Nika King Gets Personal, Unpacks Her 'Dream Role' on HBO's 'Euphoria'

The 'Euphoria' star talks Leslie and Rue's fight in Season 2, how parents can help kids with addiction and her experience with addiction in her family.

Nika King as Leslie Bennett in Euphoria

Image via HBO

Nika King as Leslie Bennett in Euphoria

Euphoria’s teenagers are the core of the show. But their parents are orbiting closely around them, becoming integral parts of the story as well. Actress Nika King plays Rue and Gia’s mom, Leslie Bennett—a woman who is grieving the loss of her husband while also supporting her daughter through drug addiction. King’s performance on the show is remarkable. Leslie is patient, calm in the midst of chaos, but fierce and firm when it comes to protecting her children—especially against themselves. Leslie is the only adult in Rue’s life who is helping her recover and find the treatment she needs. While each of the teens’ households has its own struggles, the Bennett family has faced devastating loss and is still recovering from the trauma of Rue overdosing in Season 1. She quickly relapsed, and finally hits what seems like rock bottom in Season 2’s fifth and sixth episodes. Leslie found herself chasing her daughter around town after a violent shouting match, only to find herself being the one to welcome and care for her as she went through withdrawal when she finally came home. 

King’s chemistry with Zendaya on-screen is convincing and captivating, and accurately portrays the often complicated relationships between teen girls and their mothers. There have been debates online about whether Leslie is a bad mom or not, especially after Rue said everything was her mom’s fault in Episode 5 “Stand Still Like the Hummingbird.” “You know what’s a shame, mom? My dad’s dead,” Rue says. “Kinda keeps you from admitting what a shit mother you are.” She apologizes, and in the following episode Rue regrets her words, and instead, she marvels at her mom’s ability to forgive and care for her in spite of everything she said. The question is, is it Leslie’s duty as a mother that keeps her from giving up on Rue, or is it love and faith?

King, who is also a standup comedian from Miami, has experienced the chaos and devastation that addiction can bring into a family firsthand. She saw her mother struggle when she was younger, so part of the emotion and the reactions we see on screen are rooted in her own feelings. The actress understands the gravity of the topics the show covers and she believes that while children shouldn’t be watching the Sam Levinson-created series, parents could learn from it if they give it a chance. Complex caught up with King following the two emotionally charged episodes and she dished on working with Zendaya, what it’s like to play the mom of a teen battling addiction, her personal experience, and what she hopes for Leslie in the future.

Nika King as Leslie Bennett in Euphoria
Nika King as Leslie Bennett in Euphoria
Zendaya Euphoria

Do you hope people can understand why Leslie is being this empathetic towards her daughter or do you think it’s frustrating that people expect her to lash out?

I think after Episode 5, people have a more comprehensive outlook on Leslie, on Rue, on Gia. I think the picture is now coming into view. I think the first couple of episodes people were like, “Oh, Leslie is dumb, she’s blind. She’s needy on the phone, what is she doing? How does she not know her daughter’s on drugs?” It was a lot of that verbiage, but I think now they’re finally seeing more of this family life and how it’s affecting everyone. And I think as the season goes on, we’ll see more and more of that. And hopefully more of all of those characters being revealed in Season 3.

You’ve been open about your own family dealing with addiction and how you grew up seeing that. Can you share a little bit of your own experience? I know that’s personal.

I do stand-up comedy for a living so I get on stage to tell people my business, so it’s all good. I know those feelings of helplessness, of embarrassment, of disappointment, of hurt. I’ve experienced that as a child watching my own mother go through her addiction and getting clean and the constant fighting and domestic violence. So those things are not new to me. I hate to say that I’m happy that I went through it, but I’m glad that I was able to have something to pull from. And it resonated with people in a real way because people are like, “Yo, it felt real.” And guess what, it was real, it was coming from a real place.

Do you think that it helped with a little bit of healing and facing your own past and your own history?

Without a doubt, yes. I’m telling you, I don’t think I’ve cried this much in my entire life, but the great thing is, I grew up with a perspective that crying was weak. So I never really cried as a kid, as a teenager, in my early 20s. It wasn’t until I went to therapy when I was 27 years old and I was able to express what it is that I was feeling and my therapist telling me, “It’s OK to cry. You can cry, that’s not a bad thing.” And so I haven’t stopped crying since. It’s therapeutic, it’s a release. I don’t see it as a weakness anymore. 

Do you think that you would’ve perhaps appreciated the show when you were going through it yourself?

I would have definitely appreciated Euphoria as a young adult. Now the crazy part is, it is about kids, but some of the content isn’t kid-friendly. But I talked with my sister and my nephews, they’re 13, and they want to see the show. And I said, “Well, they can’t really see the show, but you can show them Episode 5.” And that’s what I think as parents, you can maybe take that episode and sit your kids down and watch it together and have a conversation and say, “Hey, this is the effect of drugs. This is the reality of what drugs do to your mind, your body, your families, how it makes you act out.” I think that may be a good start for families who are going through it. Because I know for me, I would have definitely wanted to see something like this so I could feel like I’m not going through this by myself.

For a lot of parents, they probably watched the show and think, “Oh, this isn’t really happening. This show is glamorizing drug use and exaggerating it.” I’ve talked to people who are younger, and they’re like, “No, this is actually happening in my high school.” 

I think times have changed with the advent of cellphones, all of the social media platforms, the pushing of sexual imagery for young girls, and a certain lifestyle for young boys. I think it is different and it may not happen to that extreme, but I think kids are being exposed to things earlier. As parents, you’ve got to wake up and pay attention because you don’t want to lose your kids to the streets or you don’t want to lose your kids to social media because you think, “It didn’t happen in my era, so it’s not happening now.” No. I have conversations with my nieces and nephews and you’d be surprised at some of the things that they know about. It’s a little uncomfortable, but at the same time, you have to break through that awkwardness and get to the real issues and have real conversations.

Zendaya Storm Reid

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