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'Euphoria' Star Colman Domingo on Why the World Needs More Like Ali and Being an 'Interrogator of America'

'It's like I'm in these people's living rooms and reaching out my hand, which is usually Rue's hand, and I'm holding it, saying it's going to be OK.'

Scott Huver
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Colman Domingo

Emma McIntyre / Getty Images

It's tempting to think that Colman Domingo somehow just burst onto the screen fully formed as a magnetic lightning rod of a presence, one that's hard to pull your attention away from, beginning with his breakthrough television role as the complicated, semi-heroic, semi-villainous Victor Strand on Fear the Walking Dead in 2015 through a string of increasingly complex, high-profile performances. 

But the truth is that Domingo had been honing his craft for decades, largely on the stage — and not only as an Obie- and Tony-winning actor, but also as an acclaimed writer, director, and dancer as well. And from the outset, the one-time journalism major-turned-multi-hyphenate has considered himself an interrogator of the American experience, especially as it applies to Black experience, with an eye toward revealing exactly what that means. 

"One friend of mine told me, and it was one of the greatest compliments, 'Colman, you're an archivist,'" Domingo tells Metacritic. "'You're trying to archive who we are. You're trying to pull together all these things and put it into a box and say, "This is who we are right now, at this time," and you're using all that you have, every experience, every platform to do that.' I still believe that I'm still a journalist. I wanted to make us more alike than unalike. And that's what I get to do as an actor, director, writer, and producer." 

Here, Domingo talks to Metacritic about three of his most popular and critically-hailed performances: his recurring stint as Rue's empathetic but no-nonsense sponsor Ali Muhammed on HBO's often shocking teen drama Euphoria, his role as the working class 1970s-era father who expresses noting but compassion when his daughter reveals she's pregnant in filmmaker Barry Jenkins' adaptation of James Baldwin's If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), and his riveting turn as the alternately charismatic and menacing pimp X, who takes two prostitutes on the wildest ride of their lives in filmmaker Janicza Bravo's stylishly chaotic Zola (2021). 

Your friend Sam Levinson came to you with a notion for this character of Ali on Euphoria, but tell us about collaborating to make him more fully realized.

I knew he was developing Euphoria, and he told me one night — I was actually at his house for Thanksgiving, and he said "There's a character that is based on my real-life sponsor that I'm writing for you." He's telling me about how he loved jazz, his struggles, but [also] how inspirational he was [and] helped shape the man but he is today — someone who is has been in recovery for many years. We just talked a lot, and Sam presented me with this incredible role, and he said, "Just know that hopefully the show will peel away like an onion and there's going to be so much more that's sweet and stings the eye, but there's a lot underneath it. Hang in there with the points that would be just one scene here, one bit here."  

Actually now looking at over two seasons and the special episode, I see very clearly what the engine for Ali's character has been, which is some levity, some accountability, some humor. Because we have such an untrustworthy narrator in the Rue character, we have someone that we can trust, which is Ali. So, when he comes along, and you've been on a roller coaster of emotions and experiences, you have someone who can hold the audience's hand and say, "It's going to be OK. I've got you." 

It's part of the conversations that Sam and I have, as friends and about the world and what we buy into, how everyone's addicted to something. What is our culture made up of? We're trying to as artists, trying to make things better in some way, I think, with everything that we see and everything that we do. And so, that comes out. He writes towards me as well. He knows what language I can handle on this — the hills and valleys of language that I can make human. 

So much of your work with Ali is in concert with Zendaya as Rue. Tell us about that partnership: what's been great about building these two characters together. 

Zendaya and I have forged a real friendship. We have such a history already. Even the fact that we actually met when she was very, very young — I think 6 or 7 years old — when her mother ran the box office at the California Shakespeare Theatre, which was my home theater. As we're talking one night on set, she realized that one of her favorite shows that she saw, like, three times when she was 6 or 7 was a show that I was in, and I would come and play with her. I remember [then] I kept thinking, "What kid is this, out here watching Shakespeare? I mean, All's Well That Ends Well, at night at 9 o'clock at night? Who does that?" And she was so excitable and excited about the show. I remember it very clearly. She told me this story, "This guy would come up on a motorcycle run and he would play with us. And I was like "That was me!"  

I always joke to say, "I take full credit for her career, of inspiring her." [Laughs] But I think that she already had that inspiration because she's got the stuff. She's a true artist. And I think that we really pour our hearts and souls into it, and we know the responsibility of the experience of Euphoria and how it can change lives. I think we be both really honor and know that, the way we respect the work and the way to get into the work, and let the work be brutal and beautiful at the same time — we're willing.  

To that changing lives point, I have a hunch you've heard from viewers of the show who have wanted to speak to you about what Ali has meant to them. Because as you say, he provides a beacon of hope in an otherwise often bleak landscape on the show. 

I have had that experience, and still have it every day, when people tell me how much it means to them: "I wish I had an Ali in my life," or "Ali has become that surrogate, where I can take accountability in my own life." That's the power, truly the power, of what television can do. It's like I'm in these people's living rooms and reaching out my hand, which is usually Rue's hand, and I'm holding it, saying it's going to be OK.  

I get emotional thinking about it because we need that right now. Everyone needs that. And with the powerful medium of television, we're giving them that. I feel incredibly blessed that I'm doing the thing that I think artists hope you can do. It's not just about entertaining, but you want to feel like you're making an impact on people in some way. And with a character like Ali, and show like Euphoria, I'm having an enormous impact. 

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Colman Domingo and Zendaya in 'Euphoria'

HBO

Another project exploring beauty and agony and hope is If Beale Street Could Talk. Your character there provides the sense of support that the characters need. He's not judge-y, and it's set at a time when it would have been easy for him to take a whole different path to what's going on with his family. 

