Interview: Colman Domingo on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Euphoria, & More

Domingo discusses Chadwick Boseman’s final performance, delivering a “sermon” to an ailing nation alongside Zendaya, and more.

Interview: Colman Domingo on Bringing Honesty to Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and Euphoria
Photo: Eddy Chen/HBO

Like any great character actor, Colman Domingo’s name might not be as well known as those given above-title billing in the projects he chooses, but his performances pack a disproportionate punch in comparison to his screen time. Following a medium-hopping early career spanning stage and screen with everything from repertory theaters across the U.S. to Logo’s The Big Gay Sketch Show, the multi-hyphenate has hit his stride over the past decade as a utility player for directors like Spike Lee, Steven Spielberg, and Ava DuVernay. He’s struck gold in recent years playing sage, steadying presence both in film (Barry Jenkins’s If Beale Street Could Talk) and TV (HBO’s Euphoria).

Domingo’s particular gift as an actor lies in conveying the heart of a story by staying rooted in a fully realized human interpretation of his character, not simply by reciting words standing on a metaphorical soapbox. In lesser hands, these roles would do little more than serve to further the narrative journey of the protagonist. But with Domingo’s guidance, the characters leave a lingering impression without drawing away the spotlight. The streak continues in George C. Wolfe’s film adaptation of August Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, in which Domingo plays Cutler, the leader among the instrumentalists for Viola Davis’s titular blues singer. He never allows the character to simply serve as mere foil to Chadwick Boseman’s impetuous trumpeter, instead allowing a full portrait of a pragmatic peacekeeper to emerge.

I caught up with Domingo over the phone prior to the release of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom on Netflix. We discussed his relationship to August Wilson as well as how Domingo played a part in shaping the most memorable and weighty scene in the film that features Boseman’s final performance. As our conversation also occurred in the week following the release of Euphoria’s special episode, a delicate two-hander between he and Zendaya, Domingo elaborated on the intention and reaction behind his “sermon” to an ailing nation.

I saw last night that you were doing a virtual reading for the play Barbecue. What’s the experience been like of doing virtual theater and Zoom readings?

I’ll be very honest, I hadn’t been a fan of them. But I am a fan of my friend Robert O’Hara [playwright and recently Tony-nominated director of Broadway’s Slave Play], and I’ve directed a production of Barbecue at the Geffen Playhouse. I knew that Robert O’Hara would be very innovative with form. I think early in the summer when people were doing virtual readings, I thought that they were just abysmal. [laughs] I could not get through it! And anytime anyone invited me to one, I had every excuse. I was like, “I’m not trying to sit and watch your reading.” But now I think that we’ve adapted to this technology, and we can make it a bit more exciting and innovative. I watched it last night, and I thought it was phenomenal. I thought it was tremendous. But also, because it’s directed by Robert O’Hara, right? He’s not going to settle for somebody’s iPhone with a terrible background. He’s like, we’re going to really edit this so it’s intimate. It’s very polished, and it has a sound design. Everything about it is just dialed up and elevated. I’m a bit more of a fan after last night!

Given that it might be a while before we can see a show live on stage again, I’m glad to hear there are innovations happening.

Exactly, I just think we needed to adapt to the form. I think we’re in the pocket now.

As an artist who has such extensive experience in both media, do you have a philosophy on how things translate from stage to screen? What can and should make the transition? When do you need the immediacy of a live audience?

Yeah, I think that there’s aspects of stage that [are] really with the intent of having a stage. When it comes to having size, intimacy, or being a beginning, middle and end event. When you go into the film and television space, I think it’s important to open it up because you also have a little bit more time. You have to give even more with visual language and contextualize the event. It requires using those muscles to actually trust the visual component of film and television. I’ve been adapting some of my work to television and one of my works to film. That’s always the struggle of any playwright: We are so heavily reliant on the word, and sometimes you have to allow the visual language to take care of it. One of my friends who I talk to, he loves dense language, and I’m always telling him people don’t have time for that. The thing that I’ve learned from television and film is you just have to get to the point with it. You have to get there a little quicker, with some breadth and contextualization with visual language. I think that’s the way you move it towards cinema.

I realized as I was going through your work that I actually saw you in the London production of the Kander and Ebb musical The Scottsboro Boys. Do you think that’s something that would ever make the jump to the big screen?

The funny thing is, yes, because I have been leading the charge as a producer to get the film version of it made! I’ve been knocking on many doors. There’s a beautiful adaptation by David Thompson, who wrote the book of the musical. I’m setting it up with Susan Stroman to direct it, and I’m the executive producer. It’s opened up, and I think we have a great screenplay. And, to be honest, I think the thing that I’ve been bumping up against as a producer is financiers or production companies investing in a show about nine African-American teenage boys to be very honest. These boys who will be cast, more than likely, will not be stars. I know it’s a longer road to create work like this and to make it happen. I’m in it for the long haul, and we’re knocking down many doors to make it happen because I think that it’s work that matters. But sometimes work that matters just takes a little longer to make.

