Colman Domingo’s laugh is everything you hope it could be. Big, throaty, warm. It’s probably a little disarming even for those who haven’t seen the full estimable range of his work and only know him from, say, AMC’s zombie series Fear the Walking Dead. I first met him off the clock at a bar during the Toronto Film Festival a few years ago. Though I don’t usually approach celebrities in non-work circumstances I risked it if only to express appreciation (actors who’ve always been out of the closet deserve our respect). We ended up chatting over a drink. When I bring this chance meeting up, rather than shrugging off the awkward familiarity Colman begins to laugh. “We sure did!” he says enthusiastically before drifting into conversation — as so many of us now do — about how much he misses meeting and hugging people in person.
We spoke over Zoom in February, almost a year into the pandemic. Despite the shut-down which derailed plans for so much of Hollywood, he hasn’t really stopped working. He’s one of the industry’s most popular character actors and also writes and has been developing TV projects. “I’ve always been the artist that’s like ‘Oh, okay. If that’s not working out, what else am I getting into?” he explains. “I don’t just sit and pause.’ He jumped back in front of cameras as soon as he could filming episodes of Bottomless Brunch at Colman’s and shooting a special two character episode of HBO’s Zendaya-led drama Euphoria. After that it was filming season six of Fear the Walking Dead. We talked about working with Chadwick Boseman on his last film (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), Colman’s reliable magic with female co-stars, and his next projects. [This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.]
NATHANIEL: First of all, congratulations! This season you’ve received a SAG “cast” nomination, and NAACP and Spirit Award nominations for Best Supporting Actor. It’s been quite a ride with Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
COLMAN DOMINGO: That’s nice, right? I’ll take it, yeah. As we know, a lot of times good work or the work that you put into it is not recognized. And so it’s nice when it is.
Most people think of consistently working actors as “famous” and showered with prizes, etcetera but most aren’t. Really. You’ve been at this a long time.
COLMAN DOMINGO: No, they’re working. They’re just working actors. I’m a working stiff [Laughter]
You started on the stage so did Ma Rainey feel like coming home in a way.
COLMAN DOMINGO: Absolutely! I haven’t been on stage in maybe six years so it did feel like a homecoming in a way. I love that we honored its theater roots, which is giving us a full rehearsal period where we’re able to do dramaturgical work. Every part of it just felt like it was in my wheelhouse.
I have to ask about your amazing rapport with your female costars. Your marriage to Regina King in If Beale Street Could Talk had so much texture. And in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom the authenticity of this working relationship with Viola. Cutler is constantly mediating and trying to please her, but you can tell she also respects him. It’s so precisely drawn.
COLMAN DOMINGO: I love that because it is a very complicated relationship. He has his power but his power is attached to Ma’s power. Out of everyone, she trusts him the most and trust him to be her proxy when she’s not in the room and do her bidding. And so I think that he knows he owes his power to Ma’s power, but even with that, his job is to make sure that Ma is seeing every point of view, So I’m the one that has to go in for the tough conversations, to be thrown to the wolves, but that’s the job.
That one scene that we did together was so special for us because there was a level of vulnerability that Ma allows herself with him that she does not allow with anyone else. I knew at some point we had to touch, I just knew that. So I was like, ‘George and Viola, is there some way that they can just touch? It shouldn’t be a whole moment. Brief. Something to reveal that Ma was a bit more kindhearted and warm than she is on this day.’ Cutler knows Ma as a good time. He knows her as, you know, someone who is soft and gentle, but she just can not allow herself to be that on this day because she had so many systems up against her, challenging her music, her musicianship, the way she does things. Cutler can get her to a tender space. And I know there was a moment where she slapped my hand after she says, you know, ‘that’s all right by me.’
Love that scene.
COLMAN DOMINGO: I wish there was an edit that shows when the other characters come back in. We made a choice to just immediately take our hands away. Cutler wants to make sure that Ma is never seen as vulnerable to the rest of the band. You don’t get to see this part!
