Second Chances: Wesley Snipes Is Back in “Coming 2 America” & Better Than Ever

Wesley SnipesPhoto Credit: Nigel Parry

BY LAURA SCHREFFLER
PHOTOGRAPHY NIGEL PARRY

All good things come to those who wait. Just ask Wesley Snipes, who’s been waiting for more than 30 years to make one dream a reality.
Snipes, now 58, was an up-and-coming actor with only three films under his belt when the chance to audition for John Landis’ 1988 cult classic Coming to America arose. He wanted the part of Darryl Jenks so much, the longing was almost physical. But luck was not on his side.

“I made it to [the final rounds of auditions], and if I recall correctly, it was me, Eriq La Salle and Mario Van Peebles who were finalists for the role that Eriq ended up winning. I was quite sad about losing the opportunity because I really wanted to work with Eddie Murphy, and I knew that if you worked with Eddie, man, your career was set. You were on a rocket, baby. So after contemplating whether I should continue the pursuit of this career, this fantasy, I cried a bit in the bathroom and said, ‘Pick yourself up and stop it. Get yourself together, man, get back out there and keep going,’” he recalls during our Zoom interview on the second to last day of 2020.

Now, 33 years later, he’s finally got the chance to revise history, because — without even auditioning, mind — he scored a plum part in Coming 2 America, out March 5 on Amazon Prime Video. It’s a new adventure for Murphy’s newly crowned King Akeem and his trusted confidant Semmi (Arsenio Hall) as they travel from Zamunda, Africa, to Queens, New York, once again. The film is a necessary blast of happy visual hedonism in an otherwise bleak time, paying homage to its predecessor (with clips from the original interwoven with new footage) while gently reminding viewers that the world has changed, that progress is necessary, and that with every ending comes a new beginning. The hilarious script, courtesy of black-ish creator and writer Kenya Barris, Barry W. Blaustein and David Sheffield, truly allows all its stars — who also include Leslie Jones, Jermaine Fowler, Tracy Morgan, KiKi Layne and James Earl Jones — to shine.

For Snipes, the on-set experience was just as joyful as he always anticipated, and definitely worth the wait. “I loved every bit of it,” he says. “Sometimes, if you sit around at the river long enough, you see opportunity floating by.”

Some people believe that everything happens for a reason, and the reason is particularly clear in this case. Instead of playing a tool-ish love interest, in Coming 2 America Snipes gets to flex his comedic muscles as General Izzi, the leader of a fictional African nation bordering Zamunda whose sister, Imani (Vanessa Bell Calloway), was meant to marry then Prince Akeem before he left Africa in search of freedom and independence in America and found love with Lisa McDowell (Shari Headley).Wesley SnipesPhoto Credit: MOA360 MEDIA, LLC.

As Izzi, Snipes is flamboyant: a peacock with cornrows and a bushy goatee trimmed to a perfect V whose golden tassels and hoop earrings add dramatic flair to an otherwise standard military uniform (a “dandy” look he personally created with Oscar-winning costume designer Ruth E. Carter). Attire included, he’s a trip — dancing, mugging, saying sinister things in an accent that seems to be a Jamaican-African hybrid, all with a glint in his eye that makes it impossible to know if he’s going to laugh with you, laugh at you or slit your throat. He’s certainly the “bad guy” of the film, but an atypical one. Which is just as Snipes intended.

“I’ve been known to play some pretty bad guys in the past. I can do bad guys and I can do good guys; I can rock with them both. But I didn’t want to do Izzi as just a villain, because he was written like Beast of No Nation. We’ve seen that kind of guy: we’ve seen the Idi Amin characterizations and the maniacal roaring thing, that guy,” he says (complete with a real roar to punctuate the statement). “This had to be the kind of guy that you really love to hate. He’s the kind of guy who, if he just gets his morality together, is a great guy to be around.”

And in that sense, General Izzi is someone he both loved playing and would personally love to hang out with. “I actually know a number of guys similar to my character, and I thought I would draw from all of their little nuances, their little quirks, and make something they’ll recognize when they see [the movie] — and then they’re all going to start laughing. There is a crew of my African brothers who are going to go crazy when they see this,” he declares.

King Akeem seems to enjoy his exchanges with Izzi as well. In almost every exchange between the two, they seem to be sharing a private joke — one that, as a viewer, you very much want to be in on.

“It could have been anything,” Snipes admits when asked what was so funny. “We would tease each other while we were talking, using the accents, and we’d try to make each other laugh. Eddie was the winner most of the time. [I got him to laugh] a couple of times, though. I had to. I could not go out a complete loser with a capital L.”