That’s great news. I think the way the show engages with minstrelsy is such an important cultural conversation to have.

It is! But again, you have to convince the production companies and financiers. Because the moment you hear the word “minstrelsy,” you just close your ears, and you’re like, “Oh, I don’t think we can do that. It’s too tricky. People aren’t going to be as risky as we are in the theater.” I think my job as a theater-maker has always been to be the disruptor in the film and TV space. I’m trying to bring some of these stories, the way we tell stories, and the way we curate these events to the space. You take people like me and my comrades Robert O’Hara, Dominique Morisseau, and Lynn Nottage to do that. We’re trying to knock down some walls in the space.

What are your thoughts as an actor, playwright, or person on the August Wilson “moment” we seem to be living through?

It means everything to me. There would be no me if it wasn’t for August Wilson, if I didn’t see interpretation of a black life. I felt inspired that I can write the same, I can write about black life in a very complex way as well. He smashes tropes and stereotypes and gives us such a fullness of our experience. We don’t have to be a monolith; we’re not all praying to the same God; we’re not all listening to the same music. But we have something that’s shared, which is the complex experience of being African-Americans in America. He’s inspired me to be the writer I am, to be bold in the way that I represent myself and my fight for social justice through art and academics. I put him on the shelf with James Baldwin, Nikki Giovanni, and Maya Angelou, people who told me I can be the most complex version of myself possible, and the world will meet it. He helps root me in great story. I feel very proud I’m considered to be a “Wilsonite,” that’s what we’re called, people who relish in August Wilson’s work and are great proponents of its meaning. I’m very proud to be a part of that legacy.

Interview: Colman Domingo on Bringing Honesty to Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Euphoria
Coman Domingo in a scene from Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. © David Lee / Netflix

I know a lot would depend on the blessing of Denzel Washington since he has the rights for Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, but are there any other August Wilson plays you’d be eager to help bring to the screen?

Yeah. I haven’t told him directly, but I’d like to let Denzel Washington know if he’s looking for a director for Seven Guitars, that’s me. Put that as the headline! [laughs] I’ve directed a production of Seven Guitars, and it’s a beast of a play. I opened it up with sort of images and really great music. I don’t know, I just understand that play and what it’s trying to do. I had a tremendous experience directing it at the Actors Theater of Louisville, and I remember Costanza Romero, August Wilson’s wife, came and saw it. She thought it was probably the most phenomenal translation of his work, so I feel like it’s in my bones. I would love to open it up. That’s the one I would like to do and helm it as a director.

Not to make you give away trade secrets, but what’s the trick to being a scene-stealer, be it in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom or Euphoria?

[laughs] Is that what I am? I didn’t know that’s what I was! I’m just trying to do the job. I think if you ask any “scene-stealer” if they think they’re stealing a scene, they’ll say that they’re just completely committed to the act, to the action. I think what people may see is me bringing my entire soul, experience, intelligence, wit, and humanity to a role. Hopefully, that’s why people can see something of my skill in a scene. I think anyone that I’ve recognized like Gary Oldman, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Harry Belafonte Jr. is fully committed to the act. I don’t go in with the intention to steal a scene. But I know for sure that I want my characters to be in the center of their own existence. They’re in their own story no matter what. You have something called Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, I’m sure Cutler believed it was Cutler’s Black Bottom…totally kidding! I think Cutler knows his role, which is actually to be Ma’s proxy.

There’s a lot of conversation around the scene where Chadwick Boseman’s Levee screams at God in reaction to Cutler. When you, as an actor, can pick up on someone really in the zone or channeling something otherworldly, how do you respond and react in the moment?

My job is to be the conduit, to push it out of him like I know he would push hit out of me. When he was on the brink of something brilliant, he looked away because I think there was that convergence of actor and character. He looked away, and I thought George was going to call “cut.” I refused. I got in there with him. And I think that’s my job as an actor. Maybe I learned that on stage. It’s like, “No, I’m not gonna let you go, we’re gonna get through this together.” So I pushed him, deliberatively, because he stopped midway and looked away. And I just started yelling at the top of my voice, “Tell me! Tell me!” Pure refusal to let the scene go, because I knew whatever was there and on the edge, that’s actually what we’re trying to get to. That’s actually the good stuff. You can’t be so conscious of like, “Oh, this is the performance I wanted to deliver.” It’s just going to be what it is. It’s going to be raw. And it’s going to be pure, it’s going to be honest. I think that’s what you see on the screen. And I want to push him to that honesty, I knew that was my role. That’s the role of Cutler as well. That’s the role of Colman. My job is to make sure that honesty is in the room, and I can push you towards it. I think that’s why we played off each other, he pushed me toward my truth as well. That’s all we’re supposed to do. I think that that was my job, and I was up to the task because I felt empowered to have that position in the room.

