Colman Domingo Takes the Lead

From Zola and Euphoria to Fear the Walking Dead and the upcoming Candyman, the actor keeps surprising audiences.

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Colman Domingo as Halston from ‘Halston.’ Photographed by Emily Monforte. Domingo wears his own vintage Valentino Red jacket, Lemaire coat, Givenchy trousers, Haider Ackerman shirt and boots.

For W’s second annual TV Portfolio, we asked 26 of the most sought-after names in television to pay homage to their favorite small-screen characters by stepping into their shoes.

This summer has been deemed the season of Colman Domingo. The multi-hyphenate actor, director, writer, and producer is seemingly everywhere—there’s his recent star turn on the big screen in Janicza Bravo’s film Zola, his steady appearance as Victor Strand on Fear the Walking Dead, his cocktails and chat show Bottomless Brunch at Colman’s, his role as the mysterious Ali, Rue’s Narcotics Anonymous sponsor on Euphoria, and soon, his appearance in Candyman, Nia DaCosta’s take on the ’90s horror classic. Despite the many delays of his projects over the last year, the actor has found that everything feels like it’s coming out at the exact moment in which people are actually ready to show up and show out. So, it was only natural that Domingo, a bon vivant with a very ’70s aesthetic at home and in his closet, found that Halston, the Ryan Murphy-produced miniseries about the late American fashion icon, was the show he wanted to pay tribute to for W’s annual TV Portfolio.

What was it about the Netflix series based on the designer’s life that made you choose Halston?

I thought Ewan McGregor did such a stellar job. It was a great examination on an iconic character who is so meaningful to not only American fashion but culture. He was of the times in many ways, he knew he had talent, but he also was trying to become more commercial. It was like the great argument of art and commerce, and fighting with integrity. And what does it mean to sell out and sell your name and things like that. It’s devastating. It appealed to me so much because I think it’s a conversation that any artist worth his salt would constantly have, that question in your heart. Are you being true to yourself and your convictions with everything you do?

Ewan McGregor as Halston on the set of 'Halston.' Photographed by Jose Perez/Bauer-Griffin/Getty Images

The discussion around “personal branding” often centers around how new it feels, especially with people like influencers, but it’s a discussion that we’ve been having for decades.

Absolutely. It felt like even more so with his personal life, by lending your name to something there was so much meaning in that and so much access. You can lend your name to things now and care or let it go as long as the price tag is right. But everything was about “this is meaningful for my name and my legacy” and that’s what I loved about this examination of Halston as well. Ewan McGregor has always been one of my favorite actors. He’s an actor that’s got so much teeth and heart and integrity. He’s also one of those actors that if he’s going to do something, you know it’s not going to be some bullshit. [Laughs]

Were you a fan of Halston’s designs back in the day?

I was. Because two legendary performers that I love and admire were always dripping in Halston: Diana Ross and Liza Minnelli. As a guy growing up and being a child of the ’70s, my idols were Teddy Pendergrass and the Temptations and the way they dressed. They wore sexy Italian cuts, tight trousers with the flared leg. The women’s silhouettes I always loved were Halston’s silhouettes. They were very body-conscious, hanging on a woman in the most beautiful way. The whole aesthetic was for it to be simple, asymmetrical, sexy with a long slit. People were all about being their sexiest selves. They always say the women felt their best in Halston because he loved women so much. He loved a woman’s body.

Going back to some of your childhood memories from the ’70s, growing up in Philadelphia, what were the television shows you watched?

The cartoons, of course: The Flintstones, The Jetsons. But I also watched Charlie’s Angels. I gravitated toward female-centric [shows] and strong women on television. I watched The Partridge Family, I watched The Brady Bunch incessantly. I realize there’s a lot of aesthetic, the seeds were planted in my mind on what I thought was luxury, of what I thought was family, of what I thought was beautiful. My home is a midcentury modern, late ’60s, early ’70s home, and it looks like The Brady Bunch house.

And has that aesthetic informed your personal fashion sense, too?

The way I dress naturally is very much from the ’70s. People commented on the pink Versace suit I wore at the Oscars. It reminded me of the Stylistics and the Temptations. It reminded me of those men wearing interesting colors, but feeling sexy and masculine all at the same time—wearing beaded jackets and even the color pink wasn’t feminine at all. Those men were bold with their expression. I still go back and watch old-school concerts like Liza with a “Z” or Diana Ross Live at Caesars Palace. Those are the things I would watch on a Sunday night to give me comfort. People weren’t afraid of being glamorous. People weren’t afraid of being peacocks. People weren’t afraid to have a bit more self-expression and that all happened in the ’70s. Then people sort of had a bit more groupthink.

Domingo at the Oscars. Photo by Handout/Getty Images

The things we consume when we’re younger really do lay the foundation for what we think of as chic or what we think of as stylish or culturally important. I think you’re right that later, in the 80s and 90s for example, there wasn’t as much of an emphasis on standing out.

