Colman Domingo is Hollywood's secret weapon
Colman Domingo is everywhere. Either the 51-year-old has made a scientific breakthrough of epic proportions and figured out how to clone himself, or he is the hardest working man in show business. There he is slicing and dicing zombies on Fear the Walking Dead. Oh, wait, but there he also is throwing down an epic performance in a diner on Euphoria. Hold on, now he's over there mediating between Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. Or is that him hosting a bottomless brunch on the internet… which sounds like something else entirely from what it actually is?
Domingo is in all these places, seemingly at once. And when not starring in various movies and TV shows or hosting an online talk show (Bottomless Brunch at Colman's — just renewed for season 3), he's directing (helming three episodes of Fear), writing (the acclaimed playwright co-wrote the book for Broadway's Summer: the Donna Summer Musical, among many others) and executive-producing (his play Dot is being adapted into a series by AMC).
But it is his appearance on screen that has been garnering raves of late. Fear the Walking Dead has had a resurgent season 6 on AMC, and a big reason for that has been the re-emergence of Domingo's Strand as a man with an edge. Strand's rough exterior had been gradually smoothed out over the years, but watching him murder one character and hasten the execution of another — both in the name of what he saw as the greater good — has made both the character and the show feel dangerous again.
While Domingo's recurring role as Ali on Euphoria has been more of a side project to his main job on Fear, that side project took center stage this past weekend thanks to HBO's special episode of Euphoria (which was released on HBO Max two days before HBO's Dec. 6 airing). The installment — which consists almost solely of Domingo's Ali and Zendaya's Rue sitting and talking in a diner for an hour after Rue's relapse at the end of season 1 — featured a powerhouse performance by Domingo as "a crackhead who's trying to do a little good on this earth before he dies."
Domingo's renaissance on Fear and breakout on Euphoria are leading up to what could be the actor's most high-profile performance yet, as the bandleader Cutler in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, which will be released Dec. 18 on Netflix. Working with Davis (as Ma Rainey) and Boseman (playing Levee, in the actor's last performance before his Aug. 28 death), Domingo's Cutler is the glue who keeps the band together in George C. Wolfe's film adaptation of the August Wilson play. Cutler is not unlike Derek Smalls in Spinal Tap, acting as the lukewarm water between Levee's fiery showmanship and Ma's icy stare.
Strand. Ali. Cutler. Three completely different roles, all right on the heels of one another (with another one on the way in 2021's highly anticipated Candyman reboot). There's no doubt about it: Colman Domingo is having a moment. With that in mind, we asked the actor for a few moments of his own to chat about his unique career on EW Live (SiriusXM, channel 109). As Cutler himself would say: 1… 2… you know what to do.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You are everywhere lately, and that's in addition to all the stuff I know you do behind the scenes, like writing. How do you manage to get so much other work in when not shooting Fear? How are you scheduling all this stuff?
COLMAN DOMINGO: I'm curious. I want to just keep creating. I just told somebody this actually just like about an hour ago, a director who wants to consider me for a project. And she was like, "Oh, it looks like the dates don't line up." I said, "Hold on for a second. It's always worth making a phone call. Let me just check and double-check," because otherwise, I will squeeze something in. Like the first season of Euphoria, I shot my four episodes in two days because I told Sam Levinson, "Well, I have two days off, I can do it here," or, "I wish you well, and I hope you cast a really wonderful guy." And he was like, "We can make it work." I feel like if I'm willing to do the work, I'm willing to fly in, fly out, and they're willing to do that too, we can make it work.
You mention Euphoria. We've got to talk about this special that dropped over the weekend. When you heard that there was going to be this hourlong episode with basically just you and Zendaya talking in a diner, what was your first reaction?
Sam said, "I think I'm going to write an episode, it's just you and Rue, Colman." I was like, "Great." And of course, I know the show Euphoria, so I just assumed that we're going to be off doing wild things, and it's this weird sort of fantasia with two recovering addicts. You know what I mean?
But then he sent me the script. Really, he sent it in the middle of when there was fires in the street and people marching, really, and just having discussions about [diversity, equity, and inclusion] practices, you name it. So he sent it to me, I'm already emotional and trying to figure out what we're doing in the pandemic, and I read this. And I really, I just cried, because I thought he was speaking everything that I was in my heart but I couldn't give words to.
I called him up immediately, and I was completely emotional. I was like, "You've delivered a sermon for 2020. That's what this is. And thank you for trusting me to deliver this, and I just want to give it my all." So I put myself in my own three-week rehearsal at home. I would wake up at 7 in the morning and I would rehearse until 4, every day. Why? Because it was the pandemic and I was home. What else was I going to do but rehearse like I was in a theater, because it did feel like a play. And I wanted to just know it and research it, so I did know it so I could just be available. That's what's what we did, I think.
