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Around 2015, actor-writer-director Colman Domingo was planning to quit it all and find a new career. But instead of giving up, he revamped his approach — and found new happiness.
In this episode of “The Envelope,” the Emmy nominee discusses modeling his “Euphoria” character, Ali, after someone dear to his heart as he reflects on the nature of redemption and forgiveness. “Everyone has faults,” he says. “Everyone is suffering and struggling. But everyone, when they have accountability, there … should be inroads for them to come back into good grace.”
He also dishes on why he calls himself a nerd, the adorable way he first met Zendaya, and why being “a shapeshifter” means his real-life looks take people by surprise.
Mark Olsen: Hello, and welcome to another episode of “The Envelope.” I’m Mark Olsen, and this week I’m talking to Colman Domingo, who was recently nominated for an Emmy for his role on “Euphoria.” The show has been something of a youth sensation with its extreme depictions of sex, drugs and drama among a group of high schoolers. Colman plays Ali, sponsor to a struggling teenage drug addict named Rue, who is played by Zendaya.
[Clip of “Euphoria”: ALI: Yo, 60 days. No small feat. RUE: Thanks. ALI: Very moving share. RUE: Thank you. ALI: Can I ask you something? How did you survive that OD?]
Olsen: Colman’s character really is one of the few adult voices of reason on the show — a rare grownup in the room. It’s funny: Yvonne, does “Euphoria” make you feel old?
Yvonne Villarreal: Oh, my God, yes. But I still use the “bitch, you better be joking” GIF as if I’m part of the club, which probably isn’t making me any more cool with the kids, but I don’t care. I still watch with fascination at this gritty rendering of the modern high school experience, because mine was mostly about trading posters of Backstreet Boys for ‘N Sync. But enough about me. Colman is so dynamic on the show, the way his character navigates his own recovery and pain.
Olsen: And for folks who only know him from “Euphoria” or other recent screen roles, like in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Fear the Walking Dead” or “Zola,” they may not know that he has a long career in the theater as a performer, director and writer.
Villarreal: Oh, yes, a true multihyphenate. Which I definitely am not. Can you imagine if we started to produce this show, Mark? Like, we’d be so — or I’d be so bad at this. I won’t speak for you, but I don’t have the energy for that. But good for Colman.
Olsen: He approaches everything he does with such verve and purpose and just a sense of life. I don’t often have this feeling during interviews, but I kind of just want to ask him for advice. And I don’t know if it’s a holdover from his role on “Euphoria,” but he really does seem like someone who might have some answers. And, honestly, he really delivered during our conversation. So let’s get to it.
For “The Envelope,” I’m Mark Olsen. With me today is writer-director-performer Colman Domingo, who was recently nominated for an Emmy for his performance on “Euphoria.” Colman, thank you so much for joining us.
Colman Domingo: It’s such a pleasure to be here, Mark. Thank you.
Olsen: Congratulations on that Emmy nomination for outstanding guest actor in a drama series. Did you do anything to celebrate on the day the nomination was announced?
Domingo: What did I do? I was actually wrapping “The Color Purple” musical feature in Atlanta, Georgia. It was my last day and I watched the nominations when it happened. I actually shed a tear. That’s not usually my style, but I felt like there was so much that had so many people rallying for me. I felt like I was, like, whoa, I didn’t want to let them down, in a way. That’s a strange thing to say, but I guess that’s what happened.
Olsen: Well, the timing of that is incredible. I would imagine that that made a day that would have already been emotional that much more so.
Domingo: It did. It just felt like a great culmination in many ways of many things. And “The Color Purple” musical feature took six months to film, so it was the longest film shoot I’ve ever been on, and it was arduous, and it took everything we’ve got. So it just felt like a nice release, honestly. I think that’s also why I cried a little bit. I felt like it was like, “Whoa, I‘m coming to a beginning of something and maybe an ending of something at the same time.” I think your body just goes into shock, and sometimes it’s either tears of laughter that comes out, and mine was tears.
Olsen: One of the things I always find so incredible in thinking about your career is that for people who just know you from your recent film and television work, you really do have this whole other life and career before that in the theater. What does it mean to you to see all of that work culminating in the way it has over the last few years?
