Colman Domingo Is the Man of the Hour
The actor spoke with The Daily Beast about mourning Chadwick Boseman’s death, shooting that incredible ‘Euphoria’ special with Zendaya, and the fight for a better future.
To speak with Colman Domingo is to realize that every move the actor makes is deliberate. Whether he’s explaining the roles he chooses, the clothes he wears, or the way he’s responded to this surreal year, the seasoned actor always seems to have a meticulously thought-out answer right off the cuff. He shares his reasoning candidly, and with no shortage of hearty laughs that boom down the phone, brightening up a dim living room on a dreary winter afternoon.
A multi-hyphenate whose titles include actor, playwright, and producer, Domingo is a performer who seems to elevate whatever he’s in—including, most recently, the recently debuted special episode of Euphoria and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which debuts on Netflix Friday after its limited theatrical release earlier this year. (And Zola, the Twitter-inspired comedy drama that debuted at Sundance this year in which Domingo plays, in his words, “probably one of cinema's most dastardly pimps.”)
Part of Domingo’s canny appeal might be that he’s not just winging it; he’s thought a lot about the industry, the place he’d like to occupy within it, and how he’d like to use that position to enact bigger change. That idea—how to better our society for the next generation—is a guiding compass for not only Colman’s work, but for how he thinks about his responsibilities as a performer and storyteller more broadly. Speaking with The Daily Beast, he outlined how his worldview has shaped his work—and how that work continues, even amid a pandemic.
There is, by the way, a backstory to the clothes. Domingo’s fashion sense is loud and joyous, delighting in bright colors and cheerful patterns.
“I curate a lot,” Domingo said. “I grew up in a working-class family in Philadelphia, and I wore my brother’s and my sister’s hand-me-down clothes, since I was the third child. I would get new school clothes—like, usually, three pairs of pants and some shirts… So I think because I never had my own that once I could afford my own, I really understood that [clothes are] also part of expressing who you are. So I’m very conscious of that—the story that you’re trying to tell.”
As an actor, Domingo looks for stories that disrupt the norm—characters he might inflect with vexing, idiosyncratic humanity. Domingo credits his theater work for that focus on raw characterization—productions with strong convictions, musicals like Passing Strange and Scottsboro Boys, the latter of which earned him his Tony nomination.
Domingo recalls that when he first set foot in the TV world, he did so “kicking and screaming”; as he put it, “I was such a theater kid… I can’t just be playing some character who just comes in and says, ‘What’s up!’”
That insistence on digging deeper is what makes Domingo stand out on Fear the Walking Dead. His character, Victor Strand, has evolved into one of the most fascinating figures of AMC’s undead universe—simultaneously compelling and, at times, absolutely deplorable. That gift for complex, challenging characterization was on full display a few weeks ago in Euphoria’s special episode. And it will showcase again Ma Rainey, in which Domingo’s character, Cutler, is a trombone player who also happens to be a proxy for the exacting, exhausted Blues singer.
“She was fighting so many systems at one time,” Domingo said of the Mother of Blues. “That’s why I think it sort of resonated with Viola Davis and how sweaty she is… All she wanted was what was due to her. But she had to fight system after system after system. And for damn sure she was not going to fight in her own house, when it comes to our own band, playing her own music.”
Ma Rainey has also become a grimly historic production in the wake of Chadwick Boseman’s recent death due to colon cancer. Boseman’s last is a wrenching performance—one that will almost certainly win him a posthumous Oscar. But Domingo has not yet fully processed the loss of the man himself. Although the actor makes no claim that he and Boseman were best friends, they did share certain motivations and sensibilities—a camaraderie that, to Domingo, can run even deeper than friendship. They shared a drive to use their platforms to open doors—to make work that, as he put it, “captures Black people in all their complexity.”
“When I first heard that he passed away, I just couldn’t believe it,” Domingo said. “I almost feel like I still can’t believe it. Because when I tell you what a spirit—what a man who had such purpose, and led with intention and a sense of mindfulness and has had such an impact on popular culture… I know that his body has gone, but he’s everywhere… It’s very strange to be on this press tour without him, because he was so present, and raw, and available, and fly, and funny.”
Domingo described Boseman as fiercely intelligent and academic—but also gentle and highly spiritual. “I think we shared a lot of the same mentors,” he said. “A lot of the same ideals… We were actually born within a day of each other, on Nov. 28 and 29. So we felt that kinship by being Sagittarians as well.”
The pair’s conversations were rarely about acting, or the industry. Instead, Domingo recalled, they would talk about art, travel, the music industry, hip-hop, and boxing—all interests that, to Domingo, made up who Boseman was, in addition to the groundbreaking work he’s left behind. “He was always thinking about other big things,” Domingo said, “and not just limiting it to what his purpose was as an artist.”
