Nomzamo Mbatha might not be a household name stateside just yet, but she’s very much a leading lady in her home country of South Africa. There, she’s starred in the popular soap opera IsiBaya, played a villain on the series Umlilo, and acted in the feature film Tell Me Something, which earned her a nomination for best actress at the Africa Movie Academy Awards in 2016. Outside of screens, she’s worked as an ambassador for brands like Puma, Neutrogena, and L’Oréal Hair, as well as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. She moved to America in 2019 after, fittingly, landing a role in Coming 2 America, the much-anticipated sequel to the 1988 cult classic Coming to America.
Mbatha plays Mirembe, a character she describes as “charming, witty, smart, and someone with something different to offer.” She was drawn to her for that reason, along with the fact that, similar to Mirembe, she’s a proud African woman. While the country of Zamunda in Coming to America might be fictional, as Mbatha explains, the film created an opulent image of Blackness rarely depicted in movies. “For a long time, African people were portrayed as savages, as lesser than, as uneducated, as slaves and then there was Coming to America that portrayed African people in their most regal and royal way—in the most hyper-imagined way,” Mbatha says. “That spoke volumes and, to this day, people host parties and themes around the movie because it was a cultural shift. Before your Black Panther even, way before. I know that it meant a lot even as a kid watching it and it means even more to obviously be part of it.”
Ahead, we chatted with Mbatha about her post-pandemic plans, settling into L.A. life, and the heightened importance of her humanitarian work.
Where are you quarantining at the moment?
I'm in L.A. I barely made it in because [there was an] order to ban South Africans or anyone who's traveled to South Africa. I was home for Christmas and New Years and literally landed the day before the order, so I was lucky enough to make it in because, if I didn’t, it would be a different story right now.
Before you went home for the holidays, were you in L.A. for the majority of the pandemic?
Yes, I’ve been quarantining in LA. I made the big move in January 2019 so it's officially been two years of living in the U.S., but before the pandemic, I would go home every month just because I would commute for projects and I was always traveling. If I'm not home, I'm in Europe doing work. I've always been the girl who's catching flights, not feelings [LAUGHS]. That was me before the pandemic and, you know, the pandemic has given us a new reality. Luckily, last year, I got to go home around my birthday which was really good. I was able to go to Johannesburg, do the government quarantine, got out just in time for my birthday, and celebrated my dirty thirty which was a very clean dirty thirty.
It's been interesting just surviving a pandemic because you think you’re surviving, you think you’re fine and you've got good things around you, but I think a lot of people went through this weird depressive state in November and December of actually no, this is not normal. This is not it. I definitely went into my little dip in November where I was like, okay, I'm tired of fighting for my survival and actually, I am mad...I'm mad that I had plans this year and these plans didn't happen. I'm mad that I haven't been able to travel and get this thing that gives me the kick to keep going.
It does feel like the fog is lifting a bit now with the vaccines.
Oh, for sure. Even though we're still in uncertain times with all of the questions but yeah it's good. There's some glimmer of hope.
Have you learned anything about yourself during this time?
Yes, I learned so much about myself. Didn’t we all? Sounds cliché, but I was able to do a lot of soul-searching, trusting my journey more and that I was doing enough and as much as I could in the middle of a pandemic. I never got to reflect on my journey over the years because I would always be traveling or chasing the next. Being still for a year gave me time to realize just how brave I’ve been with my life. I’m happy for this girl. She is enough and she is doing enough.
Being still for a year gave me time to realize just how brave I’ve been with my life. I’m happy for this girl. She is enough and she is doing enough.
What’s your routine like and has it shifted since the beginning of the pandemic?
It definitely has. I used to work out every morning at hot Pilates, which is my favorite workout routine. Then I would go to the markets to go jewelry or book shopping on a Sunday or discover different pockets of L.A. Since the pandemic, so much changed. I can’t do hot Pilates because of the space confines being against the laws, I still don’t feel safe going to markets and crowded places. Things I genuinely miss!
Do you feel settled into your L.A. life?
