Aja Naomi King Is The GOAT
Aja Naomi King is a Capricorn. That's important, a necessary revelation; it explains many things about the acuteness of King's acting, and the impressive steadiness of her career thus far. Another revelation: Our birthdays are a day apart, hers on the 11th, mine on the 10th. This gave us (gave me) an instant bond when we were first introduced, one that feels akin to sisterhood, a very specific sisterhood that provides a rare understanding of all our shared, confusingly distinctive idiosyncrasies. But it also makes sense: Capricorns are said to possess a great specificity. We like what we like, determinedly. We are the quintessential Keep Calm and Carry On poster; we are the elders of astrology, precisely because of an innate wisdom we carry, one that, at times, feels preordained. I told King all this, with heady enthusiasm and no irony, the morning we met, and she agreed with excited sighs and giddy nods, mirroring my energy completely. I breathed a sigh of relief. Bringing up astrology can be a gamble. But it wound up being a safe bet with King.
“Every first of the month," King said, “I send my mom and my little sisters their horoscope. It's tradition." The way that she said that last part, the part about tradition and family, transported me straight to a scene in the movie Ever After, when the young Danielle de Barbarac (aka Cinderella) turns to her friend, Gustave, and explains that her father always turns to wave her a last goodbye, as he rides away on horseback, off to another job. “It's tradition," Cinderella says with a calm assuredness.
“I never expected to lead a film. I didn't see enough of it to think it was possible."
King has the spirit of someone from a fairy tale. Her presence is ethereal, and she's in possession of an energy that feels magical, yet safe. She has the rare ability to be both soft and powerful. I could imagine her being a princess, because there's a regality to her that, especially in real life, is magnetic, and just a touch enigmatic. The night before we met, I had a dream of King as a black “Girl with the Pearl Earring." She embodies the tender gaze, turned back, of Vermeer's most famous work. With just a glance, King could rupture you; with a demure tilt of her head, one ear holding a solitary, gleaming pearl, she leaves you breathless. Poised, King's face is an altar. Her charm lies in her guardedness, and her guardedness is part of her charm. It's a very Capricorn way of being.
It must be said that Shonda Rhimes, too, is a Capricorn. Rhimes is a Capricorn in the way Michelle Obama is a Capricorn—they really get the job done. That's one thing Capricorns are known for, and it's a trait that's evident in what I consider the ultimate in fictional Capricorns: Michaela Pratt, King's character in How to Get Away with Murder. That show—a Shondaland production—is what brought King's career to a place of widespread acclaim, due to her deft handling of a complicated character, one who is cold, calculated, and blunt, yet also desperately earnest, compressed with compassion. As a person, King leans toward the latter qualities. When she talks, her features come alive, springing to action. Coldness is almost exempt from her personality; instead, there is a vulnerability that feels porous. Perhaps that's why King enjoys playing Michaela, she gets to experience the sadistic reverie you get when you channel your opposite, and has a chance to explore a type of emotional masochism. But, as King explained to me, playing Michaela is also about finding space, letting the minutiae of ugliness take over, all in an effort to create a very real and very relatable pastiche of a young woman in constant, untenable crisis. The specificity which King brings to the part is the reason I sometimes get anxiety watching HTGAWM, the thump of my heart is one the characters surely feel themselves. We are all in constant disarray, fighting through melancholy.
King explained that, beneath Michaela's frosty exterior, is a turmoil-filled young woman: “I remember when I first started with her, she was way more aggressively mean, and sort of snotty... [Then] there was this whole turn where she was trying to hold onto that, but she was also cracking underneath and trying to hold that together." The whole array of human emotions plays on King's face throughout the series, she can manipulate a seductive twinkle into a terse and judgmental read in the blink of an eye. But King's relationship with her castmates couldn't be less like the ones Michaela has with her coworkers. Jack Falahee, who plays Connor, a frequent foil of Michaela's, said via email, “When I met the HTGAWM cast we all hit it off immediately. Over the years we've really grown as a family, and Aja has been integral to that growth. She remembers everyone's birthdays, plans all of our cast outings, and is generally our number one cheerleader on set."
