King has the spirit of someone from a fairy tale. Her presence is ethereal, and she’s in possession of an energy that feels magical, yet safe. She has the rare ability to be both soft and powerful. I could imagine her being a princess, because there’s a regality to her that, especially in real life, is magnetic, and just a touch enigmatic. The night before we met, I had a dream of King as a black “Girl with the Pearl Earring.” She embodies the tender gaze, turned back, of Vermeer’s most famous work. With just a glance, King could rupture you; with a demure tilt of her head, one ear holding a solitary, gleaming pearl, she leaves you breathless. Poised, King’s face is an altar. Her charm lies in her guardedness, and her guardedness is part of her charm. It’s a very Capricorn way of being.
It must be said that Shonda Rhimes, too, is a Capricorn. Rhimes is a Capricorn in the way Michelle Obama is a Capricorn—they really get the job done. That’s one thing Capricorns are known for, and it’s a trait that’s evident in what I consider the ultimate in fictional Capricorns: Michaela Pratt, King’s character in How to Get Away with Murder. That show—a Shondaland production—is what brought King’s career to a place of widespread acclaim, due to her deft handling of a complicated character, one who is cold, calculated, and blunt, yet also desperately earnest, compressed with compassion. As a person, King leans toward the latter qualities. When she talks, her features come alive, springing to action. Coldness is almost exempt from her personality; instead, there is a vulnerability that feels porous. Perhaps that’s why King enjoys playing Michaela, she gets to experience the sadistic reverie you get when you channel your opposite, and has a chance to explore a type of emotional masochism. But, as King explained to me, playing Michaela is also about finding space, letting the minutiae of ugliness take over, all in an effort to create a very real and very relatable pastiche of a young woman in constant, untenable crisis. The specificity which King brings to the part is the reason I sometimes get anxiety watching HTGAWM, the thump of my heart is one the characters surely feel themselves. We are all in constant disarray, fighting through melancholy.
King explained that, beneath Michaela’s frosty exterior, is a turmoil-filled young woman: “I remember when I first started with her, she was way more aggressively mean, and sort of snotty... [Then] there was this whole turn where she was trying to hold onto that, but she was also cracking underneath and trying to hold that together.” The whole array of human emotions plays on King’s face throughout the series, she can manipulate a seductive twinkle into a terse and judgmental read in the blink of an eye. But King’s relationship with her castmates couldn’t be less like the ones Michaela has with her coworkers. Jack Falahee, who plays Connor, a frequent foil of Michaela’s, said via email, “When I met the HTGAWM cast we all hit it off immediately. Over the years we’ve really grown as a family, and Aja has been integral to that growth. She remembers everyone’s birthdays, plans all of our cast outings, and is generally our number one cheerleader on set.”
Perhaps it is due to King’s own irrepressible charm that, over the seasons, Michaela has become more likable—though her high-strung nature has never fully dulled. There is little doubt that King’s ability to humanize the frantic craze that is Michaela, and perfectly oscillate between feelings of incredible fear, manipulative frustration, and a need to hold everything together, contributed to making Michaela feel real. She’s not just an austere and snotty archetype, but a smart woman who is tired of having to say, I told you so. It’s a Capricorn flex, and it’s one only King could pull off.
We watch Michaela, forced to contend with her ambition and with her heart—including while she dates a white man (he obsessively tries to please her, she remains mostly bored by him)—and, through it all, King makes clear that Michaela is still full of tenderness, a soft, agile young woman, even under the veneer of all that pointedness.