Nika King Talks Euphoria Season 2 and Her Hopes For Leslie
Nika King Is on Board With a Leslie and Ali Romance on "Euphoria"
Image Source: HBO
Emmy-worthy performances abound in season two of "Euphoria," but Nika King's portrayal of Leslie Bennett is a particular standout. As the mother of Rue and Gia Bennett (Zendaya and Storm Reid, respectively), Leslie has her hands full in the HBO show's second installment: in addition to supporting Rue though drug addiction, she juggles protecting Gia as their family threatens to crumble and coping with high-functioning depression. And she's doing it all on her own following the death of her husband.
King brings a nuanced approach to playing the mom of a relapsing teen — in some scenes, she's delicate and patient, and others, fierce and unflinching. "You layer your own personal experiences with imagination, with what-ifs, and you create this conglomerate of emotions that is only going to feed the character," she tells POPSUGAR.
However, the actor and stand-up comedian knows not everyone agrees with Leslie's parenting tactics, especially after the episode seven scene in which she matter-of-factly tells Rue, "You wanna kill yourself doing drugs? Go ahead. I'm not gonna stand in your way. . . . If I have to choose between losing one daughter or two, I'm gonna fight to save her." Seemingly responding to backlash online, King tweeted, "Leslie is a mom but she's also a person with another child to worry about. On top of her own mental health." She also spoke out last month after noticing concerned fans flooding her DMs about Rue's drug use. "I am an actor. This is a tv show. Y'all stay outta my DMs snitching," she wrote on Instagram Stories.
Season two puts Leslie through some intense situations. It's not an exaggeration to say sh*t hits the fan in episode five when she stages an at-home intervention for Rue with Jules (Hunter Schafer) and Elliot (Dominic Fike). Rue destroys parts of their house after finding out her drug stash has been discarded and later flees on foot while en route to rehab. But verbally and psychically fighting with Zendaya wasn't even the hardest part for King to film — it was Leslie's very last line of that episode that challenged her the most. "I only have one line, and it's just 'Rue,'" she tells us. "I have to have a heaviness and a weight on me that is not just me coming out of the trailer and saying one line. I looked at the totality of that episode and what she was doing up until that moment. I had to really go there and think worst-case scenarios."
King had plenty more inside scoop to reveal when we caught up with her ahead of the "Euphoria" season finale. Below, we discuss her tight bond with Zendaya and Reid, what inspires her to dig deeper while filming tough scenes, her thoughts about a potential Ali (Colman Domingo) romance (hint: she's also on board!), and what she wants to see next for Leslie.
POPSUGAR: Your background is mostly in comedy, and "Euphoria" is practically the complete opposite of that. What was that transition like for you?
Nika King: I have a theater degree from the University of Florida, so I've always been auditioning for dramas, but "Euphoria" was the project that I was actually able to consistently do drama. The transition, I wouldn't say it was hard, but it definitely required a different skill set that I wasn't used to using, so I had to pull from different places and really just had to allow myself to go there and not be worried about what people are going to say, what they're going to think. So I just had to release it and just do all the work that I've practiced and just go for it.
PS: What did you learn from past acting roles that helped you in your role on "Euphoria"?
NK: Leslie is very different than any character I've ever played. I literally just posted about when I was on "Hannah Montana," like, umpteen years ago. I played a cheer coach, so I was very animated, very boisterous, and then you have Leslie, totally opposite. Very subdued, almost too subdued in most people's perspective because she doesn't react like people think she should. But I think it's just a matter of knowing who the characters are and giving them personality traits that I myself don't have. I have to create this new human being based on my experiences and based on maybe someone I know or look up to. It was fun crafting Leslie as Rue's mom.
"[Zendaya and Storm Reid] are like family to me."
PS: Tell us about your relationship with Zendaya and Storm Reid. Do you three keep in touch even when you're not filming together?
NK: The girls are like family to me. When we're on set, we're doing a lot of laughing, joking, trying to convince them to do TikToks with me. They never do. They call me old. They tell me to sit down. I'm like, "No, I want to learn how to do TikTok." It's like they're actually my relatives in the sense of I can always come to them, they can always come to me. We have a very open relationship, and I value that because you don't get that a lot when you're working. Sometimes you just work, you do your job, and then you leave and never talk to the other actors.
Image Source: Getty / Jeff Kravitz
PS: You three have some pretty intense scenes this season, especially in the intervention episode. Take us inside your head when you're preparing to film those high-stress parts.
