Colman Domingo Shares Why He Likes Roles that Scare Him and Why ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ Felt Like a Gift

(L-R) Chadwick Boseman, Colman Domingo, and Viola Davis star in MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM — Courtesy of Netflix

Colman Domingo has built an impressive career with memorable film and television roles that include Fear the Walking Dead, If Beale Street Could Talk, and The Knick. His projects have taken him from Alabama in the 1960s to present-day Florida. Later this year, audiences will see him in Zola and Candyman, as well as the new series, Without Remorse.

This past year, Domingo starred as part of the SAG-nominated ensemble cast in the Netflix film, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Directed by George C. Wolfe, Ruben Santiago-Hudson adapted August Wilson’s play about a day-long recording session in 1920s Chicago as legendary singer Ma Rainey and her band contend with growing tensions and vital conversations about art, race, and big dreams.

I recently spoke with Colman Domingo about his role as band leader Cutler, working with a strong ensemble, and why draws him to new projects.

Michael Potts, Glynn Turman, and Colman Domingo star in MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM — Courtesy of Netflix

Karen Peterson/We Live Entertainment: I feel like every time I see you on TV, interviews, in any character that you play, you always look like you’re having a great time.

Colman Domingo: Life is short. I’m gonna have a good time. I’m going to just hold on to every good moment, every good role, every good experience, and make it the best thing. Truly, that’s all we can do, I think.

KP: What do you look for in a role?

CD: I look for something that scares me a little bit. Something where I feel like I don’t know exactly how to do it. I also have to look for something where I feel like there’s a question about something that I’m curious about. I get some wonderful offers and it’s always a question for myself, like, why me? Why am I that person to embody this? What do I have to give to this character? What am I curious about? I have to feel like I might just fail with it, to be honest. I feel like if it’s easy, if I feel like I know how to do it, it’s not interesting. Because I feel like it’s got to be that challenge in a strange way.

I’m going to do a lot of work. I’m a nerd. And I like to research everything about a character. I want to know that it’s gonna take me down a rabbit hole, I’m gonna do eight hours of study on it on a Saturday. And I’m just curious about how they live in me, how I will change my body or my voice or you name it. It’s gonna want to give you everything that you’re curious about, and ultimately feel like you’re gonna have a leap of faith with it, you know?

But I think a lot of things that I do, I think I’m drawn to things that I feel like I’m not quite sure how to do it. Like Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Do I play the trombone? No. Did I understand Cutler in the beginning? Not really. But I think I wanted to go on the journey of discovery.

KP: What is a role that scared you the most?

CD: I have one coming up, a feature called Zola that premiered at Sundance last year. That movie in particular, I was nervous. I got that offer and I thought, whoa, it’s such an interesting character and one that I haven’t done before. And so and I loved Janicza [Bravo]’s vision and I love the script. And then I thought, now I’m gonna have to go on a journey to find out what I love about this character who’s doing terrible things. And I wanted to find what he wanted, what he needs, what hurts, all while being a part of this dark comedy about trafficking women. Yeah, you know, and I’m an über feminist. And the film that I did, just before was If Beale Street Could Talk, which is a very different film, and very different relationships with women. So I thought it was a great challenge, actually.

So that’s a film that I thought was scary because I had to research pimp culture and and trafficking of women and stripper culture and all that stuff. And then find a way to make him so human. Take a character that is based on someone real, but then how do I activate that and make that make character’s choices and things that ultimately live with this… it’s not a documentary. I want to create a full character that has wants and needs and dreams like everybody else. So I thought I I wanted to make sure that he had his wants for an American dream like everybody else and this was what he was doing to get that.

KP: How did Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom come about for you?

CD: That was like a Christmas gift. Although I got the gift in May. {laughs} It was an offer, and I remember I heard it in this order: Denzel Washington producing, George Wolfe directing, Viola Davis starring as Ma, Chadwick Boseman as Levee. And I really just well, you know, I’m doing it, I don’t even know what role they want me for, but I’ll be there. I’ll be there. You just tell me when. And when I found out it was Cutler I was on a flight from New York to LA, got home, and I immediately read it that night. And so I understood why I was being called on to be a part of this film, and what I had to give and offer to the role of Cutler.

There’s a part of Cutler that I’ve always been that I’ve never experienced myself in film. I’m always the leader of a company; of an acting company, in the theater when they looking for an equity deputy, it’s always me. And when everyone’s looking on set to right some wrongs with production, they look to me to talk to the producer. So yeah, I’ve always been sort of the bandleader. I’ve been the the one who is looking out for the soul of the company. And so I thought that, oh, that’d be interesting to play and see how I can do that dance, because it’s a very tricky role. I mean, he’s one way with the band, he’s Ma’s proxy when she’s not in the room, and he also is the one who is able to talk to the white establishment about the needs of the band or the industry. He’s basically trying to keep this train going on this one day, and I thought it was a real tricky roll. And of course, like I said, I’m drawn to that.

