Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall on the Making of ‘Coming 2 America’
More than three decades after Eddie Murphy won over audiences as Akeem Joffer, the lovable prince and heir to the throne of the fictional African kingdom of Zamunda in “Coming to America,” the story of the Joffer family continues in the feel-good sequel “Coming 2 America.” In the original film, Akeem traveled to Queens, NYC to find a bride, and in the process ended up finding himself. Now, in present day, he is happily married to the strong American woman of his choosing, Lisa (Shari Headley), and they have three equally exceptional daughters, Meeka (KiKi Layne), Omma (Murphy’s real-life daughter Bella Murphy) and Tinashe (Akiley Love). In a surprising development, Akeem learns from his dying father, King Jaffe (James Earl Jones), that he has a son back in Queens that he never knew about, Lavelle Junson (Jermaine Fowler), the result of an encounter he had with a free-spirited soul named Mary (Leslie Jones).
With help from his best friend and aide Semmi (Arsenio Hall), Akeem must go back to Queens to retrieve Lavelle and bring him back to Zamunda, where most of the film is set. Murphy, Hall, Fowler, Jones, Wesley Snipes, Tracy Morgan and several of their co-stars recently spoke via Zoom about “Coming 2 America,” creating their characters and returning to old roles, and the legacy of the first film.
“I’m going to tell you, the first day of shooting to me was the one that put the bumps, the goosebumps on me,” recounted Jones, whose character ends up traveling from Queens to Zamunda with her son. “When Eddie walked in, dressed as a king. It was almost like the movie had just continued. He walked in, he just walked off another scene from the original movie…. And that’s when it really started becoming really real.”
“That’s how it always be when I walk in the room though,” joked Murphy.
Considering Akeem is a very moral man, fans of “Coming to America” may be wondering how he came to father a child out of wedlock that he had no knowledge of for 30 years. This is all explained in an outrageous flashback sequence that sees Jones being dropped into scenes from the iconic first film. This is something the actress and comedian had spent years preparing for. As a longtime fan of Murphy’s, she had written scenes in her head of herself in that film, as well as other Murphy classics. Still, she admitted she was taken aback when she first read the crazy sex scene.
“‘So we’re going to have some real fun here. This is insane,’” she recalled thinking to herself. “And they let me do stupid stuff. I’m so glad they didn’t put half the stupid stuff I did that day.”
“…From the third draft we were writing for Leslie,” revealed Murphy. “We’re like, ‘Leslie Jones has to play this.’”
Tracy Morgan co-stars as Reem, Levelle’s uncle who offers his unconditional support to his nephew and his sister Mary. Morgan credited the returning cast with helping him and the other newcomers feel at ease. “We had the original cast here to give us the support and the guidance. When we followed the expectations, we got a thumbs-up… They gave us that quiet confidence to let us know we were on the right path.“
In present day, Lavelle finds himself on a journey not unsimilar to the one Akeem went on decades ago. Just like his father, the younger man ends up falling in love with a woman who grew up on the other side of the world. While Lavelle grows close to wise and beautiful royal barber Mirembe (Nomzamo Mbatha), Akeem navigates a rough patch in his marriage to Lisa, as Lavelle and Mary’s arrival causes some friction.
“What I go through with my situation with Mirembe, he slowly gets reminded about what brought him to Queens and his love for Lisa,” explained Fowler. “…This movie is just a reminder of what true love is. Sometimes you’ve got to get bumped in the head a little bit to just remember that.”
“Or get chased by a lion,” added Mbatha, referring to one of the princely challenges given to Lavelle, one in which he must pluck a whisker from a live lion.
Even Meeka, who has trained her whole life to inherit the crown and now finds her position threatened by her long-lost brother, comes to bond with Lavelle, and along with Mirembe, plays a major role in his personal growth.
“He starts to get his bearings, but it isn’t without the support of the people around him when he starts to realize that,” said Fowler of Lavelle’s journey to find his inner prince. “He doesn’t take it seriously at first, and then he starts to.”
Mbatha went on to speak about the film’s themes. “There’s the central theme of identity, the search for identity, the search for purpose, the search of leaving everything that you’ve always known behind and going into the new. But one of the most leading and on the pulse things about this film is a central theme around just the power of the female voice and the power of female empowerment. That’s what I love about the sequel. The finger is on the pulse. They read the room when they were writing the script.”
The actress praised the film’s director for his vision. “Craig Brewer read the room when he was directing those powerful scenes and gave that agency for women to just have agency on set, for women to just have agency with the roles.”
The best scene in which the women show their strength is one in which Meeka and her sisters get into an impressively choreographed fight with General Izzi (Snipes), Akeem’s power-hungry rival. According to Snipes, Layne and the others were enthusiastic to go up against the action movie vet.
“No, I don’t think they cared about that at all,” said the actor when asked if he the ladies were intimidated by the “Blade” star. “From what I remember, and the Bengay.”
Added Hall, “I think the message of female empowerment, there’s no timing like the timing of God. And that message is so important and perfect for right this moment. So I’m proud of the film in many ways like that. And I was there at two in the morning watching Bella and Ms. Love beat people up. What it does, what it says about women, is incredible in this movie.”
Just like in the first film, Murphy and Hall played multiple roles here, and returning characters include libidinous singer Randy Watson (Murphy), wisecracking senior citizen barbers Clarence (Murphy) and Morris (Hall), and thirsty Reverend Brown (Hall). Hall also played a new character, an elderly Zamundian witch doctor named Baba. According to Murphy and Hall, Dave Chappelle almost played Baba, but had a scheduling conflict, so Hall volunteered to take on the role, which meant extra hours and hours in the makeup chair.