NK: When I got to the scene, I was reading Cicely Tyson's autobiography. I read a part where, when she gets into her costume, she's in character and not Cicely anymore. I attempted to do that with Leslie. It's hard because everybody knows I'm a jokester, so I think the first time I did it, people stayed away because I was so quiet and in my head and just off to the side, so people knew: don't mess with Nika, she's getting ready.
I knew it was going to be difficult. It was going to be a lot of physicality. When you're in those moments, you have to remember your lines, you have to remember your blocking, you have to remember that you're dealing with other actors. The preparation just comes with me, just sitting by myself meditating, because when they say "action," you can't be like, "OK, give me a second, hold on." No, you got to be ready to go. You have to stay there because you never know how long it's going to take. I just try to keep my mind space on my main objective, which is to make sure that Rue stays clean and stays sober.
PS: You mentioned the physicality of some scenes and how filming days can be long. What is fueling you to continue digging deeper on those set days?
NK: My personal experiences from my childhood definitely fuel me to keep going. I want to tell Leslie's story, and I don't want to get in the way of that as the actor. It's almost like playing a sport: you keep going until the game is over, and you're going to be tired. Of course, some takes are not good takes, for whatever reason, but that's the magic of filmmaking. You get to edit and pull all the pieces together, and you know when to deliver your moments, you know when the camera is on you — which was difficult for the fighting scene because it was on handheld, so you kind of really didn't know where the camera landed on you. You had to always be in the moment and in the character, but you just push through. Sam [Levinson] has a great way of understanding, "OK, let's take 15, and everybody reset." It's definitely an unspoken trust between the actors and the crew.
PS: We can't imagine having to be in that headspace as Leslie for hours and days on end. It sounds so draining.
NK: It's draining, but at the end of the day, it's rewarding. It doesn't last forever. It's a moment in time. The beautiful thing is the DMs and emails that I get from people who have been through addiction, who have been a mother dealing with a kid with addiction — that definitely makes it all worth it.
PS: Do you, Zendaya, and Storm have any kind of rituals that you do between takes to reset, especially while filming those fighting scenes?
NK: Not really. We don't talk about what we're going to do. It's literally sporadic in that we know what the scene is about and we know the end objective, so we go after that. My objective is different from Stormy and Z. They have their own thing; they've done their own prep. I like it that way because it keeps things fresh.
PS: For those scenes in the house where you three are really going at it, everyone's yelling, and Rue is throwing stuff everywhere, how much is improvised vs. preplanned by Sam Levinson?
NK: Nothing is really preplanned in regards to the fighting. I know growing up, having a Black mom, I've heard her say multiple times, "I've raised you." So when I said that line, I was just thinking about the things that my mom said to me as a teenager. . . . I think we all go on our gut feelings. So far it's been pretty amazing and accurate.
"You layer your own personal experiences with imagination, with what-ifs, and you create this conglomerate of emotions that is only going to feed the character."
PS: In season two, Leslie is pulled in so many different directions. On one hand, she's trying to help Rue battle her addiction, but she also has to comfort Gia and be there for her, and she's doing it all on her own because her husband has passed away. How exactly do you layer those very complex emotions and objectives while performing?
NK: For me, I just like to take a page out of any mother's book. I don't have kids, but I have nieces and nephews, and I could only imagine if one of them needed my help and I wasn't there to help, or they were going through something and didn't want me to be a part of it. You layer your own personal experiences with imagination, with what-ifs, and you create this conglomerate of emotions that is only going to feed the character. Some of the stuff that Leslie does and say, I wouldn't have done, but I had to put my personal feelings aside and do what I think Leslie would have done in those moments.
PS: That actually leads perfectly to another question: in what ways are you similar to and different from Leslie?
NK: I think I'm similar in that I have a big heart. I'm an empath. I take on people's problems and internalize them, which can be good sometimes and other times, not so good. You really have to know how to separate and when to detach. When it comes to being different, I think Rue would've gotten put into a chokehold. I hate to say that, but I know me. It's probably not the best way to respond, but I'm being real.
Image Source: HBO
PS: What was the hardest scene to film in season two and why?
NK: The hardest scene for me was the ending of episode five. I only have one line, and it's just "Rue," but in between me doing my scene, I had time to go back to my trailer. I was just sitting, you start going on your phone, watching TV, listening to music, so I'm not in my character. They usually give us warnings like, "Hey, we're about 15, 20 minutes out." So once I got my warning, I had to realize that I've been looking for [Rue] all night. I have to have a heaviness and a weight on me that is not just me coming out of the trailer and saying one line. I looked at the totality of that episode and what she was doing up until that moment. I had to really go there and think worst-case scenarios, and I just remember putting my head down on the table until Sam said "action," and I just let all the emotions rush to my head to do the scene. It was difficult in that I had to think of the worst-case scenario, which for me is thinking about something bad happening to someone that I really love.
