If you had called Jermaine Fowler about two decades ago, you might have heard Eddie Murphy’s voice on the other end of the line.
Like most millennials, the 32-year-old actor and comedian was probably too young when he first saw Coming to America, Murphy’s 1988 R-rated comedy that topped that year’s box office, maintained Murphy’s reign as a Hollywood megastar, and, three decades later, remains an indelible celebration of Black excellence and culture.
Fowler, who grew up just outside of Washington, D.C., in Hyattsville, Maryland, estimates he was 8 or 9—maybe 10—when he first got his hands on a VHS copy of the film, in which Murphy plays the prince of the fictional African nation of Zamunda. Wanting to carve his own path instead of settling for a royally dictated arranged marriage, he decides to find his own wife. And where does a future king go to do that? He travels to Queens. As in Queens, New York.
The film’s famous barbershop scene, in which Murphy and co-star Arsenio Hall don prosthetics to play a handful of characters riffing with each other at a Black barbershop, had Fowler in stitches. Years later, when he would finally get a cellphone, he recorded bits from the scenes and made them his outgoing voicemail message.
“It meant a lot to me, man,” Fowler says, speaking over Zoom from his office in his Los Angeles home. “It still does. It’s a Black fairy tale that’s taken as seriously as a white fairy tale. The movie opened the doors for me. It set a standard for Hollywood at a time that was lacking representation.”
Fowler, who parlayed a successful stand-up career into the lead of the CBS sitcom Superior Donuts, the HBO series Crashing, and the indie favorite Sorry to Bother You, is now experiencing one of those career full circles in Hollywood that threatens to leave its benefactor dizzy.
On Friday, he can be seen in the long-awaited Coming to America sequel, Coming 2 America (available on Amazon), in which he plays the secret son of Murphy’s now-King Akeem Joffer, the possible heir to the African dynasty. In other words, he’s the next Eddie Murphy.
“Humbled.” “Grateful.” “Crazy.” “Fucking crazy.” “Crazy.” “It’s fucking crazy!”
Interrupted by stunned silences and some vigorous shaking of his head, that’s how Fowler reacts to having not only shot a film with his idol—one in which he plays his son—but that the movie is the sequel to Coming to America, 33 years later.
Given his obvious reverence for Murphy, it may not be a surprise that Fowler was inspired to go into stand-up and pursue acting after watching Murphy’s comedy special, Eddie Murphy Raw. He was hooked by the opening sketch at a family Thanksgiving gathering, in which an actor playing Young Eddie tells a crude joke that stuns his relatives into shocked silence. (Save for a cackling uncle played by Samuel L. Jackson.)
“That was me,” Fowler says. “I was always saying or doing something inappropriate that made me happy, and I just didn't care.” When he thinks back after all these years what it was about Murphy that made him think he could also make it in the business, he says, “It was the audacity, the confidence, and the style.”
A few years ago, an executive at New Line put Fowler, who had significant buzz building behind his career, in touch with a writer named Miles Murphy, who happened to be Eddie’s son. They got on well, and one day Miles invited Fowler over to watch a fight on TV. Fowler headed to the address, confused—but impressed—that he found his car winding up Mulholland Drive to a large gate in front of an estate.
It turned out that Miles had invited him to Eddie’s house, and the whole family was there. Fowler and Eddie began bonding over stand-up and classic Hollywood movies. When some time later Fowler received an email from his agent about auditioning for Coming 2 America, it seemed like kismet.
“I’ve wanted to do this since I was 11,” Fowler says. “That’s no joke.”
He remembers watching an episode of the PBS cartoon series Arthur, in which the titular aardvark tries to make a movie in his hometown and enlists his friends to create a sort of 007, James Bond knockoff. “I just knew I wanted to do something like that, make entertainment.”
So Fowler would write all the time. When he was 12, he wrote his own sequel to The Rock, the action thriller starring Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage. He even sketched the wardrobe for it.