How exciting is it for you when you read that script and you see, "Wow, I'm about to do some serious, heavy lifting here"? This is some heavy lifting that you're doing. That's got to be exciting.
It is, man. Let me tell you, I haven't done heavy lifting like that since my days in the theater when I was doing work by Athol Fugard or August Wilson, or some of the musicals that I've done. I feel like that's usually my strength. And then sometimes, because you're in ensemble shows or you're playing other characters that sort of come in and out, you don't get that opportunity to just show everything you can do and have a full character arc through an episode. That is very rare. Usually you come in and you support the engine of a lot of different balls in the air. But this one, it felt like a tremendous responsibility, but I knew I was up for the task because I felt like… I don't know, maybe it was because we were in the pandemic.
I felt hungry and I felt like I needed to work out, and I needed to get a good workout in with my creativity. That's what it feels like. It feels like I got into the boxing ring and had to train for it. You know what I mean? Because I was like, "Oh, this is like no joke." I called up Zendaya and we ran the scene, because I was already in my own rehearsal. I was like, "Can we just run the lines? Can we just read the scene together?" Because I think it requires that. And she immediately says, "Yeah, let's set up a Zoom." So we Zoomed, and we read it, and we didn't even talk much about it. We just wanted to hear each other's voices.
And then we just went in. And each take, we just… it is a dance when it's just a two-hander. You can't come in with some preconceived notion on the way you think the scene should go. You just have to be available and truly do the thing that I think you teach and you learn in theater school, which is to actually listen and respond. That was the joy.
I was wondering how much, if at all, you all got to rehearse this scene. And you bring up theater, this episode feels like theater. It's a diner set, two actors at a table going into some really deep stuff. And obviously that's your background, so it must've just really fit like a glove.
Dude, it felt so good, because it felt honest and it felt like Sam, just the integrity of the words, and just two people talking, and to find beauty in that. I think he's also, to be honest, responding to the times, because there is so much noise and he was like, "What if we just took a breath?" What if his protagonist, Rue, took a breath and just sat down and unpacked what's in their minds and their hearts so they can move forward? We don't know where they're going to go after that episode, but it does feel like this very ambiguous time where time stands still. And it's bittersweet like Christmas, where you feel like you have a lot behind you, but then you have a lot ahead of you, but you're not quite sure what the future holds. So it does feel like it's in this purgatory state, the whole scene, where you just have time to talk, and we've all had for the last 10 months, time to talk.
You're a guy with tons of friends in the business, and I imagine your phone was lighting up as people started to watch it either on HBO Max over the weekend or Sunday night on HBO. Tell me what that feeling's like when you go in there and you think you've done good work and you feel good about it, I assume, but then all of a sudden you're getting that validation when it finally airs?
I knew that this episode was special. And I knew with the hands of Sam and HBO that it would at least get out there in the right way, and so I knew that. I've been a part of many things that I felt like would get out there the right way but somehow they got derailed, or overlooked, or whatever. So I feel like I have a long history of that. But this one, I was like, this will get out there the right way, because I think all the intention behind it is to heal, to re-examine, to sort of be a balm for America's ills right now, give you some tools to talk about and have the hard conversation. So I knew that.
And then when it premiered on HBO Max, I was not prepared for that overwhelming outpouring of love, especially on Twitter. It was like an avalanche of love and support and people hurling superlatives at the work. And it just, man, it feels really good, especially, I've been working for 30 years. I've never gotten this outpouring of support and love. You know, I consider myself a workhorse, and you do the work and let the work speak for itself. And you know me, I go to the next project. I'm not really thinking about your response, I just keep going.
But I wanted to sit with this, and to be honest, that very next day I went on set of Fear of the Walking Dead and I was sitting in my makeup chair, and I don't know what happened. I read some of the tweets, I put it away. Then the song "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" came on, and suddenly, a 51-year-old man burst into tears. I don't know, man. I guess I'd been holding it in, but I thought, "This feels like an extraordinary Christmas gift." And not only just for myself — it's nice to get a little praise once in a while, it is. It's nice to get some adulation and some accolades. Why not? Especially when you've been doing the work, and you just do the work for the work's sake. But you know what? If somebody takes notice, it kind of feels good. I'm accepting of it, and it feels really good right now to be doing what I'm doing and people amplifying it.
The only thing I didn't like about that scene is you're sitting down with some pancakes. You barely got to eat those things! You're talking too much! And I'm getting hungry just watching!
[Laughs] Let me tell you something, those pancakes were so good! I mean, these are HBO pancakes. They keep them warm. They called me up, the props person called me up and was like, "Would you like fruit? What kind of fruit would you like on your pancakes?" I said, "What?" I started to think, "What does Ali want? And then what do I want?" I said, "Well, I think Ali, I think he needs antioxidants because he's very concerned about his…" I detail my work that way. So I have blueberries on there and then a side of pineapple. But the funny thing is that they did give me — which was just a slight error — they had a side of bacon. And I was like, "Wait…," Zendaya and I both looked at it early on in the scene, like after the second take. And she's like, "You're eating bacon?" I was like, "No, I'm Muslim. I don't eat bacon." So we just quietly both shoved it to her side of the table.