PS: So to get in that mindset, you were imagining people you know personally in bad situations?
NK: Oh yeah, I had to because it had to feel real to me. I know that I'm Leslie and Leslie is in a scene with Rue, but my body doesn't know that. It needs have something to attach to in that moment.
PS: You recently tweeted about how there's a lot of darkness in season two, but there are these glimmers of hope and light. What are those glimmers in season two for you?
NK: Those glimmers for me are Ali coming into the picture, coming to make dinner for us, Rue being clean, her coming back home, Gia staying home. She could be running away, she could be doing her own thing and acting out. I have to find those moments when my family is together because it gives me hope. The most important thing for me in my life is my family. I know what it's like for everybody to be in the house, eating dinner, listening to music, having fun. Those are memories that you have to carve out for yourself. For season two, I think holding onto that is my hope. I hope for season three, we get more of that.
I like to say that darkness is just the absence of light. Even though the show is dark, you do have those glimmers. You see those moments in season two. I want the audience to not focus on the darkness, but just see the hope and the light in each episode#ELLEAustralia— iamnikaking (@iamnikaking) February 7, 2022
PS: You mentioned Ali, and lots of fans are hoping to see Leslie and him have a romantic connection. What are your thoughts on that?
NK: First and foremost, I love Colman [Domingo]. He's a beautiful person. We have a lot of fun when we're together on set. I think Ali and Leslie, they look good together. I think she needs a man in the house to set some boundaries, and he knows where she's coming from. People are vibing them together. Hey, I love love, especially Black love, so we'll see.
PS: Some "Euphoria" fans have criticized Leslie a bit for slightly turning a blind eye to Rue's addiction. What would you like to say to those fans?
NK: I think they know now, especially with episodes five and six being out, that Leslie has to protect some kind of peace that she's holding onto. It doesn't look good, especially when it's being watched by people who have their own interpretations of what a mother should do and based on their own mother's history. People were like, "My mom would've took the door off the hinges." And people have their own experiences, so seeing Leslie just sit there and talk on the phone, people automatically thought that she didn't care.
I think it's more about her having high-functioning depression. I know that term has been tossed around a lot lately because people who you think have it all together, they're taking their lives because they're operating at very high, high levels. So I think that's in those moments when we see her just be oblivious to certain things, just to keep something in the tank and not be completely depleted.
Image Source: HBO
"We want to show the realness of addiction and what it does. It's not glorifying addiction."
PS: What do you hope viewers learn or take away from watching season two?
NK: I want people to take away the fact that even though life is hard — you're going through some tough sh*t, you've made bad decisions, you've hurt people who you love — the story that "Euphoria" is bringing to light is that you're going to mess up, but we want you to not go this way. We want to show the realness of addiction and what it does. It's not glorifying addiction. It's basically showing kids and showing anybody, this is not the road you want to take. Even just showing Rue in episode five go through this, running and hurting people and stealing, that's just a slice of addiction. I think we can even go deeper; I want to see her hit rock, rock, rock, rock bottom. Because I think people and especially kids, they need to know: don't do drugs. For real.
PS: Is there anything that you want parents in particular to learn from watching Leslie in action?
NK: That's a good question because we often forget about the parents. This season, we definitely highlighted the moms and what they're going through and how they're responding to the trauma and the hurt and the pain that they're having to deal with. Once again, I'm not a parent — I know sometimes parents don't like to take advice from people who aren't parents, so I tread lightly — but I have nieces and nephews, and I'm always having conversations with them. I don't care if it makes them embarrassed, if it's awkward, but I'm always asking questions, almost to the point of being nosy, because I want them to understand that this relationship I have with them is always open. As a parent, you need to express that to your kid.
PS: What do you hope to see next for Leslie in season three?
NK: I want Leslie to get a new car. I want her to get a new wardrobe. [*Laughs*] I just want to see her happy and loved and appreciated. I think sometimes, with everything that's happening in the episodes, she probably feels like she's not loved by her kids or maybe it's her fault that Rue is on drugs. I just want her to have a sense that ultimately everything is going to work itself out. Introducing her as a believer, I think that sets the tone of who she is as a person, and in the episode Rue mentioned that she was very forgiving. We just want to see her have some moments of pure joy and pure happiness. I think it would make it all worth it.
The season finale of "Euphoria" airs on Feb. 27 at 9 p.m. EST on HBO and HBO Max.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.