Nikki M. James
(© Tristan Fuge)
Nikki M. James
(© Tristan Fuge)
Nikki M. James has starred in such musicals as All Shook Up, Bernarda Alba, and The Wiz, but the super-talented actress has graduated to a new level of notoriety playing the sweet-natured African native Nabulungi in the smash-hit musical The Book of Mormon. TheaterMania recently spoke to James about taking part in this unusual show.

THEATERMANIA: Congratulations on being part of the season's biggest hit! Did you expect the kind of reaction you're getting from audiences?
NIKKI M. JAMES: We always thought we were outrageously funny, but you never know if audiences will share your sensibility, especially with some of the subject matter we're dealing with here. I remember we had a group meeting before performances started and we were told to be very protective about the material to the press, and I thought "Should we hire security? Are people not ready for this? Are we doing Corpus Christi?" So I would say I was apprehensive, but hopeful that people would dig it. And now that they do, it's kind of like I want to brag to everyone, "Hey. I was I was there in the beginning."

TM: Why do you think audiences are loving the show so much?
NMJ: I think it's a bizarre love letter to the American musical. I think a lot of people love how smartly self-referential it is to musical theater, but it's not so self-referential that you can't enjoy it if you don't get the references to The King and I or Wicked. There is nothing worse than an inside joke to a non-theater audience. I think what really comes through is how much Trey Parker and Matt Stone love musical theater, and pairing with Bobby Lopez is just genius. I also think people get that we're poking fun at the Mormons, but it's not totally mean spirited. And I think maybe people expected us to talk about polygamy or how Joseph Smith was a con artist, and we're not doing that. What we're really talking about is how faith can change you as a person.

TM: Was there one moment in the show, audience-wise, that really surprised you?
NMJ: The reaction we get every night at the end of the pageant we do for the Mormon visitors still shocks me every night. I am floored that it literally stops the show. I am delivering it as direct address, and I was a little nervous at first, but now I've become a little brave and I actually make eye contact with audience.

TM: Speaking of eye contact, can you see when there are celebrities in the audience?
NMJ. Sometimes. I looked out one night during the pageant, and I was looking right into the face of Tom Hanks. The other night, I saw Sandra Bullock was here. Sometimes, they come back to say hi, but for the most part, they're not here for the photo op. They're paying customers who just want to see this show.

TM: Is there a particular celebrity who might come and make you incredibly nervous?
NMJ: It's already happened. Audra McDonald came to our final dress rehearsal, and that made me really nervous. To me, she's the end-all and be-all: this ridiculously gifted, talented African-American actress who can sing and do drama. We'd met socially, but I don't think she'd seen me perform before that night. I feel so blessed that she came back and said so many nice things to me.

TM: Other then celebrities, you seem to have attracted a really young audience. How does that make you feel?
NMJ: It's amazing, especially because we're not pandering to a young audience. It's not about teenagers jumping on stage. I came of age during the Rent years and I slept on the street to see that show for $20, so when I come by the theater during the day and there's already this huge cancellation or rush line, it's exciting. And they're also a lot of young men seeing the show -- not necessarily with their girlfriends and sometimes in groups -- and I hope our show will make them realize musical theater is something they might like and understand.

TM: Tell me a little bit about working with Josh Gad, who plays your sort-of-love interest?
NMJ: He is so lovable and accessible as an artist, and so much fun to play with and be around. And every night, he will find new things to do as an actor. And because of that, he can still crack me up on stage, so I've had to learn not to break character. I think I'm developing the best poker face in the business. In fact, once I learn to play poker, I might just move to Atlantic City and make some money at it.

TM: One of my favorite things in the show is how Josh's character never remembers your name is Nabulungi and calls you all these other names starting with N. How did that bit happen?
NMJ: It was a holdover from one silly rehearsal. For a while, he used to just mispronounce my name -- sort of mix the letters up -- and then one day someone said, what if you call her something that's not her name. During rehearsals, he called me Nathan Lane, Nipple Cream. Nagasaki. Now, I think he has some kind of official rotation. I think Nala is my favorite, although during Oscar time, I really wanted him to call me Natalie Portman.

TM: It's starting to be theater awards time. Are you thinking about them?
NMJ: I've been thinking about awards since I was 5 years old, so yes. But doing the show to get an award is not my job. If they reward me with an award, well, then that's icing on the cake.