Amazing. Basically my point in asking about the rapport is that if I was an actress and I needed a male co-star I would demand you. You bring out such interesting things in your scene partners whether it’s Zendaya, Regina, Viola…
COLMAN DOMINGO: I know that they, they ultimately trust me. They know I’m a feminist times a hundred and they know that I want to take care of them as well. There’s nothing that I think that we can’t do together because I always put a safe space around them so they can be their full selves.
All of these interpersonal dynamics, are these intuitive things or are you having intense conversations with your costars to create them?
COLMAN DOMINGO: I think a lot of it is intuitive. The level of actresses that I’m able to work with are so high feeling, so high thought interrogation that they’re very open. They can see what you’re going to bring. I will say with Regina King, we didn’t have huge conversations about that marriage. All I knew was in our text that they were equals. That he lived in a house that was dominated by females and that he was very much a feminist, whether he could acknowledge it or even give words to that. He helped raised strong women and was married to a strong woman who went to Puerto Rico on her own in the seventies, while he did the nurturing at home. It’s unique when it comes to looking at African-American experiences.
Have you felt your career shift suddenly or has this all been gradual for you since, say, the Tony nomination for Scottsboro Boys.
COLMAN DOMINGO: It was always the slow crawl. I got some attention in New York [in 2008] when I did Passing Strange. I know I was seen as a character actor that was sort of outside of the box being an African-American man. I think you can’t really think of the African-American Gary Oldman or the African-American Daniel Day Lewis. You know what I mean? I can. I can think of Harry Belafonte Jr. and some of his roles which are incredible — I’ve always likened myself to be one of those actors, which may take a little longer to get some traction because, you know, we shape shift and become different people. They can’t really pin me down. ‘Oh, Colman does that.‘
Now I think they see. ‘Oh, he can transform.’ To be honest, when I was nominated for a Tony for Scottsboro Boys [afterwards] I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t seen as a musical theater guy because that’s not what I do. I just happened to be in that musical doing character work. I can sing and I can dance, but I would never consider myself a Norm Lewis or a Billy Porter.
COLMAN DOMINGO: So I pulled away and did small plays after that. I’ve always been careful to sort of craft my own career and narrative. I think that’s why the ride is a little longer.
That makes sense.
COLMAN DOMINGO: The succession of films, recently. I guess the blessing is I know for sure, if I don’t know anything else, that people have been watching my work for years and wanting to make spaces for me in their films and television projects. So the things that I’ve gotten into recently were all offers. They were all people who saw what I could bring to a project, not only as an actor, but as a thinker, and as a creative. People would just say, ‘Hey, Colman, what do you think about this scene? What thoughts do you have? And I can rewrite it in some way.’
It actually makes sense to me that I’ve never just ascended to like a Marvel Universe or something like that. People don’t know what to do with me, but I think now they’re getting an idea because they keep seeing me playing these varied roles. If Beale Street Could Talk was very seminal in my career. People were actually able to see me, in my fullness, of what I bring. And then shows like Euphoria and Fear of the Walking Dead. And you know, I still write musicals and plays. People are finally getting it that I do everything. They’re not trying to put me in a box.
This was my next question. Since you’re a writer, too, do you foresee yourself writing your own starring vehicle, like Radha Blank just did with The 40 Year Old Version?
COLMAN DOMINGO: Absolutely. Radha and I have been comrades for years. I directed her in her first solo show and we all come from the same ethos when it comes to creating. I’ve always been a writer, director, producer AND actor. You do what’s necessary. I have a couple of my plays that I’ve been thinking of adapting it to films, but I’m not a person that feels like I’ve got to write it and direct it and be in it. I like the collaborative process.
Hollywood has been making strides around increased diversity and representation these past few years. The change is even beginning to happen for gay actors but you’ve been out for years. Have you felt this shift?