That's hilarious! I was going to ask you whether you get any say in terms of the food they eat and whether they keep it hot, and sounds like the answers are yes and yes.
Dude, it's HBO, man. They keep it hot and ready and available. It's the best pancakes ever. I mean, really, they were delicious. But I ate just a little bit because I can't talk with food in my mouth. So when we call cut, I would actually take a couple bites.
You also have Ma Rainey's Black Bottom coming out Dec. 18 on Netflix. Look, I tried in the sixth grade to play trombone and I was terrible at it. Just embarrassingly bad. How was your trombone training for this, because I don't know how you sound, but you look like you know what you're doing?
[Laughs] I look like I know what I'm doing because I'm an actor. The funny thing is, they did give us coaches. I mean, this is at the very end of a shooting Fear of the Walking Dead. I had a coach meet me in Austin and we went to work, and he taught me the way he taught children, to be honest, because I really was like a child with it. And it's a really tough instrument. It's really tough, but I wanted to make sure I honored at least knowing where an A was and my slide positions and what needs to happen.
So I learned all that, and I feel like I watched a lot of trombone players to watch how the mouth placement is, even the way they stand, and how they stand when they're hitting that F or C, that's how much I know. [Laughs] But yeah, it's a tough instrument, but what we all learned to become proficient enough that we could… like, I could croak out the sound that you kind of knew it was a song, even if it was a little wonky, but you kind of knew what I was trying to play.
Obviously, this is Chadwick Boseman's last film. You all go toe-to-toe, literally at one point, in the film. What was the energy like working with Chadwick?
Beautiful. It was beautiful imagery. Chad, he's a funny guy, has a sly, dry wit. He's a workhorse as well. He worked really hard. Even when you call cut and we were done with our bit of the music, he was still playing the trumpet. He was really trying to become proficient with the trumpet, and I think he did. We were just running lines left and right, just like, "Hey, you want to run?" We'd just say, "Hey, you want to run them?" and then we'd just start, whatever scene at any time. He had an incredible work ethic and a good heart, and just a good guy. He always entered a room kind of not taking up a lot of space. He let his work take up the space, which is beautiful. He walked in quietly.
And I would just joke with him sometimes like, "Oh, so you're not going to speak to anybody when you walk into a room?" And, of course, he would start to just walk in immediately and look at me like, "Hey, Colman, listen up." He was a great man.
And his work, I actually just watched his work last night. I wanted to focus on Chad and watched the film again. And I was astounded. I was in the room and we were working off of each other, but to see the magnitude of what he was able to accomplish while he was struggling with his bout of cancer, it's superhuman. You know, I'm an able-bodied man, it was tough for me. It was tough for Viola and Glynn [Turman] and Michael [Potts], but Chad, he powered through it. And there was that conviction, I think that faith. He was a king among kings.
When I watched the movie, he comes into the film like a firecracker. And when you think about what you're saying too, now knowing the struggles he was having from a health perspective, the amount of energy that he brings onto the screen is just incredible.
You know why, though? I think that was his joy. I think that even the fact that he was so private about his struggle, is I feel like he didn't want to dwell on that. He wanted to go for the joy. He was still going forward. He wasn't letting his illness drive him backwards. He was like, "No, what can I do? What can I create?" And so every take, he came in with so much joy. I'm very inspired by that, because I feel like I've learned from him as a comrade. And I've always been this way, but even more so. I take no moment for granted because you really never know. And every opportunity I get to act, to write, to direct, whatever, I just want to eat it up and have a tremendous impact. Because as we've witnessed with Chad, you never know when it's your last, and this was his last film. And I know for sure he gave it all that he had.
And Viola Davis is a force of nature in this film as well. Does she come out of character as Ma between takes? Because that is quite a character.
Yeah, I have pictures of us dancing and being silly together. We're all very much actors who sort of are halfway in, halfway out. We can always jump back in. But I think that she's a powerhouse as Ma, and it's subtle and it's weighted. And at times the makeup is grotesque, but it's completely beautiful. She delivers a searing performance and playing off of her was also just… the blessing is George C. Wolfe made sure that you had an ensemble that were all heavyweights. Everyone was a heavyweight fighter, and they were ready to get into that ring. So you had everybody coming out full out like Forman, like we're going to dodge and move and battle each other. And so everybody was at the top of their game because everyone demanded that of the other. And so that's the environment George C. Wolfe set up. It was awesome.
What's your next theatrical conquest? I know you're always writing and working on stuff.
