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A close-up photo of Colman Domingo, who has his hands folded in front of him on a table, and is resting his chin on those hands. He wears a gold watch and a green top, and seems to be on the verge of a smile.

Issue 006 Fall/Winter 2023 Profiles

Colman Domingo, Undaunted

The actor opens up about two of his most complex roles yet.

By Tre Johnson
Photography by Flordalis Espinal

October 10, 2023

Colman Domingo photographed at Overstory, New York, 2023, photo by Flordalis Espinal.

When it comes to acting, Colman Domingo is the Swiss Army knife we never knew we needed.

Looking for a dystopian leader you can barely trust to do anything but survive? See Domingo’s Victor Strand on AMC’s zombie-land horror Fear the Walking Dead (2015–2023), which he also occasionally directs. Need a cold splash of truth? In his Emmy-winning guest role on Euphoria (2019–), Domingo-as-Ali-Muhammad sits like a collapsed boxer across from Zendaya’s Rue, skewering contemporary protest culture. Instead, he advises, “A true revolution is, at its core, spiritual.

Domingo’s career has been a series of risk-taking roles. He became an actor when he took a spiritual leap into the arts, dropping out of Temple University’s journalism program to move to San Francisco. While in San Francisco, he created the autobiographical chronicle A Boy and His Soul, a play that explored Domingo’s West Philadelphia upbringing in the ’70s and ’80s, set against a musical soundtrack including Stevie, Aretha, and Marvin. At the time, a “very well-respected” Tony Award–winning playwright told Domingo his play “shouldn’t work” due to its unorthodox structure as a one-act, one-man performance that transformed the actor into various family members and neighbors. But Domingo was unfazed: “My way of telling my story will be my way of telling my story,” he remarks when we speak over Zoom in June.

Colman Domingo, 2023, photo by Flordalis Espinal.

Domingo’s work has formed a quilt of complex characters. This year, he’s taking on two characters that come with difficult cultural and historical complications. The most anticipated will be his role in Ghanaian filmmaker Blitz Bazawule’s adaptation of Alice Walker’s original novel A Color Purple (1982). In the trailer for this lushly colored adaptation, we see a glimpse of Domingo’s Mister, the villainous, abusive man whose presence haunts Celie (Fantasia Barrino). Typically, the portrayal of Mister’s character involves a combination of terror and turmoil—the type of despicable presence that conjures little more than contempt.  

Domingo is of course aware of how Danny Glover’s iconic depiction of Mister in Spielberg’s 1985 film adaptation has defined the character. The image of Glover as Mister with a frozen raised hand, shocked as he stands before Goldberg’s two-fingered warning, interrupting his violent treatment of her, is now the stuff of digital memes. Mister’s monstrous personality has become canonical as a result, but Domingo sees an opportunity to round out the character with his take. “I didn’t want to simply villainize Mister and just say he was an abuser,” Domingo notes. “Maybe the system that he was living under was oppressive to him. And as a man in this world, he had to beat something else down.” Domingo sees an opportunity for his version of Mister to embody current conversations around trauma, reflection, and accountability. He got involved in Bazawule’s Color Purple to explore ideas of “earned redemption” that this iteration tries to focus on. “We all have the opportunity to reach the light, even if we’re shrouded in so much darkness. I truly believe that,” he notes. 

Playing Mister in today’s culture isn’t for everyone, and Domingo’s desire to render the character multidimensionally will be a tall order. A similar task is at hand for Domingo with his lead role in the upcoming 2023 film Rustin, which made its debut at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival, the biopic set to focus on the Black, openly gay civil rights leader Bayard Rustin. Among his many roles, Rustin helped orchestrate the March on Washington in the ’60s, only to be politically and historically sidelined because of his sexuality.

Colman Domingo, 2023, photo by Flordalis Espinal.

When Domingo talks about inhabiting the role of Rustin, his face glows an almost angelic glow. “I believe Bayard Rustin chose me to portray him,” he muses, though Domingo didn’t learn about Rustin’s life and work until he was a student at Temple University, a fact that he found “confusing.” How could a pivotal Black civil rights activist become just “a bit of a footnote”? Adding to that confusion is the fact that Rustin grew up in nearby West Chester, Pennsylvania, just 40 miles outside of Philadelphia. But in San Francisco, Domingo encountered Rustin all over again through Brian Freeman’s Civil Sex, a play about the man’s life. 

Domingo first saw the play as an audience member, but as chance would have it, he ended up playing Rustin in Civil Sex when a fellow actor friend had to step away from the role for a week. While he doesn’t remember the exact details of the play anymore, he does remember his approach to playing the activist: “I did a deep dive, because with anything, I research the hell out of [what] I do,” he explains. For years after, industry people would approach Domingo imploring him to figure out a path to playing Rustin again. “People kept saying, ‘This is for you,’” Domingo recalls, sharing that he’d heard the sentiment “three, four, five, six times.” People believed that he needed to be the one to highlight Rustin’s importance and bring his story to more and more audiences.