I thought that working with George C. Wolfe, who’s a master director, and somebody I’ve admired in theater for so long, I knew that he would challenge me, and it wasn’t an easy production, to be very honest. It took everything you had and I knew I was up for the task. I was up for the task to be in a rehearsal hall that I hadn’t been in a long time. There are no rehearsal halls in film and television. But I was able to have rehearsal for two weeks and do all that work, that deep dive work that we live for, research and dramaturgy, and raising questions and film and photography and music and learning all this and learning an instrument. Everything is set up for you to succeed. But there’s also a huge barometer where you could fail. I think I just loved it. And I embraced every moment.

KP: It’s such a great ensemble. As the film is going on, you see kind of literally and metaphorically, the temperature is rising over this one day. What was it like working together through this kind of production?

CD: We started by doing the thing in rehearsal which enables you to be an ensemble, which is listening, offering up whatever you can to the group, to the brain trust in the group, going to dinners, learning about each others’ families, what we’re carrying with us, you name it. And also having a sense of play. We were very playful with each other. Anytime I see any behind-the-scenes footage, there’s always shots of Chadwick laughing and putting his hand on me or Michael [Potts] busting up laughing, me dancing for Viola, doing something weird and silly. But we needed that. You needed all of that because there’s such a level of trust and places that you’re gonna need to go. You need to be able to laugh at these people, cry with these people, know what they’re dealing with, how they’re balancing being a parent, being away from home, being away from your loved ones, and everyone’s just in service to the work. So it really was passionate. I had such a good time. That’s all I remember from it is that we just we laughed a lot and we worked really hard.

And we pushed each other because every actor came in with a gift to you to say I’m going to serve up that. What are you going to bring? No one came in sitting on the side. Every single actor. And so it does rise. And it’s such, truly and — I think this is objectively speaking — it’s so much of an ensemble that I think it’s rare. It’s rare to see that ensemble, everyone’s truly working in concert with one another. Yes, there are some some roles that step forward and become the leads. But you need those other people for you to have that performance. I think our performances are all intertwined or no one can do what they’re doing. And there’s no solo acts at all. You’re always in a room with three to eight other people. And you’re all playing off each other and the language is so together that you have to be one unit.

So objectively, I think it’s an outstanding ensemble, and it’s an ensemble in the truest sense of the word. It’s not just because there’s a lot people in there. You have a lot of people now working off of each other. That’s the difference. And that’s what I think is the definition of an ensemble and why I’m very proud of it.

KP: The way the dialogue is written, and the way everyone interacts, the whole movie feels like a band playing a song. What was it like getting to play those moments with your cast mates?

CD: Oh, man, that’s the stuff you’re hungry for as an actor always, to spar with another actor. To know that you’ve done all your due diligence, you’ve done your homework, you’ve rehearsed, you’ve rehearsed your music, and now you’re going to play off of each other. And so it will change, the essence of it will change, and I think that was the pure joy of it. No one came in with a set idea of like, “Well I’m playing my character this way and this is the way they respond to things.” No, Chad was ready and available to play off of me, Michael, and, and Glynn, and Viola. Everyone was able to do that, and so it felt great. It felt very alive, to be honest. And I feel like even on long shoot days, you knew that you .. every single take, and this is rare, I think, every single take you are completely at 100% performance. No one fell back and was like, oh, coverage is not on me, camera’s not on me, I can give maybe 50, 60%. There was none of that because you knew that each time you had to give to that actor so that actor can have that performance. So I think the bar was set very high.

And that’s a testament to George C. Wolfe and his demands on his actors. He’s a very demanding director, demanding in a way for you to just be the best that you know that you could be, that sometimes you’re not challenged to be. I think that he lays out these challenges for you and wants you to play. He told me once, he said, “You’ve been directing a lot, haven’t you?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “I can tell because you know a lot and I want you to not know so much at times, for you to go moment to moment. You’re so smart, you know the arc of the scene.” He inspired me to just… I take it with me now I’ve because I’ve been doing this work for 30 years and after a while, I think you know how to do certain things and play certain beats or what the scene is, but then to go to that place, that tricky space where you’re like, I’m not so sure, I don’t know, to have that faith in the scene. And all that you don’t know is… it’s precious. And he taught us how to get back there.

KP: There are a few scenes where someone has just had a big monologue and everyone kind of sits and watches this happen. Did you get time to really breathe and react in those moments?

CD: Yeah, we had all that space. Because I think the thing that we started to investigate is why people are allowed to tell their story. The reasons for a monologue to happen. Usually it comes out of some stake where it’s like, oh, this person steps forward? And they’re like, “I have to tell you this so you know more about me.” Because you’re thinking it’s this, I’m going to tell you this, and here’s new information. And in that moment, while listening — and it’s something we all discussed — someone’s telling a story so you can tell your story in a way that’s connected to you. Someone’s showing you their trauma, and saying, “Hey, I’m going to show you my bleeding heart.” And so you give room for that. And you just listen. And there’s no act of listening, and how can I say it? There’s no, “I’m listening and I’m listening like this.” It’s like, no, I just receive it. Receive it all and go on that journey with this person and try to put it all together, this new information. It’s not even about responding. It’s just about letting it breathe and taking it in.