Domingo: It’s truly been meaningful because, again, I started out in the theater. Black-box theaters in San Francisco, and then moved to the regional theater circuit and working as a regional theater actor for many years. And then eventually I was in New York and from there, from off-Broadway to Broadway, but I was just constantly just doing the work. It really wasn’t about accolades or anything. I actually never came into this industry, actually, with lofty ambition to be on Broadway or to have a TV show or films. I just wanted to do good work and be respected for it. It was really about being a craftsman and being a part of this tradition of the theater.
My career just kept expanding into television spaces where I felt like it was really calling on the things that I did in the theater. So it felt like a great marriage, actually, and a great step because for a long time I didn’t think television and film — at least television in particular — I think that there was no place for me. I didn’t think there was a place for me for a long time because of the roles that were presented. In the theater, I was just doing Shakespeare and I was playing such incredible characters. I just thought that I wasn’t going to be challenged in the television space until television started changing. I also think that television started changing because they were hiring more playwrights to write for television. So, there we are: a marriage. So, I found my place in television and in film and it’s been really, really, really beautiful.
Olsen: You first worked with “Euphoria” creator Sam Levinson on the movie “Assassination Nation.” And I want to know, did you know right away that that relationship with him was going to be as sort of important and as ongoing as it has been?
Domingo: I want to say no and I want to say yes at the same time. Because when I met him, I met him in the basement of some restaurant bar at Sundance. You know, you meet everybody at Sundance. And I was there for Nate Parker’s film “Birth of a Nation” that I starred in. And there were two guys standing downstairs who were just really lovely and kind of shy but really talkative at the same time. And it was Sam Levinson and Jeremy O. Harris, his best friend. And so the three of us stood in a corner and I swear we talked the entire time.
I think we all really realized that we were very much cut from the same cloth, that we were, I think, you know, possibly like hyper-intelligent, hyper-, you know, thoughtful human beings who can just be in a corner and engage with two people the entire night. That was our jam. So that’s what we did.
We actually had a bro date at Soho House in New York after that beautiful meeting at Sundance. And we were both so nervous to meet up because we both really wanted to be friends. It was so nerdy. We were like, “I was really nervous.” He told his wife actually how nervous he was to meet me, that he got himself sick a little bit. And then we finally met up and we talked. We knew there was a brotherhood there, but we didn’t want to mess it up. And so I know that that’s what I was interested in, of someone who — I loved his mind and the things that he was thinking about and dreaming about creating. And then he first wrote the role for me in “Assassination Nation.” And I thought, you know, there’s certain artists that I’ve worked with that I say, “Whatever you write, whatever you create, it can be small or large, I’ll do it. You don’t have to tell me what it is.” And Sam is one of those people because I like the way his mind works, so I just trust him.
So when he came to me with Ali in “Euphoria,” it was even presented as, “Oh, he’s a small part. He grounds our main protagonist Rue” — played beautifully by Zendaya — “and, you know, we’ll see where it goes.” I didn’t know that it would take off the way it has. I didn’t know that at all. But I just had a lot of trust and faith in Sam and what he was creating not only for me, but for my peers.
Olsen: The role of Ali is based in part on Sam Levinson’s own sponsor. I’m just wondering if you ever met that person or what kind of conversations you had with Sam about the reality that that character comes from?
Domingo: I’ve had very simple conversations with Sam, but I think that he also — and I also — believe that it’s very important to not let it be specifically about his former sponsor. I think it’s bigger than that. I think it’s a nice jumping-off point, but I think it required a lot more research on my part and interrogation about the disease of addiction and really creating a man who is not perfect and someone who is trying to do good in the world because he’s trying to redeem himself as well.
[Clip from “Euphoria”: ALI: I was using, and my wife wasn’t having it. We were fighting every night. And it got physical. And one night I looked over and I see my two little girls watching. And I thought, “Here I am, a grown man with two girls, and they just watched me hit their mom in the face.” I spent 30 years of my life thinking of how to kill my dad for doing the same s— I just did to their mom.]
Domingo: So we’ve had some great conversations about some very simple things. The fact that he drove a truck or that he loved Miles Davis. The way he sort of had a little swagger. But that’s about it. But then I think my Ali comes from men that I know personally.
Olsen: Is there anything specific you can say? What’s something about Ali that you feel like you’ve drawn from someone you know?
