In rapid succession, 29-year-old KiKi Layne has hit an actor’s trifecta, with knockout performances in three distinct genres.
She played the romantic lead Tish in the acclaimed drama “If Beale Street Could Talk” (2018). She was the South Side native turned U.S. Marine turned immortal mercenary Nile Freeman opposite Charlize Theron in the badass sci-fi action film “The Old Guard” (2020).
And now she’s Princess Meeka Joffer, daughter of Eddie Murphy’s Prince (soon to be King) Akeem Joffer, in “Coming 2 America,” the most hotly anticipated comedic sequel since … well, you tell me if you can think of a more suitable candidate to fit the label.
That’s some one-two-three punch of movies.
“I’ve been very intentional about not being put into a box,” said Layne in an interview. “I’ve always wanted to push the boundaries of perception about actresses who look like me, so I could [go beyond] the types of stories we usually fall into. I really, really wanted to push against that.”
In “Coming 2 America” — premiering March 5 on Amazon Prime Video — we pick up the story some 30 years after the events of the 1988 original, with King Jaffe Joffer (James Earl Jones) near the end of his long and prosperous reign as ruler of Zamunda, and Murphy’s Akeem posed to ascend to the throne.
Akeem is happily married to the former Lisa McDowell (Shari Headley), and they have three wonderful daughters, with Layne playing their eldest, Princess Meeka. But even though Meeka has the intellectual, spiritual and physical skills to make a great ruler, the laws of Zamunda prohibit a female from being heir to the throne.
That’s the setup for a sprawling comedic epic reuniting Murphy, Jones, Arsenio Hall, John Amos and other original cast members, with Leslie Jones, Tracy Morgan, Jermaine Fowler and Wesley Snipes joining the fun.
“This story mostly takes place in Zamunda, which is exciting, and I guess you could say this time America is coming to Zamunda,” Layne said with a laugh.
“I wasn’t even born when the original came out, but we watched it so many times in our household when I was growing up. It never gets old, it always makes us laugh and brings so much joy … it really is a part of my childhood. Now being the princess of Zamunda is honestly blowing my mind.”
As for stepping into that star-studded world, Layne said, “At some point, you get to focusing on the work. You’re there to help tell a story. But those first few times on set, I’d just look around and think, ‘Oh, there’s Eddie, and there’s Arsenio, and there’s Wesley, and there’s Tracy Morgan, and there’s Leslie Jones and aaaaaaah!’ But I kept those internal moments to myself.”
When you’re sharing a scene with multiple generations of comedic greats, one imagines the blooper reel for “Coming 2 America” could last for days, as it would be nearly impossible NOT to break out of character and into laughter from time to time. Layne confirms. “Once you reach the point where there’s five truly talented comedic people on the set, there were scenes where there was just no way the s--- wasn’t insane.”
“Coming 2 America” is primarily a comedy, but there’s social messaging in the storyline about Akeem learning he has a grown son he’s never met — and that son becoming the instant heir to the throne by virtue of his gender even though Meeka is clearly far better qualified to succeed her father.
“That was something I was drawn to: the ability to play a woman who is pushing and fighting for, what is rightfully her place,” Layne said. “And I think that’s something that a lot of women can relate to — when you know you are the most qualified person for the job, it should be yours. And yet you can’t have it just because you’re a woman. Just because of that.”
Layne grew up in Cincinnati, but Chicago was her home for much of the 2010s. She graduated from DePaul University in 2014 and started doing TV, movie and theater work in Chicago, becoming an ensemble member of the Definition Theatre Company.
“Coming up in the Chicago theater community is one of the things I’m most grateful for,” said Layne. “It’s a place that grows genuine artists and grows people who are really, really committed to doing the work. That’s one of things that helped me when I came out to L.A. When I come into the room, I am prepared. I’ve read the script, I’ve memorized the sides, I’ve read the book if it’s based on a book, and all of that came out of Chicago. There’s such a hunger and a respect for the craft in the theater scene in Chicago, being able to carry that with me has made such a difference.
“I hope I can get back. There’s still Chicago theater credits I want. I want my Steppenwolf credit. I want my Goodman credit!”