IN CONVERSATION WITH…
COLMAN DOMINGO, Actor, Writer, Producer
“What you are seeking as a human in this existence is also seeking you.”
… an artist, a brother, a son, a lover of humanity. I am an Archivist.
I create stories on both sides of the camera as an actor, writer, director, and producer because I am a storyteller. It is what I have been doing for the last twenty-seven years and I don’t foresee slowing down because there are still so many complex stories to tell. Especially about our narratives as African-Americans.
I was the nerdy kid. My community invested in me. My dad finished floors and told me he never wanted me to work with my hands. They took care of me in a precious way as if I was fine art. The gem that everyone wanted to succeed, so everything about me has been supported by these brothers in West Philly. My brother, who is a garbage man, would tease me, but he made me who I am. He collected GQ magazines and told me what gaberdine pants were. He showed me how to iron my shirts and look good in public. That is all part of me. The details of my life is West Philly. It is how I present myself to the world, how I protect myself in the world, and how I have agency of myself throughout the world.
I come from a city of GAMBLE and HUFF and TEDDY PENDEGRASS. Philadelphia, has informed every single fiber of my being; how I am able to walk into a room—any room—how I walk down a street. People in Philly have a history and knowingness of self and pride of where they come from. I am very proud to say specifically that I come from West Philly, like Will Smith. We are very proud of those roots. I come from a tradition of men like PAUL ROBESON and GUION BLUFORD, people who understand their history and have unabashed bravado. I think that in the way I dress and the way I speak I have a bit of a swagger and I know it. I am self-possessed. That is Philly. I know that when I go to other places in this country people immediately know that I am not from there. There is something about me the way I move through the world. We are fighters. We are survivors. What you see is what you get. We don’t have a lot of airs. We have sense of our impact in the world culturally.
All of the black men, that I know who, have been part of my evolution are Philly men. They are blue collar men. Men who practice what they preach. Men who are not just trying to get by, but also move forward in some way even if they don’t have the wherewithal.
I first realized I was a storyteller when I was in journalism school at Temple University. My specific interest was photo journalism, meaning I would eventually have to go to war torn places and document the occurrences. That translated into me taking my first acting classes and going to speech therapy because I wanted to come out of my shell, and boy did I come out of my shell. I had never gone to the theatre when I was a kid, but I found that it was such a strong place. To be in dark rooms telling stories. I found a new passion, a new love and I wanted to interrogate all things. From then on it was official, I was an actor.
I acted for about 10 years before I found writing. I would write stories about the African-American experience. Eventually a friend, knowing my previous interest in photo journalism, called me an ‘archivist.’ I recall her saying to me, “you have been trying to archive who we are through your art for many years. I think there is a larger umbrella to be under with what you are trying to do by being a writer, director, and producer.”
She was right. I am just trying to tell our stories and document who we are. A time capsule of our lives: interest, language, style, coping mechanisms. For a long time as an actor I was always frustrated. I recall going in for auditions and the characters created for us had farcical names like ‘Cool Whip Tirrell.’ For as long as I have been alive I have never met a brother named ‘Cool Whip’ anything. I would voice this to my mother who inspired me by saying, “don’t be frustrated, do something about it.”
At that time, there was such a lack of accurate representation in our stories that I thought was complex and comprehensive, especially in terms of representing the inner city. So, like regional playwrights AUGUST WILSON, ATHOL FUGARD, and WOODY ALLEN, I wanted to specifically focus on inner city Philadelphia. Therefore, I gravitate towards strong female characters because there is so much humanity and complexity there. I wanted to tell the stories of women like my sister who in some way is a ghetto-princess, but to take the veneer off of her is to show that the loud girl with the bamboo earrings, cussing folks out and telling it like it T-I-IS, is so much more than that. There is a sensitivity and loyalty in her; she’s a woman who will take care of you and fight for you. In these women I not only find inspiration, I find life.
I write from the perspective of WE JUST ARE! There are all of these tropes placed upon us as African-Americans; namely that whenever we speak or are depicted it must be within the context of race as if we sit around all day and only talking about race. I don’t know about you but that is not my experience so my writing must deal with the human factors of us; of existence, aging, love, loss, death, and hope.
I am part of generation of playwrights and writers who continue to elevate our experience and not pander or play into narratives that continue to keep us limited. I seek for my work to be honest and elevate.
THE NECESSITY OF SELF PROTECTION
I define myself first before anyone else defines me. I go in to every situation with a good sense of armor of knowing who I am. Any room—the ones where people are generally terrified of in Hollywood— you put me in and I will succeed. I enter any room seeking to be part of a conversation. Why? Because I know myself. I am not asking anyone for anything. I know myself. I have been set up by the world.
This assuredness, a great deal of it, is also a byproduct of age. I am now 48-years old. I know what I know and I know what I don’t know, and I am cool with that.