Domingo: When I look at myself as Ali — and I wonder if he would agree, because I have not asked him; I know that he loves the character of Ali — I see my older brother Rick. My older brother Rick is a barber, he’s a painter, he’s a really beautiful human being, and I’ve always admired him. He always had a great sense of style. My brother, he’s been in the armed forces. He’s done a couple of tours of Iraq. I think that he’s somebody who has, you know, he’s a very sort of like, what I like to say, an ordinary man who does extraordinary things, and he doesn’t, he is never going to be aware of it. I don’t think it’s very conscious of him.
I think he’s had his own battles with alcohol, to be honest. I know that that’s always been a struggle for him, and he swings one way or the other. He either goes very much into fitness and health or he goes very much strongly into religion and interrogating different practices. Or sometimes he will sink into alcohol. But he’s also somebody who also knows how to stop, in a way. He is conscious enough in that way. So I think he’s someone who understands what is happening and that he can put a stop to it when he wants to. But he also has at times needed some support, and we give him support as a family. And he also, he knows when it’s time to go into a program. So he’s somebody I know, I’m sure I draw from in many ways because he’s somebody who I love dearly and I know I want the best for, and I know he wants the best for me, and he’s my brother.
Olsen: With regards to the character Ali, he’s still kind of an enigma outside of being a sponsor for Rue, Zendaya’s character. Do you have an idea in your head of what the rest of his world is? What’s the rest of a day for Ali like?
Domingo: I do have some ideas. Sam has whispered a few ideas to me about Season 3 and how we’re going to continue to unpack Ali. I think the greatest moment that we’ve had for Ali is in that very special episode that was at the end of 2020 with that famous diner scene. I guess it’s infamous now because it was 55 minutes of just dialogue.
We got to know so much more about Ali and what he thinks, which I think is one of the most important things. We know what he thinks about society, about activism, about history. So we get to know his mind, and then we get a glimpse into his private life when he takes a phone call outside and understand that he’s got an estranged family and he’s still paying for many of his faulty decisions and his disease of addiction. He’s really carrying it. So we see, and now we’re able to examine that as he walks back in and he’s able to relate with Rue. We know what’s underneath all of that and why it means so much to him to connect and try to save this young woman.
[Clip from “Euphoria”: RUE: You have daughters, right? ALI: Mm hmm. RUE: Where are they? ALI: Different places, celebrating with their families. RUE: You see them often? ALI: I have never declined an invitation. RUE: Wait, but haven’t you been clean for 20 years? ALI: Nah, nah, I was clean for seven years.]
Domingo: So I think that there’s going to be a lot more to unpack with Ali because we haven’t seen what is his daily. We don’t know: Where does he live? Does he have a girlfriend? Is he dating? How is he just out in the world walking down the street? What does he like to eat? We know he likes to eat pancakes. We do know that much.
Olsen: I think back to the first scene with Ali and Rue where they meet at this NA meeting. She’s clearly high at the meeting. He’s a little askance as to what to do with this kid who’s kind of wandered in. Some of those scenes that you have with her just have so much intensity to them. How do you prepare for the intensity of something like that initial scene between the two of you or even some of the scenes in this most recent season?
Domingo: You know what? I believe that everyone has as much darkness as they do light. And I believe that people make choices every day whether to live in the light or let the darkness envelop them. In particular, there’s the episode this past season where Rue and Ali really get into it. He sort of snatches her bag, and you can see the darkness come out of his eyes.
[Clip from “Euphoria”: ALI: Excuse me? When I sit across from you and tell you something about my life, you don’t get to use that s— against me. You cross that line again, we’re done. You talk back right now, we’re done. One more f—ing disrespectful word out of your mouth and we’re done, you hear me? Hey! You hear me? RUE: Or what, Ali? You gonna hit me?]
Domingo: What I love is that we’ve already set up, he‘s told the audience, “I’ve been violent. I’ve been vicious, I’ve been high on crack and you name it.” And in that moment, I know it was important for Sam and I for you to see a little bit of that darkness, because she triggered him and put him in a place to actually bring out that darkness. She was being very manipulative in that moment. And I know that I wanted to let that darkness that also lives in Colman. It also lives in Ali. It lives in all of us. You’ve got to tap into that, whatever that is for you. So I think that you just have to fully go there. But you go there in a way where you and your fellow actor — we trust each other, Zendaya and I.
