Colman Domingo didn’t see this coming. The Oscar buzz for not one but two films, the flashing bulbs as he glides down red carpets looking “clean” with a capital “C” as his pal Lenny Kravitz would put it, the full-out anointing as Hollywood’s next leading man at the big age of 54. None of it. But trust, if there was ever an actor ready for his close-up, it’s Colman Jason Domingo.
“I feel that I’m truly being seen the way I’ve always seen myself,” said Domingo via Zoom from his sunny guest bedroom in suburban Southern California. He considers himself a shoulder-the-wheel artist, capable of disappearing into a part or standing out, if necessary. Confidence and Colman have been on a first-name basis; it’s this level recognition that’s unexpected. “What’s happening now in my career? I didn’t see any of this. I didn’t have that specific of a dream.”
What’s happening can best be described cosmically. After three decades of wearing every hat the entertainment industry has on the shelf, the stars are finally aligning for Domingo. This month, he’s being lauded for leading roles in “Rustin,” for which he received a Golden Globe nomination, and “The Color Purple” — two films that show the boundless breadth of his talent.
“Every line he’s written in a play, every moon he gazed at with his mother, every night on a bartending shift …” said actress Kim Dickens, her voice catching as she detailed her close friend and former “Fear the Walking Dead” co-star’s road thus far. Everything he has done in his life has led him here — that tiny circle in the middle of it all.
“There’s a bull’s eye on me now, but it’s a bull’s eye that I created,” said Domingo, who can’t forget a piece of advice (or maybe it was a warning) he received years ago: “You’re a character actor in a leading man’s body. It’s going to take this industry a little while to catch up.”
Well, both are here — timing and the industry — and Domingo is ready to reimagine what a leading man can truly be with two characters who couldn’t be more different or defining.
In “Rustin,” Domingo plays Bayard Rustin, the civil rights activist who was the brains behind the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. A close confidant of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Rustin stood just to his right as he delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech. But as an openly gay man, the movie shows, Rustin was purposely marginalized in favor of more supposedly palatable heroes.
Domingo called the role “seismic.” He threw himself into the real-life man physically and psychologically, the connective tissue between the activist and artist palpable on screen. But the actor steps cautiously around the notion that because both men’s identities intersect in many ways — gay, Black, from Pennsylvania — that Domingo could simply slip into the role like a second skin. That it was somehow easy.
“I never want to have anyone doubt the work that goes into it. I’m not just playing myself. There’s crafting the work of body, mind, soul and language that has to be done. I’m crafting a character using all parts of myself,” Domingo said.
The same actor who embodies the bigness of Rustin also skirts the narrow lines of “The Color Purple’s” Mister, a violent misogynist whose soul has been so crushed under the weight of early 20th-century oppression that he squeezes the life out of everyone in reach.
Domingo’s calling card is interrogation, digging and digging until he hits something hard to hold onto. He’s so good at it that when Oprah Winfrey (who originated the role of Sofia in the 1985 film and co-produced this latest iteration) and “The Color Purple” director Blitz Bazawule were discussing casting Domingo, the queen of talk had this to say: “With Colman, you will always know that there’s some good in Mister.”
Corey Hawkins, who plays Mister’s son Harpo in the film, described Domingo as “an artist who asks the right questions.”
The first question Domingo asks is always the same: “What do I love about this character?” Then he keeps going. What do I think this character’s possible problem is? What happens if they don’t solve it? And on and on until the actor and his character have come to an understanding.
“That’s for any hero or villain that I play. I have to love these characters. I love Mister in ‘The Color Purple.’”
Really? Mister? The brutish patriarch of author Alice Walker’s 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that is so filled with venom that he poisons everything around him, his unlucky wife, Celie, chief among his victims. That Mister?
“I was able to find to some tenderness in Mister, which comes as a surprise,” Domingo said. While not necessarily redeemed in the film, Domingo’s Mister is rendered in a new light by the closing song.
It begins with a moment in the film that happens in a flash. Mister is drunker than a skunk outside Harpo’s juke joint. The father and son stumble into an accidental embrace, and Mister lays his head on Harpo’s shoulder. It’s a brief but powerful peek into a man defined by his rage. Domingo and Hawkins discovered the moment in rehearsal. They wanted to explore what trauma does to a man. That’s when the hug happened, and Harpo asks, “Are you okay, Pop?”
“It’s a simple act that cracks open the world for them, and it was just a moment when Colman made a choice,” Hawkins said. “That was just Colman trying things. He’s fearless, and I think that is rare,” added Hawkins, who was a student at the Juilliard School when he first saw Domingo onstage in the 2008 Broadway rock comedy “Passing Strange.”
Hawkins has dreamed of working with Domingo since. “Back then, we knew what he was bringing. We knew that he was a beast.”
Actor Glynn Turman, a veteran of the stage and screen, echoed Hawkins’ take on how unique Domingo’s approach is, even among artists.
“He’s extremely daring. I love that about him. In a time where everyone plays it so safe and are so self-conscious of their approaches, he’s not afraid to break those limits at all,” said Turman, who starred opposite Colman in “Rustin” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”
Turman, 76, considers Domingo to be cut from the same cloth.
