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‘Lessons in Chemistry’ Star Aja Naomi King on Telling the Story of L.A.’s Sugar Hill Neighborhood

[This story contains spoilers from the finale of Lessons in Chemistry.]

In Bonnie Garmus’ novel Lessons in Chemistry, the character of Harriet Sloane is a middle-aged white woman with adult children who befriends her neighbor, the book’s protagonist, Elizabeth Zott, becoming a support system for the chemist as she navigates new motherhood as a single parent. In the Apple TV+ adaptation, the friendship that develops between Zott, played by Brie Larson, and the catalyst for it remains true. But in casting Aja Naomi King in the role of Sloane, the series expands the setting beyond the all-white world of 1950s L.A., in which Zott and her partner, fellow chemist Calvin Evans (Lewis Pullman), mostly exist to tell the little-known story of the predominately Black neighborhood of Sugar Hill and the racial dynamics of the time that destroyed it.

“When [Lee Eisenberg] told me that they wanted to dive into the story of the Sugar Hill neighborhood and how that was decimated by the freeway, a story I did not know, and learning that we wanted to begin Harriet’s story with fighting against the Highway Commission from destroying her community, I was taken aback by it,” King tells The Hollywood Reporter in the conversation below.

“I loved that that was at the center of her story. But they also wanted to create this fully realized human being. Really exploring what it was to be a Black woman in this period of time and highlighting that experience by delving into what motherhood meant for her, what her marriage looked like, what this friendship to Elizabeth would look like, and how they could form a true friendship; how they could earn that with one another.”

That friendship becomes a focus of the latter part of the eight-episode series, the finale of which aired on Nov. 24. For King, seeing the way Sloane and Zott’s stories intertwined was a realization of Eisenberg’s promise to her during the casting process.

“You walk onto a set and you don’t always know where the story’s going and if they will live up to what they claim they wanted to create. And what has been so meaningful to me is that they really lived up to it,” she says. “They honored Harriet’s character. They honored the very real lived experiences of the people that existed in this community. And I value that so tremendously.”

You initially auditioned for a totally different role in this series. How did you feel when you were told the creators wanted to cast you in this reimagined version of Harriet Sloane?

I had read the book, so I was kind of like, “Wait, what, huh? Harriet? How? What are you going to do?” And they were like, “We are going to turn it into this whole other amazing thing.” And Lee Eisenberg really kept his word, because what they crafted was so profound for me to get to explore as an artist, as a human.

When he told me that they wanted to dive into the story of the Sugar Hill neighborhood and how that was decimated by the freeway, a story I did not know, and learning that we wanted to begin Harriet’s story with fighting against the Highway Commission from destroying her community, I was taken aback by it. I loved that that was at the center of her story, but they also wanted to create this fully realized human being. Really exploring what it was to be a Black woman in this period of time and highlighting that experience by delving into what motherhood meant for her, what her marriage looked like, what this friendship to Elizabeth would look like, and how they could form a true friendship; how they could earn that with one another.

The cherry on the top was being given the context of the world at this time, being able to see Harriet as an activist and seeing her galvanize people and fight for this community, and do it in such an elegant way. I am so proud of what we created, because it’s so much more than what I was originally auditioning for. And I’m just really grateful that they crafted this character, and that we were able to collaborate on this and make it something really special.

Some fans of the book, in their online reviews, have expressed feelings that it’s unrealistic that there would be a middle-class Black woman with a similar lifestyle to Calvin and Elizabeth at this time.

We dove into this. And this was one of the other very necessary parts of our process. They had the brilliance to bring in a cultural consultant to the show, Dr. Shamell Bell, who got into the history of the West Adams Sugar Hill neighborhood, which was a predominantly white neighborhood initially. It wasn’t until the ‘40s and ‘50s that affluent Black people started moving into the neighborhood because they started developing Beverly Hills. Now, of course, there were racially restricted covenants that were keeping Black families from owning homes. There was a Supreme Court decision in 1948 that invalidated that and so they had to open up this neighborhood to Black people. This neighborhood, we’re talking about the most affluent Black people. Academy Award winner Hattie McDaniel had a mansion there. Ray Charles lived there. It was a massively affluent community, and it became a thriving center for the Black elite, for musicians, for artists.