I’m somebody who always touches after a scene and just say, “Are you OK? Was that OK?” We check in with each other and then we go deeper. You know, she’s a great, you know, you understand the boundaries and you trust and you go to the places that you need to go. I think that what Sam does, his whole crew and Zendaya, there’s such a level of trust and openness where you can be your most raw self and feel like you’re supported and you’re not going to fall. You know what I mean?
I’m somebody who, I will rehearse my own work. I will look at my objectives and my actions. And then I will let it just become available on set and be available. Let me be as honest as I can to this experience and let me keep my own self out of the way. So there’s a bit of alchemy, I believe, that happens. I think something about it is kind of spiritual. I think it’s definitely all inside of me.
Olsen: I’ve heard you say that you can spend upwards of 30 to 50 hours preparing for a single episode of the show. I’m wondering if that’s your theater background in that kind of work? For people who maybe don’t understand acting — and this would include myself — what goes into that time? What is the work that you’re doing over those many hours to create one hour of television?
Domingo: Well, I’ll tell you this. I am a nerd, and I like to research everything. Anything that I do not know, that I’m curious about, that the script says I am, or there’s a reference to a pair of sneakers or a street — I research everything and I take a lot of notes. And then I actually go through my script. I want to underline and understand the actions. What am I saying? What do I want? What happens if I don’t get it? It’s all this work to understand what you’re saying, the beats of a scene, how it lives in you. And so I rehearse that and rehearse it and rehearse it.
For me, rehearsal is key. I come from the theater and I feel like rehearsal is all I have, so I can step on set and I can actually be free. I’ve actually had some discussions with some actors who felt like, “Oh, if I know too much, I don’t trust that I’m going to be available.” That’s one way. It’s a practice for me that I need in order to be free. I don’t know how to just show up on set and be, because I don’t think I have everything with me. I need to know so much and then be available to what I don’t know.
I think the trick is, especially with the character of Ali — he’s such an everyman and sort of lays in the cut, that I don’t want you to see acting at all. Ali is someone that I wanted to just slip into your consciousness. He’s a guy that you know. There’s nothing about it that should feel performative in any way. I think if anything, he’s the least performative character that I’ve played. So for me to do that, for me to arrive at that, I have to make many, many choices and have many, many sessions with myself and conversations and research so it can go away. So I just feel like breath. I want you to feel like, “I know I’ve seen that guy on the bus. I’ve seen him. He goes and gets cigarettes around the corner at my bodega,” you know what I mean?
Olsen: What has it been like for you over the course of the show now to see Zendaya develop in her role as Rue? That character and the performance she’s giving really have grown over time. What has it been like for you to be a part of that process?
Domingo: For a young woman in this industry, Zendaya has so much of a grounded sense of self that I admire, and I think she pours that into her work. She’s very authentic. And she’s very real. It’s so funny because I almost can’t put together in my mind the young woman that I see on the cover of magazines with the young woman that I know. We talk to each other, she says, “I like to slay a little bit. I love to give a little slay.” It’s almost like a different person in a way. Because she loves the glam, the fun, the fashion, the art. I think she’s an artist. So she loves making art with her body and her hair and her mind and with a look. And then the young woman that I see on set, she’s so casual. So chill. So open. We talk about photography. We talk about so many things, I don’t even know. Our conversations go all over the map.
She’s very interested and interesting, which is something I can’t say about a lot of young artists. I feel like a lot of people don’t know themselves. And I would really just say she’s surrounded by a really great family. I know her mother, Claire. We’ve known each other since our California Shakespeare Theater days. And actually, that’s where I met Zendaya when she was 5 years old. She was a young girl who kept coming to see this Shakespeare production. And we found out that one of the productions she loved the most was a production of “All’s Well That Ends Well” where I played the clown, and I remember playing with her like three different times because my job is to sort of play with the audience. And then we realized that that’s our first, that’s our connective tissue, that we first met that long ago, when she was about 5 or 6 years old.
So I think that there’s something energetic, there’s something cosmic, that we’re now working together so closely, and that was already deemed and set up in the stars. And I think she just loves her family and her close friends. And I think it shows in her work that she cares about people.
Olsen: The season ends with Rue trying to make amends to people that she’s wronged, including Ali. And there’s just a heartbreaking scene where she calls Ali on the phone. And I understand that that was shot in kind of an unusual way, that even though it’s a phone call, you were in the room together when you were shooting that scene?
