Colman Domingo is the ultimate shapeshifter, brilliant in historical dramas and mesmerizing in a future apocalypse.
“I love when people realize that they know me from somewhere but then can’t quite place me,” says Colman Domingo, the award-winning actor who has spent 26 years playing about as vast a spectrum of roles as possible—both in the spotlight and behind the scenes. “They know they’ve seen me, but then they need to investigate a little further, and they’ll go, ‘Oh, that’s who that guy is.’”
Pinpointing where you know him from depends on your tastes. Theatergoers may know him from playing Billy Flynn in Chicago on Broadway, appearing in Guys and Dolls at Carnegie Hall, or from numerous Shakespearean roles in California. Movie lovers—especially those who enjoy historical dramas—may recognize him from his nearly two dozen films, including Lincoln, The Butler, and Selma. On the small screen, he’s played roles in several Law & Order manifestations, as well as many others. Yet, despite the impressive resume and his thoughtful, cerebral persona, today Domingo is probably best known for blowing the heads off zombies in the captivating role of Victor Strand on Fear the Walking Dead.
“I really love that actually,” he says with a laugh. “I feel like I was known in this microcosm of Broadway, and people would know some film work I have done, but now I’m part of this major, major universe, and I love that people get to know me, and their entryway to my work is through Victor Strand, who I think is a complex character.”
Growing up in West Philadelphia, Domingo was a classmate of fellow actor Will Smith at Overbrook High School, an institution known for producing a dozen future NBA players and countless artists and musicians. He says he had the typical, happy childhood, gravitating toward the arts from an early age while his three siblings were “sports heads” (although, as it turns out, one brother is a painter, another a musician, and his sister is a poet).
“People hear I grew up in the inner city and get a perception, but my childhood didn’t suffer the tropes of being in gangs or anything like that,” Domingo says. “That wasn’t my existence at all. I grew up with a mother and stepfather who wanted us to go to college and to try to be good, productive human beings and get involved with things.
“I was just a kid who had a lot of energy, and so anything that was available I would say yes to and learn. I started my training in community programs with improv, but my formal training for what I do now came in college.”
Domingo majored in journalism at Temple University and wanted to make a difference as a photojournalist, documenting the strife in war-torn parts of the world. He also insists he was a shy kid and that writing was his favorite creative outlet.
“I thought the idea of having a career in journalism would be fascinating, and I would get to travel the world,” he says. “I took an acting class [at Temple] as an elective, and that sort of led the way to what I do now. As a journalist, I wanted to document humanity and hold a mirror up to it. Little did I know that when I moved into acting and writing and directing that that was also doing the same thing. One thing led me to doing another, but it’s all part of the same framework.”
After graduating from Temple, Domingo lived in San Francisco for 10 years, honing his craft with several different Shakespearean companies (as well as working with the circus), and began branching out with commercial work and small television roles. Eventually he moved to New York to set more formal “boundaries” and found himself gaining popularity not only for his work on stage but for his writing and directing abilities as well. He has written seven plays (including his one-man show, A Boy and His Soul, which took home the Lucille Lortel Award for best solo show) and has directed another dozen. All told, he has been nominated for almost 20 theater awards, including a Tony Award for his acting, a Fred and Adele Astaire Award for his dancing, and an NAACP Theatre Award for his directing.
“New York is its own beast, and eventually I was on Broadway stages and also doing more film work as well,” he says. “I’ve had this beautiful, storied career where I’m able to go back and forth. I bring everything that I know from the theater—in terms of building a character and being with a character for a long time—into my television and film work. I’m very much a collaborator, so I have questions and I’m trying to look at the whole picture, and that comes from my strengths in the theater.
“From the beginning, though, I became a writer out of necessity because I thought there weren’t a lot of stories that were true representations of where I was from—from inner cities. So, I went to write family stories, so then I became a writer and director as well because I needed to guide these stories and guide other stories in a way that I thought was useful and complex. The thing that I have a preference for, more than anything right now, is having a seat at the head of my table in whatever I do. I think that when people engage with me as an actor it’s important that they know they’re getting an actor who’s thinking about many things—pretty much thinking like an executive producer.
