“Right now, my garden is in full bloom and it’s a beautiful time,” says Colman Domingo. The Euphoria alum is rightfully content. Earlier this week, he became a first-time Oscar nominee for his lauded performance as Bayard Rustin, the unsung gay civil rights activist who organised the 1963 March on Washington. With his nomination, Domingo made history as only the second gay man, and first Black gay man, to be nominated for playing a gay character.
Just two days after his nomination – he found out he’s up for Best Actor from the bathroom, then ‘jumped with joy’ with his husband Raúl Aktanov – Domingo tells GAY TIMES: “Even in one [awards] season, people see me playing Bayard Rustin and they can also see me as Mister in The Color Purple. That’s unusual territory for an openly gay man. I play these roles that are not defined just by their sexuality.”
“Unusual territory” is the perfect way to describe it: Domingo’s 33-year filmography includes roles as a high school principal (Assassination Nation), pimp (Zola), zombie-hunter (Fear the Walking Dead), “rubbernecking” CIA officer (American Dad) and, as confirmed one hour after this call, Michael Jackson’s father in the King of Pop’s upcoming biopic. He also – get this – impersonated Maya Angelou, Oprah Winfrey, Tyra Banks and more during his stint on The Big Gay Sketch Show. “People thought I just got here but now they’re like, ‘No, he’s been working for a long time,’” the (let’s say it again) Oscar nominee adds. “‘We just didn’t know it was him because he keeps shapeshifting.’”
Next month, Domingo will continue to showcase his diverse range with a “bonkers” role in Ethan Coen’s solo directorial debut, Drive-Away Dolls, a lesbian road trip comedy in which he delivers an “incredible monologue about… a penis”. Here, we discuss all of the above, why he wants Rustin to be shown in schools and the “existential” third season of Euphoria.
Colman, huge congratulations on your Oscar nomination.
Isn’t that wild? Thank you!
Has it sunk in yet that you’re now, officially, ‘Colman Domingo, Academy Award-nominated actor’?
Yes. It’s sunken in. This morning I actually said it out loud and thought, ‘That’s really cool.’ I love, more than anything, the people that I’m nominated with. These are all men that I truly respect. I woke up early for some reason and felt like watching another film [of theirs], so I watched The Holdovers because I admire these guys. So, I’m having a great time, man. It’s a really beautiful moment.
You were in the bathroom cleaning when you found out, right?
Yes, because my body decided to wake me up sooner than I wanted to. I was like, ‘I have to do something,’ so I started cleaning out one of my closets. My husband sat in front of the fireplace with his coffee watching the news feed. As he was listening, I would walk around the house. I would end up back in the bedroom, listening a little bit, cheering on some friends and then I would go into the closet. It started getting closer to my category, so I decided to go into the bathroom. I was just pacing. Then, I heard a ding on my phone because the feed was coming in, maybe ten seconds faster on the East Coast.
It was my manager saying, ‘Congratulations Oscar nominee.’ I don’t know if it was complete shock, but I didn’t respond at all, because it didn’t seem real. I then looked over at my husband, who was still listening, and I heard ‘Bradley Cooper’ and ‘Colman Domingo.’ My husband completely lays on the floor and starts crying. That’s when my brain caught up so then I started crying. I picked him up and we jumped up and down. Then, it was joy. It was great.
Bloody hell, I even nearly started crying on the tube this morning when I read about your husband’s reaction…
Thank you, Sam! I possibly know why it’s resonating with so many people, this nomination. Not only just for me and my work, but the character I represent, the communities I represent. Everyone’s like, ‘Go, go, go! Great, that’s one for us.’ It’s a profound win for many of us, especially LGBTQ Black folks who grew up in public schools in Philadelphia, Afro-Latinas on my father’s side. Everyone’s like, ‘Yes Colman, we see you and it’s a win for all of us.’
Around a decade ago, you almost quit the industry. I assume this Oscar nom means you won’t be hiding anytime soon?
I don’t know about that! Only kidding. Listen, it’s always a trepidacious, beautiful, interesting and wild ride, the life of an artist. Right now, my garden is in full bloom and it’s a beautiful time. There have been times where I had a drought. And sometimes in the drought, you really think about what you’re doing and try to make new agreements with it, whether you want to plant more seeds or not. There’s always a choice we have as an artist. Right now, it’s a really fruitful time in my career and I have many opportunities. I hope that continues.
Let’s talk about history being made here. You’re only the second gay man, and first Black gay man, to be nominated for playing a gay role. When Ian McKellen became the first, it sadly didn’t have a knock-on effect. Do you think we’re finally at a point where your nomination will open the door for other gay actors to do the same?
Yes, and… I think, even in one [awards] season, people see me playing Bayard Rustin and they can also see me as Mister in The Color Purple. That’s unusual territory for an openly gay man. I play these roles that are not defined just by their sexuality. I also hope that people can see the character work and the detail that I put in with Bayard Rustin. It’s not just because I’m gay that I can play gay. I can access certain things, have a willingness and a curiosity of history so I can give all of that. I want to, hopefully, be seen in the breath of all that I do and not [have people] be like, ‘Oh, gay people doing these gay things.’ It’s, ‘Yes, and?’ like we see in improv.