Domingo: Yeah, I think Sam thought that was very important that it felt like we were truly having this conversation. I can see it right now: Zendaya standing across from me, across the room, and I’m on the other end of the room. And we looked at each other and said the lines.
[Clip from “Euphoria”: RUE: I just wanted to call you and tell you that I’m sorry for what I said and I really regret it. I just, I never should have said that. ALI: Rue. RUE: And I’m sorry. I’m sorry. ALI: Rue — listen to me. I forgive you.]
Domingo: I know in particular, I remember Sam and I talked about that long pause that I take and said it’s important. He would just ask me questions, “Why do you forgive her? Do you forgive her?” And I think those are the questions Ali had to ask himself before he gave an answer. It’s also part of his journey, which is forgiveness. And I think that that’s something ultimately that he’s working on to make sure that even if someone has wronged him, to forgive them.
I think ultimately, Ali is a symbol for redemption in our culture and in our world. And what we’re asking for, that everyone’s human, that everyone has faults, that everyone is suffering and struggling, but everyone, when they have accountability, there is and should be inroads for them to come back into good grace. Just because they have been one way — and for Ali’s case and for Rue’s case, they’ve been suffering from the disease of addiction — everyone has an opportunity to grow and come back into society and function. Whether it’s people who have been incarcerated or people who have wronged people because of their their disease of addiction. Whether people have been quote-unquote canceled in society. I think it’s an examination of all of that. Of raising the questions: Why do we do that? Why is it important for people to do that? And then, is that human?
He asks a lot of questions. I don’t know, in particular, if he’s trying to get answers, but I think he’s very interested in the question. And that’s what I love. And I think that ultimately that is our showrunner’s questions about our humanity, and who are we, and who are we going to become.
Olsen: But then why does Ali keep forgiving Rue?
Domingo: Because it’s human. I think ultimately because it’s human and because he’s also asking for forgiveness himself. Ultimately, I think people are a bit selfish. He’s not just doing it for her. He’s doing it for himself. If he’s able to forgive her, perhaps the world will forgive him. His children will forgive him. His wife will forgive him. He can also forgive himself, possibly.
Olsen: There’s such a wonderful moment as well when Ali kind of helps to orchestrate this family dinner for Rue and her mother and her sister.
[Clip from “Euphoria”: ALI: A better question is, what are you doing right now? GIA: Nothing. ALI: Wanna help me cook? RUE: Oh I can help. ALI: Nah, nah. Keep your stank, withdrawal, diarrhea ass away from my food. GIA: Oh you wanna tell him about the … RUE: No, noooo. GIA: I think you should!]
Olsen: It seems, I guess, for you, he’s working his own way back into the world a little bit. He’s working his way, maybe, into this family. Maybe there’s a little something going on with the mother there. What, for you, was happening in that dinner scene?
Domingo: It’s funny, I joked with Nika [King] a few times saying, “Ooh, you know, here I come. Ali’s coming in the house now. He sees this fine woman here. You know, what’s on his mind?” Of course he recognizes that — Nika King is not only a beautiful woman, but also an extraordinary actress. And so he comes and he likes the vibe there.
But I think it’s more than that. I do believe that he’s coming in — he’s gotten to know Rue so much. And he knows that they’ve been lacking sort of that father figure, that male figure in the house that I think that he believes — I’m sure he knows and believes, the way I do, that Nika King is very strong and capable and has been doing it on her own for a while since Rue’s father’s passing, and she’s very strong, but also she needs support. Not believing she needs the support of a man, but he can just offer up some support to the family. So, now that he’s gotten Rue, I think that he’s coming into the fold because he’s like, “Maybe I can have a conversation that someone else may not be having with her younger sister. Or with the mother. I could just be that one.” Ali is capable to be that one at the dining room table, offering up some other ways to think.
A family, if you don’t have an outsider, sometimes, with perspective, you guys are just suffering in the same traps and tropes, and you’re just caught up in it. You’re caught up in the same anger, caught up in the same feelings, and you may need another perspective. And I know that, I believe that that’s what he’s offering when he comes to the house to make dinner. He’s offering some levity. He’s offering a simple meal, probably something they haven’t even had. Sam and I talked about him coming in to make lamb. For my money, not only it was something that’s halal, but it’s also something that I believe is unexpected, to watch this taller brother, very ordinary brother, making lamb. So we want to make decisions like that. So he makes a nice Mediterranean meal and he just offers up some conversation and some perspective. And I think he believed that he was serving his purpose for that evening, and that was it.
