Colman Domingo
Photo by Michael Rowe

Colman Domingo: “That was enough for me”

Short Profile

Name: Colman Jason Domingo
DOB: 28 November 1969
Place of birth: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States
Occupation: Actor

Mr. Domingo, how do you look back on your early days as an actor?

It’s funny — I'm going to say something that I think I've never said before, but I bristled years ago when friend of mine said, “Oh, back when you were a struggling actor…” And I thought: “I was never a struggling actor! I was an actor.” It all depends on the lens you're going from. While I was bartending, while I was teaching, while I was on unemployment, while I was becoming a writer, while I was living in a rent stabilized apartment, while I was caring for my parents, while I was laying them in the ground in their passing… I was always an actor. Struggle? I've never attached myself to saying struggle. I wasn't struggling, I was having a life of an artist.

The composer Alan Menken calls it a dharmic journey, that even when he had to write jingles or play piano for ballet classes, it was all part of his journey to become an Oscar winning film composer.

There’s that different lens! I've also always had that healthy idea of what an artist's life was. Sometimes it didn't look as profitable, it looked a little like you didn't have access sometimes, but I don’t know if that's a struggle. Those things are meant to help you figure out who you are and your voice. But I've always looked at it that way. I was happy as a bartender! And at one o'clock in the morning I'd be writing a solo show for myself, and then had it produced and eventually became a very successful solo show. That’s what an artist’s life looks like. There were times when I was working on London stages and I thought that was enough for me.

“I know what I’ve been building! And I can see it now when I look back.”

Well, you were nominated for a Tony Award and a Laurence Olivier Award for your role in The Scottsboro Boys — so you were still incredibly successful on stage, even if you weren’t working much in film or TV.

With stage shows, they gave me everything that I wanted to do. It felt like I was in service with this musical, and I didn't want to do anything dumbed down or not worthy in that way. So I was going to leave the film business, I didn't think I was valuable anymore. But then I get a show like The Walking Dead, and that reinvigorated my purpose.

And with it came another medium.

Yeah, I thought, “Well, let's go down this lane and see what happens.” So I know what I've been building! And I can see it now when I look back, like you said, I see every step to being a part of films like Rustin and The Color Purple. It started with a sense of purpose and integrity to work and a willingness for hard work. Everything in my career has led to both films.

Does that make the success that you’re seeing now, having been Oscar-nominated for Ruskin, all the more enjoyable?

Yes, it does. It really does. You know why? Because it feels well earned. Because I also know — and this is without any ego — I know that no one has given me anything. I’ve had to create my reality in this industry. I've had to take pitfalls and turns and go sideways, upside down, you name it. I had to become a writer. I had to become a director. I had to become a producer because I wanted to feel like I had access and agency in this industry all the while still doing my acting work. I still stayed fresh and inspired and as excited as I was the day I started many years ago in San Francisco.

“All the things that I’ve done, all 33 years in this industry, have prepared me for the role of Bayard Rustin.”

Although you had quite a few supporting roles in film and TV, Ruskin was arguably your first major leading role. Did that put some extra pressure on you?

I knew that that was a huge task and a huge responsibility. On one hand, when you first imagine you have to execute this, and you look at the entirety of it, you're like, “Okay, how am I going to get this done?” You have to just remind yourself to put one foot in front of the other. You have to start with your prep work and research and break it down like you break down any other script. But the thing that was added in terms of responsibility is that I knew that it wasn't just going be enough to research this and perform this and be on set 14 hours a day, but I had to be the soul of the production. The production could only truly work well and efficiently and effectively if I put my whole soul into it.

It was lucky, then, that you had all those years of experience behind you.

Right, I felt like all the things that I've done, all 33 years in this industry, have prepared me for that role. All my work in regional theaters, my work in and on London stages, my work in New York, my time not working, working as a bartender, working as a teacher… It all helped me. So I was up for the task. It's not like I just got out of grad school and this role was handed to me. This role required all those years, you know, Rustin was 51 years old when he organized the march in Washington. And I was 51 years old when I shot the film. We had those years between us. We're creating a film and a piece of art, and we need to have a sense of openness and passion for telling this story so I needed to access that with as much love, ferocity, grace and intelligence as I could.

What about for an antagonist character like Mister in The Color Purple? How did you approach playing him?

Well, knowing the task at hand was to play an abuser and to live in these dark spaces, I had to set myself up for wellness. I rented an apartment with a lot of light and fresh flowers, I made sure I had good meals, I got a massage once a week… I know what I need to keep some wellness, but also stay in the world of the film. I needed to come home and actually let go so I can go in and do that work again, go to those dark spaces all over again. I'm not someone who method lives in those spaces. You can't do that. I don't think that's healthy. I think it's important to find a way to lock in and be there fully committed, but also to have this place of self-care so that you can go back in the next day and go even deeper.