Over his 26 year multi-hyphenate career, Colman Domingo has earned his reputation as being one of the best character actors of his generation many times over. From guest spots and recurring roles in shows like Timeless and Euphoria, to memorable performances in the likes of If Beale Street Could Talk and Selma, it’s become clear that any project he’s a part of is better for his inclusion.
The latest example of that fact comes in Netflix’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, an adaptation of August Wilson’s beloved 1982 play that sees Viola Davis’ titular songstress square off with her white producers at a recording session in 1920’s Chicago.
Domingo is no stranger to the legendary playwright – he starred in a production of Fences in 2000 – and he relished another opportunity to act out Wilson’s legendary words, this time on screen rather than on stage.
Read more: Best movies of 2020: Every must watch film
“August Wilson's language is so lush, and guttural and spiritual and academic at times, even if it feels colloquial”, he says.
“And so I think having a cinematic eye on it helps to get you into the interior life of these characters. It is all very character driven, so it's still about how you rehearse it. And then you have a dance of cinematography to make sure that you're capturing it, whether you're inside the action or outside the action. I think it lends itself beautifully to film. It becomes very lyrical”.
Domingo plays Cutler, trombonist and band leader for Ma Rainey’s crew of musicians. Although the film only takes place over the course of a single day, the actor still made sure to build the character off screen to help inform his performance.
That included everything from knowing how Cutler “moves through space, how he moves when he's with the members of the band, and then how his body language shifts when a white producer or agent comes into the room”, to rapid ageing.
“I show up to my first day of rehearsal, and George C. Wolfe [director] says ‘Colman, you look too young’. I was like ‘what?’ He says ‘how old are you?’ I was 49 back then. Then he said ‘you don't look like that, you need to look a little older’. That meant I needed to pack on some weight. I just had to eat like a Southern boy for a while”.
Watch a trailer for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Much of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is about the harsh realities of being a Black creative in a white dominated industry. Although it’s been almost 40 years since the play first debuted on stage, many of the movie’s themes still resonate today. That’s something Domingo, a gay Black man, is keenly aware of.
“Ma Rainey is this openly gay woman in the male dominated industry of Blues, who is also fighting systemic racism in an institution that pretty much doesn't want her there”, he says.
“They want her talent, but they don't want all of her. That echoes a lot of statements by the people marching in the streets this past year. Everyone's saying I want you to value all of me, not just my talents, but all that I bring”.
In addition to sharing scenes with Davis’ Ma Rainey, Domingo goes toe-to-toe with Chadwick Boseman’s Levee as the film progresses. The Black Panther actor sadly passed away earlier this year after a private battle with colon cancer, shocking the film world, and he puts in an Oscar-worthy performance in his final onscreen role (we will hear Boseman one last time in the MCU’s upcoming Disney+ animated series What If…?).
“He was a good guy, and I really admired him”, Domingo says.
“We were sort of comrades in this industry. I felt like we respected each other and wanted to hold space for one another. But I think I felt like we were shoulder to shoulder in terms of what we're about, and what we were trying to achieve with this art form that we were blessed to be a part of. He was always so supportive, so gracious, so kind, and funny. That's the way I remember him”.
Domingo will next be seen in Candyman, the highly anticipated rebootquel of the 90’s horror classic. While he’s remaining tight-lipped on story specifics – “I play a character who is holding some keys to some of the secrets of the Cabrini Green projects” – his excitement for the film is palpable.
Watch a trailer for Candyman below
“Jordan Peele wrote this role for me, and I'm really grateful for it. For a long time in a person's career, you audition for roles and you show up and do the work. And at some point, people start seeing what you can do, and they write towards it. And I've been able to have that with Jordan Peele, and with Euphoria.
“August didn't write this for me, but the team of Denzel Washington and George C. Wolfe chose me to be a part of Ma Rainey and believed that whatever I can bring to it will help be a part of this magnificent film.
“And I feel very blessed that people are able to see you in that way, and I hope that continues”.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is in cinemas now and will hit Netflix on 18 December.