Colman Domingo breaks down his Fear the Walking Dead directing debut
Spoiler alert: Read on only if you have already watched Sunday’s episode of Fear the Walking Dead, “Weak.”
The character of Strand was once again nowhere to be seen in the latest installment of Fear the Walking Dead. But the man who plays him was plenty busy. That’s because Colman Domingo became the first actor in the Walking Dead franchise to cross over into directing, as he helmed Sunday’s episode, titled “Weak.” We talked to Domingo about the transition (which took two years), the key moments from the episode, what to expect next, and where the hell Strand is.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’re an actor, a writer, and a stage director, but what made you want to get into TV directing?
COLMAN DOMINGO: I’ve been offered to do some work as a film director for maybe the past 10 years, and each time I said no because I didn’t think I was ready for it. Being on a show like Fear the Walking Dead, I started to learn more about camera work, learn more about the way the crew operates, and had more of a stronger opinion on how I think a television director can operate in the healthiest way. The seeds were planted maybe two seasons ago, when Gale Anne Hurd came with me to see a production of Barbecue at the Geffen Playhouse that I directed, and she turned to me after the show and she said, “You should direct for our show.” And I thought, “I think you’re right. And I think I’m ready for it.”
So I began the process of about a year of unofficially shadowing a few directors just by watching, and then I officially shadowed director Andrew Bernstein for the final two episodes of last season, which I was also in heavily. And then everyone was on board with me directing an episode this season. It would be the first time anyone has directed from one of the franchises, and they thought, “Who else better to direct but someone who knows, loves, and respects the genre so much?”
So for the whole first half of the season, I was watching everything and asking questions — trying to really understand how to negotiate and really facilitate and be a really good leader. By the time we got to my episode, I was ready. But of course, the night before, I felt like I wanted to throw up and I thought, “What am I going to do? Am I going to ruin the show?” But everyone put in their absolute best and gave it their all. I think we all turned in our best work. And I hope I was a good, inspiring facilitator.
Was there any concern about actors you have worked alongside all of a sudden taking direction for you?
You know, I was worried about that, but then when I got my episode, it was wild because it was Jenna Elfman, Maggie Grace, Lennie James, and a few other newer actors like, you know, Mo Collins and Chill Mitchell, and then a friend of mine who I’ve known for a long time, Tonya Pinkins, and I was like, “Oh my God. Are you kidding me?”
But they’re such pros. They were so open, and they knew I would be able to dial in things that many other directors probably don’t understand as well. I understand what the actor’s process is, and I think actors need to always know that — that I’m not trying to manipulate you, but I’m on your side and I want what you want. I want you trust me. I want to make sure you’re seen in the best light and you’re going to give a performance that you’re proud of. That’s all I want. I think if you approach it that way, everyone receives it that way, so it was a great dance between all of us.
Were there any scenes you were especially focused on or worried about?
Yes. I thought my episode was going to be more character-based, and I think it is, yet I have enormous stunts. I have the stunts on the cow-catcher with the woman who had no legs and was attached to it. I thought, “How are we going to do this?” We have the stunts with Jenna and Maggie, the car chase and turning out. I thought the first thing we had to do was storyboard the heck out of it, so we did that. Then I had to make sure I got tested on everything, because you want to make sure that every stunt is tested.
And the one with the cow-catcher? I feel like we had 300 emails about that because of the safety of the human being. How are we going to get it? We’re driving in a very small lane. And how are we going to get the camera car to follow? There were a lot of variables that could go wrong at any moment. We actually made the impossible because we only had seven days to shoot instead of the normal eight days. One of our days was eaten up by pickups from another episode, and so we knew we had to be on our game even more so because we had less time.
How did you all do that scene with the walker in quicksand who then pulls off a limb getting out of there before attacking Al? Was that green screen, practical, or a mix?
That was all practical. Every ounce of that was practical. So this guy was in this coagulant that’s found in milkshakes or something, something really gross. So he’s in there. I gotta give it up to him. He was in there for hours. And working on the leg break, this man is cut off by the knee in real life, so we actually added that bottom part and then it was just a trick of make sure we’re getting the camera and making sure we get that moment, where it’s just so gross and it breaks apart and he goes over to Althea with all that slime. It was just a great dance because I love getting shots of under the trunk from the POV of Althea looking at the walker and all of that. I love this idea of this fight for their lives. And then the jack falling on his head. We did that practically, of course, but then special effects just killed it when it comes to the blood and guts and everything. None of that was there.
You were working a lot with Jenna Elfman in this episode. A lot of heads were turned when she was cast because everyone thought of her as a sitcom actress. What was it like working with her on this pretty big episode for her?