Yeah, man, I wrote a musical for the Young Vic in London using the Stax music catalog — you know, Otis Redding, the Staples Singers, Johnny Taylor. So I wrote that during the pandemic, and it's going to be directed by Kwame Kwe-Armah, who's the phenomenal artistic director. And hopefully, it'll be a commercial production of it as well. I wrote that, and I've been working on an option of a couple of my plays, turning them into films.
Okay, we have to talk a little Fear of the Walking Dead. This season has been incredible, and one of the big reasons why is because your character, Victor Strand, feels dangerous again. We've seen him straight-up murder this poor sap Sanjay to protect Alicia and Charlie, and then go and hasten the execution of another innocent to protect John Dorie. How important is it for Strand to have that edge?
I think it's very important for Strand to have that edge. Our showrunners are really excited about exploring the villain that you know, because usually we get, I won't say exactly Strand is a villain, but he has done villainous acts. And usually we get that from the outside. You get some other group coming in, you get Virginia, you get whatever. But what about the person that you know, and you know what they're capable of? So what I wanted to do, and what the showrunners wanted to do, is harken back to season 1 Strand and say, "Remember, that guy is still underneath. Yeah, he's had a journey, he's lost some things, he's gained some things, but remember when the s--- hits the fan, he can revert back to this guy."
And now, I'm basically interested in Strand 2.0. Well, let's see, season 6, 6.0, which I think is actually a nice, great build of previous Strand. And I think it's actually greater storytelling and it's a bit more challenging. And I love that the showrunners are bold enough to make Strand possibly an unlikeable character — because you know him and it's going to challenge you. And so I like the fact that he will still do things at times to possibly offer up some redemption. But I think that he's always been pragmatic, and he's willing to put everything on the line in what he believes in.
And he said that he's listened to everyone else far too long. It's now time for Strand to follow Strand's instincts, because he's constantly being swayed, and people have been saying that his way was the wrong way. But yet still, as he looks around, he's still surviving, and so he must know a thing about a thing. So I think he's going full Strand, full-tilt, without apology.
I love it. And what I love about it is that it's sort of a combination of the two Strands. Because he's now as ruthless as he was in season 1, but there's a little difference because season 1, he was selfish and ruthless, but now he's ruthless…
For a cause.
For a cause. Exactly.
Yeah, and I think that's the difference. I think he knows his superpower, and he knows he can do it for good. It may not be a popular decision, but like when he killed Sanjay… I mean, Sanjay was going to die anyway. [Laughs] Sanjay was a little wimp who decided not to help them out and ran and hid. You can't have that behavior. So I think Strand, he knew in that moment, "Oh, I have to sacrifice you for the greater good. And I'm the one to do it." Other people would get caught up in their feelings, Strand's not that person. He's like, "Oh, you know what? Actually, to save my friends, you get a shiv in the knee and get kicked out to the Walkers."
Colman, I gasped when it happened. I legitimately gasped. I couldn't believe it.
[Laughs] I laugh every time I see it. I don't know what that says about my sense of humor, but I laugh so hard. I was like, "Oh my God, that's cold-blooded." And the beautiful thing is the episode was directed by Lennie James. And he allowed me one take where I said, "I want to try something." He said, "Great, try it. This is the last take." And that's when I'm pushing Sanjay out and I scream at the top of my lungs, I said, "It's got to be that he's got to do everything he can to assure that this sacrifice is going to happen." So that's why he's screaming at the Walkers to come and then kicks him in the butt. So he's just completely doubling down on what he can do.
It's interesting, as you mentioned, Lennie James directing, you really pioneered all that in terms of actors in the Walking Dead franchise directing episodes. You've directed a few now. Listen, you're a busy man. I don't want to put more on your plate, but is directing something that you want to eventually, at some point, extend outside of the show? I mean, you write, you act, what's going on with the directing?
I'm hungry for that, man. I would love to direct for some other shows. I definitely want to direct some film. I want it to be the right film, because I think when you make your mark as a filmmaker it says so much about your worldview and what you're interested in and what your visual language is. And I want to make sure I'm clear about that. So I'm really looking at directing. More than likely, I'll direct some work on my own first, whether it's an adaptive play. And then I'm very hungry to work on other television shows. I love the work that AMC always does. I feel like whether I do something on another AMC show or, hey, you never know, maybe I'll direct an episode of Euphoria if Sam let's me at it.
And are we getting more Bottomless Brunch?
Yes, man. This is the scoop. I'll tell you because we just signed an agreement yesterday. We're going to have season 3 of Bottomless Bunch at Colman's. We just got approved for that. It's going to be another wonderful season. I think we're going to dial up the production value, and things like that. The initial idea was for it to be a fully produced sit-down show, and this is the home version. So I think we're making steps to get it to the fully produced version if it.