THE GREAT DEBATE : STAGE vs. TV
TV allows me to dream bigger because the budgets are far greater so I can create things far in expanse of a 2 to 4-hour production. I say that to say, however, that as an actor my first love is always the theatre. That is where I found how I could be useful. It is a service job. You are in service to 1200 people a night in a dark room enlightening, entertaining, educating, and helping them in some kind of spiritual practice because theatre is a church in some kind of way.
I will go wherever the work is because I love it so much, whether that is 100-seat theatre in the West End or 1200-seater on Broadway. For a long time, I questioned that because I always choose art over commerce, and then I had to make an agreement with myself; a grown man decision in terms of ‘how can I do this and take care of myself?’ I haven’t been on the stage since London in 2014 because of my movie and television schedule with FEAR OF THE WALKING DEAD, but every year I make it a point to go back in some way. Right now, that is as a writer. Currently, I have a musical playing on Broadway, DONNA SUMMER, that I co-wrote. Next year my production of NAT KING COLE, decidedly darker than what is known, will be at the Geffen Playhouse.
THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS
… based on a true story was a stage production about nine African American boys, in 1931, accused of raping two White American women on a train. This experience in every single way was the most challenging piece of work I have ever done. It required me to dig deep and not only be an actor, but also an activist, and that is rare. The entire purpose of this play, created by two white men JOHN KANDER and FRED EBB who had no other interest, but to do something for humanity by turning the minstrel form on its head, was to promote change so the very origin of it was birthed in activism. It’s one of those rare moments where art is the agency of change and I was a part of it from debuting it at the Vineyard Theatre then the Guthrie and the moving it to Broadway on through to the Young Vic and then West End.
It was never created with the intent to make one thin dime, but to exonerate and help the legacy of the Scottsboro Boys. It’s one of those rare moments where art is the agency of change and I was a part of it from debuting it at the Vineyard Theatre then the Guthrie and the moving it to Broadway on through to the Young Vic and then West End. It empowered me as an artist to have a bigger voice in the room. I was part of this show for five years, and part of the creation of it with these other black men to liberate, empower and to make change for our men. Once you do work like that it is difficult to go back so it makes sense that I do work like SELMA, LINCOLN and THE BUTLER.
People who are trying to make change as artists inspire me. I try to make my life choices from the perspective of change so when you are ready to get in bed with me you know exactly what you are signing up for; my whole voice and all that I am going to bring. Then we will make some sweet love about change, social justice and entertainment.
Writes from his experience and I can’t slight him for that. Now, he can be slighted for other things that are unsavory, but as an Artist I have been fascinated by Woody’s storytelling back since I first discovered Hannah and Her Sisters. I would then have to go back and watch some of his darker comedies like Manhattan. I know it is controversial that he seldom has Black characters in his stories, but I remind myself that maybe that is not his experience: Upper West Side, Jewish life. I get it. My work is very black. There are many white folks in my life, but my work, what inspires me, and the lens that I am choosing is very black. Athol Fugard is dealing with the South African experience and color in a very different way. I think the more narrow the lens the more true the form, which is why I feel like Woody’s family characters are just like mine.
They are loud, complex, imperfect people who say and do the wrong things. They are the characters who are always attached to a really bad idea and are being challenged to change. Marti Noxon, creator of Dietland, said, “the key to a good drama is there are characters attached to a really bad idea,” and I think that is true. It is why Woody’s characters work; it’s because they are converging-attached to really bad ideas and it is very human. Jews are just like black folks. The way we deal with community, express ourselves, matriarch led households, men trying to find themselves, mother-son relationships all things I am fascinated with.
The inner circle of my world is very black. A British friend was actually the one to point this out. After looking at my Facebook, he asked if all my friends were black. I said no, but then thought about it and he was right. While I have a very expansive mix of friends in my day-to-day life, the inner circle of my world is very black. I guess that comes down to commonality and finding comfort in being with people where I don’t have to explain; where there is a heuristic, a shorthand of understanding, and that is all it is.
The MANTRA (Voice in My Head)
Be intentional with life.
I had a blessing of spending time with OPRAH a lot while we were shooting SELMA. On the day that Maya Angelou passed away we were in the hair and make-up trailer and had a conversation about intention and the ‘Science of Intention’ and to be very conscious of it.
I was already seated when she entered the trailer. She knew that I knew, but she was also on the phone trying to buy a sports team, so we reached out and held hands for some time. Because I am so silly, and felt that her spirit needed the levity, when she hung up the phone I said, “can I borrow $5? I know you’re good for it because I heard you negotiating.” We laughed so hard and that was the point. Then we had this whole conversation about ‘intention,’ because I knew that my intention was to brighten her spirit on what was a hard day.
My awareness tells me that the intention of whatever you are drawn to is drawn to you, and to let that be a practice; so to be careful of your words and your intention. It is a science. I am very conscious of this, so much so that I am aware of how many times I say ‘um,’ because um is not a clear thought. To actually have clear intention.
