Mbatha stars as new love interest and royal barber Mirembe in Coming 2 America.
The long-anticipated sequel to Eddie Murphy’s 1988 film of nearly the same name. It’s her breakout American role, but 30-year-old Mbatha has been busy since her college days, starring in the popular South African series IsiBaya, serving as a goodwill ambassador for the U.N. refugee agency, and becoming Neutrogena’s first South African celebrity face. Recently, Mbatha sat down with Vulture to discuss all things Coming 2 America, finishing her degree late (just like her “future husband,” Drake), and bonding with co-star Jermaine Fowler at Whole Foods.
I saw you graduated from the University of Cape Town with a degree in accounting. How’d you get into acting in the first place?
I was at the University of Cape Town, and I was pursuing my Bachelor of Commerce accounting degree and after four years, I just felt so unhappy. I just felt that each day was the same as the other days, and I wasn’t fulfilled. I knew that this is not what I want to do for the rest of my life. So around July , MTV was hosting this nationwide competition, and they were looking for their next presenter. A friend of mine was like, “You need to enter this.” I was like, “No, I have no charisma. I do not want to embarrass myself. There are too many good-looking people here. No way!” And he was like, “Trust me.”
Before I knew it, I made it to the top ten in my city, then top ten in my country. And then I was like, top three, and we were on TV doing all these different challenges. Every week, I’m like, “Hey, guys! Can you vote for me? Can you vote for me?” My family’s out in the streets. Everybody going to work is like, “Hey, vote for my kid, SMS this, text this!” Anyway, I didn’t win the competition, but a casting director was watching one of the episodes and they were looking for a leading lady in a new television show on a channel that was boutique at the time because it was still starting off. And there I was!
I had failed three courses when I left university, and I was like, “I’m not going back for three courses when I have a job.” But after four or five years in the industry, I went back to Cape Town. I moved my entire life to Cape Town. I was attending class in pursuit of my Bachelor of Commerce degree in accounting, and obviously I’m attending university as Nomzamo. So on campus, I’m getting stares and people turning around. I’d be in the lecture room, and there’s 350 students in there and I’d ask a question; as soon as I’d ask a question, there were murmurs, like, “Oh wow. It speaks, it speaks!”
Could you practice accounting?
I practice it every day.
You were in Abu Dhabi with the U.N. when you got the call about Coming 2 America. What was that like?
My auditioning process and getting into the room was almost a Coming to America sort of expedition. My agent at the time was like, “You need to get into the room. You can send a self-tape, but it’s better to be in the room.” I was like, “What’s the project?” He was like, “Coming 2 America.” I was like, “Well, I’m finding a jet!” And obviously, for me, it’s so serendipitous that my first breakout role is in a movie called Coming 2 America. I pursued this dream.
How did you prepare for the role?
I definitely had to watch the [original] movie a lot of times because there’s a lot of things that I wanted to bring into the scenes between Jermaine [Fowler] and I. I definitely had my acting coaches on standby all the time. I’m like, “I want to work through the scene. Can we just chat through it?” Spending time with Jermaine — so that we can bring that chemistry and that connection to the screen and have it be organic — was so easy, because he’s such a fantastic human being. We’d literally go down to Whole Foods and chill and chat. He told me about his life; I’d tell him about my life.
Also, I allowed myself to be fully immersed in the world of America and be very curious about it because, as much as my character knows a lot about Zamunda, she’s also particularly curious about what lies beyond the borders of Zamunda. [I tried] to bring that natural feeling of curiosity, wanting to know, but also, I know who I am. She doesn’t need anybody to tell her that. Obviously, I was working out all the time. I could only eat my favorite things every other weekend because Atlanta has much to offer when it comes to food. Every Saturday, I’d be like, “Cheat day!”
What was it like working with so many high-profile actors like Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall?
I was surrounded by Hollywood royalty. I think the most amazing thing was watching how they celebrate each other, just pouring into each other. Like, “Man, I saw that show. Man, when you came out on that movie. Man, you did such a good job on this.” Just pouring into each other. So I just observed sometimes and just was like, Man, this is so cool. It’s amazing.
Obviously, it was a party 24/7. We had so much fun shooting this movie; it was insane. Like Tracy [Morgan] would bring this boom box every single day that he was shooting, without fail, and he’d be playing music — whatever music he wanted to play. And then he and Leslie [Jones] and other people on set would be like, “Remember in the club when we used to do this?” It was so hilarious just watching them. Shari [Headley], who was such a beautiful human being, just embodied this royalty about her and was so caring on set. She would always make sure that everybody was happy and everybody was fine. She was a lovely, lovely, lovely human to be surrounded by.
Then obviously the young guns, KiKi [Layne], Jermaine, we had a good time. We were having fun and just geeking out. Every time we’d be on standby or chilling in one of the greenrooms, we’d be like, “Man, this is happening to us? This is insane.”
Why do you think this story was important to come back to nearly 30 years later?
The film is very important, especially to the original cast because they lived through what it did at the time — how it changed everything and changed the narrative and changed how Black people were seen in film. So for them, they know what it feels like to be a part of something that big. So they wanted us, the new generation, to also feel good about it, to also feel relaxed. The pressure’s obviously there because you’re getting threats from people, like, “Don’t mess it up.” Like, okay, I’m not trying to! It’s very daunting. You want to be able to make a project that you’re proud of and a project that people are gonna love — maybe not as much as the first one, but hopefully, if it matches, that’s great. Or if it’s close, that’s amazing too.
But we weren’t trying to replicate the original. That’s what I love. It’s not a remake; you’re not trying to make it again. It’s a whole new world.