Jayme Lawson Is a Renaissance Woman

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images, Everett Collection, Retailers

Jayme Lawson’s presence onscreen is an exercise in quiet power. She doesn’t have to say much for her intended emotion to be felt — she can communicate a whole essay’s worth of emotion with a near-imperceptible tilt of her head. When she does speak, it’s with the measured clarity and rhythmic diction of a poet. This makes her perfectly suited for her latest role, Dr. Betty Shabazz in MLK/X, an installment of National Geographic’s Genius series, which tells the stories of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X in parallel through vignettes, from their early childhoods to their untimely deaths. What’s unique about MLK/X is that it places nearly as much focus on the wives, not just in their interactions with their respective husbands but in their own significant contributions to the civil-rights movement and life stories. Viewers see tidbits of Coretta’s musical ambitions and glimpses into Betty’s troubled childhood.

Lawson brings Betty’s spirituality to the forefront, and it’s something the actress herself knows well. “I am a woman of faith,” she says. “Not of Islam, but as a Christian, I understand the grounding that comes with being so connected to your faith and then also attaching that to movement.” She has often played characters with a strong political backbone like Betty’s as well: She was politician Bella Reál in The Batman; a young Michelle Obama in The First Lady; Shante, wife of King Ghezo, in The Woman King; and willful activist Alisha in How to Blow Up a Pipeline. Whatever the role, she brings a sense of conviction that rouses one’s attention, perhaps because she deeply believes in the parts she chooses to play. “I’m always looking for roles that provide the opportunity to give back voice to women that are seen as one dimensional,” she says.

Her own dimensions include an affinity for the Washington, D.C., food scene (she was raised in the DMV area) and artistic influences ranging from I Love Lucy to the Harlem Renaissance. Below, she shares her cultural influences with the Cut.

Every project you’ve worked on feels so intentional and carefully chosen. How do you go about selecting what you move toward? 

I have a foundational core audience that I think about. I choose what I choose for my mother and my great-grandmother and my sister and my niece — that’s my audience. That’s whose opinions I care about. It doesn’t have to be necessarily the most likable character, like with Shante, of course. As long as there’s some form of agency, that’s the thing that I’m really after: finding Black women with agency in the scripts.

What was that process like for MLK/X?

One of the initial selling points for me, first of all, was that Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Rock Bythewood would be executive producing it, because I knew that that meant that the story was going to be taken care of — that these icons weren’t going to be exploited and that there was going to be a real investment in telling their full humanity, not just big-selling high moments, you know what I mean? Then, talking with the showrunners and Gina, they were very adamant that they wanted to bring the women out from behind the men and bring them beside them — show them to be equal partners of equal value and voice. That’s hook, line, and sinker for me. I just knew that I had to be a part of that — especially because not many people are familiar with Dr. Betty Shabazz and I really wanted to take on that challenge to introduce her to a whole new generation.

Betty was a movement leader in her own right, but we don’t always see her get credited for that. She’s not often portrayed with the level of care and attention that this show has given her. What kind of responsibility did you feel toward her?

A lot of responsibility. I wanted to honor her. So on one hand, there are entire generations that are familiar with her or are familiar with existing portrayals of her. I wanted to continue to honor and uplift people’s attachment to her that already existed, while simultaneously introducing her to a new audience. In the beginning, that felt a little difficult, because as an actor, you want to get all the human bits, the things that may be uncomfortable, the things that oftentimes we don’t allow room for such icons to have. We like our heroes without mistakes. That’s just not real. By telling the full truth and complexity of her, I am honoring her to the fullest extent possible, because I’m giving her back a voice that history has erased.

Islam is such a huge part of Betty and Malcolm’s lives and identities. How did you think about their faith when you were preparing for the role?

I can resonate with that and I understood that. There had to be a journey to that. What I love about this series is it provides us an insight to see how she finds her own way. There are all of these rules of how to be, what she should do and what she shouldn’t do. And she really had to figure it out for herself. Her religion had to be for her. It couldn’t be her husband’s religion. It couldn’t be the nation. It had to be her own relationship with Allah, and I used that as a core grounding for her.

I love that we also invited the exploration of questioning, that she didn’t have to be fully convinced or convicted at all times. There was still room to question Allah’s purpose for her and for her family. I think that’s so relatable. Anybody of any faith can truly relate to that. I don’t have to always feel so sure that I know what God is calling me to do — and yet and still, I use that to ground me. Even on the more intimate side, the whole courting process between Malcolm and Betty, because of their faith, there was no allowance for physical touch. Aaron (Pierre) and I spoke very early on about how to create that chemistry just with the eyes. To tell a full story with just how they look. We worked hard on it, mama, we worked hard.