Amid all this, Domingo went to work building his career in theater and elsewhere, sometimes working up to five jobs, doing everything from bartending to teaching as he established his place in the arts. When students ask him about how he’s managed to keep a place in the arts, he pauses before he muses aloud: “I have this very wild and unwieldy career,” he notes. “I don’t even know if I could teach that or how to manifest that or make that work. I just did the work that was in front of me.”

Part of that has been his creative impatience, it seems; he talks about “never just waiting for the phone to ring” for acting gigs. Instead he focused on creating the work. “I want the work to be there and exist. So naturally I became a producer, a director, and a writer, out of necessity,” he says. Domingo has been directing theater for over 20 years, from 1998’s Pieces of a Quilt – 3 to Dot in 2019, with stops along the way including Single Black Female (2008), Exit Cuckoo (2009) and A Band of Angels (2020), a tapestry of work as diverse as his parallel acting career, which has included guest roles on everything from Nash Bridges and various Law & Order franchises to animated work in BoJack Horseman and American Dad! Reflecting on his series of moves over the years, Domingo offers, “I’m always loose and wily and I can try things a hundred different ways, and I’m not afraid to make a bad choice. . . . I think that all choices are good choices, as long as you’re making the choice.” 

Colman Domingo, 2023, photo by Flordalis Espinal.

But for the longest time, Domingo’s dream project—of unpacking Bayard Rustin’s complex life and legacy—eluded him. In some ways, that’s understandable; despite his massive contributions to the civil rights movement, Rustin was sidelined from the narrative of the civil rights movement. Black faith leaders considered him an optics liability and turned his contributions into a footnote. In 1953 Rustin served 50 days in a California jail for having consensual sex with two men, and while he was posthumously pardoned in 2020, nearly 35 years after his death, his outspoken identity as a gay, nonviolent labor rights and civil rights leader meant that he was often relegated to the role of an adviser, kept strategically out of sight of the public eye and press.

When you ask Domingo, an equally out and outspoken Black gay man, about where these two men with so much in common diverge, the actor is quick to offer insights from the reams of research he’s done. In Domingo’s eyes, Rustin was a “fearless . . . hot-blooded individual,” which might’ve surprised people given the man’s “weedy, high-pitched voice.” Domingo continues, “Bayard was very forthright, and when he believed something was right, he would go to the ends of the earth for it, truly to prove that he was right and it’s the right decision,” a sharp contrast to the actor’s more laidback, practical approach to movement building and collaboration. Still, he’s drawn to Rustin’s dynamism as someone who was everything from a Quaker to an athlete to a lute-playing singer. Domingo clearly has a romanticized view of Rustin’s layers and interests and feels the activist’s dynamism ran counter to the actor’s perception of Black people’s lives during that time. Rustin, he opines, was a “very curious individual . . . creating himself at a time when Black people were not creating themselves. If anything, we were a bit more monolithic, to be very honest.” When he compares the ways his own dynamic life stacks up against Rustin’s, there seems to be a historical and cultural convergence that unites these men who, in Domingo’s mind, “met” decades before.

Rustin, the forthcoming biopic, finally found Domingo after years and years of attempts to tell Rustin’s story kept stalling at various stages. When it finally landed in the hands of playwright and filmmaker George C. Wolfe (whom Domingo worked with on 2020’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), Domingo resisted tossing his hat in the ring to play the titular role, preferring to respect the director’s vision for finding his lead. But then the phone rang. “I got a call from [the film’s producer] Bruce Cohen,” Domingo shares. Cohen offered, “We want to invite you to be our Bayard Rustin. Would you please?”

A photo of Colman Domingo, medium close-up and from slightly below eye level, shows the actor in recline, head resting against his left folded hand. He wears an opened white shirt and gold necklace, his expression one of contentment.
Colman Domingo, 2023, photo by Flordalis Espinal.

Once he got the call to play Rustin, Domingo immediately worked with Fear the Walking Dead producers to get out of his commitments there to begin focusing on Rustin in earnest. Though eager to return to the man that had been an eye-opening character in his past, Domingo acknowledges that feeling such a shared fate with Rustin has been both beautiful and burdensome. “The thing I felt more than anything was a tremendous responsibility,” he notes.

As he talks about the imminent debut of Rustin, there’s a palpable sense of anticipation that Domingo gives off during our talk that is entirely intoxicating. This year will be Domingo’s biggest yet as he toggles between Black America’s fictitious and fearless pasts with these two weighty roles, requiring him to locate the souls of two fearless, lively, and intimidating male characters. Figuring out where they diverge and converge with his own personal arc might be the biggest feat he’ll pull off to date. Still, Domingo seems undaunted.

As someone who exudes an undeniable lightness, he refuses to shirk from the work. If anything, he seems drawn to such complicated stories, something he nods to with a sly smile during our time together: “I desire to dance in the darkness.”

Rustin will open in select theaters on November 3.