I think it’s doing the thing that we’ve been asking people to do for the past year, which is to listen. How many conversations we all had about listening and really listening to what people really feel, to have hard discussions. But not only just to have the hard discussions, but to actually listen. And that’s a skill in itself. So August Wilson lays out his stories and his characters in a great sparring match and in a great listening match as well. Listen to the story and then you have more information to take into the next scene.

KP: This is a film that’s set in the 1920s with amazing costumes and beautiful sets. When you walk into a film like this, where’s the moment that you really start to feel like you’re part of that world?

CD: I think the scenic elements are just fantastic. When we were rehearsing in the rehearsal hall, we were in some abandoned Lithuanian concert hall or something and then we moved over into the soundstage. And then little by little, you start transforming. I love that it always starts with text, work, research, imagery, whatever you need to build all of this. Things that audiences will never see, but you’re building, building, building.

And then the other layers come. You go for your fitting with the great Ann Roth, and you talk about your costume in such detail. And she is truly a storyteller with her costuming. We made a choice that Cutler’s suit, the suit that we both really loved, was a little too small. It was a little tight. And it buttons – It’s a little tight on me. But it’s all character because we’re like, well, Cutler, I’m sure this is his one good suit, no matter what size he is. It shouldn’t fit perfectly. It should feel like this was good, maybe he was like five to ten pounds smaller before when he got it. But this is his good suit. It also shows he doesn’t have a lot of money. He doesn’t spend money like Levee on things. He’s clean and polished and it suits him until it doesn’t anymore.

So once you start getting that, you feel a different way. You feel your character move in a different way. And then the scenic elements, once we were in that soundstage and we saw that set, our rehearsal hall, which George wanted to feel like the bottom of a slave ship hull, he said, “These men are in this dark space and there’s a little bit of light coming from above that they can’t reach, but they must wrestle with each other in this darkness, all this ideology, all these questions of faith, all that must be wrestled with, as Black men together, before we’re able to go upstairs.”

And then we’ll take whatever’s upstairs in the world and the macro back down there, and we have to fight it out. And then we have to love it out. And then some tragic things happen as well. So when you get the scenic elements, you get the costumes, all that and then also little elements of every decision on hair, it’s like, we made a decision. My hair is naturally kind of curly, but we actually permed my hair because I thought well, it makes sense for him as the bandleader to sort of look appealing in a white world. So I think he conked his hair, I think basically, every choice was made. Michael had those beautiful chops, he had some style to him. And it just added some, those sexy chops that Michael had. And Glynn was more of the older, wiser philosopher in his suits, everything about it fit that. So when I saw that character as well, you’re like, oh, these are my band members. This tells me more about them about their own sense of style.

And then I also, I like making choices. I’m a character actor as character actors go. I make choices on the way my body moves through space, how it is when I’m with the band, then I’m with Ma. And then when I’m talking to Mr. Irvin, the white agent, I try to make my body smaller, because I’m six foot two and I don’t want to seem imposing. So once you start seeing the other characters and how they’re playing things, you have to really you take it all in. And that’s what helps you become the character you’re supposed to be. There’s a lot of work that happens from your work and research and detailed stuff and I think that’s like 60% of the work. And that other 40% is responding to what’s all set up around you.

KP: How did working on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and working with with Chad and Viola affect you on a personal level?

CD: It’s still affecting me on a personal level. It’s such a blessing to do this kind of work. We’re all talented artists in our own right. I think the group of us as actors, we have great opportunities to do what we want, but we choose to be in service to work like this. This is the work where we feel like we can move the dial on humanity, on representation, things that are meaningful to us more than just being a role or some entertainment. Of course, you want all of that. But this feels like it’s wrapped in such a beautiful package.

And also, to be honest, to be a part of Chadwick Boseman’s phenomenal legacy means everything. He was a great man, a superb artist, a gentleman, funny, silly, and it feels very important to be a part of this film in every single way. It feels like you’ve been chosen in some way to be a part of many things. And so I’m really happy with what this film is doing and has been doing and how it’s amplifying who we are, focusing on this prolific character like Ma Rainey and her band. It truly feels like a gift. And I’m very, very happy. Of course, I think any artist worth their salt feels like they want their last thing to be their best thing, and I know this was for Chad. And I feel like if it was for me. I’ve been doing other things and I’m here living and breathing in this world, and I hope that I have many, many more years ahead of me. But I do feel that if this was my last film, I would feel so grateful.

We would like to thank Colman Domingo for speaking with us.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is available on Netflix.

Written by
Karen Peterson is the Awards Editor for We Live Entertainment. She previously worked as the Assistant Editor at Awards Circuit, now owned by Variety. Her work can also be found at Citizen Dame and at the Watch and Talk podcast. Her non-awards season hobbies include Angels baseball, taking pictures of other peoples' pets, and tweeting about The Bachelor franchise.

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