James Baldwin wrote a truly complex book about African-American life in the early '70s, and African-American life that didn't suffer any tropes at all. These are very complex human beings, all of them. The idea of my character, Joseph Rivers, living in a household full of with strong women, and he does not feel emasculated in any way. He's very much a feminist. He wants these women to have agency, have a voice. I don't think that we've seen depictions of that when it comes to African-American men, first of all. And then you have this guy who is really a quiet in the storm; he keeps that house moving in the way that he knows how to do it.  

He says that he will basically lie, cheat, or steal to make sure there's food on the table. But I think he's still a good man. He's not a villain or anything like that when he says, "Now, I'm gonna make sure that my family survives. I'm going to examine the system that we're all in, and I'm going to make the system work for me and do what I need to do to put food on the table."  

That is time immemorial, when it comes to Black men that I know, and I was very proud to play a version of my stepfather or my uncles: these ordinary blue-collar men who are superheroes just by being in the world. No one tells their stories. No one thinks their stories are sexy enough. They usually have to suffer some tropes in some way — violence or crime or something. But he's a very ordinary citizen who is loving when his daughter comes and tells him she's pregnant. He doesn't judge her. He's like, "I want you to examine this," but there's love. There's so much love in that family. And I think that's something that we haven't seen, especially when it comes to an African -American drama. 

I get the sense that when you're working with Barry Jenkins you're kind of answering a higher calling. His projects seem to have such such greater purpose. What's what is that like to make a film with that bigger-picture feeling? 

I think that Barry has a feeling that he leans into of what he seeks, so he'll seek out the artists that respond to that as well. He's trying to make something with grace and with love and with longevity. I think Barry Jenkins loves Black people and all of our complexities: We don't have to be heroic; we just have to be human. We've only had one experience working together, but he gave me lots of room, to create, to interrogate, to say, "This is the kind of man he is." 

I will say Barry Jenkins was also living through James Baldwin. James Baldwin is the highest calling, when it comes to writers, when it comes to all the things that James Baldwin is unpacking about our culture about what we believe in, about who we can be, about America. That's the higher calling. And I think Barry submitted to that and gave room and space for all of us to live and dance and sing in it. 

Perhaps less poetic, but equally fascinating is Zola

[Laughs] It's its own brand of poetry! 

It is an exercise in very stylish storytelling — and a real wild ride. Which I imagine was kind of a feast for you as an actor. 

I was absolutely unleashed! And the only way that Janicza Bravo could give me the range to really just create an indelible character who was so complex, so villainous, but also charming at the same time — that was the challenge, because I thought, "Here I am: I'm gonna play, basically, a human trafficker and a pimp." And I have to find, as an actor, what I love about the character.  

It wasn't important for me to play the exact human being that was created from the tale that was told on Twitter, who was a real human being. It was about me looking at the psychology of pimp culture, the psychology of sex trafficking. And because I'm such a feminist, I also want to put the twist on it: I want to make sure that these women are always very smart, but this man is very cunning. And he actually can use your intelligence to turn it to make it benefit him. I want to see how anyone who's very smart and has agency in their body in their mind could also be tricked, that you don't see this wolf coming — at all.  

That's another film I'm very, very proud of, because I think it's honest and it has its own poetry. And I think the film is actually about America. Everyone is in on that car ride, and they have blinders on because they're looking for money. It's really an examination of our culture, and what we will choose to see or not see. It's like Alice in Wonderland: you're going down and these wild characters taken over, and you have to figure out who you are, and you have to get back home in some way. It's a home story: it's The Wizard of Oz; it is all those things, but told through the incredible lens of Asia King, who gave us the Twitter story. 

That modulation that you mentioned between charm and charisma and pure menace — you really are able to flip a switch in any given scene. 

Taylour Paige, who played Zola, sometimes when I would switch, it would throw her she would just start laughing. She's like, "It's so terrifying. I don't even know what to do with what you're doing." So, it could be difficult for an actor to receive that, but I would stay in the center of it, because I know it was all about control for him.  

I wanted there to be a question, actually, of what his truth was, and only he knows what's true. I thought that it would be a really interesting function to the whole film. Janicza really let me play, and I really was able to help deconstruct the psychology of a madman, in many ways, but a madman who wanted things like everyone else: Je wants to home, he wants agency in the world, he wants to be seen, he wants to make a whole lot of money. And this is what he has to do it. 

The through line between these three projects is that they are very American stories. What does it mean to you to have the opportunity to tell these kinds of stories at this moment in time, especially when it relates to the Black American experience? 

If anyone looks at, I would say, the oeuvre of my work is that is that it is steeped in that. I just starred as Bayard Rustin in a film for Netflix, and I'm currently shooting The Color Purple, a musical version of the film. And each time I feel like I know at my core I'm interrogator of America, because I love it so much. And to also quote James Baldwin, "He's got the right to interrogate this country and demand this country to be better and more equitable and diverse and inclusive." I've got the right because this is my home, but I've got to hold it accountable. I know that that's part of my personal mission as a human being.  

And so, I'm grateful that my work also reflects that. I not only choose projects that do that, but I think projects choose me, because I think at the core they can see what I'm interested in. I think I'm not necessarily like the guy in the streets railing against the system — I'm also a really fun, light-hearted guy who gardens, travels, loves architecture — but at the end of the day, I'm ultimately an African-American man who would like to tell really complex stories about the African-American experience, in all of it. It doesn't have to be heroic. It does not have to be villainous, but it just has to be human. I'm glad that I get the opportunity to do that.