Olsen: Can you give us a hint of what is to come? What would you hope to see happen for him in Season 3?
Domingo: I think that’s funny. After that special episode, Sam and I had a great conversation about how often Ali can give these long monologues, and where’s the end to that? And we wouldn’t want him to, quote-unquote, be the “magical Negro” that’s coming in, or like Yoda. No one wants that character. You could only do that so often. You have to transform and evolve. And I think that — not to say that he was a magical Negro or Yoda, but I’m just saying you don’t want that to become his story, and we’re very conscious of that.
So, I know that it’s important to take him out into spaces and to understand that he is a recovering addict. And I don’t know how much that plays. I don’t know because I feel like with anyone who’s in recovery, it’s like, you know, we have our main protagonist, Rue, who is very much an untrustworthy narrator. And people have put so much trust and faith in Ali, and I think they’re also forgetting that he’s a bit of an untrustworthy narrator as well. So I think there’s something interesting about that.
Olsen: To step back a little bit, I’ve heard you say that there was a moment, even after all those years of working in the theater and as it seemed like your career was taking some steps forward, that there was a moment, I think it was around 2015 or so, where you were thinking about leaving the the business. I think you had a side business as a photographer. I’m just so curious: Why at that moment was it you were going to maybe finally pack it in? And what kept you going?
Domingo: Mark, man, you’ve done your research, man. Let me tell you. I was ready to leave this business, and I really meant it. People may say it, but they don’t mean it. But I really meant it. I was making steps to do something else because I thought that I had reached the apex of my career with certain successes. I had went off to London to do a musical called “The Scottsboro Boys.” I was nominated for a Tony and an Olivier, you name it. And I would come back to New York when I lived in New York, and I felt like I was always starting over.
I was trying to expand, and I felt like there were many systems in New York that were trying to keep me in the same position, maybe keep me a little smaller in some way. I didn’t feel that I was being challenged by the auditions that I had. Many things weren’t in place properly, and so I was really on my way out. I asked my partner, I said, I’ve been doing head shots as a side hustle for many years. And I thought about investing in a photography studio and just continuing to do that and changing my life.
I thought that I did everything I was supposed to do. Once you do a musical like “The Scottsboro Boys” and a musical like “Passing Strange” and some really profound work, and I think just before that, I did the movie “Selma.” I thought, “I think this is the best that I can do.” And also, you know, I was in my mid-40s, late 40s, like 47, and I thought, “I’m still living in a rent-stabilized apartment and never having any savings. Always trying to get caught up.” Meanwhile, my friends are doctors and attorneys and they made other life decisions, and they’re having things that you want, and it’s OK. After a while you’re like, “I want these things.” And as an artist, I felt like I could never attain them.
So I was going to pivot. And then before I did that, I actually let go of an agent and a manager, and I was really cleaning house. And then one of my dearest friends introduced me to two men who really changed my career. Actually, there’s a few people who have changed my career, and that’s Brian Liebman and Cory Richman, who are my managers still to this day, and my agent Elizabeth Wiederseim and Kate Navin. They came on board and they believed that I have much more to give, and they really set up the infrastructure for that to happen.
One of the first auditions they set up for me was for a show called “Fear the Walking Dead.” And I thought, “These people have lost their minds. I don’t know who they are and who they think I am, but I wouldn’t do something like that. It’s a genre show. That’s not me.” But then I read the script and I love the character so much, and it was something I’d never done. It was a self-tape audition. And I got a call two days later from a self-tape for an offer for that show, and it changed my career. It gave me more stability. It gave me a place to really create and, again, a place to create in the television space where I felt like there was no room for me. But it was a character that was so complex and it was like Shakespeare. So that sort of rejuvenated my career. And then other things started to follow.
I think that also my heart shifted. To be honest, I think that I was starting to carry a little possible bitterness and not getting the opportunities, not getting up to bat for these auditions in these roles. And I didn’t want that because I love this work so much. I didn’t want to be bitter, and I felt like that was coming, and I was becoming very disheartened in this industry. And things changed.
Olsen: There’s something so interesting to me in the fact that you’ve been in so many filmed adaptations of theater pieces. I’m thinking of “The Color Purple,” “Ma Rainey,” going back to “Passing Strange.” And I’m wondering what you think of that. Why do you think you keep ending up in those pieces?
