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Ajiona Alexus is getting resettled at home in Los Angeles after a weekend trip to Atlanta. “I went to visit my family; my mom and dad live in Atlanta,” she tells me over the phone. “We went to work out a little and went skating, and went to a basketball game to support a friend there. So yeah, it was nice.”
Her recap is so surprisingly run-of-the-mill that, for a second, I forget the 22-year-old has worked on Hollywood film sets and walked red carpets (most recently, at the MTV Movie & TV Awards). I forget about the 2 million Instagram followers probably blowing up her phone with likes and comments as we speak. All I can picture is Alexus wearing athletic gear, casually cheering on a friend from the stands—just a down-to-earth girl who happens to be one of this year’s biggest breakout stars.
Though she’s recently gained global attention for her role as Sheri Holland on the Selena Gomez-produced Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, the Birmingham, Ala.-raised beauty has managed to stay completely authentic—something she credits to her Southern upbringing. “I’m so blessed to have grown up with a better foundation, and the foundation of a Southern girl because it gives you a different outlook on life,” she says. “It gives you a different way of doing work and makes you more grounded for cities like L.A.”
Alexus established a solid work ethic at an early age. When she wasn’t juggling classes at the prestigious Alabama School of Fine Arts, she was traveling with her father to Atlanta to go on auditions, ultimately landing a part on the TVOne sitcom The Rickey Smiley Show when she was 16 years old. “For me, Atlanta was always a hustle city, and it was all about me working 24/7,” Alexus says. But she’s quick to point out how formative those years were for her career. “When I first moved to Atlanta, it’s like you’re trying to pave your own way and make things happen for yourself, and everyone already has their cliques, their teams or whatever it is—but it’s up to you to know your worth and what you’re capable of, and bring it to the table and create that own lane until people start to believe it.”
She hasn’t stopped hustling since. After three seasons of The Rickey Smiley Show, Alexus packed her bags and moved to California, where she began booking roles on popular dramas like Grey’s Anatomy and Code Black. In 2016, she joined the cast of Fox’s smash-hit Empire, playing the teenage version of Taraji P. Henson’s iconic character, Cookie Lyon. Opportunities to perform on the big screen came too, including a chance to portray young Henson—again—in Tyler Perry’s 2018 psychological thriller, Acrimony. “It was filmed at Tyler Perry Studios, right in the A,” Alexus says of her time on set. “We filmed it in three or four days. [Perry] moves at a very fast pace, and you have to bring your highest quality work in such a quick amount of time.”
In addition to Perry, Alexus has learned a great deal from A-lister Gabrielle Union, her co-star in the recent drama Breaking In produced by Atlantan Will Packer. (I ask Alexus if she’s often told that she looks like Union, to which she humbly responds, “You know, I didn’t think so at first, but I guess I’m starting to see it a little!”) But it isn’t just their physical similarities that bond them: “I love Gab. She’s like a real big sister to me. We talk all the time,” Alexus reveals. “She’s the type of woman who’s creating and opening lanes for young African-American females in this industry, so I definitely appreciate her for that.”
Alexus is now cruising in her own lane, with not only two movies out this year, but also the return of the superpopular series 13 Reasons Why. The second season premiered to a staggering 6.1 million viewers. “It’s really amazing because we were very curious to see how the crowd was going to take it, considering that season one was so strong,” she says. “I think they did a very good job making season two what it is and building off the situations from season one because it was so powerful.”
The millennial-loved show, based on the 2007 novel by Jay Asher, is centered around the tragic suicide of high school student Hannah Baker, who leaves behind a set of recordings that detail the 13 reasons why she ended her life. Alexus plays Sheri, a sweet, popular cheerleader whose inadvertent actions following a party one night result in the death of a classmate, landing her on one of Hannah’s cassette tapes—and, ultimately, in juvenile detention.
In season two, the audience encounters a new, evolved Sheri, one with the courage and strength to own up to her wrongdoings. “I feel like my character has grown the most between the two seasons,” Alexus shares. “She is all about helping others and getting justice—doing what’s right in this world.” As such, Sheri becomes a voice of reason for the other students dealing with the aftermath of Hannah’s death. “I think it’s very important to have a character like that, who’s kind of that backbone for everyone else who is still all over the place and still worried about hiding the truth,” she says.
The controversial series has been both praised and criticized for its coverage of dark topics like bullying, sexual assault and mental health, especially in light of the recent suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. When asked what she hopes viewers will take away from the episodes, Alexus answers thoughtfully. “I think the only way to really help people in today’s society is to shed light on the issues and not hide them. I think this show does a really great job of that,” she says. “Because in reality, kids have to go through this and adults go through this, and there needs to be a solution. You have to start somewhere.” Alexus even uses her role as a platform to support anti-bullying causes and to volunteer with Girls Inc., a nonprofit that advocates for and empowers young girls.
Next up, the actress will be seen in Hulu’s 10-episode horror series Light as a Feather, which is currently in production in L.A. “We’re doing a lot of night scenes, so it’s been a little challenging shooting from 9pm to 5am, but it’s really fun,” she says. Despite her jampacked filming schedule, the versatile Alexus has also made time to pursue one of her greatest passions: singing. This summer she dropped her first single, a playful pop-R&B track called “Baggage,” with more songs off her debut album on the way. “Music has always been something dear to my heart,” gushes Alexus, who was born into a family of musicians and cites performers like Beyoncé and Michael Jackson as her greatest inspirations. But why now? “I think it was just a matter of the acting took off more than the music, but music has always been right there,” she explains. “I always write a lot, and I’ve been growing vocally, so I’m really excited for people to see another side of me.”
Alexus will inevitably be back to Atlanta again soon, perhaps for another basketball game—but, with her future burning brighter than ever, that’s the only place you’ll find her standing on the sideline. “Something that I’ve learned is no matter where you are in your career, you always have more to do and more to accomplish,” she says with the wisdom of someone twice her age. “There’s always so much more to be done in this world than just where you are right now.” @ajionaalexus