Colman Domingo on the Euphoria special episode: 'We all needed it'
After almost a year and a half of waiting, Euphoria returned with the first part of two special episodes on Sunday, and reminded viewers why they fell in love with the HBO series.
Given the limits of shooting during a pandemic, the episode didn’t give an update on the show’s large ensemble, or get too fancy with technical tricks. Instead it spent the majority of the episode’s runtime in a diner with Rue (Zendaya) and her sponsor Ali (Colman Domingo) having a wide-ranging conversation about sobriety, faith, and redemption over pancakes on Christmas Eve.
Given how big a player Ali was in the episode, EW rang up Domingo to talk about why the special was necessary for 2020, how he’s handling the response to it, and what may happen when Euphoria finally comes back for Season 2.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First things first, how did you get involved with Euphoria? Because you're already someone who's already so busy, even just with everything you do at AMC.
COLMAN DOMINGO: Yeah, it's wild. I met Sam Levinson at the after party for a film called Birth of a Nation that I did a few years ago. It was a huge bromance. We were just inspired talking about everything under the sun, and then we became friends immediately. We met up again at SoHo House in New York, sort of had a bro-date, and then he wrote the role of the principal for me in Assassination Nation. So that was the first time we worked together, and then he told me, "Colman, there's a character based on someone who was my sponsor and it could be such an incredible grounded presence for our main protagonist, and I'm going to write it for you." So he wrote the [Euphoria] role for me, and sort of danced around how he fits in. And so that's how I got involved.
Sam and I are always willing to make anything work. I shot all my four episodes of the first season of Euphoria in two days, so he makes it work while I'm doing everything else. He knows if I'm willing, he's willing. And then this special one just landed in my hands, at a time, I think, I needed it. We all needed it. I'm sitting in front of my computer. We're all doing the work of marching in the streets. I'm holding conference calls. Rallying the troops about DEI strategy. And then he sends me this script that echoes everything that I felt in my heart. Sometimes you call on art to help you work through something. I thought this gave words and became a sermon to what I think we are all wrestling with in 2020, and the soul of America, so I felt incredibly blessed for this episode.
At what point did you find out about it becoming a special episode? Because I believe you guys said in the behind-the-scenes featurette that it was built off of something that you all were already planning for season 2 before production got shut down.
Yeah, we did the table read the day before the lockdown. Out of the eight scripts, I think they were a few of the conversations sprinkled throughout the episodes. You know, whether they would be at the beginning of that episode, or ending. But I would say there's maybe about three parts of this conversation that we have over this hour-long episode that were in these episodes. And then, I guess, Sam thought it would be great to just lock it down, and instead of it just being these interstitial moments, actually to have a full moment. And I love how it was set. I thought the idea of it being a Christmas episode is perfect because it's that time when you can take a breath, and take stock. It's bittersweet and it brings up everything you're dealing with. Everything comes to the surface, and your honest feelings are required. So it feels like a perfect convergence of an episode.
Had you been given any indication that you were going to be playing a bigger role in season 2? Because the first season would spotlight a different character each episode, and one could argue that this episode was Ali’s turn in the spotlight.
I knew that Sam has an arc for everyone, even the smallest of characters, and so I knew that it was a matter of time when he would give more insight to Ali, and the weight. Because even in conversations, I knew more about who it's based on, so I knew a lot of this man's story, and I was just wondering how he would weave that into the storyline. And I think it just happened in a very organic way for Sam.
Also, I think Sam is very concerned with responding to the times. Because I do think that even the scripts that he wrote before the pandemic, I'm sure with a year off he's going to retool it and really respond to things that we are really in the moment thinking about. And so I think that that's why this episode feels so relevant. Because it's actually things that he's wrestling with right now about our culture, about how we revolt, how we dream, how we process, how we lose faith in each other, how we try to regain some faith and some strength. Everything about it is so visceral. It's right now. It's immediate.
Other actors on the show have said Sam has allowed them to give a lot of input into their character. You're an accomplished writer in your own right. Are there any ad-libs or suggestions you made shooting this special episode that made it into the episode?
