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KiKi Layne on Hollywood: “I want to be making the calls”

KIKI LAYNE has made her name in recent years from a roster of weighty roles in thought-provoking, politically charged projects. In 2021, though, we will see the actor having a little more fun in Coming 2 America, the long-awaited sequel to the 1980s Eddie Murphy comedy classic. Ahead of the release, she speaks to ELLEN E JONES about her playful love of fashion, hoping to bring some joy in these testing times, and how she is planning to make things happen from behind the camera

KiKi Layne

KiKi Layne emits automatic good vibes. She’s quick to laugh, filling even the featureless office kitchen from which she is Zooming with warmth and positive energy. So, despite being best known for her roles in serious-minded dramas like If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) and Native Son (2019), it’s not at all difficult to imagine her getting silly on set with Eddie Murphy and Leslie Jones while shooting the long-awaited comedy sequel Coming 2 America.

Personally, though, Layne is still finding it tough to get her head around. “I mean, it’s crazy! Even today, the [movie] poster just dropped, and I’m looking at it, seeing my face and my name alongside these people, and it just hits me!” The actor has an endearing habit of geeing herself up with third-person pep talks: “It’s like, ‘I just want you to be clear, Kiandra Alexis Layne, that your name is on this amazing movie poster.’”

Layne – known as “KiKi” since babyhood – grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, with two Eddie Murphy-worshipping older brothers. So, although the original Coming to America came out three years before Layne was born, she was very familiar with it. “It’s actually my eldest brother’s favorite film of all time. It still is. We watched Coming to America a lot.”

She dreamed of an acting career as a child, having enrolled in Cincinnati’s School for Creative and Performing Arts at the age of seven. “It always felt like it was something deeper than, y’know, ‘I just wanna be a movie star!’”, she says, mock-clasping her chest. Even so, “I never would have thought, moving to LA, [that] the first thing I would have been doing was Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to [2016 Oscar-winner] Moonlight.”

That film, an adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk, lived up to expectations and then some, thanks in part to Layne’s bewitching performance as Tish and her experiences of racism in the criminal justice system. Layne followed it up with a role in the similarly socially conscious Native Son, before sci-fi drama Captive State, and Netflix’s The Old Guard, in which she co-starred with Charlize Theron as an immortal, crime-fighting warrior. A sequel to The Old Guard isn’t yet officially confirmed, but Layne is definitely down for it. “That movie was dope as fuck! And also, an action trilogy being led by two women? Like, come on, guys – let’s make it happen!”

I think a lot of women recognize this feeling, when you know damn well you’re the most qualified for the job, and yet you can’t get it

Making things happen is Layne’s new modus operandi. When we speak, she’s just finished up a virtual meeting with Harriet director Kasi Lemmons, to discuss their upcoming TV series Ring Shout, about an otherworldly, KKK-linked evil in the 1920s Deep South. Layne is starring and also executive producing: “It’ll be the first time I’m stepping onto that side,” she says, with obvious excitement.

While this, and other films in her back catalogue, will be more immediately associated with conversations that have arisen in the past year amid the upsurge of the Black Lives Matter movement, Layne feels that Coming 2 America makes its own contribution. And not in spite of it being a joyful, raucous comedy, but because of that. “Last year, it felt like every day there was a new video about a Black person killed, being terrorized. Then, on top of that, losing Black heroes, left and right… It just would not let up. So, I’m grateful to be a part of something that I hope can offer my people a little light,” she says.

The extent to which the sequel manages to sync with our changing times may come as a surprise. Some 30 years after his first trip to the States, Prince Akeem (Murphy) returns to connect with his illegitimate son (Jermaine Fowler) and secure Zamunda’s line of succession. Layne plays Prince Akeem’s eldest daughter, Meeka, who is understandably annoyed to have been overlooked as her country’s next ruler. “I think a lot of women recognize this feeling, when you know damn well you’re the most qualified for the job, and yet you can’t get it,” says the actor, increasingly afire as she talks. “Simply because it’s been formulated in the minds of these fools that just because somebody has a penis – if I can say that – they are somehow automatically more qualified for this position.”

Playing African royalty, “to be able to tap into that regal-ness”, was meaningful to Layne as an African American woman. “To know that is where I come from – even if that’s not the history they like to teach us over here. To see all these beautiful Black people, and even if we’re not from exactly the same part of the continent, there is still some connection there,” she says.

Layne, fearless as Princess Meeka, takes on her on-screen father, Prince Akeem (played by Eddie Murphy), in the long-awaited Coming 2 America
As the actor, you’re essentially just waiting for the phone to ring. I want to be the person making the calls

The magnificent costumes and hairstyles that Layne showcases as Princess Meeka were an important part of the process for her. “I got inspired to actually loc my hair while we were shooting,” she says, shaking her new dreadlocks towards the camera with a self-conscious laugh. “I’m in the awkward phase! So y’all can’t see it just yet.”

Layne’s innate elegance had her modeling as a teenager, but she also has a playfulness about fashion, as evidenced by her 2019 Met Gala debut (wearing theatrical, fringed, head-to-toe Gucci) and an ongoing collaboration with Hollywood stylists Wayman Bannerman and Micah McDonald. “Prior to everything that happened with the pandemic, oh, we were planning lewks. When I found out I was in Coming 2 America, they were among the first people to know.” Canceled events mean few of these fashion dreams have been realized. “I can’t be quite as extra as I had intended to be!” she says, with a self-mocking frown.

Fingers crossed, then, that the red carpets will be unfurled by the time the Olivia Wilde-directed, 1950s-set psychological drama Don’t Worry Darling has its premiere later this year. Although, co-starring with Harry Styles does mean Layne ceding some of the style spotlight. “I think maybe, day to day, he has more fun [with fashion] than I do,” she muses. “Maybe at one point I used to show up [to set] trying to look a little cute or something, but it’s like, ‘Girl, for what?! You’re wearing a costume and you’re gonna be too tired to go anywhere [afterwards] anyway. And especially at this time… Girl, ain’t nothing out there!’”

Highly anticipated on 2021’s movie slate, Don’t Worry Darling was particularly enjoyable to work on. “It is such a fun cast. That’s what’s been dope about this,” says Layne. “Maybe it’s because a lot of us are around the same age and whatever, but it’s just been fun! You know, working with Harry; [I] love Florence [Pugh] so much… It’s really been a fun one.”

It also offered the opportunity to expand her craft in a way that reminded Layne of her background in theater, which doesn’t often happen on film sets. “[Olivia] leaves room for more discovery and more room to play, so I could try [something] one way and she’d invite me to try it the complete opposite way.”

Though in the midst of a pandemic, Layne and her burgeoning career are lighting the way to a thrilling future in and for the movie industry – and not just in front of the camera. “This past year, I started to try thinking more as a producer… Even to have the confidence to read a book and say, ‘I like this and I want to turn this into something’ – that’s a gift from people who came before,” she says. “I’m thinking of Cicely Tyson, who we just lost, who we know did not have that same room to be a creator like that… As the actor, you’re essentially just waiting for the phone to ring. I want to be the person making the calls.”

All too soon we are saying our goodbyes and, although it’s sad to bring an enjoyable conversation to an end, it also feels exciting. Because Ms Layne has some calls to make.

Coming 2 America will be released March 5 on Amazon Prime Video