Perhaps it is due to King's own irrepressible charm that, over the seasons, Michaela has become more likable—though her high-strung nature has never fully dulled. There is little doubt that King's ability to humanize the frantic craze that is Michaela, and perfectly oscillate between feelings of incredible fear, manipulative frustration, and a need to hold everything together, contributed to making Michaela feel real. She's not just an austere and snotty archetype, but a smart woman who is tired of having to say, I told you so. It's a Capricorn flex, and it's one only King could pull off. We watch Michaela, forced to contend with her ambition and with her heart—including while she dates a white man (he obsessively tries to please her, she remains mostly bored by him)—and, through it all, King makes clear that Michaela is still full of tenderness, a soft, agile young woman, even under the veneer of all that pointedness.
There's a quiet brilliance to the way King gathers all of these specific contours of her own character to create the layered, dynamic wunderkind that is Michaela, and that quality is evident in everything King does. I witnessed this in action, noticed how the vibrato of King's voice changed as she rapidly shifts gears between her feelings. King can, in one moment, lament the lack of Hollywood's diversity, and explain about how challenging it's been to be a black woman navigating the unfair parameters of an industry that constantly gaslights you. “Karla [Souza, King's castmate] and I were on set, and we were re-watching Jesse Williams' speech from Essence a couple years ago… And one phrase that he said just struck me really hard watching it again: 'gentrifying our genius'. I was just like, damn, Gentrifying our genius... The things we have been punished for, are celebrated in white people." And, in the next moment, King used the immediacy of her feelings to talk about her friend and confidante, Ifrah Ahmed.
Ahmed is a Somali activist who has dedicated her life to eradicating female genital mutilation (FGM) in Somalia through her organization, the Ifrah Foundation. In cooperation with the Somali government, the foundation has created an abandonment plan to educate young women (and their families) about the topic of FGM, so that it can be preventable in the future. Despite being a pre-Islamic practice and taking place throughout the world, FGM is now most often associated with and performed in Muslim countries, where women are frequently tricked into believing that it is a requirement of the faith, rather than an obvious attempt to thwart a woman's sexual pleasure. In 2016, UNICEF estimated that 200 million women living today in 30 different countries—everywhere from Somalia to Indonesia to Yemen—have undergone FGM procedures.
This is an issue that's near to King's heart; she portrays Ahmed in her latest film, A Girl from Mogadishu. And as soon as we get onto the topic of FGM, her face transformed. “I just remember reading stories about men trying to consummate their marriages with their wives who had this done and them needing to cut [their wives] open, and them bleeding to death right there on their wedding night," King said. “And if not that, then they have internal complications, or complications with childbirth... if they can survive that. But none of that gets attributed to FGM, it gets attributed to other causes." King paused—the dire reality of the situation reverberates—and moved onto talking about Ahmed, a human beacon of hope. “She is a light," King said, “I don't know how she does it. Everything is just so simple in her mind. She doesn't see problems, she only sees solutions. And she's always just—she's just a joy. She loves people, and she wants to do good, and I'll never forget, when I was in the beginning of doing this film, she told me, 'My life means nothing. If I can stop this from happening to one girl, then my life will mean something.'"
In that moment, it was clear, King wants more of herself as an actress. She wants purpose. She wants to feel alive with it, and she wants to use her career as a way to speak to the plights and complications of being a woman. “I do try to amplify," King said. “That's the small part that I try to do—to get involved in whatever way I can and, at the very least, amplify."
The night before I met King at the Pierre Hotel, right near Central Park, she had been at an event with L'Oréal Paris, celebrating 10 women making extraordinary differences in the world, at the 13th annual Women of Worth event. The event was still at the forefront of King's mind, and our conversation opened up with her detailing the story of Christy Silva, who started Aidan's Heart Foundation and had received special recognition for her work at the event.
King explained that Silva's son, Aidan, had been seven years old when he'd died from unexplained sudden cardiac arrest. So Silva, along with her husband, created the foundation to encourage parents, and children, to be aware of the condition. As King detailed this story, her face made it clear that she was already invested, and the details she gave me about Silva's work—“She goes to these schools and makes sure that sixth graders learn CPR and that they're equipped with these defibrillator devices. It got me really thinking, Why isn't that in every school? In every after-school program? Every sports program?"—were relayed with a frustration present under the sadness.
