The pressures of the entertainment industry can be overwhelming for most Gen Zers, whether it’s meeting Hollywood’s box office expectations or failing to create a viral moment. But these standards barely faze Jayme Lawson. Despite already notching multiple critically acclaimed films on her belt, the 24-year-old actor’s ultimate goal is to spark change.
Lawson has quickly proven her on-screen presence isn’t fleeting, most recently appearing as mayoral candidate Bella Reál in The Batman, which is, at the time of this writing, the highest-grossing film of 2022. She will also portray a young Michelle Obama in Showtime’s The First Lady anthology TV drama (premiering April 17), starring alongside industry veterans like Viola Davis, Michelle Pfeiffer and Gillian Anderson.
“I look at it as just doing my job. [These roles] are just the material that I always gravitated to,” Lawson tells me, about not feeling the weight of responsibilities that a “big break” could carry. “So to then see how everything is unfolding, which is completely outside of my control, genuinely humbles me. I’m truly blessed and thankful that this is my experience.”
A Washington, D.C. native, Lawson was inspired by her hometown’s culture—a liveliness inherent in everything from its go-go music to political activism—and watching classic sitcoms like The Cosby Show and I Love Lucy. The acting bug officially latched on when her mother signed her up for a two-week intensive summer theater program, The Theatre Lab, where the naturally shy girl had an opportunity to break out of her shell.
From there, the actor attended the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, where she later returned to teach students at the height of the pandemic. Not long after she received her graduation diploma in May 2019, from New York’s prestigious Juilliard School, Lawson scored her first role as an Angolan immigrant named Sylvia in Farewell Amor, which was a Sundance Film Festival favorite in 2020.
It’s clear that acting fuels Lawson in deeper ways, as she intentionally chooses roles—such as her defiant character in The Batman, modeled after politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—that aim to give young women of color agency. It’s a mission she’s been working on since putting on In the Red and Brown Water, a play written by Tarell Alvin McCraney during her sophomore year at Juilliard.
“James Baldwin describes it as a sense of paranoia when your experiences are not being voiced. I find that plagues a lot of different communities that often are misrepresented or not represented at all,” Lawson says. “Part of the reason why I love acting is I can help cure that a little bit by having somebody see themselves being reflected. It became very clear to me that the work I do is for my mother, my sister, my niece and younger me. When I’m auditioning for roles, I’ll ask myself, ‘Does this character serve any of them?’ If not, then I will gladly say no. And if there’s room to better curate the role so that it does speak to young Black and brown girls and women, then I will engage in that way.”
The actor’s confidence is reflected in her portrayal of a pre-White House Michelle Obama in The First Lady. There’s a certain grace, poise and a bit of sassiness that we know and love from the beloved advocate. But Lawson’s Michelle Obama is more curious and carefree. “Curious is such a great word. I wish I would’ve heard that before. I read her book and watched a documentary and all these interviews to begin to shape the young woman before the icon,” Lawson says. “I had a lot of fun crafting this version of her.”
Lawson has the rest of 2022 all laid out: she reunites with Viola Davis in The Woman King (in theaters on September 16) and will play American civil rights activist and journalist Myrlie Evers-Williams in the biographical drama Till (set for an October 7 release). As her plate continues to fill up, she’s maintaining a balance.
“It is easy when doing these roles to get swept up in the world of the character. So I try to find things that really center me: the prayer life that I have, meditation, doing acts of service in my church and being around my family,” Lawson explains. “When I’m not Jayme the actor or the performer, but Jayme the daughter, the sister, the auntie. That helps me remember that life is not about me.”