I just watched [Questlove’s documentary] Summer of Soul. The thing that I loved about it was that because it was coming out of all this turmoil of the late ’60s and all these deaths of all these leaders, finally people were being unabashedly Black and unabashedly gay and unabashedly a woman and just completely, fully, who they were. That’s why I love that time period. I think I love that time of the early ’70s because everything was changing. People are saying, no, I’m defining who I am. I’m not going to let the world define me. I’m going to wear an Afro. I’m going to wear this color, these silhouettes. The funny thing is I actually think they are starting to get back to that. After this pandemic, walking around New York, I saw people being unabashedly sexy, wearing short shorts and crop tops and high heels. And, you know, I felt like people were like, oh no, I’ve been locked away for a year and a half. I’m going for broke because we don’t know when things will be shut down again. So I think that we’re sort of in the Roaring ’20s or the late ’60s, early ’70s.

That era’s influence can be felt in your work, too. Zola, for example, in which you play a dastardly pimp called “X” feels very influenced by the Blaxploitation genre. You’re also very online, and I’m sure you’ve seen the response to the film on social media. What do you think about how people are reacting to the film?

It’s been incredible. To be honest, I think people have had to rethink me. Just when people have me pegged as everyone’s lovely dad or a good man, whether it’s from Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, If Beale Street Could Talk, you name it, they have to rethink the skill of an actor. I’ve never marginalized myself or my abilities, a lot of the time it’s just having the access. When I’m given a role like this you see how I can pour everything I can into it to create a really incredible character. There’s no longer that moment hanging over my career of people saying, “Who is that guy?” Now, they know. They have many points of entry so I’m no longer just that guy who keeps showing up. I’ve always wanted to be in the same conversations as Daniel Day-Lewis, Christian Bale. I don’t think we, as African American men, have had the same access to do so many different things. We’re usually relegated to playing a version of ourselves in a film, but I love that Janicza Bravo saw something in what I do. And Jordan Peele, because I think Candyman will be another huge swing for people.

Like Zola, Candyman has been repeatedly delayed. I know you can’t say much about your character, but what are you anticipating the response to be?

I had no idea that the films would roll out the way they have or will, and it’s already been an incredible summer. People say it’s been the “summer of Colman Domingo,” which I’m fine with! If I’m anchoring the beginning of the summer, getting people back into movie theaters and then finishing it up right at Labor Day, wonderful! If I look at it from the arc of my own career, I see it as a new beginning as we go back to the theaters and experience themes we’ve been wrestling with. I feel blessed because I’ve been part of the conversation in film, television, and theater. Conversations about Black Lives Matter, representation, access, what we do in our medical practices—this is my work. I’m getting the lion’s share of that moment where your intention as an artist is met with your intentions when it comes to activism and social change.

You also star on Fear the Walking Dead, which is entering its seventh season. You’ve said before that the character you play, Victor Strand, felt as rich as a role written by Shakespeare. Now that the show is ending, what are some of your thoughts on the series?

Being part of The Walking Dead universe was something I had no intention of doing. I didn’t understand it. But once I received the keys to the kingdom, I knew there was a great opportunity to be even more impactful with the complex character I was creating. I don’t think he was necessarily written for someone who looks like me, but he was written with detail. It’s a great responsibility to show how someone who looks like me is in this universe and is complex, not playing into tropes at all. He leads with his mind. He’s really conflicted and has an askew moral compass. As we go into the seventh season, we have upped the ante on the character.

How so?

By the end of season 6, I thought it was a great opportunity to take him to some darker places and the writing team agreed. We thought, How do you build a character who has been a bit morally ambiguous and take him to the place where he wants to create his own world? The beautiful thing with my showrunners and execs is that they have allowed me to say “This is what I think.” I’m not an actor who just receives a script and commits it to memory. I question the script, interrogate it, and offer suggestions, because we have to do this together. I want Victor Strand to reflect the times as well. I want to make sure he’s become not only more colorful but a bit Blacker as well. That’s been my own journey, to say I want him to be unapologetically Black. We can’t deny that part of him at all.

That is true of your character on Euphoria, Rue’s NA sponsor Ali, as well.

Ali is unapologetically Black!

The special Christmas episode was possibly the deepest look we’ve gotten at him so far. Will we get a little more of his backstory in season 2?

I love Ali so much. I’ve always wanted to see these ordinary brothers who are extraordinary humans on television. Ali is kind of a superhero that you don’t usually see. You see someone who is as flawed as anyone else, he’s not monolithic in his experience, he’s contradictory, he’s all those things that are these men that I know. This is not a giveaway, but the beautiful thing Sam [Levinson] and I had a conversation about was, if Ali would cook, what kind of meal would he cook? He asks me this and then he gets to know me as well. I cook Vietnamese food, Italian food, Northern Italian Venetian food, and I think that opens his mind a bit for the character. Another writer would write something on the nose of what he thinks a Black man would cook. But you never know what Ali is, and to keep surprising audiences, it also influences the way the world thinks about us. I’m always interested in that version.

Domingo as Ali in ‘Euphoria’. Photo by Eddy Chen/HBO

You wear many hats—actor, writer, director, and producer—with your own production company as well. What’s the one goal that you have as a creator that ties all of those titles together?

In everything that I do when I’m on set as an actor or director or writer, people know I just want us to have a good time, create passionately, make our day, and get the work done. That’s it. We all rest well, eat well, enjoy each other’s company, and feel like we’ve moved the needle on our humanity just a little bit. And that’s a very conscious intention. It’s not about building some huge universe. I like to work with small stories, and small universes. And I think I’ve been finding success with that.

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