IN CONVERSATION WITH COLMAN DOMINGO
Interview by Jana Letonja
Emmy award winning actor, playwright and producer Colman Domingo stars as Civil Rights leader Bayard Rustin in Netflix and Higher Ground’s film ‘Rustin’, which was released earlier this month. He will next be seen in Warner Bros. production of ‘The Color Purple’, which is being released on 25th December.
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Colman, we’re currently able to watch you in the biographical drama film ‘Rustin’, which is based on the true story of Rustin, who helped Martin Luther King Jr. and others organize the 1963 March on Washington. Tell us more about this film and its story. What makes it so impactful and special?
‘Rustin’ is a film about the mastermind and the chief organizer behind 1963 March on Washington for jobs and freedom, Bayard Rustin, who was largely ignored by history due the fact that he was openly gay. The film depicts the time before the March and the gargantuan effort that went into orchestrating that monumental achievement that changed the very idea of democratic ideals, reversed the course of politics and world history. Most importantly, the March reinforced peoples’ power peacefully, regardless of the intrigue of the American political system of the time. The beautiful, rightful and seismic outcome of it all was the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And coincidentally, the film gets to the cinema goers right now, in 2023, on the sixtieth Anniversary of the March on Washington. This film is a stunning showcase that regardless of all of our differences, when we join together as people for a good cause, we can truly change the world. As Bayard would say, gather a group of ‘angelic troublemakers’.
In the film, you portray Civil Rights leader Bayard Rustin. What intrigued you the most about your character? Did you identify with him in any way?
Bayard Rustin was a ferocious leader, yet an outlier in many ways, politically and personally. Firstly, he was raised a Quaker, which is a community that practices pacifism, and played a key role in both the abolitionist and women’s rights movements. Bayard studied non-violent civil resistance from the Gandhian leaders in India. At the same time, he was openly gay, which, at the time, was criminalized. Rustin contained multitudes, he played the lute, sang Elizabethan love songs and dedicated his life to being a public servant. There are so many parallels between Bayard and I.
A friend of mine just made me aware that Bayard was 51 years old at the time of the March, as was I when we were in the production for the film. Additionally, from my research into his person, I understood that in order to be everything that he was, Bayard truly loved people. At the heart, that is our core, mine and Bayard’s. I also have been told many times by those who surround me that I am a natural born leader, always have been. And just like Bayard, I have always been open about who I am. It might sound strange, but I feel as though he himself chose me to portray him.There is something magnificently divine about how this role came to me. I am a true believer in energy and I am convinced that the only way Bayard had to come through in this project was through me and through people I love and knew what I could give to his portrayal.
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‘Rustin’ was produced by Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company. How was it working with them and their production company?
In the hallway of my home in Southern California, there is a photo that was taken during my visit of the White House inJanuary 2015, as a part of the cast for my friend Ava DuVernay’s ‘Selma’, in which I stand between President Obama and the First Lady. Working with them on ‘Rustin’ was a full circle moment for me. The Obamas are these incredibly accomplished humans, who are whip-smart, kind and elegant, yet amazingly down to earth. It is a true inspiration that with their company ‘Higher Ground’, Barack and Michelle are continuing the outreach and the impact of what they have always done, which is to remind people of the power that they naturally possess. It was extraordinarily special to be leading this project with them and George C. Wolfe, the film’s director.
Next up, we’ll be seeing you in Warner Bros.’ ‘The Color Purple’, a musical coming-of-age period drama film, that chronicles the story of life-long struggles of an African American woman living in the south during the early 1900s. How was it preparing for that character?
Ironically, I shot ‘The Color Purple’ right after ‘Rustin’, with about two weeks in between for a small breath. In a manner of speaking, I time traveled from the 1960s to the early 1900s. However, I had to quickly switch gears character-wise and what a colossal shift it was. The characters are diametrically opposed. I went from someone like Bayard Rustin, a self-possessed person with the love for all people and an agency in his life, to Albert ‘Mister’ Johnson, who due to the circumstances and conditioning carries a lot of darkness, which he outwardly projects in a very proactive way.
As an actor, I pride myself on being over prepared as I believe that through preparation the divine can take hold. To live with who Mister was, I had to understand everything that he had to be as a Black man of his times, the stifling confines of the society, the pressures, the complete disregard of one’s personal dreams in lieu of survival. What dawned on me about Mister is that he was incredibly hurt and he therefore hurt people in return. In retrospect, to be in that dark place for six months of the production was astonishingly taxing as I consider myself to be a very positive person in real life. But in order to mine everything for him, I had to inhabit that place and own it for a while. These are the gifts of the human spirit that I get to inhabit in my work. It can be incredibly taxing, yet it is my life’s work and it is rewarding.
