Actress Says She Didn’t Want Iconic ‘Coming to America’ Role


Vanessa Bell Calloway as Lady Ella Johnson in Bounce TV's "Saints & Sinners."
Vanessa Bell Calloway as Lady Ella Johnson in Bounce TV’s “Saints & Sinners.” (Photo: Bounce TV)

Though it’s been nearly 30 years since we saw Vanessa Bell Calloway as Princess Imani in “Coming to America,” many people can’t help but sing “she’s your queen to be” when they see her today. Yep, girlfriend still looks amazing.

“I work out. I don’t drink any sodas or coffee. The only thing I drink is tea with no sugar, lots of water and wine. Mainly, I just try to eat fish and lots and lots of veggies, lots of green stuff. I do my own juices. That’s it. I just try,” explained the 59-year-old Calloway, who is a former dancer.

Anyone who’s followed Calloway’s career over the past few decades can see that her discipline is paying off. But looks alone won’t just carry an actress. Talent is also necessary to have the longevity and full resume that Calloway possesses. It’s the reason why viewers have seen her on at least three TV shows this spring, including the Bounce TV breakout “Saints & Sinners.” 

Vanessa Bell Calloway channelling her "Coming to America" character in a recent photoshoot. (Photo: Instagram)
Vanessa Bell Calloway channelling her “Coming to America” character in a recent photoshoot. (Photo: Instagram)

She stars as Lady Ella Johnson, an ex-beauty queen turned powerful first lady of an influential church, in the drama that’s been described as “Empire” for the church. And Lady Ella isn’t your typical preacher’s wife who just sits pretty or stands behind her man.

“When I was offered the part and I read it, what struck me immediately is that Lady Ella had power. And, not only her but the other women in the script as well. That was very appealing to me,” Calloway says.

When Calloway isn’t starring as the scheming Lady Ella, you can watch her as Carol Fisher on Showtime’s “Shameless” and she’ll be starring in TV One’s “The Miki Howard Story” and “Southside with You,” a film about President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama’s first date debuting in August.  She also recently guest starred on ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy.”

I recently caught up with Calloway who didn’t bite her tongue when it came to expressing her thoughts on how the American slave narrative is portrayed on film and in TV, the 2016 presidential election and explains why she didn’t want to play Princess Imani in “Coming to America.”

All eight episodes of “Saints & Sinners” will air as a marathon June 5 on Bounce TV.

WATCH: Vanessa Bell Calloway in “Grey’s Anatomy”


Your “Saints & Sinners” character Lady Ella is ambitious, strategic and complex. Why is it important to see a black female character like this on TV?

VANESSA BELL CALLOWAY: We’re multifaceted. We come in a lot of different forms. Recently, in the last five years or so, we’re seeing black females come to the forefront of television. Movie’s got to catch up. We see Viola [Davis], we see Kerry [Washington], we see Gabrielle [Union] — we’ve got a lot of sisters now who are playing these multidimensional characters, so it’s important. We’re more than just slaves, moms, teachers, doctors and lawyers. We’re a lot of things. The first lady—this is not a made up character. There really are hundreds of first ladies across the country. Now, I imagine a lot of them may not be all into what Lady Ella is into—this is not a statement toward or against a first lady anywhere or at any church. But, I’m sure there are first ladies around this country who are not just typical first ladies. I’m sure there are some who are movers and shakers in their communities and, although they do stand by their husbands, I’m sure that they have some secrets. They’re human, too. So, it’s important to play different people so that we can see all of the different colors that African-American women come in.

You said that we are more than just slaves. What are your thoughts on how the American slave narrative is being told on TV and film, especially with TV shows like WGN America’s “Underground” and the History Channel’s remaking of “Roots”?

CALLOWAY: It’s part of our past. I don’t have a problem with it because it’s a part of our history. I think it’s important to have that narrative come up every now and again because we have younger generations who know nothing about it. They know nothing about the Civil Rights movement either. And if they read it, it’s in school—if they read it. I don’t have a problem with the narrative coming up as long as we still have shows like “Scandal” and “How to Get Away with Murder”— a plethora of slices of life of black people and what we do on a regular basis, what we hope to do, who we are now and not just TV shows about slaves. I personally like “Underground” right now. I’m enjoying that and that’s one of my friend Anthony Hemingway’s projects. The reason why I’m enjoying it is that we’re seeing a different perspective; we’re seeing the slave’s perspective. And we’re also seeing the abolitionist’s perspective. We’ve never seen that in slave movies. It’s always just the master and not the slave. We’re seeing the slave revolt and we’re seeing that there were actually some kind souls who thought it was wrong. If you’re going to do a slave narrative, it’s nice to have different perspectives and not the same story. I did see “Birth of a Nation” at Sundance. It’s very good. Some of it is hard to watch but it’s good. I want to see some comedies, dramas— I want to see it all— then I don’t have a problem with the slave narrative. We don’t only need to educate our kids but the young white kids, too.

WATCH: Vanessa Bell Calloway in “Shameless” 


Back to “Saints & Sinners”: How is this telling of the black church experience different than others we’ve seen?

CALLOWAY: The obvious is because it’s more drama on the sinning end than on the sainting end. I haven’t seen a lot movies dealing with the black church but the ones that I did see were pretty typical to me. I know Oprah has something coming out. I did read that pilot but it was nothing like our show, so I don’t know that there has been a show like this. Folks are little scared to say anything derogatory when they’re portraying the black church because they feel it’s disrespectful. Our creator Ty Grant is not trying to send a message. Unless you see yourself, unless you feel you need redemption, unless you’re a sinner and you can connect, then that’s your message. It’s pure entertainment. She’s not making a statement against anybody’s church, anybody’s community, anybody’s first lady or pastor. I think we need to give ourselves permission as black creative people and black audiences to just be entertained. Everything doesn’t have to have a message and a meaning just because we’re black people.