“If someone asked what I do for a living, I would say I’m a magician. I think magicians have to have a bit of a fool in them, they have to have a little bit of philosopher in them, they have to be someone who’s willing to throw a great party, and they do some tricks that make you believe and use your imagination.”
In what is certainly a contrasting manifestation, the intellectual, refined, and cultured Domingo, who enjoys expensive Scotch and fine cigars, has used his Shakespearean training to become a cult favorite in the zombie apocalypse genre. AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead debuted in 2015, a prequel to its earlier hit, The Walking Dead. Domingo’s complex character wasn’t introduced until the spinoff’s fifth episode, yet he became an instant favorite with the show’s rabid fans.
Domingo’s choice to join the cast had many in Hollywood scratching their heads, however, as he was simultaneously offered a role in Baz Lurhman’s new show, The Get Down, a musical drama set in the 1970s Bronx about the rise of disco and hip-hop, a role that impeccably fit the multitalented actor.
“The Get Down seemed up my alley in every single way,” Domingo says. “I went down the road with Baz, and he walked me through his storyboards, and we had deep conversations. It was also shooting in New York, where I was living, so it all made sense.
“But with Fear the Walking Dead…. There was something that I knew I was curious about. I think I was at a place in my career where I wanted to go for something that scared me. I didn’t know exactly how to do it or how to be a part of a huge franchise like this, so I leaned into something I was a bit more afraid of, and I’m so glad I did.”
What Domingo leaned into was a complicated character who is mysterious, charming, and scary. Domingo says Victor is both villain and guardian angel, and you never know when he’ll switch from one to the other, which is part of the reason he fell in love with the character.
“I had a take on Victor just by the way he was written,” he says. “He was written so well, so eloquently, and so complex, that I immediately put on an electric-blue Hugo Boss suit and put myself on tape and sent that [to the producers] without any thought. And off of a self-tape from my living room, I got cast. There was no jumping through hurdles, there were no test meetings or anything like that. It was just an offer.
“And so maybe I found something in Victor that made sense. It’s funny; I think that Victor and I are very different human beings, but there’s something deep inside of me that really understands Victor Strand and how complex and mysterious he is and how much of a fighter he is. You never know where you stand with this guy, and I think that’s part of his power.”
The willingness Domingo showed as a youth to say yes to everything, combined with his desire and talent to “lead the table,” leaves him with precious free time these days, as he happily jumps from one project to the next. Recently he directed his first Fear the Walking Dead episode and is thankful to have earned a status where he is not bound by traditional constraints.
“I’ve put everything on the line to have a beautiful career,” he says. “But I’m very interested in seeing what else I can do. I like the idea of cross-breeding genres, so I think that’s what I’m on the verge of. Like, how do I take what I know from the theater and what I know from film and really make something new out of it? I think that’s been a part of pieces like Passion Strange on Broadway, and I’ve been inspired by my comrades like Lin-Manuel Miranda who wrote Hamilton. I think I’m part of a breed of people who are interested in trying to slash art forms, and then revitalizing them and shaping them for modern audiences. So, I think I’m on the verge of something new.”
100 Years Later
I’m a very socially conscious person, and I’m very conscious of the things that are put into the world and why I’m trying to do a piece of art and what impact it has. It does make sense to me that I’ve been in so many historical pieces. There are two pieces in particular that always still fascinate me: the fact that me and my friend, David Oyelowo, both opened the film Lincoln. And the opening scene, set in 1865, we’re talking about the right to vote, and then when we did Selma, our first scene of our shoot was set in 1965 and he’s playing Martin Luther King and I’m playing Ralph Abernathy, and we’re talking about the right to vote again—a piece set 100 years later.
So, I don’t know if that’s me or if that’s some sort of thing the world is working for us, but the idea that these two actors were raising these questions about who we are in America, 100 years later in film, I thought was incredible.
Smoking cigars with Colman
Cigars & Leisure: I hear you’re a cigar aficionado.
Colman Domingo: I am! My managers have made me one, and I think that they’ve actually been schooling me on cigars for the past few years. There are a couple cigar places in New York that we go to.