Well, the culture shock is gone now, I feel like this is my home. I'll leave South Africa and be like, "Okay, bye guys, love you, going home now." And my mom's like, "Home, where? This is your home." So I definitely feel more settled. I can cross the road now without feeling like a car's gonna knock me because you guys drive on the other side. There is a huge adjustment to it, but I have a community of people. Sir John [the makeup artist] is like my brother so I'm with him all the time, he lives down the street from me. We formed a bond because he traveled to South Africa and we're both Cancers [laughs]. He's been a great grounding force in my mood. I have a community of people that I do life with and help make this place feel like home.
You’re very involved and passionate about humanitarian work. Has the importance of that work heightened since the pandemic started?
Oh, definitely. I know all about humanitarian aid relief because of my work with the UN which is whenever there's a conflict or whenever there's some kind of change that's going to affect people that causes some kind of human migration. And a pandemic is that—it is a disturbance in the normal flow of society. There was a huge need, especially in countries that are developing such as South Africa and a lot of countries that are underdeveloped across the African continent, that already relied on a lot of aid from Europe and obviously those companies are not doing well, so they're going to cut down on any kind of aid that they're giving. You’re also going to go through donor fatigue.
We're doing a rollout plan for school children right now to give away school shoes, school jerseys, and stationery as well as personal care stuff. So, yeah, definitely a cause that's very close to my heart. Even now I don't sleep until two in the morning because I have to communicate with my team in South Africa who work for my foundation; I have to be on emails, we have to be on calls. I'm constantly just working around the clock. I do my glamorous side of my life, but what truly takes a lot of my time is the stuff on the ground.
What are you doing for self-care and especially for your mental health right now?
You know the mightiest but smallest act is putting your phone on flight mode and taking it off the WiFi. Choosing a day and not being reachable, even if it's just for an hour or two hours. I'll switch off my phone and switch it back on and get back into the calls and back into the meetings. It frustrates my manager sometimes but, you know, sorry. I know that when my mind is healthy, I'm able to operate better. I'm able to be better for myself, I'm able to be better for the people around me. I've also gotten into the Peloton app, which is so revolutionary [LAUGHS]. Sometimes I don't want to work out for 45 minutes and put my body through that, sometimes I just have five minutes. So I've gotten into the quick exercises. What else have I been doing? I don't have a hobby, sadly enough, but I'll watch movies.
Speaking of movies, Coming 2 America just came out. It must be strange to go through this career-changing moment during a pandemic. What has that experience been like?
I wrapped the movie in November/December 2019 and as soon as I got off set I was like, "call Oscar de la Renta! Call Dior, darling! My premiere dress needs to be ready!" [LAUGHS] And, well, here we are. So it changed a lot. All of the big plans that we looked forward to and thought would be able to happen are just not gonna happen. It was a huge adjustment but I think, also, I know a lot of people who have lost loved ones, and, honestly, the only thing that is important right now is to stay alive. So if we need to stay indoors for that, let's stay indoors. If we need to be creative and adjust how we move forward, then that's what we're going to have to do until we're normal again.
Going to shift gears a little to talk about beauty. The U.S. definitely has different beauty ideals depending on where you are. Since you’re on the west coast, do you find the west coasters approach to beauty is different than people in South Africa, and which do you identify with the most?
The west coast is very particular, it's very self-absorbed. Vanity is everything, perfection is the name of the game. But it also works for the world that this is. I don't think there's anywhere in the world that you can go to that is like Los Angeles or like the west coast because this is the place where nothing exists. People come here to believe in this magic and live in the abyss. So I think it works for that. I think that's different from South Africa in that, as big as the beauty industry is in terms of everybody's into makeup, everybody's into skincare, everyone’s into healthy hair and going natural and also staying on top of your game and being glossy and beautiful, it's not as superficial I would say as the west coast. And the pressure isn't as much. I think there are huge pressures here in terms of beauty standards. It’s scary.
I will say that the approach to beauty that I lean toward the most or try to live up to the most is the skin-deep mentality. Keep your mind healthy, keep your heart healthy, keep your chakras open. Do your little sage, drink your green tea, clear bad energy, attract goodness, give goodness, and that's where you get the glow from the inside out.
