Colman Domingo wanted more space, and thus he moved to Los Angeles. After 16 years in New York, the Philadelphia native wanted to go hiking and live by the water, and says the move was more about life than it was career. But with the beach walks and backyard has come space in work as well; the 51-year-old, who has spent 30 some years in the business, is in high demand these days with roles of a darker nature than he’s built his name upon. He’s more than ready to sink into the challenge.
“I’ve been doing this now for about 31 years and I think people have now figured out what I’m interested in, what I do and how I do it,” Domingo says. “So I’m not just an actor that you’re going to cast and say, ‘Oh, play this character.’ If you want me to come to the role as a thinker, as a collaborator, as a dramaturg, I’m your guy. If you really want to go deep with it and really just mine it and find what makes it tick, I’m your guy. I think that I’ve always been very conscious of what I do. I say ‘no’ way more than I say ‘yes.’ Because it’s like anything: in this business, I need to make a difference.”
Earlier this summer, he played the villainous X in “Zola,” which finally arrived in theaters this June after making a splash at Sundance 2020, and he stars as a laundromat worker called William in the much-anticipated “Candyman,” directed by Nia DaCosta, out today. Both projects see him taking on a darker character, something that happened naturally after his turn as sweeter characters in movies like “If Beale Street Could Talk” and “Selma.” Janicza Bravo, the director of “Zola,” reached out to Domingo to offer him the role of X, an immigrant from Nigeria who sex traffics women in Florida. Domingo was surprised initially that Bravo thought of him for such a part, but he thinks he has a grasp on the reasoning now.
“I thought, ‘What does she see in me, that I could play X?’ And to be honest, I haven’t even asked her the question, but I think I get it. She knows that I’m a character actor through and through, but also she knows how much of a feminist I am and how I wanted to be an actor that can be willing to go to these deep harrowing places with these women and go into the darkness of playing the soul of a guy who sex traffics women and has violence in his background, et cetera,” he says. “But I can put such love and light around these women and make them feel protected to do the work.”
He calls “Zola” some of his best work, and credits that with Bravo allowing him to go where he needed to go to tap into a more wild, raw performance.
“I really was just trying to really craft a very complex human being and actually find something about him that I loved, because he is absolutely a villain, he’s doing terrible things that I find abhorrent, but I was, like, how can I love this guy? I had to look at it from my perspective as an immigrant story,” Domingo says. “He’s a Nigerian man who decided to appropriate being an African American guy and hide that and swallow that, to try to have access and agency in this country. He’s just trying to get the American dream like everyone else. That was my way in.”
Those that are familiar with Domingo’s career “can’t believe that I’m going to those places,” he says of the parts in “Zola” and “Candyman.” Yet his theater background, where he got his start before films, consisted of many villains and wild characters. “In recent years, I’ve been in these important history films, being loving Black men. And I think what’s happening is, people have to rethink what I do,” Domingo says. “But that’s what I love as a character actor — I’ve always considered myself someone who really makes decisions on the way I move, the way I breathe, what my sign is, what I eat, it’s all that deep character work. So then, I want it to be something else. And a lot of times, I know for sure that there aren’t a lot of African American men that are compared to a Daniel Day Lewis or a Gary Oldman, like Philip Seymour Hoffman. These are the men that I feel like I’m shoulder to shoulder with, because they do this deep character dive and that’s where I hope to do that deep character dive, so you don’t see the work. That’s what I’ve always been interested in.”
The part in “Candyman” was written specifically for him by Jordan Peele, who cowrote the screenplay with DaCosta and Win Rosenfeld, after the two had a 45-minute meeting the day after Peele won his Oscar for “Get Out.”
“We talked about art, we talked about life, we talked about being men, being Black men. We talked about horror, the genre; we just really did a great, great heart to heart about what was important to us as artists,” Domingo says.
For years, he assumed he wasn’t a horror guy, but talking with Peele opened him up to the genre.
“He was like, ‘Horror is such a fantastic genre to really get into the subversive nature of what is really on all of our minds, our deepest fears, and it’s just coming out,’” Domingo recalls. “I never knew that there was a place for me in the horror genre, even being part of ‘Fear of the Walking Dead,’ I had no idea. But at the end of the day, I’m realizing as I’ve been exploring horror is that, it’s really unpacking all that stuff that really just makes you get a little nauseous when you have to think about it. The examination is for you to examine who are you when the s–t hits the fan?”
Diving into his darkness just so happens to fit in right where Domingo is at in his career at the moment: curious as ever, eager to explore, open to being seen in new and different ways.
“I love the idea that this is a time for me to show my darker side, because these are the things that, as you examine darkness in human beings…I think I’m a person who carries a lot of light and love and joy. I hug people when I walk into a room. So the idea of, I go to the other side to understand these people and what makes them tick is very intriguing to me because it is still very human,” he says. “So it is an examination for me to go into what is the psychology that goes into all this horror? And then, to try to, in a strange way, to almost put a blanket of love around them at the same time and say, ‘Oh, they’re doing that because they weren’t loved.’
“And I think that’s where the pandemic has taught me a bit more — I’m very, very specific about who I want to give energy to and who I don’t and I’m quick to discern who that is, because we don’t have time anymore,” he continues. “And I think that’s the lesson we’ve got to learn. I know I don’t have time, so what do I want to do with this time? I want to spend it with joy, with great interrogation of great characters and scripts, and hopefully something that holds a mirror up to our humanity and something that’s bigger than ourselves. That’s why we’re artists. We can all just go and make a buck somewhere, but I want to make the right buck.”