She’s an incredible dramatic actress. And I think a lot of comedians make the best dramatic actresses because they have a facility. They’re very vulnerable. They’re very open, like clowns. Clowns are open. The best of comedians are such open spirits. They’re big, open, wounded hearts, actually. She’s just someone who says, “Yes. Let’s do it. Let’s try it.” And there’s no ego about it. Her ego is out of the door. She’s not afraid to go bigger, go smaller, be silly, try something because she’s like, “Yeah. The whole point of it is trying something.” We have to try the things that may even be wrong to get to the right choice.
She was a dream to direct, actually, she and Maggie Grace. Working with them together was just incredible because Maggie is also very inquisitive and Maggie is very much a dramaturge, and she’s also diluting and interrogating every word because she wants every word to make so much sense with the arc of her character. And also Lennie James. I didn’t have to direct Lennie much. I would just give him a couple of thoughts and ideas and he’ll go with it. He’ll adjust quickly. Or if it’s something he’s not sure of, he’ll just take a pause and then, “Okay. Let me try it.” Very simple. I feel like I’ve been blessed to work with such pros. I didn’t get a lot of backhanded comments or anything like that. Everyone was game.
There’s a big moment for Al in this episode where she’s not going to go with June to go meet Morgan at the mile marker because she wants to get her SWAT van back. She starts to walk away. June starts to drive away and then Al sort of pumps the gun and goes with her. What makes her change her mind?
I love that moment. That’s actually one of my favorite moments of the episode. I’m glad you talked about it. And I hope you noticed that Sergio Leone-inspired shot that comes through the ankles after she raises the gun and looks at that rearview mirror, and then there’s a camera between Althea’s legs, an ankle shot. It’s such a beautiful shot, and it’s indicative of old Sergio Leone films that I wanted to make sure was in there, which is part of our Texas motif.
Anyway, I think the moment why she turns back is she can’t deny she’s just gone through a huge experience where she thinks she may need other people. She was in the fight with the walker. She had sort of a come-to-Jesus conversation with June. And now she’s about to walk off on her own again and she realizes as she’s walking there, she knows she’s just crossed over in some way. She’s just made a great comrade that demands her of her truth. Maybe they can make more of this together. I think everyone’s trying to find community in this episode, and this episode in particular, this is where Al says, “Okay. I think this is a good thing and I want to be a part of this and this is going to help us move forward.” And so she shoots the gun and heads back.
You mentioned Tonya Pinkins, who’s joined the cast here and is playing this mysterious woman who seems intent on sabotaging any of the good work of people. She’s poisoning the water, she’s got zombie Pervis, she turns poor Quinn into a walker at the end to do her bidding. What can you tell us about this character?
The character is called Filthy Woman. That’s the title of her character. We don’t know her name yet. So Filthy Woman is one of the most resourceful people in this apocalypse because she has found something that is working for her. For whatever reason it is, she’s doing some dastardly things like, you know, poisoning the water. She’s writing on people’s heads with this incredible penmanship. Maybe we’ll find out of why she’s doing this, why she’s taking this to task, why she’s living this way. Why is this her endgame?
Everyone’s finding something. Right now, Strand has found a bottle of wine or scotch to be his whole motivation for the rest of the apocalypse, and this Filthy Woman seems to have found hers. She’s claiming, “I’m not weak,” and she believes strength is in people who have let themselves go into this darkness in some way.
And I gotta ask you, what’s up with Strand? We haven’t seen this dude since the storm broke out. What’s he been doing? Besides a lot of drinking, I assume, because that what it seems like he’s always doing.
He’s been doing a lot of drinking, but I think he’s been reassessing. Strand is someone, as you’ve noticed, that each season he may take a moment to go away. Like the time that he was stabbed and in the hotel room and we didn’t see him for a few episodes. I think that Strand is a thinker, and he’s going to reassemble and come out again. He’s like a cat with nine lives. He’s working on his 20th right now? So I think he’s just reassessing everything and coming out brand-new again. He’s like a butterfly that goes back into his cocoon and then comes back again as a different butterfly.
What can you tell us about what’s coming up next on Fear the Walking Dead?
You’re going to start to see our cast reassemble again and sort of find each other. And as they find each other, there’s a large threat, and there are going to be even more challenges and complications with the cast. Some elements of them are coming back together, and then it’s going to be challenged another time.
So do you want to do this directing thing again?
This is absolutely something I’m going to do again. We actually just sealed the deal that I’m going to direct another episode next season. And also, I’m interested in directing for some other shows. We’ll see whether it’s AMC or some other wonderful networks that’ll have me along, but you know me: I like to stay busy, and if I can fill up my schedule with some other things I like to do, I’ll do it.
For more Fear the Walking Dead scoop, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.