Let me tell you something. Absolutely not. The most beautiful thing about Sam, and his writing, is that he's so detailed. I think any actor worth his salt needs to let it sink in for a moment to get into a psychology of why things are phrased the way they are. But the thing is, Sam is always saying, "What do you think, Colman? What do you think about this?" And this one I thought was written so elegantly. I thought it was kind of perfect. I really had no questions about any of it. I asked him just to be sure I was clear about where he was going with the intentionality of a scene, but I remember he added that very last bit of the scene, where she says, "I don't want to be here any more." He added that late. We got those pages maybe two days before we were going to shoot it. Because he realized he didn't want to let Rue or Ali off the hook in a way. Just let it be a conversation. But I feel like he needed to drop in a bit more. That's the collaborative nature of Sam. He will watch and observe and see exactly what's happened. He'd feel the energy of the actors, watching me and Z work together and rehearse, and then he knew that there was something else missing. And so, then he dropped that on us, and then we had two days to learn it. But Sam's words, I mean, the way he phrases things, it's not hard to memorize, because everything has an action and they help build on the other thought. And so, I find that you can manage his scripts if you're just honest and you go on the ride.
It’s wild to hear that that was a late addition. There's so many moments of this episode where I was just floored.
Yeah, people ask me like, "Oh, Colman, I knew that was you. I can tell that was an improv." I'm like, "No, none of it was an improv." That's my skill as an actor, to make it feel like it's an improv, but he wrote every "um," every "but." Even when I said, "Your generation's full of some mark-ass bitches." I'm like, "No, that comes from Sam Levinson. I didn't say that." But even the fact that Sam also observes his actors. He knows I'm from Philadelphia. I'm from West Philly, and he just decided to put in that this character is from South Philly. I think he wanted him just a little closer in nature to myself.
You talk about Sam infusing parts of yourself into the role, and the role of being based on someone in Sam's life. This episode goes deeper into what it's like to be an addict, more so than a lot of shows that I've seen. Does all that stuff come from Sam, or did that also require a lot of research on your part to get into the character?
Yeah, it does. It's a lot from Sam. He gives you the words, and then of course, you feel the responsibility to make sure that you actually have more insight into addicts. Whatever research, whatever I find online, whatever I found in learning more about 12 steps and exactly what the 12 steps are, but it means I had conversations with addicts. I have had some addicts in my family that I've actually had conversations with, and also Sam gave us the most beautiful gift, which is actually including the scene with Miss Marsha. Ms. Marsha [Gambles] is a recovering addict for about 17 years I believe. The one that was waiting tables there, and she offers up stories. We have great conversations with her, great insight. And so, you have the truth in the scene. I personally felt like I had the truth right over my shoulder, so there was no way I could actually play a false note. I had the responsibility of Miss Marsha literally over my right shoulder.
In watching it for the first time and looking at the credits, I really was looking to see who played Miss Marsha, and then to see that the actress's name is also Marsha, that made so much sense, because that was just such a sage role.
I think that's the whole part of it being as authentic as possible, that Sam is fighting for. He wants the truth in it, the true experience of what it means to be an addict and to humanize the addict and to not villainize or demonize an addict, but give them grace. Give them their humanity as well, and to understand the sickness of it. I think that's why it feels so right. It feels so personal. It feels so it's honest, because it comes from Sam's heart, and Sam, he's had a struggle since he was a kid. And I think he's doing the work of a good shaman or priest, in a way. I feel like he's really trying to do the work to heal and not only heal others, heal himself, heal the people around him and find deeper insight. Like he says over and over for you to look deeper. He doesn't want you to look at the superficial because that's how we've all got into this trouble in the first place, looking outside of ourselves instead of looking deep within and seeing what we're made of and finding a new truth of ourselves. I mean, that's powerful.
Thinking of how the season finale ended with it unclear if Rue overdosed, did you all go into this episode just skipping past Rue’s overdose, or did you all purposefully play it like it was a purgatorial state?
I think answers like that are up to the viewer. I think it's important, actually, the fact that it leaves it open-ended, and I think that I didn't even question what it was. I just dealt with my given circumstances of the scene, where we are in the diner having this conversation. So, I like the idea that it's ambiguous. We still don't know. I think that's what's going to keep people tuning in to find out, because the one thing that we have learned is that Rue is a very untrustworthy narrator.
Is there anything you can tell us about season 2? Maybe not plotwise, but will it keep that same structure spotlighting a different character each episode?
Knowing Sam's mind, it can go anywhere. He's always willing to push the dials a little bit, and rewrite, and reconstruct, because I think that's what the show's about. He's like, you got to mess it all up sometimes. You got to rethink it. The moment you expect something, I think he'd want to throw you a curveball. No one expected this episode to be what it was, or to be that stationary, but I think that he's just going with his heart and his soul, and I think he's going with the best way that he knows how to tell stories. So, I feel like if he decides to just hang a left, you just got to go with him.