Domingo’s interests extend far past the confines of his artistry as well. For one thing, he’s a consummate host—a cocktail aficionado, and the type of guy whose friends know that should they ever be in the neighborhood, he’ll have already stopped by the market to pick up crudités just in case.
In normal times, the actor said he loves to throw dinner parties. “I love bringing people over,” he said. “My house is designed for people to sit and chill and and be by fire. I have three bars,” he added with a laugh.
These days, however, Domingo has spent a lot of time, as many of us have, in a place of reflection. When asked how he’s been doing amid all that’s happened this year, he described leaning into 2020 to develop a sense of zen. Like he does in his acting, he’s leaning into the experience.
“The idea of being home most of the time was interesting, because it allowed me to just be quiet and really be more mindful,” Domingo said. “Being mindful about health, about taking care of others, about being responsible for everything that I do. And also just being conscious of doing work, and being a part of work, and being a part of change.”
For a while in the middle of the pandemic, Domingo found himself bowing out of Zoom calls with friends. The conversations tended to devolve into meditations on the melancholy, he said, which just doesn’t feel active enough. “I didn’t want to be like, ‘I'm good!’” the actor said. “But I was.” He was far less interested in moping than he was in figuring out how we can all come together to move forward. How we are going to fight.
The fight, for Domingo, has been multi-faceted. He called his business manager early on to make sure he’d have some money set aside to help those in his vicinity who needed assistance, and to provide for various funds that would arise. He’s taught at Yale and Juilliard, and taken calls with students around the world, offering whatever tools and support he can. And he’s continued his work within the industry to push toward diversity, equity and inclusion.
Domingo rejects apathy and resignation because, from a historical perspective, it’s our job to fight for the next generation; he has a keen understanding of just how hard others have fought before.
“The thing that I’ve thought more than anything is, you know what, as a proud descendant of slaves, someone else had it worse than I did. So my job is to just get in and do the work that’s laid out before me,” Domingo said. “It’s a rough time for everyone. But there have been rough times before.”
He thought back to the AIDS epidemic—another moment in history when the government turned a blind eye to the deaths of tens of thousands of queer people. He thought back to the civil rights movement, and to the Middle Passage.
“I’m here because someone fought for me and took knocks for me,” Domingo said. “I’m here. So it’s my job to do for the next generation.”
In other words: Like his Euphoria character, Ali, who dominates the HBO drama’s sensational special episode with an expansive meditation on life, sobriety, and revolution, Domingo has no use for self-pity, for complacency. One can almost imagine Ali sitting in that diner, saying Domingo’s own words: “Don’t just sit and say, ‘Oh, things are terrible.’… Things are terrible and they’ve always been terrible. So what am I going to do about it?” It’s a sentiment, he makes sure to note, that his Ma Rainey costar Glynn Turman’s character, Toledo, poses in the Netflix film as well.
Euphoria has been something of a mind-meld for Domingo, who relates deeply to many of the themes creator Sam Levinson explores. (Levinson, Domingo said, “knows what I’m thinking about, what I wrestle with, what I believe is important.”)
All of this might be why, at the end of the day, Domingo has been able to cultivate a sense of calm in this time. All told, he said, he feels blessed. He has a home with outdoor space, a husband who loves him, and he’s working on projects that feel purposeful.
Not all of that work has been serious, either. As Domingo said, equally important to the work of making the revolution happen is refusing to let go of joy. For him, that’s come to include a YouTube series, Bottomless Brunch at Colman’s, which AMC just granted a third, six-episode season. As a bartender of 15 years, a cocktail aficionado, and a person who loves few things more than introducing one friend to another, the idea was a no-brainer—especially since Domingo had already been developing a series on cocktail culture anyway.
“Who doesn't like brunch?” Domingo said. “Everyone loves brunch. And brunch just lasts for hours.”
The rules for cocktail hour are simple: At least a couple of the guests must be strangers, and they must form a pairing Domingo thinks could be interesting. No one can promote anything. Hopefully, people walk away friends. And viewers get a glimpse of Domingo and his guests outside the context of their celebrity. (Read: Us nosy folks get to see their living rooms and kitchens!)
As superficial as the idea might initially seem, to Domingo, it’s all of a piece—his work, the fight for a better, more equitable world, the celebrations and the cocktails. “Part of the revolution is to have a dance party every night in my living room,” he said. “To have joy, and to smile, and to cook dinners, and to sit outside and look at the sunset. To listen to the silence while there are no planes in the air. And to remember those moments, and store all that up, so I can get out there and fight.”