Colman Domingo plays Cutler in the Netflix film “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” an adaptation of the play of the same name by August Wilson. The role has landed Domingo an Independent Spirit Award nomination and recognition at the SAG Awards as part of the film’s ensemble.
Domingo recently spoke with Gold Derby contributing writer Sam Eckmann about playing in the world of Wilson, why the filming experience was demanding and what it was like working with the late Chadwick Boseman. Watch the exclusive interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: You’ve actually performed August Wilson before and actually directed a version of “Seven Guitars.” He’s going through kind of this renaissance right now, thanks to these films. What has August Wilson meant to your career? How has he affected your work?
Colman Domingo: He’s affected my work in countless ways. I think the first time I was in an August Wilson play was “Fences,” and that was at TheatreWorks in California and I played the role of Gabriel. I guess I had been performing for about maybe 10 years at that point. It was the first time in my career that I felt that I actually had text that was so rich and complex and was everything that I wanted with a character and an arc and a storyline. It was meaty. It had so much complexity and it was truly about the Black experience in America. So I think that it was the first time I really thought I saw characters that I really knew and understood, like my uncles and my aunts and cousins and stories of the Great Migration and what people want and the way people really talk. I mean, August Wilson sat in cafes and listened and heard all the idiosyncrasies of people and cadences and so, I loved getting him there. I get excited talking about August Wilson because it’s a getting in there and getting in the ring because you want to wrestle with that language. You want to pull everything out of you and also, you know that it’s going to pour so much into you. So that’s what I love about August Wilson and any time anyone wants me to do an August Wilson play or a film, I’m game (laughs).
GD: Yeah, well, I’m glad you mentioned that language because it is very dense and especially when he’s creating for the stage, oftentimes, the language is really the focus of a play. So he’s been referred to as the American Shakespeare. Do you have to prepare differently to perform that type of dialogue? Is there a difference, do you notice, compared to other playwrights?
CD: There is. I’ll tell you this, and any director will tell you this, when it comes to August Wilson’s work, and I directed “Seven Guitars” years ago, when you think you know it, you actually don’t know it again. It keeps revealing itself in unpacking itself over and over again. There’s so many layers to it and that’s what I think is so interesting. He is the American Shakespeare, I believe, because he really is writing about not only Black people in America, but he’s writing about the American dream. He’s writing about people just trying to have agency in their lives and you can relate that to whether it’s the struggle for women’s rights or gay and lesbian rights, transgender rights, you name it, you can put anything on it because you’re just looking at the macro of America, but the micro of what it takes and all the hurdles you have to go over to get that thing, that thing that’s promised, so that’s why it’s so rich.
Yeah, I think it’s just incredible language and it’s truly dense and you do have to prepare a little differently. I know that you start with the text. I would always tell actors when I direct August Wilson, I had an actor who said, “Well, I feel that my character…” I’m like, “Well, let’s not start with your feeling. Let’s look at what August wrote, because he will tell you so much about your character. You don’t have to dream up something because he’s giving you that. He’s also giving you a perspective of what other people think about you.” So you start there and then you do intensive research. I mean, with “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” we even have a speech about a train that goes from one place in Georgia to another. So I wanted to make sure I knew exactly what the stations were like, what the towns were like so I did that research. You do all that research to look at that time period and all the things that would’ve been set up against you. You want to know what people were eating, how they took care of their bodies, you name it.
I have always done the work as a character actor. That’s why I have all these choices about [how] I weighed 10 pounds more because I was like, “He’s a Southern boy. He doesn’t work out and have a vegan diet like I do.” You do have to do all that work and there’s all this visual language and photography that you explore and also the music, in particular. You’ve got to get your handle on the music, whether if you’re performing the music or August Wilson writes, you could tell, he’s writing jazz and he has representations with his characters that are representations of instruments in many ways, like “Seven Guitars.” Why would you call something “Seven Guitars”? And everyone’s sort of playing a different version of a guitar. Someone’s playing a Spanish guitar, it’s very interesting, a blues guitar, you name it.
GD: Yeah. What I was really interested by when watching your performance is that you play Cutler, who’s the bandleader, and you have almost a different physicality and a different sort of manner about you depending on what scenario you’re in and who you’re talking to. Like with the band, you seem much more open, but you have a different sort of operating mode when you’re talking to Ma and especially when you’re talking to the producers. How did you land on that and why does he act slightly different?