With this and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, this year you worked opposite the only two Black women ever to win the Emmy for Lead Actress in a Drama.
Oh, my God.
What was your reaction to Zendaya, her historic win?
First of all, I had no idea. I don't know. I didn't think about it. I think it's awesome. Are you kidding me? I was so excited for Zendaya. We have such a great history with each other, and I'm so proud of her because I just love the young woman that she is. She's really kind and she's intelligent and she's really humble and very in tune. And I think that she feels very rare, to be honest. And so, the idea that she would be elevated to win her Emmy, I thought it was profound, because a lot of times, the work of a young Black actress will get overlooked. I feel like there's a lot of people out here doing the work and a lot of times it's not seen. People want to elevate people for whatever reason, and I'm really very happy that her work was seen because I think it's honest and it's true and it's vital. And I feel very blessed to work with Viola Davis, too. Are you kidding me? I work with some really wonderful people. I feel like I'm in a great boxing ring with people. We just want to just fight it out, fight it out for everybody, and feel good about it.
Was there a part of you that also thought just wait and see what we have coming up next with the special episode? It’s such an acting tour de force.
It is, and thank you so much for that. I don't know what I thought. I think I'm just so in the moment that I'm just like, I know we did the work. I knew that much. Do I know how it will be received? No, I never know. I hope. I hope. But I knew that this was something special. I knew that what we did together was something special. And I was just very excited for people to see it. And good lord, I had no idea, just already the wave of how it's been received has been extraordinary. I don't usually emote over things like this, but I actually had a little cry.
Aww, it speaks to the episode. It's very affecting.
Yeah, it is. I mean, so many reasons too. I think the work is good. I think I respect the work. I respect the message and the writing and cinematography and the direction. And then, also I respect how it's trying to hold space for addicts and it's really trying to do something. Especially in our culture, where it's just noisy to be noisy. And this is actually trying to do something and really raise some questions and bring people closer together. I actually had a cry in my makeup chair for Fear the Walking Dead. I don't know what happened to me, but they were playing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and I burst into tears. I was like, I have to get myself together. And I really thought, I'm so happy this was received the way it was, because in particular, the end of this year of 2020, when we've been raked over the coals, everyone, I felt like this is so needed. And I feel like Ali became the therapist that America has always needed. He's the sponsor for America right now, because America has been riddled with addicts. Addicts in some way, shape, or form. And I feel like Ali is the solution right now. He's dropping some real truth, some real knowledge, and boy, do I feel really blessed and privileged to play a guy like that, and for it to be received as such, because he's an ordinary man who's flawed, but he's extraordinary.
I think actually, that brings people like him back into the fold, and he's talking about redemption, about love, about faith. And this is someone who, I'm sure, on any given day in America would not be looked at, not seen at all. Everything about him, it's smashing tropes about what it is to be a Muslim, what it is to be a man, a recovering addict, you name it. I think it's just profound, that everyone has a chance back in society. Everyone is human, has heartbreak, but there's a chance for redemption. And that's for everyone, I think. So, I think that's why it's hitting everyone so hard, and that's why it hit me like a ton of bricks. I finally realized, because I'm usually just moving on to the next job and working a lot. I don't take a moment sometimes to realize the actuality of what actually has been done, but I feel it deeply with Ali.
That's amazing, and just thinking about the episode itself and its inception. It's so profound that you guys were able to come together and really deliver something to fans. The show means so much to them, so to have the chance to really share something this year, given all that we've gone through is a huge feat.
It's huge, and let me tell you something, I was never a Twitter person, and I just started to figure out what Twitter was about. I've been reading Twitter, and I'm not reading Twitter just for the praise of whatever commentary, but the things that I zone in on, when someone said "I watched this with my son, and it was so healing for us. My son, who's an addict. And it helped me have more patience and understand him and his journey." There have been countless people talking, especially the people talking about addiction were saying, "I really needed this. This makes me feel not so alone in the world right now. This is a very hard time." And that's echoing what everyone's always feeling, but especially everyone right now. It's a really hard time for everyone around. And it's around the world. I'm translating things from Brazil and France and everyone's saying, "I needed this and thank you so much for sitting at a table and having a tough conversation," because that's everyone's been asking all year, that we have to confront each other with the tough conversations and the hard truths in order for us to get a greater understanding and heal. And we decided to do it by example. So now I can do it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.