Hollywood came knocking when Nomzamo Mbatha was in Abu Dhabi.
As an ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the South African actress was working on a 2019 promotional film for the agency when her life changed.
“I got a call from the producers from Coming 2 America and they wanted me to be in Los Angeles the following day for an audition,” she tells The National, after a recent guest appearance at Expo 2020 Dubai.
“I was working with the brilliant team in Abu Dhabi, shooting in this huge warehouse for emergency relief. We managed to get the job done and I immediately took a car to Dubai Airport to fly to the US.”
Ready for the big time
Mbatha, 31, not only credits the long flight for allowing her time to nail the script in the audition, but also the freewheeling nature of the South African entertainment industry for keeping her on point.
She may have been a newbie to Hollywood, but in her homeland, Mbatha is a successful actress and television personality, having starred in the 2015 romantic comedy Tell Me Sweet Something and hosted reality travel series Holiday Swap KZN.
“There is a lot to say about working with passionate people with limited resources. There is a lot of grit involved and every day, something new is thrown at you, so every day did feel like I was on the training ground,” she says.
“It helps to keep you sharp and focused, so when opportunities come, you are ready to take them.”
Coming 2 America has been a game-changer for Mbatha.
Her vibrant performance as Mirembe, the love interest of Prince Akeem’s (Eddie Murphy) son, opened more doors and she recently completed shooting an action film, Die Like Lovers, with Bruce Willis.
While shooting alongside the Die Hard star was “absolutely awesome”, she describes the Coming 2 America shoot as both nerve-racking and hilarious.
"It was extremely intimidating at first because you are working with all of these stars like Murphy, Arsenio Hall and Wesley Snipes, who, by the way, is just a beautiful human being," she says.
"But after a while, you tune that out because you understand you are there for a reason and everybody is happy to have you being part of the film.
“Even while I was working, it was not lost on me that this was one of the biggest experiences of my life and my big break."
The 1988 instalment, Coming to America, completed Murphy’s transition from burgeoning talent to superstar, so did he offer Mbatha any career advice?
"Eddie did that in a way by creating a really open, collaborative set," she says.
"I could chill with the director [Craig Brewer] and be behind the monitor and watch how Eddie prepares and how dedicated he is to his work. It was really inspiring.
"Also, Eddie is even funnier in real life, he has some of the most amazing stories, especially those about having Prince as his neighbour.”
Proud to be at Expo 2020 Dubai
Mbatha shared some of these career experiences during events held at the South Africa Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai, alongside fellow high-profile nationals, including former Miss Universe Zozibini Tunzi.
Her Expo visit, Mbatha says, was more than a celebrity appearance.
Her country’s presence at the Expo is not for show, but is a showcase of its vibrant society, especially its thriving cultural sector.
"See our pavilion here in Dubai was great because it’s about knowing that we have an equal footing and that we earned our place to be in the international market. I came here to meet my international peers and it is through those conversations that our industry will grow,” she says.
“The fact that I managed to make something out of myself from a small part of the world speaks to the power of possibilities in South Africa and what can be cultivated by South Africans.”