Wesley Snipes
Teyana Taylor and Wesley Snipes star in “Coming 2 America”

Photo Credit: Amazon Studios

Wesley Snipes
Snipes with Leslie Jones and Jermaine Fowler in the sequel to “Coming To America”

Photo Credit: Amazon Studios

I’d strongly suggest he’s the opposite. He earned the role based solely on the strength of his NAACP Award-nominated performance in the 2019 biographical comedy Dolemite Is My Name, which happened to be helmed by Coming 2 America director Craig Brewer and also starred Murphy, who personally lobbied for Snipes to play Izzi.

“Eddie told me he [had a hand in helping me get this role], which he also did with Dolemite. He had a discussion with Craig about who could play the role of [D’Urville Martin], my name was brought up, and then they called me. For this one, I kind of knew they were considering me to do something. I was hoping, man. I have to admit, I was like a little kid. After we finished Dolemite, I said, ‘I sure hope my performance was good enough to be considered for Coming 2 America.’ I started hearing other people get calls for it and I was like, ‘Damn. Again? This is happening to me again?’ But then Craig called me up and he said, ‘I want you to do something.’ I was like, ‘I don’t care what it is. Yes, okay.’ So ultimately, my audition was Dolemite. I had a whole other movie to show them what I could do, that I could hold my own in comedy.”

Snipes is arguably most famous for Blade; he’s known in the industry as an action star. It’s only recently that he really had the possibility of flexing his comedic muscles, and for this, he’s eternally grateful.

“With Coming 2 America, I got the chance to do some things that I’ve been wanting to do in film for a while. This world of characterization is actually the world I come from, what I trained in after my dreams of becoming a dancer got derailed,” he says. “But doing so much in the action genre, I hadn’t had much of a chance to [do anything else], so this gave me an opportunity to go back to the days of the early school training, early fame, my early Purchase college days of characterization, improv, spontaneity and body movement.”

He references General Izzi’s unforgettable introduction, which — let’s just say — involves a pretty incredible dance routine. Although Snipes has grace for days, a result of his longtime martial arts training, no doubt, his moves are still awe-inspiring — as they should be, he says, given that this is what he first wanted to do. “I actually started out as a dance and musical theater guy, so song and dance are my livelihood and my culture. My aunts, my cousins, all of us danced — whether it was in the streets or in dance class. I actually thought I would be a very repertory theater-type performer, like Ben Vereen or Gregory Hines, that I’d travel and do that Sammy Davis Jr. thing, be a song and dance man. Then I ended up going to drama school and there was a shift in focus on the dramatic arts — more on the performing and less on the dancing — so I didn’t fulfill that dream. But I still secretly desire to be a backup dancer for somebody.”

As with many things Snipes says during the course of our interview, it’s unclear whether he’s joking or being serious. For example, he says he’s “put it out there” to be a backup dancer for Queen Latifah and BTS; that he’s “started a campaign and pooled my resources” to participate in the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris when break dancing officially becomes a qualifying sport. But by that same token, he also says, “I called up Jackie Chan’s people and said, ‘Look, you represent the Chinese. I’ll call Tony Jaa, he’ll get the Thai boys. I’ve already got South Korea on lock. We’ll have our teams go into battle, but we’ll be in the back — and we’ll film it!’ They haven’t responded yet. So holla at ya, boy!”

But if he really wants it, it can happen. “Dreams can come true,” he says, in Izzi’s accent. “Just wait for them, I tell you.”

Lights, Camera, ACTION!

Wesley SnipesPhoto Credit: MOA360 MEDIA, LLC.

Today is a good day for Wesley Snipes. It started with some Qigong, followed by lots of laughter and some fun moments with his mom, Marian, a former teacher’s assistant. Now he’s sitting here with me on Zoom, talking about the Daywalker Klique (those who embody the Blade way of life), his business ventures and the future of Hollywood. He hopes, he says after an hour, that he has brought me joy.

Sixty minutes is hardly enough time to know anyone fully, but I believe I understand what makes Snipes tick: he lives to entertain. The world is his stage.

Yet I can’t tell if Snipes is being himself, in character as General Izzi or a combination of both. He’s wearing a red silk kimono, a black skullcap and plenty of beaded necklaces, one of which represents the “duality of our consciousness and our being; our physical nature and our spiritual nature.” He fluctuates between Izzi’s accent and his own voice. He is equal parts serious and goofy. But the more I laugh, the more animated he becomes.

To hear him tell it, he has always been this way. Born in Orlando, Snipes moved to the South Bronx as a baby and later attended New York’s famous High School for the Performing Arts, where he studied dance and acting. He completed his secondary education back in Florida, then teamed up with friends to form a traveling puppet troupe that performed in public parks and schools. In 1980, he enrolled at the State University of New York at Purchase, winning an audition into the school’s competitive theater arts program (he received an honorary doctorate in humanities and fine art from his alma mater many years later). Before movies, he focused on Broadway, appearing in productions including The Boys of Winter, Executive of Justice and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horsemen.