Domingo: It’s funny. I would say — and I say this without any ego — I think I’ve been in some of the most seminal works of film about the African American experience in the last 10 years. I’ve been in them. And I’m like, “What’s the connective tissue there?” And I think it’s because I’m very curious about history. I think that I do come from a theatrical background, so I understand when we’re doing something, a theatrical adaptation, I know how it should live and crackle and give it a bit more size. I’m not afraid of a long scene, of extensive monologues. Those are actually in my wheelhouse. So I know when I see an adaptation, I’m like, “Oh, you want somebody to deliver three pages of dialogue? You got your man.” So, I think that it calls on everything that I’m curious about in my skill level. I think that’s why I’m in all these adaptations. And then the histories. I think because, again, like I said, I’m a huge nerd and I’m very curious about history and then how we create this history and adapt it for film and television and theater.
Olsen: I want to be sure to ask you about “Ma Rainey,” in particular. That film has taken on such a gravity because of the fact that it ended up being Chadwick Boseman’s last role. And simply being the adaptation of the play, that it was this fantastic work by August Wilson and already was going to be like a heavy, intense piece. For you, how has that movie and that experience changed, given what happened with Chadwick and the way that movie was received by the audience when it came out?
Domingo: Wow. The way we created that film felt like we were in a bit of a bubble. It was small and intimate. And we all come from the theater, everyone who was in there, most of us do.
The thing I can say about it is I felt we were creating something so intimate and about us as Black people in America. That’s what August Wilson’s work is. If you get the opportunity and the privilege to speak August Wilson’s language, there’s none other. It’s calling on everything — not only that you can bring as an artist, but also how you can pull and bring your ancestors in. It’s really some of the greatest work.
Maybe I’m still processing it, that we went through this whole experience, especially in the middle of the pandemic, where I had to recognize that we didn’t even have a proper sort of exhibit of it. We were still in our silos at home, and we’d never released it in a way. It felt like it got out there in the world but you didn’t feel what people were feeling. It wasn’t that exchange, especially, that you were looking forward to creating something that had origins in the theater. You were looking for: How does this play out there? How do you feel and receive these words and what we’re telling as a company?
It still breaks my heart that my friend Chad wasn’t with us to the finish line of getting this film out into the world. His life had other plans. But I think it’s very poignant. And I’m very, I don’t know, I guess the word is privileged, to have been a part of this final gift that Chad’s spirit put out to the world. I feel very privileged in every single way. What a note to end on, that that’s your last film and it’s a seminal performance. It is a seminal work. I believe everyone is doing their very best work in that film. And I know it’s a film that I think — I hope — will be taught in classes. Yeah. And it’s still very bittersweet.
Olsen: Yeah. Yeah. I’m sorry. Even saying that, I’ve heard you say that you want to have a career that has the range of someone like Daniel Day-Lewis or Christian Bale or Philip Seymour Hoffman. And I’m wondering what it is that you admire about them. And for you as a Black actor, do you feel that you’re simply not given the opportunities to exhibit that same kind of range?
Domingo: I think that I have honestly fought for those opportunities and I’ve held space for those opportunities. That’s why my career looks very different than my peers’. It’s like, I play in very different playgrounds all the time. And I know I go for the thing that’s probably not the most expected, but also know that that’s something I’ve crafted. I’ve been very conscious of that.
There’s a lot of things I check off of a checklist, in a way, of what I believe is important for me when I take on a role. I’m like, yeah. When people say, “What kind of career do you admire?” You know, one of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s where he was just such an incredible thinker and shapeshifter. I admire the Willem Dafoes. I admire someone that people don’t usually think of as a character actor, which is Harry Belafonte Jr. He was very much that character actor wrapped in a leading man’s body. One of my favorite things of his is when he played Geechie Dan in “Uptown Saturday Night.” He’s phenomenal, man! He’s phenomenal. And so I’m always telling people: Watch that man. You may think of him as being Mr. Calypso Man and Mr. Beautiful Leading Man, but he’s got so much more. And I’ve been very careful in making sure that I’m not playing into tropes and playing into what people believe that the only things I should play.