“I was definitely confident,” Fowler says. “I don’t know why. I don’t know how that’s possible in a place where I come from. I would get made fun of all the time in the beginning, because I wanted to do this as a job. And I really don’t know what kept me going. I don’t know if it was to prove people wrong, or because I had nothing else to do, or because it was just fun. It was probably a combination of all those things, but the confidence was definitely there.”
The one thing he knew he didn’t want to do was go to college. He started testing out stand-up in the D.C. area when he was 17, wearing that aforementioned confidence like a bulletproof vest on nights he would bomb—Kevlar that would keep him from retreating to his job at Quizno’s for the rest of his life in shame. His girlfriend at the time broke up with him because her family didn’t approve of his career ambitions. So he moved himself, still a teenager, to New York City.
He couch-surfed his way through the boroughs, relying on the kindness of other aspiring comics to show him the ropes while he worked odd jobs during the day, most memorably at the Billabong clothing store in Times Square.
“I wasn’t afraid or anything,” he says. “My parents were afraid. My dad was always calling and making sure I wasn’t hungry or cold or anything like that. Was I? Every day.” He laughs. “But the excitement just numbed and dulled the anxiety that can come with being alone and broke and hungry all the time.”
His new crew of friends taught him where to find the dollar dumplings, and the best way to get from Times Square to Chinatown to get them: “Hop on a skateboard and just bomb down the hill.” It was around 2008 and 2009, and they would spend their weekends at loft parties in Brooklyn listening to MGMT, Kid Cudi, and M.I.A. “I didn’t know any of this shit when I was coming up. Who is Kid Cudi? I don’t know who all these hipster dudes are, they got me into all that shit.”
But he also hustled. His go-to trick for landing stage time was to go to a comedy club and pretend like he knew the booker. “Hey, it’s me, Jermaine Fowler. You said last week if I were to come to the club tonight, that I would get a guest spot.” Of course, they never said that. But it would work. He would get his three- or five-minute guest spots, and he would kill. “All I had to do was just kill.”
In Coming 2 America, Fowler’s character, Lavelle Junson, is savoring the challenge to prove himself in Zamunda. He never got that opportunity when he was at home, because of the ways in which his ambitions were written off because of who he was and what the expectations were for people like him. It’s easy to understand why Fowler reacts emotionally each time the conversation turns to Coming 2 America, an otherwise nostalgic and uproarious movie: In New York, he had done the same thing.
Stand-up and sketch-comedy success eventually led to his first comedy special, Give ’Em Hell, Kid, which aired on Showtime. That led to him being cast in Superior Donuts, a sitcom that ran in primetime on CBS for two seasons from 2017-18. His role on the show made him the first Black lead of a CBS sitcom in a generation. At the time he was the only Black lead on any CBS series.
In the years since the show aired—an experience he loved, and which helped catapult his career—he’s developed complicated feelings about that designation.
“Let me tell you how I grew up,” he starts, when asked about it. “I watched nothing but Black TV growing up, like on UPN and Nickelodeon. It was all Black. Even Disney had The Proud Family. There was Kenan and Kel. There was Moesha. The Parkers. The Wayans Brothers. Everything just felt Black.”
That is to say that until an interviewer pointed out his historic casting on CBS, he had no idea.
“Part of me was very flattered. It felt like it was going to help open up more doors,” he says. “But then I was like, why? Why did it take so long? That's something you shouldn't be proud of. And it's your loss. You know, we have amazing stories to tell. And we continue to.”
In a surreal turn of events, there were just days between when Fowler completed shooting on Coming 2 America and when he was on a plane to film his role in Judas and the Black Messiah, the film that just won Daniel Kaluuya a Golden Globe for his portrayal as doomed Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. Fowler plays Mark Clark, a fellow Black Panther who was killed alongside Hampton during the police’s pre-dawn raid in Chicago in 1969.