His film debut was the 1986 comedy Wildcats, opposite Goldie Hawn, followed in 1987 by a role in Michael Jackson’s Martin Scorsese-directed “Bad” video (for which he was handpicked by producer Quincy Jones). From there, it didn’t take long for his star to ascend; his breakout role came only four years after his start, in Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues. In the interim, he’s appeared in a variety of critically acclaimed or top-grossing films, such as The Waterdance, Waiting to Exhale, Demolition Man, Money Train, U.S. Marshals, The Big Hit, Jungle Fever, Rising Sun and Disappearing Acts. He has received numerous accolades, including the 1997 Volpi Cup Best Actor of the Year Award at the Venice Film Festival for One Night Stand, two NAACP Image Awards and a CableACE Award for his role as Sergeant Bookman in HBO’s Vietnam War Story. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and is also a published author whose first novel, 2017’s Talon of God, topped Amazon’s urban supernatural fantasy genre best-seller list and ranked for 12 straight weeks. He is probably best known, however, for playing the title character in Marvel’s Blade. The series, which he helped choreograph, is one of the highest-grossing superhero franchises in history, having earned an estimated $1.6 billion globally.

Wesley SnipesPhoto Credit: MOA360 MEDIA, LLC.

But it hasn’t been all hearts and flowers and happiness for Snipes: Marvel recently announced that Oscar winner Mahershala Ali will be donning Blade’s half-vampire antihero cloak in the future.

Not that Snipes is letting it get him down; it isn’t in his nature. “I’m gifted with being optimistic. I would say that’s what I’m most grateful for,” he admits, noting that the power of positivity allows him to get past things like this quite easily. “Marvel’s business has gone in a different direction. They decided to cast a new actor in the Blade role, so it’s unlikely that I’ll ever play him again. However, if you like what we did with the Blade franchise, wait until you see what we’ve got coming.”

He says he’s developing a Blade-like series with stellar fight choreography and technology through his own Maandi House Studios that fans will love. “It will be in the same world, in the same genre. It won’t be Blade, but it will be action-packed. [The lead] is a hunter, but he’s not just hunting vampires. He’s hunting much, much more,” he teases, adding that there will be a strong female lead named Indigo, a “bad chick” whom he likens to “La Femme Nikita and Foxy Brown mixed together [who is a little bit] Domino, a little bit Salt, a little bit Anna and a little bit To Wong Foo. Everyone will be represented, and they’re kicking ass. We have the scripts ready to go. We would have given it to Marvel, but you know, they have their own agenda. So I guess we’ll have to keep it for ourselves.”

He has too much on his plate to let this loss affect him too deeply, anyway. Since 2017, he has been collaborating with global technology companies such as Google, Amazon, Samsung and Barco to promote future cinema technologies. The Barco Escape-formatted movie The Recall was released in June 2017, followed by the short The Recall VR Abduction for Oculus Rift and Samsung Gear VR in July 2017. Snipes is also now getting into the health and wellness game; he’s in the process of developing what he refers to as “the only complete amino acid product in the world” and creating elixirs and tonics to aid digestion and boost the immune system. He is also vetting new “enhancement devices that allow for speedier learning and even speedier recovery from injuries” in South Korea and Africa. “We can have fun, but we want to educate and improve upon the quality of life as well,” he explains.

So when he tells me the past year has been “quite active” for him, I believe it. Still, he’s aware that it has been harder than most. “2020 was rough, but I mean, it’s not like blitzkrieg. We’ve suffered some losses; some of our elders and loved ones and family members have crossed over, and that of course is extremely sad. But my way of thinking is that energy lives on; it never dies, and it is reconstituted into new ideas and new opportunities. We build programs for social impact so that when we come through this, we’ll be better than we were, more focused than we were, with greater opportunities for more than there were.”

He continues, “People say, ‘Let’s forget 2020.’ I would offer that we never forget 2020, that we study it, that we understand it, embrace it and digest it to such a degree that we never allow it to happen again, so that we learn from it and grow from it, redesign our culture and redesign our value systems in a way that is aligned with sustainability and vitality. And if another pandemic or virus comes along, we Daywalkers, we’re ready to kick it in the ass. We won’t fall down, jump out the window, fall apart, none of that. Even if the Grim Reaper comes knocking, I’m going to push him off and be like, ‘Stand down, homey. I’ve got one more thing to do. I’m busy right now.’”

Wesley SnipesPhoto Credit: Nigel Parry

Loader