Colman Domingo was at the Equinox on 43rd Street and Fifth Avenue when his agent called. A rush of hope overtook him: After a week spent auditioning for eight film and television roles, finally he was about to get something.
This was in 2014, which Domingo experienced as a year of incredible highs and dangerously low lows. He had just come off a successful, soul-enriching transfer of the stage musical “The Scottsboro Boys” in London, but upon returning to New York, he felt quickly cut down to size. Despite his Tony nomination for the Kander and Ebb musical, Domingo was stuck auditioning for “under-fives,” screen roles that had little more to offer than a line or two. Still, he felt backed into a corner, praying that one of them would hit.
The most promising was a callback for HBO’s Prohibition-era drama “Boardwalk Empire”: To audition for a maître d’ at a Black-owned nightclub, Domingo had donned a tuxedo to sing and tap dance for the producers. You can imagine how he felt, then, when his agent began that call at the gym by saying that everyone on “Boardwalk Empire” had loved his audition. This is the one that’s going to change it up for me, Domingo thought. This is the one that’s going to finally be my big break.
There was just one problem, his agent said. After the callback, a historical researcher on the show reminded producers that the maître d’s in those nightclubs were typically light-skinned, and Domingo was not. “Boardwalk Empire” had passed.
“That’s when I lost my mind,” Domingo told me recently. He remembers how he screamed and slid to the floor that day as everyone in the gym stared. He remembers numbly repeating to his agent, “I can’t take it anymore, I think this is going to kill me.” And he remembers that somehow in his daze, he made it back home to his husband and announced that he was ready to walk away from acting forever.
The severity of that low point is all the more startling because right now, Domingo couldn’t be riding higher. When I met him a few weeks ago in the restaurant of a Beverly Hills hotel, the 54-year-old actor was glowing with the satisfaction of a man whose long-deferred dreams had finally begun to be realized. Last year, he won the Emmy for outstanding guest actor in a drama series for his performance as Ali in “Euphoria”; at Christmas, he’ll co-star in a new movie version of “The Color Purple,” which adapts the Tony-winning Broadway musical and casts Domingo as the troubled, abusive Mister.
Domingo in “The Color Purple” as Mister, the role Danny Glover played in 1985.Credit…Ser Baffo/Warner Bros Pictures
But his most significant current credit is “Rustin,” a Netflix drama that finally lets him play the leading man. In this biopic from Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company Higher Ground, Domingo is so juicy and compelling as the gay civil rights activist Bayard Rustin that he was nominated at the Golden Globes for best actor in a drama and could be a contender at the Oscars, too.
“I don’t want to miss this moment,” Domingo told me, digging into a plate of jumbo shrimp with the same lusty gusto he brought to Rustin, the man who organized 1963’s historic March on Washington, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. “All the films, all the lights, all the accolades, all the beautiful critical responses — I want to bathe in all of that right now.”
In person, the Philadelphia-raised Domingo cut a striking figure: 6-foot-3 in a slinky black turtleneck, he was handsome, bearded and blessed with the sort of baritone that has earned him recent voice roles as a Transformer and as Batman. The arrow in his left earlobe was a nod to his sociable Sagittarius personality (“They’re born during the party months,” he told me), and whenever Domingo smiled widely and slapped his hand on the table, the big gold ring on his finger would punctuate his sentences with a vibrant trill. If anyone at the restaurant didn’t know who he was yet, they could tell just by looking at him that this was a charismatic somebody.
“The fact that he is a joyful, playful, available spirit is truly an accomplishment,” said the “Rustin” director George C. Wolfe, who noted that some actors become embittered after years of false starts. “I don’t think he’s allowed ‘Why is it taking so long?’ to contaminate his sense of worth and discovery and play.”
Domingo is now sanguine about his long-delayed path to movie stardom. “I’ve had many moments where I just needed that little shine or that little push or that extra scene that I know we shot, but decisions were made,” he said. “It happens. You can shoot a film and do some of the best work of your career, and they leave out three incredible scenes, and you’re like, ‘That could have made me. That could have changed everything.’”
Still, to stay in the game and generate his own opportunities, Domingo had to learn the other skills that he now considers his superpowers, writing and starring in plays like “A Boy and His Soul” and “Wild With Happy” while expanding his repertoire to television hosting and directing for the stage.
“I know for sure when I’m leading a film like ‘Rustin’ or being a part of ‘Color Purple,’ I can actually be a greater contributor and collaborator because I have all these skills,” Domingo said. “Maybe that’s the thing I’ve learned in my long and winding career: Nothing anyone can give me is better than something I can make myself.”
THERE IS A phrase in “Rustin” so potent that it was put on the poster: “Own your power.” It’s something Rustin tells an initially doubtful King in order for him to summon the strength to lead, and for Domingo to become the leading man he was meant to be, he had to undertake his own journey to step into and safeguard his own power.
After that demoralizing phone call at Equinox, he let his longtime agent go and signed with new management that quickly secured him a regular role on the AMC hit “Fear the Walking Dead.” Steady work on that eight-season zombie drama gave Domingo the stability to quit dropping everything to fly across the country and jump through hoops out of desperation for screen tests that never paid off.