There’s one lounge, Davidoff of Geneva, that is so beautiful. It’s like you slipped into a whole world of cigar culture, and they do Scotch pairings as well, so you really feel like you’re getting all of it, the whole experience.
What’s your favorite part about smoking a cigar?
I think maybe it’s indicative of my dad, who’s from Belize, and I think it makes me feel like him in a way. You know that [a cigar] was a well-deserved thing; it was a special occasion to have a cigar. I know some guys who smoke cigars quite frequently, but I think it’s for a special occasion. The Romeo [San Andres] you gave me is fantastic!
Awesome! I’m glad you’re enjoying it.
I just wish that I wasn’t smoking it in the daytime so I could have a good Scotch with it (laughing). The best part of it is just unwinding. It’s for special occasions, really taking the time to enjoy it. So, it’s not rushing it at all. A cigar deserves to be enjoyed and to have conversation and hopefully with a glass of Scotch!
So that’s the third time you’ve mentioned Scotch, I’m thinking Scotch is your go-to drink?
Yes, it is! A good single malt like Oban is always great. Or I’ve been very interested in Japanese whisky as well, and that’s wonderful.
Web extra interview
You’ve worked with some amazing directors. What are some of the things you’ve taken away from working with them?
Wow. Of the directors I’ve worked with, I can give you a small list. Steven Spielberg: he is one of the kindest human beings I’ve met. Joyful—his whole process is joyful. So, I’ve learned to be generous from Steven Spielberg. With a director like Ava DuVernay, she greeted every cast member with an embrace when we were working on Selma. And I’ll never forget that because, more than anything, you knew that to do the work we were going to do, with a story such as Selma, you wanted to have so much graciousness and love in the room so we can do our work, to do the really hard work. So that’s something I learned from Ava.
Lee Daniels pulls no punches when he’s working. Lee Daniels and I first met when he would come see me on Broadway in a show, The Scottsboro Boys; he saw it like seven or eight times. And he taught me, just in the terms of the way I’ve gotten to know Lee, he doesn’t pull a lot of punches. He’s very straight and direct. It’s to the point where it can feel a little brutal at times, but you know he’s just trying to get you to the pure essence of being honest—and try to take away anything that you may have been walking around with that’s no longer useful for you for the character. So, I’ve been very blessed. Steven Soderbergh. I love the way Steven watches a scene and is a sort of fly on the wall as a director. I don’t remember him having a strong impression on telling me exactly what to do. I think that he watches and has so much trust and faith in his artists that he captures moments. Hopefully, with any project, you walk away having gained so much, and so by doing that for so many years, I know that I’ve been grooming myself and also being groomed by my fellows and mentors to become a director for film and television.
I’m actually in prep, preproduction, for directing my first episode of Fear the Walking Dead in two weeks. So, everything has been leading up to me now leading the room. I know I’ve been leading rooms as an actor for years. I’ve always been sort of the cheerleader, the one that brings the actors together or questions the way things are being done, and now I think it makes sense. It was a gradual progression in my career to now direct television and film.
You just mentioned a lot of amazing directors. Who are some of the other people who have inspired you in your life?
You know, I’m always inspired by people who are doing things on the fringe in some way and somehow become successful. I fan out on people who write books like Ta-Nehisi Coates. I saw him in a café and got so excited and giddy; it was like I was meeting Robert de Niro. But I love writers; I love people who write books and plays. You know, I worked with John Kander on one of his last musicals he wrote with Fred Ebb, The Scottsboro Boys, and when I first met John Kander I thought, “Oh my gosh, here’s a man who wrote New York, New York. Here’s a man who wrote all these phenomenal pieces of work: Kiss of the Spider Woman, Chicago.” So, I fan out over people like that, like John Kander.