COLMAN DOMINGO: To be honest, Nathaniel, I’ve always had my nose to the grindstone actually creating work in all these different mediums. So I feel like I didn’t have a chance to really notice the broad strokes of the industry. Again, I’ve always been out and I’ve always been a multi-hyphenate. Anytime work wasn’t available, I was creating it. So I didn’t know that there was a lack of an opportunity in some way, you know what I mean? [Laughter]
But I do recognize that this is a great time for African-American artists and also openly gay artists. I think it’s going to be very interesting to see. I know that there are not many people like me who are openly gay and play straight roles all the time. I know that I’m an anomaly in that way. I look forward to when there’s more of me. I think you have to be fearless in believing that you can — that it can be about the work and not about who you go home to.
I would be remiss if I didn’t ask about Chadwick Boseman. Awards season has been justifiably filled with tributes. But you have such an antagonistic relationship with him in the movie. What was that like to play?
COLMAN DOMINGO: The funniest thing is the cuts that have made it into the film were tempered down just a bit. There are some takes where I was just so on his ass and just hammering him. We wanted to find that balance where it was not just antagonistic. You’re antagonistic because you want to understand or be understood or to love someone more. Even the antagonism comes from respect. What do you do to someone that you hold in high esteem and respect? You try to tear them down a little bit, to make them a bit more human.
These are the levels we were playing. Chad and I had known each other since New York theater and been comrades for a long time. We were always excited to work with each other, and this was our first chance to really work with each other. We’re both Sagittarians and we were born one day after each other. And we understood each other in some way. So we were just inventive and playful. I had the time of my life working with Chad, even in those very heavy duty scenes.
I only met him once, but, it was funny because it was about two weeks before the announcement came that he had been cast as Black Panther. He was super friendly, but cagey with any question that was future-career based. Looking back it was so clear that he was definitely not allowed to mention Black Panther but it was fresh in his mind.
COLMAN DOMINGO: But also I think Chad was kind of like that as a person! He just wasn’t boastful about anything ever. I remember I saw him at a huge event where he was the King of Hollywood. He was Black Panther and he was surrounded by, like 20 people, — agents, managers, you name it — and I sort of go in there. I’m like, ‘Chad, I’m so proud of you. Congratulations.’ And he was like, telling everyone ‘that guy is the truth. You need to keep your eyes on Colman Domingo!’ He was always like that. He was always putting the attention on to his friends and comrades and elevating them, elevating us.
That’s surely one of these reasons he was magic in ensembles. Even Black Panther. That’s such a star role but at the same time he made it about community so you’re always thinking of all the other Wakandans.
Okay tell us about your next three movies!
COLMAN DOMINGO: Zola is up next I think. Zola was a great big success at Sundance in 2020 but because of the pandemic we had to put off the release. It stars Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Nicholas Braun and me.
It’s your reunion with Taylour!
COLMAN DOMINGO: Which is wild because we shot Zola before we shot Ma Rainey! It’s a complete swing of our characters in Ma Rainey. People’s heads are going to explode. She plays a stripper in Tampa and I play a lowdown dirty pimp. You don’t want to like him, but you do like him. He’s doing terrible things, but you’re going to enjoy the ride.
And after that Without Remorse with Michael B. Jordan. I play a priest in that one. And then of course I have Candyman, written and produced by Jordan Peele, and directed by Nia de Costa. I play a guy who has a bunch of secrets about the Cabrini Green projects in Chicago. It’s about gentrification. It’s about Black trauma. Jordan wrote that role for me.
That must be very flattering.
COLMAN DOMINGO: Are you kidding me? Yeah, absolutely! If you want a specific type you’re not going to run and offer me — I just know that that’s not my thing. You have to know that like, ‘Oh, we want to Colman Domingo to get in here and play with us and figure it out!’ I finally realized after thirty years that that’s exactly who I am. [Laughter]
Creator/Owner, The Film Experience.
Nathaniel Rogers is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and GALECA, the Society for LGBTQ Entertainment Critics. He is a longtime Oscar pundit (Gurus of Gold). His writing has appeared in both online publications (Towleroad, Show-Score, Slate, andTribeca Film) and print magazines (Vanity Fair, Esquire and Winq).