Cannes Film Festival: Aja Naomi King Talks ‘Lessons in Chemistry,’ Raising a Feminist Son, and Working With Brie Larson

Aja Naomi King hit the red carpet in Cannes Thursday night for the “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” premiere in a sculptural champagne-colored Gaurav Gupta froth of a dress, with a dramatic swoop that made for a grand entrance.

It was a return trip to Cannes for the L’Oréal spokesperson, who said while the famous 24 steps of the Palais des Festivals are always intimidating, the experience is like no other.

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“It does feel magnificent. It’s the kind of thing where you almost wish that time would slow down so you could it enjoy it that much more,” she said. “I always feel when I get to the end of the carpet, ‘Oh no, it’s almost over.’”

Wearing Zuhair Murad ahead of glamming up for the premiere, King reflected on how Hollywood has started to make significant strides on inclusion, both in front of and behind the camera.

Her upcoming project, the Apple TV series “Lessons in Chemistry” is evidence of that change. She costars with Brie Larson in the show about female scientists in the ’50s. The director of every episode was a woman, and Larson also serves as a producer on the show.

“Her hand was behind everything on this, which was so powerful and inspiring to me,” said King.

“It just felt so great to be working on something and knowing the creatives behind it wanted it to be from this point of view, and wanted to amplify not only the opportunity for these women, but believed in their ability to craft this story,” she said. “The bulk of the time that I’ve worked in this industry, I’ve mostly worked with male directors, so to get to shoot an entire series with women directors and so many women behind the camera in the crew as well — there was something about it that just felt really special.”

King said the “shorthand” between women — and especially women of color — about shared experiences added a layer of instinct to the project. Since the story takes place in the ’50s, there is also an added layer for her as a Black woman.

“There are certain things that my character comes up against,” she said of the time period, careful not to give anything away about the series.

The ease of working with Black and female staff helped shape the scenes. “It’s just so significant to be able to talk to someone where it’s like, ‘I don’t have to explain this to you, because you get it in a very deep way. Like, you got it, your mother got it, your grandmother got it, the stories were passed down to you and you’re going to understand this,” she said. “People can be empathetic, but sometimes until you’ve had that lived experience, it’s just really hard to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.”

King, who is mother to two-year-old Kian, is working to make sure he understands those values and different perspectives as he grows. “It’s the most important thing in the world to me now, because men have to be our allies, because I don’t think all of this is going to go away in 50 years,” she said, noting that women’s rights are moving backward in the U.S. “It’s going to take a long time to overcome that.”

“So yes, I am raising my son to be a feminist and a humanist, and to be someone who is going to give a damn about what he is observing about other people’s lived experiences,” she said.

King said she still struggles with moments of self doubt and impostor syndrome, but her work with L’Oréal has helped shape her both on screen and off.

“It just gives me this vote of confidence, and it does feel really remarkable,” she said, noting that being on a team of spokespeople that includes Helen Mirren, Andie MacDowell and Viola Davis has been “a powerful image.”

In Cannes, the beauty brand will celebrate its Lights on Women Awards May 26. The award is about celebrating new points of view, King said. “It’s about empowering these young filmmakers, saying, ‘We see you and your voice matters, you deserve to be here and you are worthy.’ It’s just really important messaging for [women] to understand and believe that they can live their lives in a big, significant way.”

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