Talking to Cultured magazine about the experience, he explained that the night-and-day vibes of the two projects might be apt for a Black creator today: “Coming 2 America was a fucking party. The energy was light. To be transported to Zumunda, where the world is your oyster, where dreams are real, was such a transition to Black Messiah. Knowing what the lives of the Black Panthers cost, what they endured… it wasn’t easy to get through, but I welcomed the challenge of both.”
But that’s the range of narratives he’s wanted to explore. It’s the possibility he saw when he was struggling to pitch his stories and experiences through the network filter at Superior Donuts, knowing that launch pad would be worth it. It’s that audacity that allowed him to see this career for himself in the first place.
Important to all of those realizations, too, is, of all things, RuPaul’s Drag Race.
In April of last year, Fowler appeared on RuPaul’s Super Secret Celebrity Drag Race, a spinoff of the Emmy-winning series in which three actors received makeovers from “drag mother” alumni of the show and competed against each other.
Fowler wanted to do the show to honor his mother, who was a lesbian and who had recently died.
“At her funeral, there was a lot of homophobia going on there,” he says. “And a lot of people didn't really agree with her life choices. But she was a grown-ass woman, and made the decision she wanted to make. That's why I loved her. Because she did everything she wanted to do in her life.”
He laughs, recognizing that a bit of an emotional lightbulb had just turned on.
“That’s probably where I get it,” he says. “Like she did everything she wanted to do, and the way she wanted to do it. So when I walked on that set and said, ‘I’m gonna put on this dress, fuck you,’ that was the attitude. I’ve always had that. I’ve always said ‘fuck you’ if you told me not to do something I want to do it. I do not care what you think. I never will. And that is the attitude I’ve always taken since I was a kid. And it might have frustrated my parents, but that’s who I got it from. It started with them.”
He admits there were times that he worried what his family back in Maryland would say about him dancing on TV in a dress and high heels. But at the same time, as he likes to say, fuck them.
“I’ve just been around a lot of hate and disrespect for people who think and talk differently,” he says. “Even me, like I’ve been called a white boy, because I just like skateboarding. Or because I like Sum 41 songs and shit like that.” He stops and smiles sheepishly, wondering if he’s now said too much. “I still like them,” he admits about Sum 41. “I still listen to them like it’s 2002.”
Back in the Drag Race workroom, after his drag mother, Bob the Drag Queen, finished his hair and makeup and spun him around for the reveal, Fowler immediately burst into tears. “That wasn’t supposed to happen,” he says. “I didn’t think that would happen.” The reason for the breakdown: He didn’t expect to look so much like his mom. In a way, it transformed him.
It’s impossible as we talk not to notice a different transformation. Fowler’s hair, which has always been a point of preoccupation—The New York Times once described it looking “like fireworks in mid-explosion”—is now shaved and, on the day we speak, a shade of “lavender-lilac,” as he describes it.
He had to cut off half his hair twists for reshoots of Coming 2 America, after which he decided he didn’t feel like growing them out again and shaved the rest off, too. He dyed it because, during the pandemic lockdown, “I got sick of looking at just plainness and wanted to do something that would be beautiful and exciting to just wake me up.” Now when he looks in the mirror, the new color brightens his day. He noticed it does the same for other people, too.
His mother was a hairstylist. When he experiments with his hair, he thinks of it as a way to make her proud through something she could connect with.
“My hair has always been a thing with people,” he says. “When I cut it, people were like, ‘I grew my hair because of you, man. Why did you cut it?’ I’m like, that's why I grew it. I grew it because I didn’t give a fuck, and I cut it because I don’t give a fuck. I grew it because not a lot of people had hair like me on network TV, and I cut it for the same reason. I do what I want.”
He laughs. “My hair is just an expression of all that, just my mood.” He grins and shrugs, unsure of what else he can add. “So, uh, Free Britney.” There it is: The future King of Zamunda’s—and maybe also Hollywood’s—first political act.