Aja Naomi King, on Sept. 25, 2016 in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Aja Naomi King, on Sept. 25, 2016 in Beverly Hills, Calif. Jason LaVeris—Getty Images

Birth of a Nation’s Breakout Star


Born and raised in Walnut, Calif., King grew up planning to be a doctor on the advice of her father, who told her to pick a career where "you will always be necessary." But the sight of blood made her queasy. So instead, King chose acting, earning a degree from the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she was the only black woman in her program, before heading east to the Yale School of Drama. "It was a given at UCSB that if there was a role that called for a person of color, it was going to be handed to me," she says. "There were certain times when maybe I didn't try as hard. Going to Yale was a way more diverse experience." After Yale, King spent three years in New York City juggling waitressing jobs with auditions, but finding a balance was tricky. Physical exhaustion often impeded her ability to prepare for auditions. "I was getting in my own way," says King, who finally left the service industry when she nabbed a recurring role on the short-lived ABC series Black Box. "I would quit jobs and step out on hope and faith, and pray to God that I would book something that would allow me to just continue to act."


Her prayers were answered in 2014 when she landed the role of Michaela Pratt, an overachieving law student on the Shondaland thriller How to Get Away With Murder. It gave her the opportunity to work with Viola Davis, one of her idols. "At first it was terrifying," King admits. "I remember the first day shooting in a room with Viola and only thinking, 'I just want her to think I'm good.'"


For her highest-profile film role to date, King plays Cherry, the wife of Nat Turner (Nate Parker), in The Birth of a Nation, a movie that's garnered headlines following news of a 17-year-old rape case against Parker. (He was acquitted.) King, who previously praised the filmmaker, now has complicated feelings. "He has empowered me to find my voice, and that has been invaluable," she says. "Love is a complicated emotion because you can learn something or hear something that goes against what you have come to know personally. It can be very challenging to what you believe." King is still hopeful the film can spark conversations about race in America. "We deserve to be able to walk and live and breathe freely, and we still have to be so fully aware of how powerless we are," she says. "We can stand up and speak out and be brave, and this should remind us of that."

TIME may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website. Offers may be subject to change without notice.