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What inspires you the most about acting and portraying all these different characters?
To be able to embody the characters is a tremendous responsibility, to be honest. We as people are incredibly complex, no one’s personal story is alike and what it means is that every single time I get to portray a character, it is indeed the first time. It is always a discovery, a journey, a different philosophy. At the same time, it is plain old fun. As my friend, theatre director Mary Zimmerman, says “They don’t call a ‘play’ for nothing”.
Besides acting on screen, you’ve also been in countless stage productions. How do stage and on screen compare and differentiate in your own experience?
The difference between stage and film is that the live performance keeps evolving every night. In theater, you commit to eight shows a week, for weeks, and there are different variables in terms of audiences, your personal disposition and most importantly, the evolution of the character that you find in rehearsal, as it continues to live. It gets further fine tuned on stage. A marvelous thing happens. You start finding additional nuances of the character that were not there in the rehearsal. The stage becomes your home away from home.
In film, the capture of a moment is for eternity. However, that is the micro of it. The macro is that the discovery of the character that you embody shapes the overall performance, and the preparation. I am also a director, so I am extremely aware of the technicalities involved in film, which lens is being used in the take so that I can calibrate my process for my performance within the scene. Ultimately though, it is all about intent, the purpose of what you are endeavoring to tell.
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For your performance in the hit series ‘Euphoria’, you’ve won an Emmy award. Why do you believe ‘Euphoria’ gained such success and such a huge fandom worldwide?
I believe the success of ‘Euphoria’ is allowing everyone deep within the characters’ psyche and that is how it truly affected its viewers. The show left an indelible mark on the zeitgeist by highlighting the struggle every single person goes through, whether those struggles are obvious or not. I think artistically one can only wish for the fulfillment of being a part of something that allows people to understand each other so well, regardless of the confines of one’s make, so to speak. At the heart, as human beings, we all want to understand each other better, although we are rarely allowed such an opportunity. ‘Euphoria’ never shies away from dissecting one’s differences and difficulties, warts and all.
If you didn’t end up being an actor, what do you think would be your career today?
If I were not acting, I would probably be a chef. I am a really good cook. I love to invite people over and cook for them.That is my language of love. I love the process of selecting the ingredients, going over the menu, creating the ambiance with the music and lighting. One of my favorite restaurants is in Tokyo’s Chinjuku district, it is called Chartro. It is a tiny place with only six tables and the owner is the only person in the place, cooking and caring for everyone. I would probably be doing something like that in some unique part of the world.
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Tell us more about your other passions in life, when you are not working. What fulfills you in life the most?
What fulfills me most is travel. I love going to new places and meeting new people. When the time allows, I just go. Last November, I went to Papa Nui, Easter Island, in the middle of the Pacific and I met so many new wonderful friends there. To see how people live, people that you have never met, in the places you have never been to, is so inspiring. The differences and the similarities of people around the world are honestly fascinating to me. I am also an architecture nerd. I take myself on walking architectural tours in every city that I go to. I think in the third chapter of my life, I may want to try my hand at building homes and spaces. I think I would be good at that.
Colman, what can you share with us about your upcoming projects, other than ‘The Color Purple’. Where will we be seeing you next?
My next film is ‘Drive Away Dolls’, directed and written by Ethan Coen and Tricia Cooke, that comes out in February 2024. It is the first film that Ethan directed apart from his brother Joel and it is one hell of a ride. I also have an 8-part series for Netflix, called ‘The Madness’, where I work with such a thrilling director, Clement Virgo. It is an incredible thriller that requires me to perform ju jitsu and calls on every possible skill I possess as an actor. It thrills me.
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full look LORO PIANA
Talent: Colman Domingo @kingofbingo
Photographer: Ryan Pfluger @ryanpfluger
Stylist: Oretta Corbelli @orettac
Groomer: Jamie Richmond @jam_rich
Photography assistant: Travis Chantar @chantar
Styling assistant: Alessandra Jessica Leo @alessndrajleo
Editor: Timi Letonja @timiletonja
Editorial director & interview: Jana Letonja @janaletonja
Cover design: Arthur Roeloffzen @arthurroeloffzen