Jermaine Fowler was born to be in Coming 2 America
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Jermaine Fowler doesn't remember a world without Coming to America. The 32-year-old actor and comedian was born only one month before Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall became film royalty with the release of director John Landis' 1988 comedy classic. Now, in the biggest role of his career, he's being crowned the new prince of Zamunda in the long-awaited Coming 2 America.
"I always felt like Coming to America is a Black fairy tale, and we don't get a lot of Black fairy tales," says Fowler, best known for starring in Sorry to Bother You and the CBS sitcom Superior Donuts. "Eddie Murphy Raw was the reason I wanted to be a standup comedian, and then Eddie was the reason why I wanted to transition into acting. He's been a huge inspiration for me. All of this is really surreal."
While the original film found Akeem (Murphy) and Semmi (Hall) as the fish out of water in New York, director Craig Brewer's film finds Fowler filling that position, starring as the Queens-born son Akeem never knew he had. "Lavelle didn't have much growing up, sort of the type of guy who just made what he had work, and the things he had were very minimal," says Fowler, who reveals that most of Coming 2 America takes place in Zamunda. "So when he finds out that he is the heir to a wealthy throne in Africa, this chip on his shoulder kind of just rolls right off and he's ready to finally take it all in and enjoy the good life that he's been denied for so long."
Joining Lavelle in the embrace of his new and improved journey are his mother (Leslie Jones) and uncle (Tracy Morgan). "Leslie and Tracy are perfect together," Fowler says of his SNL alum costars. "I wish they really were my aunt and uncle. It's almost like we were related at some point. We probably have more takes on the cutting room floor than we have scenes that got printed, because we were just having too much fun."
The only thing Fowler might enjoy more than working alongside Jones and Morgan is telling the story of how he became Lavelle. "I'm laughing because it's still crazy," he says, perking up. "My first audition, Craig and I just sat in a room and talked about barbecue for 45 minutes. At one point we said goodbye to each other and then we went, 'Oh, wait, we've got an audition.'" Fowler eventually left, certain that he'd one day work with the Hustle & Flow filmmaker, but doubtful that he'd be headed to Zamunda, which is why he was so blown away to get a callback. His first thought: "I don't know if I can talk about barbecue for another 45 minutes."
He returned for what Brewer described to him as a "workshop" with producers, only Fowler didn't know how to react when there was no actual workshopping. "I did the [first] scene the way I wanted to do it, and he goes, 'Next scene,' and I was like, 'What the f---? You ain't gonna give me any notes or thoughts?'" Fowler recalls. "We did the next scene and I messed up the first line, and right there I was like, 'I'm done, I ain't got this.' I did the scene again and they said, 'All right, thanks, Jermaine.' Craig stood up and he said, 'I just want you to know it's very rare that an actor gives you everything that you want in the first take.' And I went, 'Ohhhhh, okay.' [Laughs] I was just very flattered and flustered and I didn't want to ruin the moment, so I was like, 'I'm going to get the f--- out of here,' and I ran out of the joint. It was really emotional; I was just real thankful about how much the original movie meant to me and that they enjoyed my audition."
Despite the high praise, Fowler's mentality was still that just that opportunity was enough, telling himself, "Cool, I made my mark and I've got to move on to the next thing." And that is why he was so surprised the next day to get an out-of-the-blue text from his Sorry to Bother You director, Boots Riley. "He's like, 'Look, man, I want to let you know that you're going to have some good news coming your way,'" says Fowler in his best Riley impersonation. "I was like, 'What are you talking about? I got a new baby on the way?!'" According to Riley, word of Fowler's audition had spread around the festival he was at. "I'm not sure what happened, but apparently Boots knew I got the movie before anybody else did. And he said, 'But don't tell nobody I told you.' So I kind of had to pretend my managers and agents at the time were breaking the news first. When they told me, they were like, 'Jermaine, we got some good news!' And I was like, 'Aw shucks!'"
After that life-changing text, Fowler felt like the hard part was over, believing he was well-equipped with his familiarity with Murphy and the original film. "I wasn't really too nervous doing scenes with my hero," he admits. "I think all you can do in that situation is be prepared. I'm 32, I've been doing this for about 15 years and just kind of felt ready and more than prepared. I felt this is the perfect time to showcase who I am, what I do, what I love to do, and what I have. And that's all that mattered to me, to be honest with you. I was super-eager to just get on set and rock out. I was super-hungry."
And audiences will soon have an appetite for Fowler, who is set to be a streaming king in early 2021. Weeks before Coming 2 America arrives on Amazon Prime Video (March 5), the comedian will make a dramatic turn in another highly anticipated film, Judas and the Black Messiah (Feb. 12 in theaters and on HBO Max).
"I've always wanted to show my range as a performer, and I think this is the perfect showcase of that," he says of starring opposite Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield in the buzzy Oscar contender. "On Coming 2 America it was cool to work with current legends, and on Judas and the Black Messiah it was great to work with future legends. That's a really good feeling."
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