Obviously, it helps to have great words to say, but there’s something in your recent roles that goes beyond just speaking wisdom, as it’s something you seem to radiate. Is that just a skill you’ve accumulated over time, or is it something you’re making conscious choices to achieve?

I’m always making choices as an actor, and I’m very detailed in my work. I research way more than shooting hours allow. I start my work the moment I’m cast, and I start assembling research materials, images, and music, you name it, because I respect the work that much. I’m a character actor, so I need to do all this detailing so then it can look like the work isn’t there. That’s my job, I believe. I don’t want people to see the work, I just want to detail it so much and do all that work so it feels like someone’s just being. I also put a bit of my soul into it. And to be open to the event, to just do all the work so then it’s like breath. That’s what I hope to do. I realized that’s probably why people can see it as something that is quite holistic, trying to communicate my soul through these words in this moment. And I think that’s when I feel like I’ve achieved something that is useful. I think that’s the intention, at least.

And then you get a response like I got over the past week for Euphoria. It’s really lovely because I think the intent is clear: to remedy our souls, to become better people, to reach out to each other. That’s the intention I have in a lot of my characters, even in characters that I feel like I’m playing off the wall in Zola and Candyman. But I think that they’re essentially trying to do the same thing, trying to bring something that’s fragile, human, and complex. I always try to find almost the weirdest version of a character. They have to have some intricacies, something special about them. I never want to just play the first pass of the version, I wanted to go for the thirtieth pass of it. to make them more complex and human.

You’ve repeatedly described the Euphoria episode as a “sermon,” which is interesting. At least, to my ear, that implies something designed to make you act because it moves you in a spiritual way. What would you hope people do after watching?

Well, I had a producer call me yesterday after she saw it. She said, “I’m sitting in my bed sobbing because it helped me understand my brother who died from this disease.” She said she felt she had no words, and at times, possibly no compassion. She said, “I’m crying for all of us, for him, and the loss of him. Crying for myself and our family. Thank you.” I got on the phone immediately with her, and we cried together. I cried because I think my intention was clear, and she let me know that it was true and clear. That was the intention, which was to shine a light on this terrible disease of addiction and how we need to reexamine it.

The episode’s raising questions about redemption, for yourself and for others, and become a bit more human again. I thought it was perfect words for everything in my heart as I’ve experienced this year. I know, whether or not people can really give word to it, that it’s actually on their minds too. This is a conversation that everyone wants to have, in some way. You want to sit across from a table and have a very difficult conversation about something that’s going to bring you closer together and make everyone a bit more human, a little less angry, and a bit more hopeful. So that’s why I considered it a sermon. That’s what it felt like to me, except I wanted to have that breadth and ease, and so did Zendaya. It feels like a ballet, and then sometimes it feels like a sparring match. But underneath it is some trepidatious material where you can go into deep into a vortex, or you can look to the light as well.

I think that’s ultimately what [Euphoria creator Sam Levinson] has written. I think he’s given us words for us to have an examination of the soul of America, to be very honest. That’s exactly the way I took it. I thought, “Oh, this guy is speaking to all the pitfalls in American culture, politics, race right now.” And the character of Ali says, “you”—like he says, “You’re sick. You keep feeding yourself with the same poison, and then wondering why you’re sick.” I know consciously, in my mind, I’m saying “you” as in Zendaya’s Rue character. But I’m actually speaking to the viewer; I’m speaking to whoever’s watching it. I feel like it’s a quiet sermon. At that moment, I believe, Ali’s not only doing the work as a recovering addict and sponsor, he’s doing the work as a therapist and a priest who’s just trying to give you some real hard words for you to just think about your choices and your life to get better and heal. He’s giving you the real truth, and it’s always peppered with, “I believe you can do it, because if I did it, you can.”

I think that’s what we all need right now. I think that’s why it’s so emotional. Because you need somebody to reach out to you right now. We’ve all been going through the worst times of our lives. You see somebody to reach out and say, “It’s gonna be okay, and I’m here with you. But let’s be honest, let’s do the work together. Let’s stick it out, and we can get better.” I think that’s why people have responded like they have. They need it.

Marshall Shaffer

Marshall Shaffer is a New York-based film journalist. His interviews, reviews, and other commentary on film also appear regularly in Slashfilm, Decider, and Little White Lies.

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