“It’s less abrasive to your skin these days, the chemicals are better, but it’s still four to six hours,” said Hall of the transformation he had to go through many mornings. “My girl came to spend a week with me, and every morning she would have little chocolate boogers, little glue boogers all over her. Because even when they take it off, you have that stuff for two days, you’d be finding boogers. Little glue boogers.”
“Don’t blame that on the makeup, man,” chimed in Murphy. “You know you always be leaving glue boogers everywhere.”
But “Coming 2 America” is very much an ensemble film, and numerous actors from the original returned for the sequel, including John Amos as Cleo McDowell, Lisa’s father who has brought his fast food restaurant, McDonald’s rival McDowell’s, to Zamunda. Louie Anderson returned as Cleo’s employee Maurice, Paul Bates was once again court singer Oha, and Garcelle Beauvais even reprised her role as a royal rose bearer, while Vanessa Bell Calloway revealed whether or not Princess Imani Izzi, Akeem’s jilted bride, is still hoping on one foot and barking like a dog.
“Well, I’ll just say that this is a movie that you will see empowerment of women,” said Bell Calloway. “It was mainly the younger women. My character, I think she still had a few issues. And her brother came to her defense, who is now Wesley Snipes, who we know. So she still has a few issues, but at the end of the movie you see that she finally probably got over it. But no, her growth and development was a little stagnant compared to some of the other characters, because she was caught in a time warp because she still felt like she was wronged. And she was, to a degree.”
Beauvais reflected on shooting the film in Atlanta at Tyler Perry Studios. “When production picks you up to take you from the hotel to the set, and being on the highway and seeing the exit sign that says Tyler Perry Studios was really… It just caught me off guard and it was bigger than I ever thought. And to be in a studio that a Black man owns, and we are now providing content to that, it’s everything. It’s exceptional. It just shows where we’ve been and now where we are. It was really tremendous.”
Added Bates, “To walk out of your soundstage, to the Harry Belafonte, and to see the Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis soundstage over there, and the Sydney Poitier is down there, and the Whoopi Goldberg is down there. You say, ‘This is not what it used to be. This is the new world, and this is good.’”
“There were a lot of stand-ups on that movie and we’re on the Tyler Perry lot, which was magical that this brother created this,” said Hall. “He has a buildup of the White House for shooting things at the White House. There were days I’m standing with Tracy Morgan and Leslie in front of the White House on the Tyler Perry lot, laughing my ass off. It was the greatest experience. They didn’t have to pay me for this one because I had a great time. She is so funny.”
Amos had nothing but praise for Murphy. “He seems to know exactly how a scene should be played out in advance of any rehearsal or anything else, so I enjoyed [working with him]. To say I enjoyed it, that’s an understatement. I mean, I look forward to it. I probably had crevices in my face from smiling and laughing so much. But in the serious moments that we had, the few very serious moments, we got them through like a trooper, like a Shakespearean trained doctor. He’s quite a talent.”
Murphy and the others reflected on the legacy of the first film and its impact, both on them personally and on culture as a whole. “The original ‘Coming to America,’ the very first one, is the first movie in the history of movies that had an all-Black cast that was successful all around the world,” said Murphy. “It’s just about family, and love, and doing the right thing, and tradition… The themes are timeless.”
Bella Murphy went on to reveal how she felt when she first viewed the film around age ten. ‘It was cool to see my dad like that, because that was the first time I saw images of Black royalty on stage or onscreen. So it was cool, and even cooler that it was my dad. I felt really empowered, and, yeah, it was awesome.”
“I would say, any day I’m out in public, somebody brings it up,” said Anderson. “They bring it up to you and it’s a fun thing and I’m honored… And I’m really happy that when I walked onto that set in Atlanta that I was with about 100 people, and mostly people of color. And I thought, ‘This is really great. This is a real thing.’ I think ‘Coming to America’ had something to do with it all. I’m not sure it changed things as fast as it should’ve, but I find people are stubborn about change. I know I am… I’d like to be a thin person, but I just keep working at it.”
“Girl, if I had a nickel for every time somebody came up to me and said, ‘Whatever you like’ or ‘Bark and hop like a dog,’ I’d be a very rich woman.” said Bell Calloway. “I get pictures of people dressed up like me for Halloween and weddings and birthday party themes. It’s amazing. You just never know where something’s going to lead you, so it’s been a great blessing.”
“That’s indicative of the fact that ‘Coming to America’ became a cult film,” said Murphy when it is mentioned that Lizzo pays homage to “Coming to America” in her music video for “Juice.” “So that’s just one aspect of one of the things that started out in ‘Coming to America’ that’s in the culture now… Questlove has a band called the Randy Watson Experience… On Halloween, people get dressed up as characters from the movie. And VH1 played ‘Coming to America’ 24 hours straight over Christmas. It’s a cult film. And all that stuff is part of it.”
Love, the youngest actress in the ensemble, who was born more than two decades after the release of the first film, had a profound sense of pride in playing Akeem’s royal daughter. “It was just really fun to play a character who is from Africa and she’s able to walk around and wear all of these really cool, amazing outfits. And to see all this gold and to play a princess, that was really fun. And I just hope that everybody who sees it who looks like me would just realize that they’re like that, too. The movie isn’t a fictional movie, although yes it is. It’s actually knowing what Black people are. And that’s the reason why I’m so proud that I was able to be a part of it.”
“Coming 2 America” begins streaming March 5 on Amazon Prime Video.