Jayme Lawson has had the kind of blockbuster start that many can only dream of. She stars alongside Robert Pattinson in The Batman, in theaters this weekend, in what will be only her second feature-film role ever. Later this year she’ll portray a young Michelle Obama in her first-ever television performance, for Susanne Bier’s The First Lady, on Showtime.
For the 24-year-old Lawson, it’s been a whirlwind.
“I don’t know what I feel,” she tells me from her apartment, in Brooklyn. “A majority of what I feel is grateful. It’s too much to actually process.”
Lawson moved around the East Coast growing up. Her parents worked as ministers at non-denominational churches, and her upbringing was defined as being a “P.K.”—a preacher’s kid. “I attribute my relationship to text and ‘performance’ to the church and [my parents], because they knew how to use language to affect a community,” she says. “They knew how to go and dig through text and make it come alive off of a page.”
When Lawson was eight, she was watching TV with her mother when she looked over and said, “I could do that.” Lawson had never acted before or expressed any interest in it, but her mother didn’t blink. “She heard that and ran with it,” Lawson says.
She enrolled in a summer theater-camp program and began falling in love with the craft. Lawson jokes that her mother became a “momager,” signing her up for dance, singing, and piano classes while also researching acting programs and scholarships across the country. Acting is what stuck.
Lawson later attended the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, in Washington, D.C., whose alumni include actors and comedians such as Samira Wiley and Dave Chappelle. It was during this time that she started to take her acting ambitions seriously—while also realizing the potential for art to be a form of activism.
Lawson was a high-school freshman when Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teenager, was murdered, in 2012. Martin had been profiled and shot by an armed neighborhood-watch volunteer while on his way home from a convenience store, where he had purchased Skittles and iced tea. His death sparked demonstrations across the country and calls for police reform.
In response to the killing, Duke Ellington’s principal organized a student protest, instructing them to wear hoodies to school the next day—the same thing Martin was wearing when he died—while carrying their favorite candy. That day, which saw students and faculty marching through the Georgetown neighborhood, marked a turning point for Lawson.
“That moment, I was like, Oh, being an actor is more than just playing dress-up or make-believe. Being an artist … there is a responsibility to it,” Lawson says. “Growing up where my parents taught and preached and lived this idea of having a purpose and being responsible with a platform, it just made sense…. This is really why I am supposed to do this.”
After Duke Ellington, Lawson studied acting at Juilliard. Upon graduating, in 2019, she was cast in the Off Broadway production of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf, at New York’s Public Theater. Around the same time, offers for other major roles in studio projects began rolling in.
“Off the bat, I had to make a really tough decision: Am I going to chase the money or am I going to chase the art?” she says. For a rookie actor with rent to pay, it was a daunting choice. She went “with the art, where my heart is,” she says. For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf was one of the first plays she had ever read.
During the opening week of the production, Lawson found out she had been cast in The Batman. “It felt rewarding,” she says. “It felt like this is the reward buried underground for sacrifice.”
The Batman is in theaters now
Jacob Robbins is an Associate Editor for AIR MAIL