“I’m fed from the energy of Colman. I’m fed by his passion for the craft — not just the fame but the craft. I consider myself a craftsman,” Turman said. To underscore that point, the actor recalled a compliment from James Earl Jones while playing his son in the 1976 film adaptation of “The River Niger,” a Broadway play.
“He said, ‘I like the way you work and that’s it,’” Turman said. “And I think Colman approaches the craft the same way. It’s about getting a good piece of material and adding our touch.”
Domingo’s touch is undeniable in his work, which has gained attention from critics and awards voters alike. He won an Emmy, his most prestigious award to date, for his portrayal of Ali, the no-nonsense Narcotics Anonymous sponsor to Zendaya’s Rue in “Euphoria.” He has received two Independent Spirit Award nominations. One for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” in which he held his own opposite Oscar winners Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman. The other was for the stripper road-trip saga “Zola,” in which he plays a pimp named X, who goes from smiling to sinister in 60 seconds.
That last character is what did it for Lenny Kravitz, who has known Domingo since the pair acted together in 2013’s “The Butler.”
“I know Colman. Colman is my friend,” emphasized Kravitz, who wrote the original song for “Rustin.” Still, he was deep into watching “Zola” before he realized that it was Domingo playing the villainous X. “I didn’t even see Colman. I saw that character. I thought it was somebody else. When that happens, it’s pretty incredible. I knew it looked like Colman.”
Domingo, said Kravitz, is timeless. Not just his style but his very way of being.
“Colman is just beginning. Even though we have so much behind us, we also have so much in front us, God willing,” Kravitz added.
That’s the thing about Colman Domingo, he seems intimately familiar and entirely new. Like a hit song with just enough rhythm and blues laid underneath that it reminds you of a slow dance from 20 years ago. Like an actor whose face you can’t forget but whose name you somehow do. Not for long though.
The fact is Domingo is inevitable. A foregone conclusion. Those closest to him have known it all along. Ask his husband, Raúl, who first crossed paths with him in 2005 at a Walgreens in Berkeley, Calif. — and then started dating after answering a “missed connections” Craigslist ad soon after. On their first date, Domingo confessed his love. He wears their engagement, domestic partner and wedding rings stacked on one finger.
Which leads us to those Hugo Boss, Louis Vuitton and Ralph Lauren outfits that flow, cut or caress his six-foot-two frame as if the term suit was invented for Domingo. His style is a mashup of the men he grew up idolizing. “Men who looked like something,” Domingo said. His father, an immigrant from Belize, knew how to make an entrance. Once, he showed up in a canary-yellow Cadillac wearing tight, white, gabardine flared trousers; a shirt unbuttoned to the navel; and hat cocked to the side. Domingo’s stepfather was rarely without his pinky ring and had manicured nails.
“Nobody tells you that in your 50s, you feel even sexier,” said Domingo. “You’re coming into the other part of yourself. I’ve earned my way to be a bit of a peacock. When I walk into a room, I do want you to see me. I’m not hiding. Why hide? I’m stepping into it fully.”
He didn’t have a blueprint of what a creative life would or could look like. But in 1990, when his buddy Guy suggested that Domingo, who was taking a break from Temple University, come out to San Francisco just to see what was what, his mother said: “Just go. School will always be there.”
“She said, ‘I want you to be happy. Don’t just get a job.’” And with that advice, he went west at 21 to become the fourth roommate in a studio apartment in the infamous Tenderloin neighborhood. He hit the ground running, using whatever work he did in acting class to boost his résumé. After 10 years, he had built up an enviable and successful career doing regional theater and any guest TV spots that filmed in the area. Then, New York came calling.
He started over and hustled for another decade, eventually cobbling together the life of a working artist with acclaimed turns in “The Scottsboro Boys” and “Passing Strange.” He directed his own show. He wrote the book for “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical.”
“I had a rent-stabilized apartment in New York and I was like, ‘I’m good. This is good,’” Domingo said. “That’s the life of an artist, you try to find joy in what you did. I dreamed of just being happy.” What’s happening now wasn’t on his vision board. But his late mother, Edith, always knew.
“She prayed over me and wanted good things for me, things that I couldn’t even see myself,” Domingo said. “She wanted Spike Lee and Steven Spielberg and Oprah to know me. I didn’t think that was a possibility.” He was just fine doing a show at the Manhattan Theatre Club and then making it across town in time for his bartending shift. Okay thirty minutes late. That was success. That was the good life.
And now — after eight seasons of a network show, several lauded guest turns, directing, producing and writing — the old warning that it would take Hollywood a minute to catch up to him is becoming his reality. Yes, he loves the love. But what Domingo is most proud of is the respect he’s getting.
“I have been pouring into others for years. Other productions, other people’s Oscars. Let’s just say it. Lovingly. Willingly. I don’t know how to do it any other way. I was raised to be generous and be kind and to trust that the universe will take care of me,” Domingo said. “And it seems like, right now, the universe is truly taking care of me.”