One of the sickest elements of How to Get Away With Murder has been the way it introduced several fresh-faced, overachieving law students and with each passing season has broken them down into quivering piles of neuroses. No character has seen a more dramatic arc than Aja Naomi King’s Michaela, whom we first met as a (seemingly) wealthy debutante bent on cold-hearted world domination. But ever since a family friend cryptically referred to Michaela as “swamp trash,” we’ve been led to wonder where exactly Michaela came from, and why she’s been so desperate to keep her past private all these years.
This season we’re finally digging into what makes this princess tick, and the biggest clue yet was the unexpected casting of ’90s sitcom luminary Brett Butler as her adoptive mother. This week we chatted with King about Michaela’s increasing sense of humanity, as well as what exactly it’s like making out with co-star Matt McGorry all the time.
How did you react when you found out your mother would be played by Brett Butler?
Oh my gosh, I was so excited that she was going to come play my mom. [Executive Producer] Pete [Nowalk] and I had been talking about Michaela’s adoptive parents being a different race and what kind of environment she comes from, and the casting of Brett just opens it so wide. Oh my God, this was the upbringing Michaela didn’t want to talk about. So I thought that was really perfect casting, and Brett was really awesome to work with.
She’s had sort of a mysterious life since Grace Under Fire. What is she like in person?
She is hilarious. She’s really funny and just so nice. Like, she does a really great job of connecting with me and asking questions. Because there’s a lot of information to know on this show… I have been lucky enough to have been having conversations with Pete about my storyline for years now. But to explain it all to a newcomer, it’s like, “OK…” [laughs].
It’s Season 3, and we’re FINALLY learning about Michaela’s background. How detailed has your knowledge of her backstory been this whole time?
Well, I’ve always had a very specific idea, and there are certain things I’ve even pitched to Pete… I’ve known from the beginning that Michaela was adopted before she ever shared that with the group. I knew there wasn’t a great family life growing up, and I created more specifics for myself in playing her, and how it seeped into her admiration of Annalise all this time. But now that Brett’s playing my mom, it’s going to be a very complicated relationship and we’ll expose a lot about who Michaela is and just why she has continued to try so hard to build up this façade in order to survive.
Michaela began as a very uptight overachiever, but this season she’s loosening up and getting in people’s faces and sleeping around, even getting mediocre grades. To me that was the most shocking reveal, the bad grades —
Which aspect of her journey has been the most fun for you to play?
I think this is kind of something I’ve been slowly building season to season, but I feel like we’ve really firmed up the idea that Michaela has a temper. Like, she runs hot and if you piss her off, she’s gonna explode. We got to see that with her interaction with Simon Drake, and I think that’s just something that happens to her naturally where she can’t contain herself, especially if someone’s making assumptions about who she is as a person. So that’s been really fun for me to play into because normally she is like so… She’s poised and put together, and this season has been kind of unraveling.
I don’t think anyone expected her relationship with Asher to get to this level, but suddenly it’s the most reliable romance on the show. Do you feel like it’s something that has staying power, or should we expect heartache soon?
Well, you know with this show you never know what’s going to happen. I try to not assume that… What’s that line? “Nothing gold can stay.” [laughs] But I’m just happy for Michaela and Asher in this moment in time, that they got to a place where they’re each like, “I like you.” And understanding just how badly the both of them need something like that. Amid all this chaos and mess, to just be able to be around someone and you don’t have to hide who you are. That’s just really necessary for the both of them, especially right now, since they both feel like they’re falling so short of what their original aim was in going to law school.
A little bit more murder than they expected.
Yeah, just a touch. [laughs]
What’s it like for you and Matt McGorry to have to make out in pretty much every episode?
For me, actually, because Matt is such a great friend, it’s great. It’s like, this is my buddy and we can be like, “Oh yeah, let’s do this, let’s roll around this way,” you know? It just makes it supersimple. It gets a little awkward when it’s a stranger that you don’t talk to every day and being like, [in meek voice] “OK, what do you feel comfortable with? Um, OK, is it OK if I do this? How’s that?” But with me and Matt, it’s like, “All right, it’s my friend, whatever.” [laughs]
When I talked to you during Season 1, you joked that acting opposite Viola Davis was slightly terrifying. Have you gotten used to it yet?
Now I have gotten more used to her, which is testament to her, because she is such an open and wonderful and hilarious person. Like, Viola’s ridiculous. She is really funny. And she really does put you at ease, because she’s so silly. And it’s great to get to do a scene with her because we can really dive in, but then someone calls “cut” and God knows who’s gonna start singing a song, or she starts dancing. And it’s all just a good time. So I no longer have any fears or concerns. [laughs] I’m just having fun! Especially with her.
It’s probably important to cut loose on such a dark show.
Yeah. It is a really dark show, and we’re constantly having way too much fun with each other. I mean, there is some stuff coming up, and when you see it you will know there was no joking that day. There are some really, really, really dark moments that happen, and we respect everyone’s process about how they need to get there. But other than that, it’s a free-for-all. We’re having a good time.
How to Get Away With Murder airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. on ABC. Watch clips and full episodes of HTGAWM for free at Yahoo View.