “Bullet Train,” in which she stars opposite Brad Pitt.) As a producer, she continues, “I get to see everything from beginning to finish. You don’t see that as an actor. You come in, you audition, you go to set, you do your wardrobe, hair, and makeup tests. But you don’t get to see all the fights or the amazing discoveries.” 

What never changes is her “process”—a word she hates to use because “it makes me sound like I think I’m special, which I don’t.” Whatever you want to call it, the way she approaches the material is completely unaffected by any additional producorial billing. Call it a separation of church and state. 

“The way that my brain thinks, or the way I tap into a character when I’m on set—that will never feel different,” she says. “That’s my bread and butter. That’s my heart and my soul, acting. Whatever hat I am wearing or not wearing, I feel like tapping into a character, no matter what, will always feel like a very separate little space.” 

In order to access that space, King is careful not to overprepare. Memorize your lines front to back, inside and out? Yes, of course—but she usually learns them the night before. She paraphrases a quote she loves from the actor Michael Shannon: “You’ve got to keep some juice in the lemon.” 

Most important to King’s character development is establishing an emotional connection to the material before shooting has even begun. That’s when she falls at least a little bit in love with the person she’s playing. 

Giving it that dedication up top, she says, allows her to be more present on the day and to access moments of true spontaneity. “I give that time to it, and I know the character so well and I love the character so much and I’m so fully into playing them that, when I’m on set, I can make random choices in the middle of a take that don’t feel out of left field—because I feel I am completely this person now,” she says. 

The almost Zenlike space that opens up inside of those scenes, where her thoughts don’t belong to her, is probably why acting “is my favorite thing in the world,” King continues. “It’s the most amazing way for me to be present. Between the moments of ‘action’ and ‘cut,’ I’m not thinking about anything else. When they say ‘cut,’ I might start thinking, Oh, God, I’ve got to go pick up the dog at the vet afterward. But in between those two words, I’m not thinking about anything else. It’s like a meditation state.”

In a moment of flawless timing, just as King concludes this thought, her dog, Jessie, trundles in to let her know it’s lunchtime and she needs to stop talking to the computer screen. As a final thought, King looks ahead. With her production banner being “a real thing now,” she is excited about the prospect of producing films and series that she herself is not in. Citing actor-producers like Charlize Theron and Margot Robbie that came before her, she is thrilled by the idea of pairing the perfect project with the perfect actor and then watching the magic unfold.

“I’m looking for projects like that right now,” she says. “And it’s been really interesting, because there are all these books that are of interest and all these IPs [intellectual properties] that are of interest. There’s so much material, it’s overwhelming. That’s why I’m really happy I have a team now. I could never do all of this alone. There are not enough hours in the day.”

This story originally appeared in the Feb. 3 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

Joey King photographed Shayan Asgharnia on Jan. 13 in Los Angeles. Styling by Jared Eng. Hair by Matthew Collins. Makeup by Allan Avendaño. On cover: Suit, shoes, and ear cuff by Alexander McQueen; earring by Jennifer Zeuner; ring by Khiry. Additionally in story: top and pants by H&M, earrings by MISHO, pink rings by Melinda Maria, heart-shaped and rectangular rings by L’atelier Nawbar, heart ring by Acchitto. Top and dress by Versace, earrings by Celeste Starre, chain bracelet by Bondeye Jewelry, gold ring and cuff bracelet by Dinh Van, signet ring by Dru. Top and bottom by Anine Bing, earrings by Lana Jewelry, heart ring by Acchitto, red rings by Melinda Maria, right-hand ring by Nouvel Heritage, left- hand ring by Retrouvaí. Cover designed by Ian Robinson.