What does your skincare routine look like? I know that you were Neutrogena's first South African brand ambassador.
For me, I'm about the integrity of a product above everything. I've never been a person that follows beauty fads just because people are paid to say stuff. I'm like, "Do you really use it?’ That's what people used to say with me about Neutrogena and I'm like, "Try the Hydro Boost range, try the spot curing range and call me." And let me tell you people call me and are like, "Okay, you're right."
But I'm definitely not a simple person when it comes to my skincare routine. I don't do heavy makeup, so my skin always has to be at its healthiest. I am your exfoliating queen, I daily wash to make sure that she's nice and moisturized, it's hydrated. I am a believer in serums; I adore, adore, adore sunscreen. I remember when I started in the industry, a makeup artist asked me, "Do you use sunscreen?’ And I was like, "No, Black people don't need to." He was like, "Oh my dear, we have to start from scratch, we have to teach you some things." From that day, I've never not worn sunscreen, even when I'm inside the house.
It's so strange, I used to be so against facials. I used to think they were going to ruin my skin because I've got sensitive skin, but if you find a really good aesthetician, they'll be able to give you the glow if you want that extra boost. I'm also obsessed with masking. I don't want to say that I'm great at sticking to a nighttime routine because I'm not. I would be lying. Sometimes I will go to bed with my makeup, I know I'm not supposed to say this but I do. If I'm really tired, I'm just like, "Sorry pillow, sorry skin." and I'll wake up in the middle of the night at like 3 a.m. and I'll wash my face. So I'm good and bad when it comes to my skincare.
Do you have a desert island beauty product?
Well, I guess if we're in the desert, we'll need sunscreen, right? The Neutrogena sunscreen is really great. And if it's not sunscreen, I'd probably bring the Hydro Boost serum which I think is pertinent to every single skincare routine. Anything with hyaluronic acid, bring it on.
What about hair care, do you have a regimen?
I'm enjoying Auntie Jackie's Curl La La, it brings out the kinks in my curl. I always thought that I had a particular curl pattern until I started using their product. I love Mielle Organics, I think their oils are good. They have a hair growth oil that does the job. Shea Moisture has good conditioners for me and their shampoos are really gentle for the hair. And then you know edge control, gotta keep them laid. I like Instant Control because it doesn't leave a white residue, it's nice and smooth and snatches it. But I also see that Got2b is taking over the market so I guess I have to try them. What I've learned about my natural hair over the years is to keep your hair hydrated and just leave it alone.
Is there anything you’re especially looking forward to when we come out on the other side of this?
I am looking forward to traveling again. When I did my global press junket, just hearing people’s accents, I'm like damn I want to be in Italy, and hearing, "would you like pasta with olive oil?" I just miss that. Morocco is on my list of places to go because I’ve been wanting to go to Marrakech, I think it's so beautiful. I want to go to Tokyo, I need to go back to the Amalfi Coast in Italy. I miss the world, Taylor, I miss the world. And concerts! I think a concert is a farfetched thing, but I need to see Mrs. Carter perform.
If anyone's going to figure out the post-pandemic concert situation, it's Beyoncé.
She's gonna figure it out. I know she's got the vaccine like this *snaps* so, hurry up, we're waiting.
Do you have celebrations planned for the release of Coming 2 America, a watch party or anything like that?
Yes! Mind you, I’m the girl who switches off her phone on her birthday because I don't like to be bothered. I don't celebrate anything, but at this moment I really want to. So right now I'm looking for a venue that will accommodate lots of balloons, lots of flowers and I'm going to put up a screen and a projector and then have pillows outside and blankets and a bunch of heaters and just watch the movie. So, yes, I'm definitely planning a watch party that's going to have lots of champagne, copious amounts of champagne.
Beautiful, you deserve to celebrate this moment.
Yeah, I don't want to just let it pass. There are so many things that have happened in my life and I've just been like, okay, it's whatever, on to the next, because I'm so ambitious. But this one I'm like no, we're going to celebrate. So I'll be popping champagne.