Filmmakers responded to his growing confidence and the roles grew, too, in well-reviewed films like “If Beale Street Could Talk” (2018), “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (2020) and “Zola” (2021). But Domingo eventually decided that if he wanted to be a leading man, he had to treat himself like one and cease auditioning. “I became an actor that was ‘offer-only’ probably sooner than the industry thought I should have,” he said of the risky move. “But I decided I have a body of work. You can go and look at it, you can ask other directors about me, and you can make me the offer or not.”
Only once did Domingo break his rule to audition for a director friend who would not cast him. “I was shocked because I allowed myself to do that again, then it didn’t yield the results that I wanted,” Domingo said. “It broke something in our friendship because I thought, ‘No, you have to be my advocate.’”
The trouble with developing a sense of self-sufficiency is convincing people they still need to go to bat for you. Luckily, Wolfe, who had cast Domingo in a key supporting role in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” knew this was an actor who was destined for more.
“He’s been ready for a very long time,” Wolfe said. “It’s taken the world time to catch up to him.”
For “Rustin,” Wolfe needed an actor who was spirited, intelligent and charismatic, a description that suited Domingo down to the bone. “People who knew Bayard said that when he walked in a room, heads all turned,” Wolfe said. “That seemed very much like Colman.” And Domingo felt validated to have the director pushing for him.
“He got to know me fully as a human being and as a collaborator and someone who could wrestle text with him, and he advocated for me,” Domingo said. “Did he advocate to Netflix? To the Obamas? He advocated to somebody, because he made the decision and it was a direct offer.”
Though the movie is traditional, the role of Rustin is anything but: The furthest thing from a strait-laced activist, he was a flamboyant, out gay man possessed of a self-certainty so contagious that he could persuade just about anyone to link arms with him. “I think he used his higher-pitched, reedy voice as a tool to disarm people,” Domingo said. “A Black queer man running around the world with his mid-Atlantic standard accent, playing the lute and singing Elizabethan love songs? That’s wild!”
And Domingo enjoyed the way Rustin owned his sexuality in the same way he was unafraid to occupy space: “He could still pull men at a bar with three teeth missing.” After Domingo appeared on “The Tonight Show” to discuss “Rustin” with his shirt unbuttoned to the navel, he received an appreciative text from Lilli Kay, one of the young actors in the film’s ensemble: “I think Bayard would want to be remembered as a sexy Black leader,” she told him.
Domingo’s sexuality is something he had to own, too: Though he’s been out since his 20s, it took him time to build the self-confidence he now exudes in spades. “There’s a quote that my husband likes to use: ‘Don’t be born beautiful, be born crafty,’” he said. Once skinny and shy, he’s now a well-built flirt, and he looks for opportunities to invest his characters with the same kinetic energy he learned to summon from within himself: “When I directed my play ‘Dot,’ I remember on the first day I said, ‘I think all the characters are sexy — the elderly woman, the gay couple, the single woman.’ Because you can’t leave sexuality out of roles.”
That’s the same way Domingo approached Mister in “The Color Purple,” the role Danny Glover played in the original Spielberg film: Domingo wanted Mister to be guided by his prowess, moving as though he were on the hunt, since that virility was the only way Mister knew how to express himself out in the world. “He’s a very sexual being, but he’s not a romantic,” Domingo said. “He uses women, maybe to have power in some way. None of it’s love, because he wasn’t taught that.”
For much of the film, Mister abuses his wife, Celie (Fantasia Barrino-Taylor), and the audience may come to hate him for it. Domingo could not: He had to leave space for Mister to seek redemption by the end of the film, and scenes with the character’s domineering father suggested to Domingo that this was a classic example of a hurt person who hurts others.
“I wanted to understand his humanity, his desires, needs and dreams,” he said. “They were also cut short, and that’s why he puts his foot on Celie’s neck the entire time.”
The most important thing Domingo wanted to make sure of is that “Rustin” and “The Color Purple” would not sink into misery. Rustin’s role in the March for Washington was often marginalized, but he never succumbed to self-pity, and for all the terrible things visited upon Celie in “The Color Purple,” she deals with that adversity in imaginative, even hopeful ways.
“We turn on the news and we know we need stories like this,” Domingo said. “How are we going to make it to another day? How are we going to rally and be inspired? How are we going to deal with our trauma and look it in the eye and make something joyful with it?”
Maybe that’s why Domingo never let all those setbacks drive him out of the business: His own creative spark simply couldn’t be extinguished. “There were times when I thought, ‘Maybe I’m not the one for the light to shine on,’” he confessed. “I think Rustin understood that was possibly his place. But someday when you look up and everyone takes notice for what you’ve been doing and building, and they see you fully as your whole self as an artist, it’s humbling.”
A few hours before our interview, Domingo had gone for a walk in Beverly Hills and felt appreciation, bordering on awe, for the unlikely path that had led him to this moment. “I will try not to cry,” he told me, “but I know for sure that I’m living in my dreams.” He paused, considering it. “Not even my dreams — my mother’s dreams and my grandparents’ dreams and my ancestors’ dreams. Things were not set up for my family in this way. I was not set up to be able to do this and be here.”
But he is here, finally. And since none of it came easily, those hard-won spoils taste even more delicious.
“I’m enjoying all of it,” Domingo told me, gesturing to his plate with a wide grin. “I will eat the food. I will enjoy the cocktail. I’m sitting here eating jumbo shrimp with my fingers, and you know what?” He leaned forward. “I’m going to need you to have one, too.”