How Aja Naomi King Deepened the Story Told in ‘Lessons in Chemistry’

Readers of Bonnie Garmus’ best-selling novel “Lessons in Chemistry” know the Harriet Sloane character as a middle-aged (almost certainly) white woman who becomes the confidante of the protagonist, Elizabeth Zott. But when Aja Naomi King auditioned for a different role in the Apple TV+ adaptation of the book, showrunner Lee Eisenberg was so impressed that he and the writing team decided to transform Harriet so King could play a significant role in the limited series. “We saw her,” he said. “And we were obsessed with her.”

Harriet 2.0 adds an entirely new dimension to Garmus’ story of a brilliant scientist (played by Brie Larson) butting up against the intractable sexism of the early 1960s. Through King’s Harriet, a paralegal and activist who suspended law school to build a family, we see the era from the perspective of a Black woman during the civil rights movement.

Brie Larson (left) and Aja Naomi King in “Lessons in Chemistry.” (Apple TV+)

It’s a supporting character, but a complex, three-dimensional one with her own story to tell. Critics have called King’s intricate performance her best since she played one of Viola Davis’ law students for six seasons on ABC’s “How to Get Away With Murder.”

King still marvels that the part turned out to be so rich. “I was blown away,” she said. “I didn’t know what it was going to turn into because it could be a scene, it could be a line. But it was this. We are really, consistently going on this journey to explore Harriet’s life. She’s not just someone popping into a scene to give voice to what Elizabeth is going through. I thought that was so beautiful and so necessary.”

To get into Harriet’s mindset, King looked to her own family history. The Sloanes’ house, for instance, is full of reproductions of King’s grandmother’s photos. She also drew on her mother’s childhood memories. “My mom grew up in the fifties and just having her tell me stories of watching her aunts and how they moved through the world and what that was like, so much of it was, you just create things for yourself. You made your own clothes,” King said.

“And I love that sense of self-determination; like, I’m not going to wait for someone to give me something. I’m going to do it on my own, I’m going to make it myself. That became my rallying cry for Harriet. She’s a doer. That is how she handles every issue, every problem. She’s just going to find the thing to do because what else is there?”

Aja Naomi King as Harriet Sloane in “Lessons in Chemistry” (Apple TV+)
Aja Naomi King as Harriet Sloane in “Lessons in Chemistry” (Apple TV+)

King was raised outside of Los Angeles in Walnut, California, and coming into “Lessons in Chemistry,” she was unfamiliar with Sugar Hill, the affluent Black L.A. neighborhood where the Sloanes live and where, in real life, Hattie McDaniel owned a mansion and Ray Charles had a studio. In 1963, the construction of the 10 freeway through Sugar Hill forced residents out of their homes and effectively destroyed the community.

Because Harriet is, in King’s words, “intolerant of injustice,” she launches a campaign against the freeway project that culminates in a peaceful protest interrupted by the police, who beat several unarmed citizens before literally dragging them to jail.

Filming the sequence, it was impossible not to be reminded of the ongoing blight of police brutality against Black people. “That was a hard scene,” King said. “I’ve been to protests. I know what it feels like to occupy that space, and the knowledge of the people that came before me that have occupied the space. You’re kneeling on the ground, you’re hearing the screams, and it just feels so real. The idea of: be obedient in the midst of being disobedient. No sudden movements so they won’t hurt you for refusing to leave. Seeking safety in the desire to be treated like a human being while watching people not being treated like human beings. So in terms of shooting it, it’s easy because it’s all there. But it’s hard because it’s all there.”

Harriet (Aja Naomi King, with Brie Larson) leads a protest in “Lessons in Chemistry” (Apple TV+)
Harriet (Aja Naomi King, with Brie Larson) leads a protest in “Lessons in Chemistry” (Apple TV+)

What mattered most to King was how full a portrait she was able to present of Harriet’s life. She’s a tireless activist, yes, but she’s also just a human being who needs to put her kids to bed, clashes with her husband (played by Paul James) over putting her law career on hold and calls Elizabeth on her blind spots when it comes to race and privilege.

Those honest conversations between the two women, King said, make their friendship feel “earned”: “That’s true ally-ship, to take the time in the midst of those blind spots to say, ‘Oh, now I see you that much more clearly because I see the experience you’re going through.’

“There are so many beautiful things that I got to explore with (Harriet) in terms of just showing her being this regular woman, having regular life experiences in this time period,” King continued. “It was fascinating for me. And I think that’s what has made our stories so fun, that you see these two women making remarkable attempts to be extraordinary, but you’re also getting to see them in the most intimate, personal, regular parts of their lives, sitting down at a table, having a beer.”

This story first ran in the Limited Series/Movies issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the Limited Series/Movies issue here.

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