Jermaine Fowler Is Telling His Truth And Baring It All In His Quest To Dominate Hollywood

To read about the rest of the Culture Shifters, including actor Da’Vine Joy Randolph and activist Emily Barker, return to the complete list here. Things tend to come full circle for Jermaine Fowler. It might be because of his tenacity and unwillingness to settle for failure. It might just be fate. Or it could be a little of both. The most obvious example is his most recent movie, “Coming to 2 America,” where he stars alongside one of his heroes, Eddie Murphy, in the sequel to the 1988 hit film. Fowler always wanted to get into entertainment, even as a shy kid who worked in school plays in Prince George’s County, Maryland. The actor didn’t see Murphy’s stand-up comedy special “Raw” until his late teens, about 20 years after it premiered. When his neighbor gave him a VHS copy, he watched it thrice daily. “Raw” showed him his path to Hollywood would be through stand-up.

“At the time, I wanted to make people laugh, but I didn’t know how,” Fowler, 32, told HuffPost. “But then I saw stand-up, and I’m, like, that’s it. That’s how I want to do it. That’s how I want to make people laugh. On stage, in front of a huge audience. I told myself I’d work with him one day.”

This year Fowler did just that. In “Coming to 2 America,” which premiered March 6 on Amazon Prime, Fowler plays Lavelle Junson, Prince Akeem’s long-lost son, whom he unites with to prepare him to take the throne in his fictional African homeland, Zamunda. Fowler had previously built a relationship with Murphy, but sharing scenes made him feel he had something to prove. He knew he had to get it right.

“Watching him work was great. It was a privilege to watch him get in the zone, have fun, be Eddie,” Fowler said. “At the same time, I was there to prove myself. I just wanted to be me. I felt very comfortable. I felt like I belonged, and it was a moment that you just don’t let slip by.” In the last few years, Fowler has landed a 2015 Showtime comedy special (“Give ’em Hell, Kid”), multiple acting and production credits on television, and several films, including “Sorry to Bother You,” “Buffaloed” and “Judas and the Black Messiah.”

Now that America has marked one year since the outbreak of COVID-19, the father of two couldn’t help but take this moment to feel nostalgic. In addition to watching “Seinfeld” reruns and the 1995 French drama “La Haine,” he’s been thinking a lot about his journey. When he first got into stand-up, his high school days held a special place for him.

“I think back on those days very fondly, and those were the days that formed the grind for me,” he said. “I’ve been informed by the days of the past, and I try to learn and grow from them. You know, change for the better from them, and in turn, I grow as an artist.”

Long before he was starring alongside one of his heroes or even bombing on stage, Fowler was the comedic relief for his fraternal twin and his little brother and sister growing up. He had very young parents, so they’d bump heads often in their home in Hyattsville, Maryland. Young Fowler quickly learned to remedy the tension he and his siblings felt with laughter.

“Amongst my siblings, I’ve always tried to make them laugh and feel a lot better about being in this loud-ass house that was always shaky,” he said. “Empathy and compassion were instilled in me at a very young age.” By his senior year of high school, Fowler became confident in his brand of funny. He was inspired to work on the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia comedy circuit. He would perform at a coffee shop here, an open-mic night there.

He had big dreams that he felt the region couldn’t contain. When he turned 20, he left his job as an administrative assistant at a Washington law firm to move to New York City. He was broke but optimistic. Like many great performers, he found his comedic stride in telling his truth. Most of his early material came from anecdotes about his own family. His coming of age happened on stage, bearing it all in sweaty close quarters with strangers.

Back then, his mother, Marsha, would fact-check his routines. She was hilarious, he said, and would often improve his material. While in New York, Fowler dove into the world of sketch comedy. He started his acting career as an extra in College Humor skits that paid him $100 each. He landed his first recurring role with “Friends of the People,” a sketch comedy show on truTV. After getting his feet wet on screen, Fowler occasionally appeared on “The Eric Andre Show” and MTV’s “Guy Code.”

He worked practically nonstop while parlaying stand-up gigs into acting roles, his plan all along. He had several wins and some failures, too. (Nine piloted TV series never made it on air.) Not necessarily because his work wasn’t good but because Hollywood’s stringent gatekeeping played its part. “Delores & Jermaine,” starring Fowler and Whoopi Goldberg, was a massive disappointment for many when ABC passed on its pilot in 2015. But the taste of how network TV worked gave him the fire he needed to land a starring role and executive producer seat on CBS’s “Superior Donuts.” When it premiered in 2017, he became the only Black actor on CBS’s prime-time lineup.

He had hit quite the stride. In August 2017, his mother’s death was a devastating blow. A year later, his collaborator and close friend Kevin Barnett died. Fowler then stepped away from the stage for a bit. Fowler told Fast Company he wanted to quit comedy after that. What got him back into it was a conversation with his therapist. With his mother and Barnett going, he needed to find a way to connect them to his art.

How has he been able to do that? By getting, pun intended, raw. Fowler said he’d had to lean into brutal honesty to heal and stretch beyond his comfort zone. As he works on his new material for his second comedy special with Showtime, which doesn’t have a premiere date yet, he’s taking the driver’s seat in leading a family of his own rather than maintaining the backseat perspective of his first unique. That means things can get ugly at times. Or they can be beautifully cathartic.

Fowler said he’s now in his Richard Pryor stage, seeking to bare it all on stage. “When you start to open to people and give them the context of who you are, you realize that motherfuckers are going through the same shit,” he said. “Life can be painful, man. What makes it less painful is letting people know they’re not alone in there. That brings us closer together, man. That’s the shit I’m on.”

Though he hasn’t hit any stages since the coronavirus pandemic began, he’s writing and leaning into who he wants to be as an artist. His path has been in comedy, but he has no desire to be boxed in. “I would just like to see various stories told without the filter. I want the raw story. I want to know what the writer and the director intended to make. I want to know how they felt and what they were going through without the filter. That’s so important.”

There are a few people he’d love to portray on screen, including Little Richard and Jean-Michel Basquiat. He also has a semi-autobiographical animated series in the works at Fox. His goal is never to get complacent and to help inspire the next generation of talent as Murphy and Will Smith did for him. He knows that reaching these aspirations will take some time. So he’s savoring each step along the way. “Being present and doing everything I’m supposed to do today and the next day, and the next day, it’ll get me there. I will get there. Every step I take and the moment I don’t take for granted, I get closer to the goal.”

Tyson Houlding
I’m a lifestyle blogger with a passion for writing, photography, and exploring new places. I started this blog when I was 18 years old to share what I was learning about the world with family and friends. I’ve since grown into a freelance writer, blogger, and photographer with a growing audience. I hope you find inspiration and motivation while reading through my work!