CD: Well, thank you for recognizing that, because that was a very conscious decision to make sure that his whole body had to shift, depending on his role in the operating systems in the room. So when Cutler’s with the band, he’s a bit more of his relaxed self. He’s one of the men of the band. I think the way he sits, the way he moves, the way he moves through space, he’s more of his truer self. And then there’s the Cutler when he walks from the subway through the streets, which is very dignified. Everything about him and his cadence is to be the leader, but also to almost try to be invisible. “I’m not going to be a problem,” as he walks through this mainly white neighborhood and then deal with the white agent and producers. He’s the first face that they see. So, therefore, we even made choices like, I wanted to make sure his hair was permed because he is the first person that they see so he’s going to represent how the white studio system, etc. can see him and view him so they can see themselves.
It was a very conscious decision and I know there’s one conversation in particular when I’m talking to the band and letting Levee have it, you name it, and suddenly Mr. Irvin walks in and suddenly, it made sense to me that his body shrinks a little bit. I’m a 6’2” man but you didn’t want to seem imposing, especially if you had a question. You knew you had to try to slip in your questions, but you don’t want to look him directly in the eye. You want to be deferential, but in a way where you didn’t lose your power in the room, so he didn’t completely cower to this man, because he still had to lead this band. So he’s constantly working between systems.
And then when he’s with Ma, Viola [Davis] and I discussed, which I thought was a very wonderful thing, that they have the longest history with each other. So they’re able to let their guard down in a way that they can’t allow themselves to do outside of the room where Ma has to be this formidable character and Cutler has to be the leader. But here, he can sit. It’s his first time he’s got his legs open. He’s smiling. It’s the first time we see him smile, like, truly smile, and he’s open and sincere and myself and Viola, we even touch hands at some point because I thought it was important to show some tenderness with this character. I’m the character that can allow Ma to be a bit more tender and get to more of our internal self and our internal monologues. So there was a lot of code-switching that needed to happen and I know that I was just trying with my research and history of the time and who this Black man was and what he represented, I wanted to make sure that that was clear and that was his motor and his engine throughout the film.
GD: You have a lot of stage experience. You were Tony-nominated for “The Scottsboro Boys.” Do you find that it’s at all difficult to kind of make the shift when taking something that was originally created with the stage in mind and translating it to the screen?
CD: No, I always believe it’s all the same thing. It’s just the way you make it a bit more intimate, the way you dial it in. I always do the same amount of work. The moment I get a script and I knew with “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” but I knew the challenge was going to be, “How do you take this thing that was made for the stage and has these very theatrical monologues, two-page monologues, and how do you truncate that, how do you still get the story across and then have a sense of intimacy?” We rehearsed it, which was beautiful. We rehearsed it just like a play. So we did all of our dramaturgical work, we did our research and development. We blocked it out and then the challenge was to just get it as natural and honest, because you have to be very honest with the camera. So there’s that thing where it’s like, you don’t have to send it out to a 1,200-seat house. You have to get that to just you and the camera and your comrades in the room, that intimacy. That’s what I loved about “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and translating that because all these characters have such size. They have such size with stories. They’re in the center of their own stories and they’ve got their own trauma, their own blues, you name it. But they’re trying to connect. It’s a true ensemble because we’re trying to connect with one another and by me telling my story, will allow you to tell your story. So you have to investigate that level of intimacy when you translate work like that.
GD: Yeah, I think one of the most intimate and perhaps most intense moments of your role that stands out is that sequence you have with Chadwick Boseman, and of course, we very shockingly and sadly lost him this year. But you have that moment where he sort of curses out God and screams at God with him. What was it like sharing that scene together?
CD: It’s one of the most incredible moments of my entire career, to be honest. It was a day that I like to say… I haven’t talked about this in a while, but it was a day where you felt that God was in the room, for whatever reason, whatever way people may believe. But we rehearsed that scene many times but then on the day, and we’re both fiery actors and we always want to get the best out of each other and in that moment, Chad stopped halfway through the rest of his speech and I thought George [C. Wolfe] was going to call “Cut” and we were going to go again. But I knew that there was something there that was really incredible because it’s a thing that you can’t act, you can’t rehearse, it’s just there. What John Patrick Shanley says, you leave room for the divine to reside. And in that moment, I just started yelling at them, “Tell me, tell me.” I refused to let him stop the scene and then he turned back to me with that simmering rage with the rest of his monologue that’s terrifying about when you question God’s will and why do terrible things happen to good people? And then I sock him in the face and then I push them to the door and then we immediately, when they called “Cut,” we just grabbed each other and sobbed.