Because it was a neighborhood where Black people were moving in and white people were moving out, it would make sense that housing would be more affordable for a white person there, because now it’s becoming a predominantly Black neighborhood. So of course Calvin could own a home there. And it was nearby USC and he’s a scientist who works in a lab, so it all connects. The idea that Elizabeth would be caught in a situation where she has moved into Calvin’s house, which would be in a predominantly Black neighborhood, is the basis of how these two would end up forming this friendship and interacting with one another.

We actually dive into how Harriet and Calvin first meet in episode seven, which is really amazing. It’s that connection to music and that this is someone who was able to see them. You know when you just feel connected to someone? Harriet and Calvin had that, especially since Harriet’s husband was abroad in the army, she was able to rely on him and he became a part of her community. He became a part of her family. So his death, that loss, there’s only one other person who would be able to understand that as deeply as Harriet and that is Elizabeth, and vice versa. And that is the thing that bonds them. And as we learn more about their histories and how they connect and how they find ways to empower one another, you really see them earn this friendship with each other, especially in terms of what allyship needs to look like.

I love that scene where, in the same way that Elizabeth points out Calvin’s blind spots to sex discrimination, Harriet is given the opportunity to point out Elizabeth’s blind spots to racial discrimination. And it’s so necessary in terms of understanding how these people could be in each other’s lives. And it’s because of that kind of honesty with one another and that kind of openness to hearing it and doing something differently.

What was it like working with Brie Larson and developing that relationship between your characters?

I think they complement each other very nicely. They bring something out of each other that’s really special. I loved working with Brie. I think because the show was really her baby and she worked so hard to make this show happen, that she took every detail of it so, so seriously. And she was just such a wonderful artist to work with, because she gave me so much agency. She was constantly checking in with me to ask, “Does this feel real?” “Does this feel right?” What would Harriet do?” Really wanting me to be able to own this as much as she did, because she was very much like: This is our story. And that just always feels amazing. You walk onto a set and you don’t always know where the story’s going, and if they will live up to what they claim they wanted to create. And what has been so meaningful to me is that they really lived up to it. They honored Harriet’s character. They honored the very real lived experiences of the people that existed in this community. And I value that so tremendously.

I love that we got to dive into Harriet as a mother and as a wife, and the tension in her marriage with Charlie. And that it’s not just one scene, but that it’s something that carries through, that it’s a part of the story, a part of their story, and that the telling of it matters. Brie was just a dream to work with, and everyone on this set, all of the directors, this female-led set, which also adds to the experience. It’s like there’s something intrinsic in that, this understanding of like: We get this, these are the stories that our mothers and grandmothers have told us, and we understand this on a deeper level that goes beyond words. And that’s what was so great, because sometimes it wasn’t about words. Sometimes it was about that look or that touch, or that movement and them wanting to capture that, to not brush over it. It allows the story to be that much more empowering.

Listening to your passion about this series and your character Harriet, how hard has it been not being able to promote this show until now because of the actors strike?

It was really hard. I stand with my union. What had to be done had to be done in order to get a better contract, in order to protect this profession, to protect ourselves as artists so that we can have a future in this industry. But this story is so beautiful and I love this project so much. I wanted to shout it from the rooftops. I wanted to be like, “Everybody better turn on their TV and watch this damn thing. It’s going to make your lives so much better.” The filming of it just made me feel so special. I felt so special walking into that space every day. I felt so cared for and it was just a set full of love. It was a joy to be there. And working with such great storytellers felt amazing.

There’s a bit of a throughline from your previous project Sylvie’s Love to Lessons in Chemistry. Did you bring anything from that experience into this project?

Look, I love how cute I look in these ‘50s wigs. I will tell you that. Mona was a little spicier than Harriet. But I do love that I’ve had the opportunity to play both because Mona was just a taste and Harriet is a meal. With Harriet, I feel the fullness of this story. There’s so much that is devoted just to her experience that has made this experience truly profound for me.

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