Aja Naomi King Gets Raw About The Importance Of Playing Powerful Women
The actor opened up to Scary Mommy about the roles she wants to play, and what she’s learned by talking openly about miscarriage.
When you think of Aja Naomi King, you probably think of her as sharp-witted lawyer Michaela Pratt from How to Get Away With Murder. Or if you’re anything like me and got hopelessly hooked on AppleTV+’s recent Lessons in Chemistry, King will always, in some version of your memory, be Harriet Sloane. Her other roles — human rights activist Ifrah Ahmed in A Girl From Mogadishu, Cherry Turner in The Birth of a Nation — help to reinforce one thing: King’s name is synonymous with bold, empowering women.
Offscreen, that same type is a mainstay in her orbit. For several years running, she’s served as an ambassador for L’Oréal Paris Women of Worth, a philanthropic program that honors extraordinary women who selflessly volunteer their time to serve their communities and who champion legislation and change.
This year’s honorees include women like Shrusti Amula, a high school student fighting food waste through composting and food recovery programs, and Judaline Cassidy, who’s on a mission to show girls that jobs don’t have genders.
Staring at King through a Zoom screen, the expression “You are the company you keep” comes to mind. She is, without a doubt, a woman living in her power: an actor, activist, wife, and mom to 2-year-old son Kian.
Scary Mommy caught up with the truly lovely star, who shared her thoughts on everything from her most recent role opposite Brie Larson to how she’s raising Kian to decipher revisionist versus actual history.
Scary Mommy: Your role as a brand ambassador for L’Oreal Paris Women of Worth seems like something that really fills your soul. What has it meant to you?
Aja Naomi King: You kind of nailed it right in the question ... it really does fill my soul. It has been so inspiring to learn about the tremendous work that these women have done, and I want everyone to know how incredible they are and just how passionate they are. These change-makers just go beyond, above and beyond, to make an impact in the lives of others. I love that they are galvanizing other people to want to make that same kind of impact.
SM: Previous honorees have included women who advocate for impactful issues like mass incarceration and more. What stands out to you about this year’s honorees?
ANK: It's so hard to just pick one thing about any of them, because the sum total of what they do is so impactful. They're touching on so many pressing issues like increasing mental health awareness, combating the suicide crises in our youth by providing them with more support and resources, and climate change by building programs to reduce food waste.
[They’re] empowering the next generation of women to consider careers in non-traditional roles, as well as empowering women and girls with disabilities to achieve their highest potential. Those are just some of the causes that these women touch on.
SM: You’ve also carved out a space onscreen playing empowering women in historically rooted roles — like Harriet in Lessons in Chemistry. If you could pick any other woman in history to star as, who would you choose?
ANK: Oh my god, that is a great question. I'm immediately thinking of Coretta Scott King, but so many incredible women have already done that. I’m trying to think of a historical figure that not a lot of people know about that would make for a great addition. Maybe Dinah Washington? I love her. Mary McLeod Bethune would be amazing, and her activism and work. Ella Baker, of course, would be so incredible.
I guess most of the women I think of are activists, and I have been lucky — especially with this last role — to be playing someone who is this activist, this aspiring lawyer. She’s someone who is trying to make significant changes within her community because the world around them needs to be better in order for her children and the legacy that she carries to blossom and grow and be fruitful … and just to create a better world for the people you leave behind.
SM: It’s so true that the history kids are often taught is revisionist history, omitting the stories of women like this. Have you already started thinking about how you’ll counter that with Kian?
ANK: Oh my god, yes. It's kind of terrifying when you think about the books being banned, the revisionist history and the untold stories of how this country came to be what it is, and the rhetoric around why it's OK to hide that.
There are children's books about Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks that are already in my child's library. He doesn't understand the full scope and meaning, but understanding our history is so important so that we don't continue to repeat these things [and] force other people to relive this trauma.
Understanding our history is what allows all of us to evolve and grow and be better. It helps us understand that we all deserve to be here, we all deserve to live peacefully, and that is achievable. There have been legions of people who have fought for that, and we honor them by knowing their stories.
SM: You’ve made a big impact personally by being very transparent and vulnerable with your own history, including your miscarriages. What has it been like to share your story?
ANK: It felt so good to share. I didn't even know how much I needed to share because, when things like this happen, I think we're so used to hiding it. There's maybe this perceived shame or stigma around it — as women, we feel like this is something that we're supposed to be able to do. And because it's not talked about a lot, there are so many women like myself who don't even understand how common it is to have a miscarriage. It was in sharing my miscarriage with my mother that she shared with me that she’d also had a miscarriage, and I didn't know that.
ANK: Yeah, it was a really powerful moment for me because it is the kind of thing that made me feel like, ‘OK, there's not something wrong with me.’ I felt really emboldened to share my story after having those miscarriages. Of course, it was made all the more sweet by having my baby.
But at the end of the day, I think it's so important to understand and know that there are so many ways to be a mother; there are so many ways to be a parent. It doesn't have to look like just this one idea in our minds. I love the scientific advances around having children and how that makes it so much more possible for everyone.
I was really happy to share and really happy to speak about that. It’s opened up this door for other women to share that with me, which just leaves me incredibly touched that we can be vulnerable with one another.
That's what I love most about sharing something that would be commonly seen as so private or intimate, and really, it's a fact of life. It happens, and it's OK, and you can move forward.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.