What stories other stories about the black experience should be told?

CALLOWAY: Like I said, slice of life. My everyday experience may be different than yours. We have all different types of stories in the black community and I’m interested in hearing those stories. I just like good stories with good content, great characters and good arcs and 180 degrees turnaround with the situations to be told. That’s what white people do. We’ve been watching white people’s slice of life, now let’s watch ours.

Why is now a good time to showcase black soap opera-like dramas like “Empire,” “The Haves and the Havenots” and “Saints & Sinners”?

CALLOWAY: When the industry saw that a black woman —because we are treated lower than a black man in Hollywood— could carry a show, get Emmy-nominated and people tune in, and then, yes, a black woman can carry another successful show, it helped change the game. It’s time. It think Hollywood is finally getting it that our stories are interesting and that people want to see them. Let’s get real: They’re running out of stuff. Hollywood keeps remaking things over and over again. Now it’s like, let’s see it from a fresh black perspective. As antiquated as the system is, because it has a long way to go, I think it’s getting better and it’s about time.

WATCH: Vanessa Bell Calloway with Denzel Washington in “Crimson Tide” 


What has your experience been like in Hollywood? What has changed and what hasn’t changed?

CALLOWAY: I would be remised to say that things haven’t progressed because they have. Now is it enough? No. Hollywood has this history of saying, “OK, we’re going to do some black stuff” and then it falls out. Then it says again, “OK, We’re going to do some other black stuff” and then it falls out. I think this time, especially after the white Oscar season, that this is not going to fall out, but we have wait and see. It’s just challenging. I look at these young girls now and I’m so happy for them and pray that they know what they’ve been blessed with. They don’t get how lucky they are with the career choices they are getting ready to make. Because back when I was that age, you didn’t have a career choice. It was like you just looked for work. It wasn’t like you could say, “Oh, I’m just going to do movies.” Good luck with that one because you just took what they could give you as a working actress. A lot of these young people coming up now, they go from show to show or movie to movie or they have the opportunity to at least be up for certain things. It just was a lot of different in the business when I was in my 20s and 30s even. I was very busy. I worked. I did a lot of great work but opportunities for a lot of actresses now just weren’t available to me or peers at the time.

You will star as Josephine Howard in TV One’s “The Miki Howard Story.” How familiar were you with Josephine’s story and even Miki’s story before taking this role?

CALLOWAY: I’m very excited about this. I’ve known Miki for years and we’ve been very friendly. I loved Miki for years and she’s had a respect for me as well. I didn’t know anything about her mother, but I knew she had a troubled past though I didn’t know the depths of it until I read the script. I talked with her because I wanted to make sure I was portraying her mother accurately. Her mother was bipolar and Miki loved her unconditionally. I wanted to make sure I had a great sense of who her mother was. Christine Swanson directed this well and wait until you see this lighting. Baby, it is gorgeous! Teyonah Parris plays Miki. She does an outstanding job. It’s really going to be a very good movie for TV One. It looks like a film and not a TV movie. It’s beautifully shot and beautifully directed. I’m very excited

You starred in “The Obama Effect” and “Southside with You.” What legacy do you think the Obamas will leave when they exit the White House?

CALLOWAY: Well, I’m personally in awe with both of them. I think that she is exquisite. Who could’ve been a better black first lady than she? He’s been great. I think his legacy will be appreciated after he’s gone. We all know the deal, we know our friends the Republicans have been after him since he put his hand on that Bible and have done anything they could to stain his legacy. I think that when he leaves, I think everyone will be singing his praises after the next four years or so. I think they’ve done an outstanding job. They’ve had everything thrown at them. For God’s sake, they put him on the cover of a magazine insuating he’s a monkey and they’ve talked about Michelle’s butt. Who does that?

WATCH: Vanessa Bell Calloway in “Coming to America” trailer 


What are your thoughts on this current election cycle?

CALLOWAY: You mean the zoo? The circus? I’ll tell you this: I wasn’t one to watch the Republican debates, but I’ve found these Republican debates entertaining. I was like, what the hell? All, I can say is that we need to put our seatbelt on because it’s going to be a bumpy ride and any black person who can vote needs to crawl to the polls. Go! Because, we’re going to need every vote. We need to come out in droves like we did for Obama.

Beyoncé channeled your “Coming to America” character at the 2015 Met Gala while she and Jay Z’s daughter Blue Ivy dressed up like her last Halloween. Are you surprised by the film’s longevity and that it’s become a classic?

CALLOWAY: I’m not anymore. It’ll be 28 years old this June and 28 years later, when I tell you, the new fans I’ve gotten, it’s an honor. The funny thing is that I didn’t want that part. I didn’t want Princess Imani, I wanted the part that Shari Headley played. So, I went out and bought this crinkly-textured wig called the Imani and went in to read for the part. I go to read for director John Landis and he’s like, “I like your hair. There’s this other part, the part of this princess…” And I know what part he’s talking about because I read the script. And in my mind, I’m thinking, “Sh-t, I don’t want this part I want the other part.” The princess part is smaller but I auditioned for the producers and Eddie Murphy in the wig and they all said they liked my hair. So, I just think that story is funny because the job I didn’t want ended up being one of the most pivotal roles that people still talk about today. So, you never know. I feel that buying the wig called Imani and the character’s name is called Imani, so it’s like a foreshadowing.

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