Thinking about your taste as a consumer of culture rather than a maker of it, is there a piece of media that feels like a North Star for what you want your work to do? 

I’m highly influenced by a lot of the literature from the Harlem Renaissance, I think because during the Harlem Renaissance — first of all, it’s filled with poetry. I love poetry. Even in my work, if you watch close enough, I tend to lean toward the poetic.

The writers of that time banded together to put out work that consumerism at large wasn’t ready for and didn’t make space for. They would settle in brownstones together and just bounce ideas off of each other and just write such amazing, vibrant, full characters who spoke to their human experience.

Getting into the Taste Test — where do you get your best culture recommendations from? 

I am kind of out of the loop with TV, so I count on my sister to keep me in the loop there. I stay on Instagram for food accounts, especially. There’s a D.C. food page that highlights all the restaurants in the DMV area, and I stalk it religiously.

Are you from the DMV? 

I am. Most of my explore page is full of food, hair tutorials, and babies.

You’re hopping in an Uber XL. You can bring five celebrities, dead or alive, with you. Who’s coming?

Oh — Lucille Ball, Phylicia Rashad, Cicely Tyson, Viola Davis, Angela Bassett. Is that five?

That’s five. 

That’s my Mount Rushmore. I feel like Lucille Ball would be the most serious out of all of them. I actually feel like Viola would crack the most jokes in that car ride. It would just be a good time, hopefully. I would just listen. I would just be like a little mouse in the corner, listening in. Trying to steal any and every gem of wisdom they would want to impart.

Where would you be going with them?

Chile, we could go to a spa. We could go get some halal. Whatever anybody is feeling.

You’re a big foodie. What is the last meal you cooked?

Before this press started, I was doing this this thing called the Daniel Fast, which is something that people of my faith do. You’re essentially vegan for however many days you choose to participate in this fast, with other restrictions as well. So I got really creative. I think the last meal I made was a chili, but instead of ground beef, I used red lentils. It was so good. I’m actually going to make that again. It was absolutely delicious, with some chipotle peppers in adobo sauce.

Do you have a favorite dish to cook?

I love prepping for Thanksgiving. It’s probably the first thing I learned how to make, was a full Thanksgiving dinner. That’s how I learned how to cook, with my mom. She taught me how. So that’s probably my go-to: a pot of greens, some mac and cheese, fried chicken, sweet potato, candied yams — all the fixings.

What is your pre-filming ritual?

It depends on what the scene is for the day, what the character is. It really does. What’s pretty consistent is meditation and prayer and a good playlist. What’s in there may change, depending, but those are my go-tos, always, to get me in and to get me out of the scene.

Do you curate the music for the character?

One thousand percent. I have on my playlist still for Betty: “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” by Nina Simone; Eryn Allen Kane’s “Have Mercy”; Sade’s “No Ordinary Love”; I also have Hozier’s “Cherry Wine” — that song really did something for me — a lot of Lauryn Hill. I love curating songs and playlists that are geared toward my characters. It just helps me to get in their bodies a bit more.

What is your comfort rewatch?

I Love Lucy. I have seen every episode. Even The Lucy Show. I used to have all the DVDs, the whole set. So whenever I’m feeling like I just need a good pick-me-up, or especially when I’m sick, I will watch I Love Lucy.

Do you have a favorite season?

When she travels Europe. It’s either that one or it’s the Hollywood season, when she travels to Hollywood. Sometimes I switch between those two seasons.

What’s your favorite game to play?

Every time I go home and visit my family, we religiously play spades, gin rummy, Monopoly, and Scrabble. I cannot go home and not play those games, or I will hear it. I will hear it.

Is there a book that you read recently that you couldn’t put down?

I’m actually in the middle of this book. It’s called The Garden Within, by Dr. Anita Phillips. I’ve been reading that for a minute, and it just blows my mind. Blows my mind.

What’s the worst thing to do at a dinner party?

For me, not being able to handle my liquor. That is a fear of mine. To the point that sometimes at a dinner party, I won’t drink, because I’m like, We need to know what’s going on and how we’re coming across. Unless I’m in a safe space with a bunch of people who already know me. Then we can get as drunk as you want to get.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Jayme Lawson Is a Renaissance Woman