The people who I really admire, they’re also really kind and gentle human beings who are also masters at what they do. They’re also very shy and self-deprecating. They don’t think they’re as great as they are. And you’re like, “Oh no, your resume and what you’ve done and what you’ve given to the world, you should feel like you’re on top of the world.” They’re still trying new things and being experimental. I would say someone like Athol Fugard who I worked with on a play called Coming Home and on Blood Knot in New York. Athol Fugard is one of the most preeminent, legendary playwrights in the world. So, I was so honored to work with him, and I’m so intrigued with his mind and his capacity for kindness and generosity. By saying all that, I’m inspired by people who are generous and kind and what they’re actually trying to do in the world to bring us together. And they’re using art, they’re using science, they’re using music, they’re using math, and I’m very fascinated by these people.
You’ve done a lot of historical dramas and period pieces. Is that intentional? Is that something that just really interests you or are those just the parts that come along?
I think these pieces sort of found me, and we sort of met together. I’m a very socially conscious person, and I’m very conscious of the things that are put into the world and why I’m trying to do a piece of art and what impact it has. It does make sense to me that I’ve been in so many historical pieces. There are two pieces in particular that always still fascinate me: the fact that me and my friend, David Oyelowo, both opened the film Lincoln. And the opening scene, set in 1865, we’re talking about the right to vote, and then three films later, after we did The Butler together, when we did Selma, our first scene of our shoot was set in 1965 and he’s playing Martin Luther King and I’m playing Ralph Abernathy, and we’re talking about the right to vote again—a piece set 100 years later.
So, I don’t know if that’s me or if that’s some sort of thing the world is working for us, but the idea that these two actors were raising these questions about who we are in America, 100 years later in film, I thought was incredible. So hopefully I’m on the right track in some way. And now adding to that, I feel like now I’m coming out of my historical dramas, and I’m moving into pieces like If Beale Street Could Talk with Barry Jenkins, his next film. And I’m moving into the Assassination Nation with Sam Levinson and also this film called First Match directed by Olivia Newman that opened on March 28. My roles now are mentors. I’m playing principals and fathers and coaches, and I’m inspiring and supporting young women. And that’s also been a part of me personally. I know I’m a devout feminist, and I’m always trying to empower young women. So, it makes sense to me now that that is the trajectory of my film work now, ya know?
People from Philadelphia are always really proud and loyal to the city. What do you like best about it?
The people. I think the people are the salt of the earth. It’s largely a blue-collar city, and it’s steeped in such a history—such a complex history, and I think the people there are fighters. They’re always seen as sort of the underdog in many ways, so I think that’s why people lost their minds when the Eagles won [the Super Bowl], ya know? Because it’s a city of underdogs. We know we have determination, we have fight, we have spirit. If you listen to anyone who sums it up, everyone is so proud, not only of being from Philadelphia but also of their neighborhood. Everyone claims their neighborhood, and I claim West Philly, as do Will Smith, Guion Bluford [the first African-American in space], and Wilt Chamberlin.
What did you do when the Eagles won?
I lost my mind. I watched it from Austin, where I’m shooting Fear the Walking Dead, and I watched it first from an amazing rib place because you always have to have some ribs when you’re in Austin. And then I moved to my apartment, and I was sitting there, rocking like a baby, literally short of breath, losing my mind. When we won, I probably just screamed and was close to tears. I think any city, especially Philadelphia, we love our sports teams, and it really means the world to us. It represents the city so well. So, I just lost my mind.
When you go back to Philly, what’s one or two things you just have to do?
Well, it’s going to sound really cliché, but you have to get a cheesesteak. And you’ll have to choose between Pat’s or Geno’s, but I even go so far as to go to some local places in West Philly. The first two are a bit more famed because they’re all on South Street, but I like going to some lesser-known places in West Philly. Another thing you have to do in Philly is go for a walk along the Schuylkill River. Philadelphia has been going through some gentrification, and I don’t even want to say gentrification; I want to say that they’ve actually been using their community spaces more to bring the community together. Because Philly itself is such a segregated city in many ways, and now you can see the communities coming together, whether from the north or east, in West Philly, in South Philly, all converging at parks and public spaces. So, I think the more outdoors you get the better it is.
So, officially, who makes the best cheesesteak in Philly?
Oh, Jesus! (Laughs) I like Pat’s. I’m a Pat’s guy.