New York was my home for many years. It is all-encompassing and on top of you. I needed to breathe and have a sky. LA gives me that and allows me the space to cultivate my experience with it. When I am here and not filming, I strive for work-life balance.
5:30AM I wake-up. I sleep with my blinds open so I can awake with the sun. I have always done this. First thing I do is go get some lemon water, followed by a cup of coffee, and fresh grapefruit juice. I may sit and read the newspaper: NY Times and LA Times. Usually, I start with the Art and Travel sections. Every since… about a year ago I don’t really take in the news on a daily basis because I am choosing to be conscious of the energy I take in and allow in my spirit.
8:00AM I go to the gym and do some core work, running, and strength training. I am a meat eater, but for breakfast I will focus on a vegetarian meal to get me started: egg whites, asparagus, and some toast.
10:00AM No one in New York goes out for lunch really so I try to use the time to speak to my mangers and agents who are all on the east coast.
1:00PM Lunch is a meal I always like to keep sociable even if I have a business meeting. I try to set it up somewhere with a great atmosphere where I can be social as well like Soho House.
4:00PM I am very organized and regimented about certain things like my dedicated reading time. I always set aside an hour or more each day to read and prepare my work. I take in lines gradually and so I allow myself the space and time too start to memorize them gradually; a chunk here a chunk there so that by the time the weekend comes I have a broad familiarity with the script and characters. Then, I commit 3 to 4 hours before I have to return to Austin where I am filming The Fear of The Walking Dead.
6:00PM Two hours each day are set aside for me doing things that I like: walking around doing nothing or even washing my car. Yes, I can afford to get my car washed, but I am not going to go and spend $30. I prefer to wash it and buff it myself. It’s relaxing to me in the same way that leisurely going to the grocery store and cooking is relaxing to me. The other night I made a really beautiful dinner—grilled some steaks, and a haricot vert salad with some feta. Cooking is the way that I relax, so usually when I am in there I don’t want to be bothered. I set up these benchmarks for myself because it’s peaceful for me. When I am filming or in promotion on a new project these are ‘On 10 Days’ so I need to have these restorative markers in my life.
WORK + LIFE + LOVE = BALANCE
Raul and I made the decision years ago that he would come with me on locations for my work. Thankfully, his work allows him to do that. We plan our schedules together and are committed to supporting one another in every way we can. Raul, like me, is very private so we protect that space. Everything is not on my Instagram and Facebook. He is comfortable with the fact that red carpets and events are within the scope of work. I like the idea that we are committed to protecting our space.
The MEDITATION (when you think Legacy + Heritage)
What I am seeking in the world is community.
I want to create works and projects that are vehicles for many to come through and shine. I just sold two shows: West Philly Baby to AMC and Sweet Lady Kickers to HBO. They are about us. West Philly Baby is based on my play Dot. It is a one-hour drama for AMC set in West Philly about a matriarch in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and her adult children. Sweet Lady Kickers is a half-hour comedy to HBO with Sara Jessica Parker’s company; based on a true story it is about an all-female kickball league started in Atlanta, Georgia.
LEE DANIELS and SHONDRA RHIMES have created a body of work for us to shine. I want to be part of that legacy and move the dial a bit more on how we tell our stories. I want to inspire fellow actors to take the reigns and be creators, and get on the other side of the table. We must do it for each other, it can’t be solely for ourselves. I love what Reese Witherspoon, Sandra Bullock and Regina King are doing. They are setting up things in the world that makes certain others have opportunity.
I have always been in love with the Impressionist period, but find inspiration in all periods. Currently on my coffee table and night stands are:
Matisse, Franz Von Stuck, Egon Schiele
James Baldwin – He is helping me wrestle with what is going on in America right now. Baldwin is helping me to criticize it and dissect the myth of America. ‘How Long This Train Has Been Going On.’
Ralph Ellison – ‘Sonny’s Blues’
Jane Fonda - The Autobiography of Jane Fonda.
5 Things I Can’t Live Without
Art – Beauty and expression.
BBQ ribs- Horse Thief, located in Grand Central Market, is the best.
Vivienne Westwood – Years ago, I found this cream vintage coat at a shop in Soho, London. It fit me like a glove, but it was costly so I went back for two months to look at it until it was marked down. I love this coat and only bring it out for special occasions.
My Computer – It is the keeper of my dreams and imagination.
Travel: Japan and Paris – I went to Kyoto last year and know I will return. In JAPAN you know that your life matters, that you will not be shot because there is no weaponry on the street, and that is not the culture.
PARIS, I go every year for two weeks just to be. I walk around the streets a lot at night to take in the city whether I’m coming in from a dinner or dancing with friends. In Paris, you are embraced for all that you are. I feel that I can be a true peacock there. They love and elevate all that we are as the African-American diaspora. I am not certain if it is the same for African culture.