I thought you were paying tribute to Ariana Grande’s new single for a second there.
Yes, exactly! It’s a great single, I love it. I’ve been playing it non-stop!
As an actor, it must have been wonderful to tackle a role as meaty and culturally important as Rustin, whose story has been somewhat erased. But on a more personal level, what was it like to be the person to bring his story to the mainstream?
It feels like a tremendous responsibility, one you wanna give everything you have to. I was telling a friend the other day that it was the role that I felt like I was tasked to do, in an extraordinary way, and leave it all on the floor as if it was my last film, because it’s in dedication to one of my personal heroes. That means you leave nothing, you investigate and interrogate all of it. I felt like that was what I achieved on our last day. I gave everything I could. I gave what I was supposed to give. It was that rare moment because you know these roles don’t come up everyday, where you can actually play one of your personal heroes. It’s an incredible script full of light, humour and wit, it includes his sexuality in a real messy, weird and interesting way.
I prepared for five months, did my due diligence on every part of him; finding his voice, finding his body, finding the way he moves in space, and in light and dark, when he feels confined. He was such an unsung hero who was marginalised in the history books because he was openly gay, so I wanted to make sure that it was my personal job to pull him out of the shadows of history and place him centre stage. The beautiful thing about this acknowledgement of an Academy Award nomination, for Rustin, means his name is fully amplified in the world and people will keep going to the movie. I want the film to be shown in schools as part of curriculums and stuff like that, because it’s another way into the March of Washington and spirit of activists and organisers that we need. It’s not a dusty old drama, either. It’s fun and funny and weird.
Colman, we also can’t forget about one of your most iconic roles, and that’s as Stiles in American Dad.
Are you serious? I love that you pulled that out. My god, that’s great.
It was necessary for me to mention this, purely because the range of your roles is insane. And then Drive-Away Dolls? I watched that recently and absolutely loved it.
It’s fun, right?
It’s stupid fun. I was cackling the entire time.
I love it. It’s funny, I come from the theatre and in the theatre, in particular, I was always the character actor who’s also a leading man. Also, I was the character who would play five different roles in one play. So, I always had to have elasticity with my voice and body. Everyone can see now! It seems to be a retrospective done now on my work. People thought I just got here but they’re like, ‘No, he’s been working for a long time. We just didn’t know it was him because he keeps shapeshifting. He ends up in history films and cartoons.’
Even in one year, people can see I was in Transformers, played a pimp in Zola or the father in If Beale Street Could Talk. You can go deeper into my career and see I did sketch comedy with The Big Gay Sketch Show, where I played Maya Angelou and Tyra Banks and Beyoncé and Nick Cannon! My career, I choose things that make sense to me and help me flex as an actor, so I never wanna do the same thing twice. Now, people can see that I’ve always aspired to be a Gary Oldman or a Daniel Day Lewis, people who slip in and out of characters with mind, body and soul.
Drive-Away Dolls was so bonkers and different to all your recent projects. Can you take me back to when you read the script and thought, ‘Oh, I need to be involved in that.’
Even before I read the character, the offer came in from Ethan Coen. I just said, ‘Whatever he’s doing, I’m doing. I’ll read the script, but it doesn’t even matter because I’ve been offered something from Ethan Coen and I’m doing it.’ I said yes before I even read the script. Then I read it like, ‘This is bonkers.’ I thought the character is such the, quote unquote, “straight man”. Even the decision to give me that wig, that hair, was brilliant to me. It’s such an odd world and I had this incredible monologue about… a penis. I read that monologue like, ‘Yeah, I understand it, because he’s taking it very seriously.’ Everything about Ethan Coen’s humour is not “haha!”, you really commit to believe this. It’s such a bonkers world. I loved all of it.
Is it a conscious decision to balance out all the serious stuff with some stupid, fun, light-hearted roles?
Yes! I need to have fun. I’m a light-hearted human being who ends up in all these history films and important theatre, which is also part of what I love, but I do love to have some fun and take the piss out of anyone and anything. I need that balance. Right now, after this run, I would like to do something light-hearted or even romantic, where I can just drop my shoulders a bit more.
From adult animation (American Dad) to musical drama (The Color Purple), to historic biopic (Rustin) and now lesbian road trip comedy (Drive-Away Dolls), you’ve done it all Colman.
Yes, exactly. So, what’s next? A Bond villain or something, that will be cool.
I know the third season of Euphoria is in the uber early baby stages, but what can you tell me about Ali and the journey he might potentially go on?
I just know that Sam Levinson is so in the pocket when it comes to developing season three. I think he’s going even further existential, because I think it’s always about the crisis of the heart and of the mind and of people who are dealing with addiction. That’s the most that I’ve talked to him about. He said he’s got some great plans. Everyone’s always having an existential crisis in some way, so let’s examine that and find out who we are and who we want to be. That’s what I know.
Rustin is now streaming on Netflix.
Drive-Away Dolls will be released 15 March in the UK.