Colman Domingo on the Importance of 'Euphoria' and 'Ma Rainey' (Exclusive)
By Stacy Lambe
If there’s one performer who continues to surprise with every new project, it’s Colman Domingo. The 51-year-old actor not only leads Fear the Walking Dead, the AMC zombie apocalypse series he’s been on for the past six seasons, but has also made stunning appearances in both the HBO series, Euphoria, and the Netflix film adaptation of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
It’s undoubtedly a long way from his days impersonating Maya Angelou on Logo’s Big Gay Sketch Show a decade ago. But for the multi-hyphenate performer, who has appeared in everything from Lincoln to the long-delayed Candyman sequel and has written for and performed on Broadway, it’s been a journey worth taking. “I’ve always been an artist that was concerned about moving forward,” Domingo tells ET, adding that while it hasn’t always been easy, he feels like “my name has been amplified, my work has been amplified and I feel like I’ve been discovered by many people.”
Now, Domingo’s getting attention like never before, earning critical acclaim for his recent on-screen performances including a supporting role as Cutler in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the latest August Wilson play to get adapted for the screen.
Executive produced by Denzel Washington and directed by George C. Wolfe, Domingo plays one of the background musicians hired to play for legendary blues singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) during a long recording session one afternoon in 1920s Chicago. Over the course of the day, tempers flare and truths come out as trumpeter Levee (the late Chadwick Boseman) provokes his fellow musicians until they come to blows.
Serving as her proxy throughout tense negotiations between record producers and band members, “Cutler is the one character who truly understands Ma, which is why he’s the closest to her,” Domingo says. Ultimately, he acts as a buffer, absorbing the punches from both sides while trying to make sure everyone is heard, the records are made and people get paid.
He adds, “Her fight is his fight.”
When it comes to joining the project, Domingo says, “I just wanted to be in that room. I wanted to be in the room with all these artists who are at the top of their game and who are committed. And not only to films like this, but to social justice, they’re committed to incredible, impactful representation of Black life. And that speaks fully to me.”
While Euphoria is very much Zendaya’s show, leading an ensemble of disaffected youth as Rue in creator Sam Levinson’s provocative look at teen life in America, Colman brings levity and balance to her performance. Introduced halfway through season 1, the actor plays Ali, who eventually becomes Rue’s Narcotics Anonymous sponsor but is cautious of her relationship with Jules (Hunter Schafer).
After Rue relapses in the finale, the series picks up hours later in a diner where she meets up with Ali to reflect on her addition in a special episode that takes place on Christmas Eve. Released on HBO at the beginning of December (on St. Nicholas Day, for those who celebrate), the episode plays out like a stark but compelling version of My Dinner with Andre with Domingo and Zendaya fully locked into their characters and each other.
“I feel incredibly grateful that Sam trusted me and Zendaya with that episode, to say those words, to resonate those moments, to sit across that table and have a difficult conversation and sort of respond to the bigger questions that we’ve had in our society,” Domingo says of “people coming in, sitting across from each other and having difficult conversations, whether it’s about race, whether it’s about addiction, whether it’s about politics, you name it. So, it feels like he’s sort of trying to set the example that it can be done.”
Initially, the conversation was broken up into various scenes across the first few episodes of season two, but the pandemic forced the production to temporarily shut down and rethink its approach. “When we did our table read, maybe a third of those conversations were sprinkled throughout the episodes,” Domingo says before Levinson decided to combine it all into the special episode to “really have a sit-down and lay it bare.”
In order to prepare, Domingo requested the full script from Levinson as early as he could get it so he could just start running through it over and over again at home. “I just needed to get it under my skin,” he says. “I just want to give it all that I had and leave it all on the floor.”
And when it came to filming the episode, Domingo says he didn’t have to think about the text, he could just be in the moment and be present for Zendaya. “She’s the most malleable actor I’ve ever worked with,” he adds. “We just danced together. It would feel like a ballet at times, and then at times it was a boxing match, and then we were sparring.” But all of it, he says, felt right in the moment; it felt like what was needed to bring Levinson’s script to life on camera.
While not typically a “Twitter person,” Domingo found himself going on the social media platform after the episode debuted to see how it was resonating with audiences. “Boy, it knocked me off my feet. I couldn’t believe their responses,” he says. “So I thought, ‘Oh my God. It’s doing the work that I hope it would do.’”
Although Euphoria and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom tell two very different stories, they’re both about queer women of color with Domingo, who is openly gay, playing supporting roles in both of them. It’s not something he takes for granted, especially considering the long history of adversity the LGBTQ community has had to overcome to be open and out -- and to now tell their own stories.
“Right now, artists are saying, ‘Don’t just have my artistry at the table, have all of me,’” he says. “I feel like, to be honest, I’ve been able to be a bit more open in my life because I think it’s even more important now. I’m not sure if I’m fine anymore with people just having my art. I have my thoughts and what I think about it, to give you a fullness of a full human being.”
The actor adds, “I think we owe it to people like Ma and these people who took the knocks for us so we can actually have a choice. And now you have television shows that are embracing that, saying your uniqueness is an asset. Hopefully shows like Euphoria and films like Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom are moving the dial on our humanity and making sure that everyone has the right to be exactly who they are.”
Reflecting on his 30-year-long career, Domingo says that he’s grateful for the accolades and positive reviews he’s earned, but somehow appreciation for the special Euphoria episode hit him in a way he wasn’t expecting. “I sat in my makeup chair on the set of Free the Walking Dead the day after [it premiered] and someone played ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.’ Suddenly a 51-year-old man burst into tears,” he recalls.
“In hindsight, I think I took in all those thoughts of what we hope we can do as artists, and how we can connect people, make them feel something and feel more human,” Domingo continues. “And then I had this moment of gratitude… I think the episode feels like ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.’ It is not the most joyful song, right? It is exactly what it’s supposed to be: bittersweet. It also has a little bit of hope in it. So I think I connected with that in the song and Euphoria and it just came out of me in this real organic way. And I feel incredibly grateful.”