It's the type of lingering frustration that can be channeled into other anger, like toward continued global injustices. I saw this transference happening in the way King talked about Hollywood as well, calling out the industry's double standards. Specifically, the way Hollywood executives rely on the freshness of black and brown talent, without every truly applauding us. It's the way industry titans pat themselves on the back for presenting more diverse programming, when that diversity was something they'd fought against, until they realized it was a way to make more money. King and I talk about how white Hollywood power players could never have come up with Insecure, one of the most-talked about TV shows, and wouldn't even have given it a chance. “They wouldn't," King said, imitating how any conversation would have gone. “A bunch of black people? That doesn't sell. Really? What would they talk about? A black woman dating? Who cares about that?" Then King pointed out that, actually, they'd be like, “That's a great idea. Let's do a woman dating, okay, and she's awkward? Okay, great. Let's make her white and call it New Girl." The Capricorn rises, the quip falls into place. We both marvel, with a newfound closeness, at the sincere gymnastics of Hollywood, an industry that keeps telling us we—as in black and brown folks—aren't the audience. Even though time and time again we keep proving that we're not just the audience, we're also the art.
King began a story that Viola Davis once shared after Davis had been nominated for Doubt: “Everyone wanted to meet with her, everyone wanted to go on all these meetings, everyone was like, 'We got a script for you, we can't wait to show you these scripts.' Then, of course, Davis read these scripts and realized the part was always a side character. The lack of imagination Hollywood has is sometimes hard to imagine. “Before I even started in this industry," King adds, “I was just like, Oh man, if I could make it to be that white girl's best friend. If I could get there... That's where it started for me… to me that was a tremendous achievement. I never expected to lead a film. I didn't see enough of it to think it was possible."
The moment King said that, it felt impossible not to be angry about how artists of color are given excuse upon excuse not to be celebrated, which then turns into a vicious cycle of not being able to celebrate themselves. We both began to articulate the weight of our emotions, lamenting how those same emotions are often leveled against us, but how it's important to keep our hearts always on our sleeves, like a pulse. Emotions are a language both of us can agree on, and it feels good to emote. It feels good to give voice and listen to frustrations, bouncing between feelings with a comrade. Our conversation only ends once we realize we're late to King's shoot. We come out of our collective lull and start moving.
“I do try to amplify... to get involved in whatever way I can and, at the very least, amplify."
“Before I even started in this industry, I was just like, oh man if I could make it to be that white girl's best friend... like, to me that was a tremendous achievement."
I asked her if I could go to the shoot with her, and King said yes. As we drove there, we found ourselves discussing love. I told her about my current relationship, and she listened, attentive. It's easy to tell she's an older sister by the way she's both earnest and helpful. She asked questions and seemed genuinely concerned about my well-being. We mirrored each other's emotions the whole way, holding each other through the air of the tight car's embrace. Soon, we arrived at a tiny opulent studio that looked like a life-size interior of a dollhouse, maybe, or some fairy tale cottage, where a princess plays dress-up and fantasizes about her future life. She was soon whisked away by the stylist, and so for a while I sat and watched her get into costume after costume from a distance, sitting on a plush velvet armchair. King was graceful in every incarnation of herself. She swiftly moved from outfit to outfit, and it took a while for me to get the theme of the shoot, but then I realized: It's a variation of a princess, almost magical, and impossibly romantic. Then I saw one photo on the mood board: a black girl with a pearl earring. I smiled, and I caught King's eye. She smiled back, with a Capricorn's knowing, that inscrutable glow. She was visibly enjoying herself, becoming someone else, never straying from being herself. For some, it would be work. But, King's so naturally good at what she does, she made it look effortless, like play. ◊
- PHOTOGRAPHER: RENELL MEDRANO
- VIDEOGRAPHER: DANI OKON + CHARLOTTE PRAGER
- LINE PRODUCER: ALEXANDRA HSIE
- ASSISTANT PRODUCER: GRETTA WILSON
- STYLIST: CHRISTINE NICHOLSON
- STYLIST ASSISTANT: OLIVIA GABAREE
- HAIR STYLIST: URSULA STEPHEN
- MAKEUP ARTIST: JOANNA SIMKIM
- NAILS: GLAM SQUAD
- SPECIAL THANKS TO @LOVETHELOVESHACK