It’s early evening on a Friday when I catch up with Colman Domingo at the L’Ermitage Hotel in Beverly Hills. We greet each other in the dimly lit lobby and find a private place to talk. It’s been a long week of promo for his latest projects, Netflix’s currently streaming “Rustin,” based on the life of civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, and the recently released remake of “The Color Purple,” adapted from the Broadway musical version of Alice Walker’s book, with Oprah Winfrey and Quincy Jones signed on as producers.
In the last few days, there have been appearances at various red carpets across Los Angeles culminating in a large screening for press and industry insiders the night before we meet. It’s a tiring schedule, to be sure, but only fitting for the work that went into the production.
Domingo plays the domineering but painfully insecure Mister in one of the hardest shoots he’s ever been on, he says. “Making a movie musical is very difficult. It’s not just making a film. You have musical elements; you have singing, dancing, rehearsals and choreography and then these huge set pieces as well. So it requires a lot, and then you have the depth of character and trauma, character work, detail and relationships you have to navigate,” he adds.
While Mister is a taxing role, “it’s really about these three women. And Mister supports these women in the most tricky, violent, abusive, painful way, where they have to navigate this trepidatious territory in order to find some healing redemption themselves. But he’s the catalyst for that, because he is carrying his trauma. So we had to find a really delicate balance to actually just be … to have someone’s love on set every day.”
Domingo says that he tapped into his own traumas for the role and that the cast found going to some emotional places so difficult that they reached out for emotional and spiritual support. “Fantasia [Barrino] and I had to find moments just to pray with each other, to hold each other between takes, knowing that we have to do some really horrific work but it’s necessary so that people can see themselves and find ways and access to get out of the situation. Oprah would call me to check in on the cast. I wanted to make sure that I did not only do her but Quincy Jones and our fellow producers right, and to do Alice Walker right. So I didn’t take that on lightly.”
Not taking his career too lightly has resulted in a number of triumphs for the 54-year-old Philadelphia native who majored in journalism at Temple University. “I was on my school newspaper at Overbrook High School, same high school as Will Smith,” he recalls. “That’s where I found a lot of joy. I love putting newspapers together and getting stories and finding out the story. So I went to news writing at first,” he says, but soon found he couldn’t stick to it.
“I was very fluid in my writing. That was my impulse. How do I tell a story and reflect the times? So I was a [journalism] major for five minutes,” he says with a laugh. “No, I would say for two semesters. I switched to RTF, which is radio, television and film, which sounds lofty as you’re exploring critical theory, but then that’s when I took an acting class as an elective. One of my teachers told me, ‘I think you’re gifted, I’d be very curious to see what happened if you explored it.’ ”
He did, and it took over. “More than anything, my roots are solid in the theater. I wanted to be a child of the theater — Shakespeare and musicals and Ibsen and Chekhov. So I really went down that lane, and that’s what led me to the other things that I do.”
His career path includes writing plays and performing on Broadway, the West End and the Old Globe theater in San Diego. His Edith Productions, the partnership he launched with his husband, Raul, has a series set up with Showtime and first-look deals with AMC, plus other projects out later this year. Through it all, he’s been a steady presence on popular television with AMC’s “Fear the Walking Dead,” which ended its eight-season run in the fall, and HBO’s teen drama “Euphoria.”
“Rustin” was a coming together of the “north star,” as Domingo is fond of saying about good fortune. Dustin Lance Black and Julian Breece had written the script and were looking for the right producers just as Barack and Michelle Obama signed a deal between their Higher Ground production company and Netflix. It turns out Bayard Rustin had been an inspiration to the former president and the greenlight was given. Director-playwright George C. Wolfe, whom Domingo had worked with on “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” signed on to direct.
“And he decided I’d be his Bayard, which I felt so blessed, “ Domingo says.
“I feel like for me, for my career, ‘Rustin’ is a pure expression of what I’m trying to say in the world — with his impact — and also ‘Color Purple.’ I feel very proud that both of them are happening at the same time … and maybe came at this time in my life when I’m ready for it.”