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Colman Domingo's time is now

Colman Domingo's performance in ‘Rustin’ has made the 53-year-old actor a favorite for a best actor Oscar nomination

Colman Domingo in 'Rustin'. Image via AP

By AP

LAST PUBLISHED 21.11.2023  |  10:02 AM IST

Colman Domingo has a commanding physical presence, an expressive face and soulful eyes. But his most limber and powerful tool is his voice.

It can go low in a bone-rattling baritone, like in his Nigerian-accented pimp in Janicza Bravo’s “Zola." Or it can rise to the warm, erudite rhythm of civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, in “Rustin." In Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln," Domingo’s voice, as a union soldier, is the first thing you hear.

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Domingo, himself, isn’t sure when his voice became so resonate. Tracing it sends him back to his childhood, growing up a self-described outsider — gay, awkward, unsure of himself — in west Philadelphia. That voice, he says, wasn’t there 20 years ago.

“At some point, as I grew into this person, comfortable in my own skin, sexuality, my mind, my intentions, who I am in the world, I think my voice developed more," Domingo says. “I don’t know that I had this voice before. All the resonance in my voice, I can hear it. There’s confidence. There’s gravitas to it. I hear exactly what people hear now."

People are finally hearing Domingo. His performance in George C. Wolfe's “Rustin" — Domingo's first time atop the call sheet — has made the 53-year-old journeyman actor a favorite for a best actor Oscar nomination. It’s a deft and dazzling leading performance that channels all the complexities of the March on Washington architect.

Domingo also co-stars as Mister, the abusive antagonist of “The Color Purple," one of the most anticipated holiday releases. The roles couldn’t be more different. Throw in the fall-festival hit “Sing Sing," in which Domingo stars alongside a cast of mostly formerly incarcerated actors (A24 will release it in 2024), and you have the full spectrum of what Domingo is capable of.

Years of struggle as a supporting player in service of others have finally led to his turn in the spotlight.

“I started to feel like: Well, what happened, God? What is my journey? At some point, my journey felt like Bayard’s journey, which is maybe why I feel we’re so close," Domingo says. “You know, I’ve assisted many people getting Oscars. I’ve assisted many people getting a lot of shine and love."

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On the heels of the actors strike ending, Domingo met recently at a Manhattan hotel overlooking Central Park. After months of being unable to promote that part of his life, he had been thrown straight into late-night appearances, interviews and a “Rustin" screening in Washington, with Barack and Michelle Obama, whose Higher Ground Productions produced the film. Domingo threw a bunch of cold-weather clothes together and jumped on a plane from Los Angeles.

“Basically, I was shot out of a cannon," he says, smiling.

Domingo, sincere and amiable in conversation, had the appearance of someone eminently aware that a hard-earned moment had finally arrived.

“I keep telling people that I’m 54 years old. Because for this to happen now, it’s unusual," Domingo says. (His birthday is Nov. 28.) “Suddenly, after 32 years, it seems like the sun is shining on every corner of my career."

Domingo was raised in a working-class family by his mother and step-father. Domingo’s father, whom he’s named after, wasn’t a part of his life. It wasn’t until he took an acting class at Temple University that he began acting. In regional theater, starting in San Francisco, he honed the wide-ranging ability of a character actor.

“Growing up, I never thought I was much to look at it. I think it liberated me," Domingo says. “I know I can play a handsome man and a hideous man because I’m liberated. I can play anything. I’m not looking at myself. I’m not taking myself too seriously. I have the body of a clown."

To “The Color Purple" director Blitz Bazawule, Domingo is belatedly becoming the leading man he was destined to be after years of out-acting more famous co-stars.

“Colman comes from the old-school of actors. You think about Bogart or you think of Daniel-Day," says Bazawule. “These people, the minute you hear them or see them, there’s a clear presence. I think he is in that tradition of leading men. Colman takes the frame."

Voice played a central role in Domingo finding Rustin. The film, which is streaming on Netflix, depicts the tireless grassroots activism of Rustin, who was openly gay, in organizing the 1963 march where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would give his “I Have a Dream" speech. Domingo was flummoxed by the origin of Rustin’s Mid-Atlantic accent before talking with Rachelle Horowitz, who organized transportation for the march.

“She said, ‘He made that up,’" Domingo says. “I thought that was key. Here was someone who truly created themselves at a time when everyone was trying to write you off or box you in or violate your body because you’re Black and queer. I thought: That’s courage."

Domingo’s own path also required self-invention. His first breakthrough came in the play “Passing Strange," which ran at the Public Theater in 2007 before opening on Broadway in 2008. Though celebrated — Colman shared in an Obie award for ensemble — once the play closed, Domingo found himself bartending again.

Resolving to make his own opportunity, Domingo wrote and staged the autobiographical “A Boy and His Soul," a dexterous one-man play that used the soul music of his youth (Earth Wind & Fire, Donna Summer) to evoke his life story and the inspirational figure of his mother, his greatest champion. In it, he recalls his mother telling him: “Keep a song in your heart, and you will always find your way." She and Domingo’s stepfather died in 2016.

“I started writing my solo show in the last year of my mother’s life and I didn’t know that that writing was going to save my life," Domingo says. “I was writing so I could be with my family 90 minutes a day."

Domingo’s production company, Edith, is named after his mother. When her son was struggling to catch a break, she wrote at least six letters to Oprah Winfrey, Domingo says. “She said, ‘She could help you. I want you to know her.' I was like, ‘Mom, Oprah doesn’t care about me.’"

“The prayers and wishes people have for you are sometimes more profound than what you imagine, yourself," says Domingo.

In the years that followed, Domingo’s range only extended. He did comedy on the series “The Big Gay Sketch Show." He was Tony-nominated for “The Scottsboro Boys" on Broadway. “Fear the Walking Dead," in which he played Victor Strand over eight years, brought him to his widest audience yet. Directors like Barry Jenkins (“If Beale Street Could Talk") and Bravo (“Zola") came calling.

“When I was cast in ‘Zola,’ I thought, ‘Me, playing a pimp? What? In this dark comedy? What do you see in me?’" says Domingo. "And Janicza Bravo said, ‘I see that the possibilities of the way you think are endless.’

Wolfe, the esteemed theater director, first cast Domingo in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom," alongside Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman, as the trombone-player Cutler. Gradually, he came to see Domingo as Bayard Rustin.

“I would be talking with Mark Rickler the production designer, ‘Oh, Colman could do that.’ Part of my brain would go, ‘Oh, Colman could do that,’' recalls Wolfe. "It was an organic conversation that had a degree of inevitability but I didn’t realize it at the time. I think all good smart decisions, there’s a sense of inevitability."

Now, Domingo finds himself collaborating with some of the Hollywood legends his mother envisioned him with. Winfrey is a producer on “The Color Purple" and the two have become friendly. During a hike for Ava DuVernay’s birthday in Hawaii (DuVernay cast Domingo in “Selma"), he told Winfrey about the letters his mother wrote her.

“I said, ‘I think I just realized that you answered her letters,’" Domingo says. “And she clutches her heart and says, ‘Oh, Colman.’ And then we started hiking again."

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