Imagine teleporting into one of your favorite movie universes, and you’ll have some idea of how KiKi Layne feels right now. “It hasn’t fully hit me,” the 29-year-old actress says of playing opposite Eddie Murphy in Coming 2 America, the sequel to his 1988 comedy. Her eyes widen behind her glasses. “Like, ‘Yo, this is the sequel to Coming to America, and you are Prince Akeem’s daughter. What is this?’ ” Layne, who describes herself as a “huge fan” of the original, found great pleasure in watching Murphy at work. “It was incredible to witness the level of mastery he has over his craft,” she says. “He wasn’t super over-the-top or anything like that; it was just these little faces he would make or a one-liner he would improvise, and it would send everybody on set into laughter.” Layne, who modestly claims, “I’m no comedian,” says she was relieved to play the even-keeled stooge to Murphy’s funny man in the film, which premieres March 5 on Amazon Prime Video.
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Despite downplaying her abilities, Layne definitely has range when it comes to crossing genres: She’s quickly become a hot Hollywood commodity on the strength of her turns in Barry Jenkins’s period drama If Beale Street Could Talk and Gina Prince-Bythewood’s action hit The Old Guard. Olivia Wilde tells me that those performances are what drew her to cast Layne in her upcoming film Don’t Worry Darling, a psychological thriller centering on a 1950s homemaker. “I was moved by how much she can communicate nonverbally, and how boldly vulnerable she is in front of the camera,” Wilde says. “I was just so struck by her presence. What I look for above all else is fearlessness, and she clearly has that in spades.” Layne appears alongside Harry Styles, Florence Pugh, and Gemma Chan in the period piece, clad in era-appropriate restrictive clothing. “I mean, sometimes a girdle is just what you need—smash it all in!” Layne jokes. “But I’m glad we don’t have to do it every day.” While the movie’s plot is as tightly wrapped as one of those ’50s silhouettes, Layne has one of the most challenging roles in the film, Wilde says, adding, “she plays a woman embodying completely opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. I am blown away by her ability to be so vulnerable in one scene and playful in the next. KiKi is clearly a movie star.”
She’ll also be a first-time producer with the upcoming Ring Shout, a series based on the novella by P. Djèlí Clark, which follows Maryse Boudreaux (played by Layne) as she forms a monster-hunting trio with two friends. “The monsters that they hunt are called Ku Kluxes, which are essentially white folk who have turned into monsters, because they’ve become so enveloped in the hatred and violence that they enact on persons of color,” Layne says. The project came to her in the midst of last summer’s protests over the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. A friend had shared a video of James Baldwin comparing racists to “moral monsters.” “I was like, ‘Wow, this is what he was saying—when you are that inhumane, that immoral, you become a monster,’ ” she says. “And when you witness that type of trauma and hatred, what type of hatred does it put into you? How does that start to manifest itself and turn you into a monster as well?”
Layne appreciates that the project centers Black people in science fiction, something Hollywood does all too rarely. “I don’t know if they think that we don’t like that shit or aren’t invested,” she says. “We love it!” Layne has also made it a priority to work with female directors, and women of color in particular, like Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou, Harriet), who will be Ring Shout’s director and showrunner, and Prince-Bythewood, whose The Old Guard became one of Netflix’s biggest hits of the summer, drawing 78 million viewers in its first month. “People [were] surprised that this action film, directed by a Black woman, was one of the most successful Netflix films ever, but a great director is a great director,” Layne says. “And being a woman, being a person of color—if anything, it adds to the depth of creativity that this person is able to bring, a depth of perspective that has been lacking in the industry.”
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Ultimately, Layne wants the projects she produces and acts in to activate the same feeling in her audience that she had as a kid after seeing Brandy pirouette onscreen as Cinderella. When considering a project, she asks herself, “How does it make the little Black girl in me feel?” She also tries to increase representation with her fashion choices. As excited as she is for what’s next, Layne, an ardent fashion fan (Pyer Moss and Christopher John Rogers are two of her favorite designers), is a little bummed about having to promote Coming 2 America via Zoom. She and her stylists Wayman and Micah had been choosing pieces from up-and-coming Black designers for her to wear on the press tour. “This was such an iconic film for the culture, so we wanted all of my press looks to be for the culture as well,” she says. She’s hoping she’ll still be able to serve looks on the red carpet for Don’t Worry Darling, whose release date is TBD, though she admits she may have some competition: “Harry’s going to be the true star [there],” she jokes. In the meantime, she’s excited to get back on set—an environment where she clearly feels at home. When a car drives by, blotting out our exchange with the roar of its engine, she apologizes reflexively, and then, in true movie-star fashion, playfully yells, “Holding for sound!”—VÉRONIQUE HYLAND
This story appears in the March 2021 issue of ELLE.
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