I didn’t know at the moment why we were crying. There were layers and layers and layers upon layers that were in there, and I think we got to that rare space, that space that you don’t get to that often as actors, to be very honest, where all these things converge and the work has been laid out and then you don’t have to think about it. You just have to give a little bit over of yourself. I think that’s what we did and we held each other up that day as brothers, as comrades. Chad always came into the room with so much light and love and good humor and fun and I think that that contradicted what his body was doing. I can’t say what questions he had in his mind or his heart. I know he was a man of God and very kind and gentle. But I think our text and our language brought up those questions that are deep in all of our hearts sometimes when terrible things happen in the world and you wonder, and it’s painful when it happens, so I think it brought it out of both of us, truly. I’ll never forget that moment. I’ll never forget it.
GD: You mentioned George C. Wolfe, being afraid for him to call “Cut.” I know you also direct often so what kind of conversations did you have with George about your character? Because he really kind of opens the world of this play.
CD: George is, and I say this with all the love in the world, he’s one of the most demanding directors I’ve ever worked with. Why? Because you’re already invited into the room because he believes you have something great to give, but he doesn’t want you to rely on that greatness. He wants you to get in there and un-know yourself, peel away layers, rethink everything, examine. If we’re just talking about this blue mug, he wants you to look at all the different shades and the shape of it before you make a decision and it’s challenging, to be very honest. When I tell you, he pulls out everything that you can possibly give. I felt very insecure for the first two weeks of our rehearsal because of those demands. I think that he knows what you can do and what’s possible. He’s waiting for you to get there but he wants you to land the triple axel every single time, and you might be fine with just doing a double. Maybe you’ve made a whole career just landing a double. I’m giving figure skating references for some reason (laughs). That’s what I love about him, because he truly challenged me, which is why I felt like my work had to go to a deeper level, to be honest. I think I wanted to make every decision to make sure that he felt so a part of this world and his intentions were absolutely clear, and that they were clear to me.
GD: I also have to congratulate you because you just got an Independent Spirit nomination for this role. Did you anticipate that the industry would respond in the way it is, so warmly to this movie?
CD: That’s a great question. I never know. I’ve been working for 30 years and I feel like I still don’t know. The things that I think will be applauded sometimes just go away. The things that I think are garbage somehow get elevated, but then sometimes the convergence of something that you truly believe in and you think is meaningful and you think can actually move the needle on our humanity actually gets the praise and love that it deserves. Of course I’m thrilled. I’m so happy that the show is being honored and recognized, whether as an ensemble, whether it’s the picture, or even individual performances. I think it deserves that merit and I think that it will say a lot about our industry, how it’s praised. It’s like, “Do you think stories like this matter and the way we tell these stories?” Because the lens is inherently very Black and sometimes I think that gets lost on many. I’m not faulting anyone but sometimes people don’t feel they can see themselves unless it’s through a white lens and this is absolutely through an African American lens.
So I think it’s requiring us, especially at this moment, all of us, as audience members and critics, you name it, to lean into the conversation and say, “Oh, they’re going to tell us their experience, their story, by the way it’s designed, its production and makeup.” And for you to not just look at something from the outside, but ask questions and see why were those choices made from this acting company, from these producers, you name it. So I think it’s a wonderful opportunity and I’m thrilled that it’s getting the recognition that I think August Wilson’s work, hell I’ll say it, all of our work. We work hard and we put our souls into it so I don’t take that lightly because sometimes you put your soul into something and no one sees it. But right now is a wonderful time when people are seeing it and applauding it. It’s really wonderful.
GD: Well, we’re also living in a wonderful time because Mr. Denzel Washington has decided he wants to bring this entire 10-play cycle to film.
CD: Yes, and I want to be in every single one of them!
GD: Well, that’s what I wanted to ask you before I had to let you go. Is there another or multiple other August Wilson roles that you really have on your bucket list that you want to tackle at some point?
CD: It’s funny, I’ve tackled as a director, “Seven Guitars,” and I would like to direct the film version of it. So put that out there to Denzel and to Netflix. But I like living in August Wilson’s world and there’s many characters, “Piano Lesson,” I love the characters that are a little off in August Wilson. He always has a character that is connected to the spiritual and he’s probably a little off. He’s probably got a wound or something. He’s a little crazy, but he’s also the philosopher. I feel like those are the characters that in the theater, I’ve played my share of them, so I would like to explore those in August Wilson. But I’m open. I’m open. But I think directing will be what I would really like to do.