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Shari Headley Beats Debut Odds in ‘Coming to America’

The odds against an actress making her film debut co-starring with the hottest male star in the world are about as long as those against Elaine May getting a go-ahead on “Ishtar 2.” But 24-year-old Shari Headley did just that, being chosen to star opposite Eddie Murphy in the current summer hit “Coming to America.”

Headley doesn’t seem to be overwhelmed by either her selection for the role or the media attention she’s getting because of it.

“I don’t think in terms of competition and stardom,” she said. “It hasn’t hit me yet. I’ve gotten a few offers already, but I’m not eager to commit to anything yet. My main concern is not to get locked into one specific character.”

Headley was chosen for “Coming to America” by director John Landis, but Murphy had cast approval and agreed with Landis’ judgment.

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“I was instantly impressed by her easygoing sincere personality,” Murphy said, during a recent interview. “She has a quiet confidence. The only advice I ever gave her was probably bad advice, like ‘When they knock on your trailer and say you’re needed on the set now, that means you’ve got 5 minutes before you should go.’ ”

Headley was born and raised in Queens, N. Y., not far from where much of the movie was shot. Without her knowledge, she was entered by her sister in the Eileen Ford Agency’s 1984 “Face of the Eighties” contest.

She became a finalist in the contest and soon after was a regular Ford model appearing in such magazines as Glamour, Seventeen and Mademoiselle.

Getting her first two acting credits was a lot harder.

“I had to audition seven times to play a teen-age girl who witnesses a murder on an episode of ‘Miami Vice,’ Headley said. “When I got the role, I was so proud because I wasn’t playing a junkie or a bad person, plus I was on screen 22 minutes.

“I went to read once for the part of a girl who thought she was pregnant on ‘The Cosby Show.’ My girlfriend and I were reading the script outside of Bill’s office and we started making up our own characters. A writer heard us talking and told Bill about us. He had us do these new characters twice live on the rehearsals.”

Cosby eventually decided to cut the episode back and Headley ended up with just one line on the show, she said.

It is not easy stealing scenes from Eddie Murphy, but during a New York press junket for “Coming to America,” Headley got everyone’s attention by talking about her love scene with Murphy and giving him an 11, on a scale of 1 to 10, as a kisser.

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“When I said that, I knew a lot of people--particularly men--wouldn’t understand. . . . It’s a female thing, like trying to tell a man what it’s like to have a baby.”

As for the recent tabloid articles linking her with Murphy, the actress rolled her eyes in mock disgust and lets out a sigh: “Eddie makes me laugh and I’m very respectful of him. But the thought of the two of us having a romance is the biggest laugh between us.”

Headley said she’s aware that few models have made a successful transition to acting.

“Listen, I went to school planning to be a doctor,” she said. “Some day, I may go back to studying medicine. I always wanted to be an actress, but I never planned to be a model. So now when people ask me if this is a good time for black actresses or new actresses, I don’t have an answer.

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“What I know is I’ve gotten a great shot to have the career I always dreamed about and I’m going to take this golden opportunity to the outer limits.”


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