‘Euphoria’ guest star Colman Domingo on playing Ali: ‘It’s just a gift that keeps on giving’ [Exclusive Video Interview]

It’s rare that a guest actor in a television series is given an equal footing with the show’s lead, but that’s what happened back in December 2020 when Colman Domingo shared almost every single moment of the “Euphoria” special episode “Trouble Don’t Always Last” with series star Zendaya.

“I learned everything about the character in that special episode, everything. That was a gift,” Domingo tells Gold Derby of the acclaimed standalone episode, which creator Sam Levinson designed as a bridge between seasons of “Euphoria.” Domingo plays Ali, a former crackhead who now serves as a sponsor and sounding board for Rue (Zendaya). The character was present in Season 1, but the special allowed for an exploration of Ali that went further: viewers, and Rue, found out Ali had two daughters from whom he was now estranged – a character detail that helped explain why he is particularly interested in Rue’s well-being as she struggles with her own addiction. 

“I don’t know if an actor can express how much of a gift that was from Sam Levinson for a guest actor to be handed that,” Domingo says of the special episode. “Sam not only writes to my strengths, but he also writes things that challenge me. To have that much intense dialogue about the human condition, about the disease of addiction, about and trying to not only be an impact but also to challenge this young woman played ferociously by Zendaya – it’s just a gift that keeps on giving.”

Fortunately for Domingo, Season 2 of “Euphoria” built on the promise of the 2020 special. The newest season, a blockbuster hit for HBO in the winter, picked up soon after the events of the Rue-Ali special episode and built on the pair’s complicated dynamic. During one particularly fraught moment, with Rue at her lowest personal moment during a drug-fueled rampage, she strikes out at Ali for his past abusive behavior. It leaves Ali stung, but he later accepts an apology from the teenager during a phone call that stood as one of the season’s more emotional beats.

Domingo says that as a guest actor, he normally shoots most of his scenes in a single day – but the preparation for that work takes up as many as 40 hours per week. For that particular moment, when Ali accepts Rue’s act of contrition, the actor and Zendaya actually had the conversation face-to-face – this despite Ali being on the phone.

“Sam just guided us so beautifully. He said, ‘Just take your time with it. Just listen and respond,’” Domingo says of the scene, which is noteworthy for its silence and what Ali chooses not to say. “I know when she finally was saying that she was sorry, he had to actually take it in and digest,” he adds. “That pause for me is for him deciding to make the choice not to say suddenly, I forgive you. But he actually has to do the work for himself as well…. I think that the whole show is about redemption. I think it’s about how what do we do with people who have been sort of disgraced or turned away. And when you forgive, everyone has the power to be redeemed. And I think that’s such a beautiful, loving thought, especially something that I think we need right now in our culture.”

Domingo is one of the most in-demand actors of the moment – upcoming projects include the Netflix film “Rustin” out later this year – but he’ll be back in a guest capacity on the next season of “Euphoria” too. He’s already had some conversations with Levinson, who based Ali on his own sponsor, about where the character might go.

“Let’s say this, when we actually did the special episode, we knew it wouldn’t be as interesting for Ali to come in and always sort of be this message of hope every single time. That can get old. You have to keep growing with the character and keep challenging. I think it’d be interesting to take him out in the world a bit more. I would like to know how Ali is without that relationship with Zendaya. I would like to see Ali’s backstory, what made him who he is… now that you know a character, what do you not know about a character?”

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