Olsen: Do you feel like part of that has been the opportunities that you’ve had to work with Black directors like Janicza Bravo or Ava DuVernay, Barry Jenkins or Blitz Bazawule, who’s doing “The Color Purple”? Have they been able to give you opportunities that maybe you hadn’t previously gotten in Hollywood?
Domingo: I would say yes. I would say yes, absolutely. I think because the men that I’m able to create are very complex men, in many ways. That’s the thing that I love the most. And I would also say when I worked with Steven Soderbergh on “The Knick” and also with Steven Spielberg, they also offered me opportunities to give a complexity to these Black men that I’m creating.
The beautiful thing is they always want to hear what I have to say. And they know it’s important for me to create someone that I’m proud of. And they don’t always have to be heroes at all either. I like to play dirty, rotten scoundrels. I guess I’ve been playing a bunch of them lately. I feel like I’ve been on a bender, like whether it’s “Candyman” and “Zola” and Mister in “The Color Purple.”
But then I like to, I always mix it up. I think a smart director will know this about me. If you’re like, “Oh, I’ve got to get Colman because I’ve seen him play this role before,” and you want to offer me sort of the same version of it, you should know I’m not the one for you. You want me to create something brand new using the skill set that I have, the body that I have, which, I believe I’m a shapeshifter. I like when people meet me, they’re like, “Oh, I thought you were older. I thought you were shorter. I thought you were younger. I thought you were older. How old are you?” You know, “I thought your hairline was back here. I thought it was …,” you know? The people, they always think that I’m different because I’m like, yeah, because I’m a character actor. I make decisions about everything, the kind of weight that I put on for a character.
The wildest thing is I think it’s because so many of my peers aren’t given the opportunity to do just so. Or they don’t give themselves the opportunity to say no and move into a different direction. I know that that’s something that I hold true for myself. And part of my practice as an artist is to constantly challenge myself and challenge audiences, challenge rooms that I’m in. I think that’s the way we create some really cool work.
Olsen: Mm hmm. And then I want to be sure to ask about your TV show “Bottomless Brunch at Colman’s,” where you remotely interview some of your friends over a cocktail from the comfort of your homes. Is that a show that you’re going to be able to continue doing?
Domingo: You know what? We just put a cap on “Bottomless Brunch at Colman’s,” but we only did that because the show is transforming into another show. I guess I can say it because we’ve got the green light from AMC that we’re going to do a linear-platform, streaming-platform, digital-platform show that is sort of — it’s another step in the evolution of “Bottomless Brunch,” which is called “You Are Here.”
Olsen: I can’t wait to see that. That’s great. Wow. Reflecting back, what has it come to mean to you to know that you’ve achieved success now even greater than you had before, and that from that moment of doubt and darkness, you’ve gotten somewhere you maybe couldn’t even imagine for yourself at that time?
Domingo: When I lived in San Francisco many years ago, I went — I’m not a religious person, but I’m quite spiritual — I went to this church once, and I heard this pastor say that anything that you give your life to has to work out for you, but you have to believe it the first time. And I always thought about that. I knew that at times I lost faith, but then I would get back up and I would find my way again. And then I started to really just believe that thought, I think, and just believe that it’s always there for me, it’s always available — like love. I’ve always believed that love was available. So why don’t I believe — and it was — so why don’t I believe that the career that I’m seeking and the work that I’m seeking is always seeking me? And so that’s something that I truly believe, that once I believed that, it actually started to transform.
I feel very lucky and blessed that I’ve been working pretty consistently. Even in those dark times, I’ve been working. It took a moment because people always wanted me to just say, “Oh, I’m just an actor or director or writer.” And I’ve defied that for many years. And now people understand that I do all of these things. And that’s an awesome thing. Now that I even have my own production company, I continue to define and redefine myself in this industry, and people accept that.
I’ve never been somebody you could just put into a box. And I’m very grateful for that. I feel like I’ve actively made sure that I was never just perceived as just with my abilities, with the way I looked or my sexuality or my political beliefs, you name it. I’ve always wanted to be seen as an actor and someone who is malleable and interested in telling stories. And I do believe that we’ve — the industry and I — we’ve met each other in such a loving, generous way. And it just, it seems like it’s continuing. And I’m very happy.
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/awards/story/2022-08-09/colman-domingo-euphoria-ali-emmy-nominee ‘Euphoria’s’ Colman Domingo almost became ‘bitter.’ A surprise role changed his life