Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
In the 25-plus years that Colman Domingo’s been working on stage and screen, one thing’s been certain: The man never phones it in. Born in Philadelphia, Domingo moved to San Francisco after college, where he began acting in local theater productions and never looked back. The integrity he strives for in his work has been apparent since those early days—he wouldn’t even take a bit part on CBS’s Nash Bridges without wondering, “Why’s [my character’s] name Cool-Whip Tyrell?” As a Black gay man, Domingo recognizes the importance of representation—every role counts. As an actor, that means asking the right questions, doing the research, and putting the work into every project in hopes of unlocking its deeper truth: “I’m a character actor to my core. I want to know everything about the character—to really build this character in this world and how he operates.” That committed approach has lead to original roles in celebrated musicals (Passing Strange, The Scottsboro Boys), stand-out parts in Oscar-nominated films (If Beale Street Could Talk, Selma), and a memorable turn as Maya Angelou in a recurring bit on Logo’s The Big Gay Sketch Show.
With an already illustrious career, Domingo was primed for 2020 to be his biggest year yet; COVID-19 may have delayed some of those plans, but there’s no denying that the workhorse writer-director-actor has great things in store. This past weekend marked the mid-season finale of Fear The Walking Dead, his fan favorite character Victor Strand having survived the show longer than almost any other. Next month, he’ll return to Euphoria, opposite Zendaya, in one of the drama’s two planned “bridge episodes” between seasons. In 2021, he’s got a role in Nia DaCosta’s highly anticipated Candyman spiritual sequel, and—though A24 has yet to announce a date—he’ll appear in Janicza Bravo’s ripped-from-the-Twitter-feed film, Zola. But we thankfully don’t have to wait much longer to see him star alongside Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman in George C. Wolfe’s adaptation of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, coming to Netflix on December 18. With so many indelible roles ahead of and behind him, The A.V. Club jumped at the chance to chat with Domingo for another Random Roles interview. Thoughtful, perceptive, and open-hearted, the actor discussed the stage role that changed his life, why he sees his work as a form of activism, how Ma Rainey will stand as a tribute to Boseman’s legacy, and so much more. The full interview is below, as well as some video highlights from our Zoom call with the actor.
The A.V. Club: Ma Rainey is an adaptation of August Wilson’s Tony-nominated play. What was your relationship with Wilson’s work prior to signing on to this project? Had you seen the play previously?
Colman Domingo: Absolutely. I was in a production of Fences many years ago playing the character of Gabriel—that’s where I first truly fell in love with August Wilson’s work. August Wilson’s work, I think—in the theater a lot of times—is sort of “owned” by certain people, and it’s almost hard to break into it. But, once you do, you can’t let it go, because you found your [Eugene] O’Neill, you found your Shakespeare. And you want to wrestle with this language because doing an August Wilson play will wear you out—it requires everything. It requires immense amounts of research and study and heart and willingness. Because, once you think you know something, there’s actually four or five different ways to play it.
So Fences was my first, and then I directed Seven Guitars at Actors Theatre of Louisville about five years ago. And then when this came along, I just couldn’t believe it. I feel like I hit the jackpot. All you have to say is, “George C. Wolfe is directing. Denzel Washington is producing,” and I couldn’t say yes fast enough. I didn’t care what role it was—I could’ve just been in the background or something. With Cutler I thought, “Oh, wow, I get to dance with Chadwick Boseman’s Levee!” We really, truly get to dance with one another. And it was a truly incredible experience, probably one of the hardest, most arduous rehearsals and productions, I think, of my entire career.
You know, I didn’t know all the energy that was around it, or what was happening with Chadwick Boseman’s health, but to tell you in hindsight, I know it. Because it required so much. It required your spirit and your heart in a different way than I think you were used to. And I’m very proud of the film—I saw it, and I’m very proud of it. Everyone’s work, I think—I don’t know, it feels it’s something that we need at the end of this year, as well. Knowing all of the struggle and strife we’ve been in this year—when it comes to fighting for rights, for diversity, equity, inclusion—it feels like a nice cherry on top to the year. I feel like it’ll be the Christmas gift that we all need. We can examine these issues with these men and women who were basically just fighting for agency in their lives. And I think it’s powerful. It’s a gut punch.
AVC: Considering this will be Chadwick Boseman’s last on-screen role, what will people be able to take away from this about who he was, both in his work and in his life?
CD: Well, the thing that I know is—his wife told me at his memorial—that he was most proud of this film. For this film to be his final film, [he was] most proud. I have been sort of taking a look at the way we’re going to roll out this film—it’s more of a legacy film now for me. It’s about many things, but for my money, I want to hold up my friend Chadwick, the work that he did, and how he was a leader. Not only a leader of a company, but also a leader in our communities, and what he represented.
He truly was a king. He truly was. I’ve known him for many years, and we did a reading once in New York for a play, and then we did 42—my role is actually cut out of it. So I’m like, “I did 42 with Chadwick!”—the role is like, you know, in vaults somewhere. It’s on the cutting room floor. I guess it wasn’t necessary—it really wasn’t, actually, and I know that. But when we were finally able to do Ma Rainey, the first thing he said to me when he saw me in rehearsal, [he] was like, “Oh, I just can’t wait to dance with you, brother. I can’t wait!” And so we were excited to be in a room with each other. So I think I want people to know about that enthusiasm and that work ethic, because it requires so much. I mean, boy, we had to learn to play instruments, and we fully learned to play. I mean, I played the trombone, [Boseman] played the trumpet. We truly learned those things, because that’s what’s required. August Wilson will lay something in there, emotionally, for you to be required physically, spiritually, and you’ve got to give it all. Leave it on that stage, or leave it on that screen.
Fear The Walking Dead (2015-present)—“Victor Strand”
AVC: You’ve talked previously about your initial hesitance with the role, but now it’s become such an important part of your career. What has the five-plus-year journey with Fear The Walking Dead meant to you?
CD: When I was approached with even auditioning for this role, I had just moved back from London, where I was performing for two years, and I was really having a reset and thinking about, “What kind of work would I like to do when I’m back in New York?” And I wanted things that were challenging. I’d been on this journey—I just finished doing The Scottsboro Boys on the West End—and, when you do a show like that, it’s hard to go back to anything. You can’t do anything less than that, ever. It’s got to move the dial. It’s got to make you feel like you’re part of the world and doing something important. So I really said no to a lot of things immediately. And then this audition came up, and I was excited about it, but I thought, “I don’t even know what this is.” I didn’t see myself in sort of a genre world, in some way. And, to be very honest, I was a bit of a theater snob. Little did I know, the state of television had been changing, and the work has really developed with such nuance and interesting characters.
So, the character Victor Strand, I thought—with the first episode that I read—they knocked it out of the park. It was like reading King Lear, Richard The Third. And I thought, “Whoa, this is cool! This is on television!” So I threw on an electric blue suit, I learned the lines in two hours, and I did a quick self-tape. When I got the offer two days later, just from the self-tape, I got the offer for The Get Down at the same time—I had already met with [The Get Down creator] Baz Luhrmann. We walked through storyboards and things like that. And I couldn’t do both, apparently. I tried to do both! They both seemed like awesome opportunities. And [in considering The Get Down] the Baz Luhrmann part of it, the New York part of it, I felt like I knew, and I understood it. Fear The Walking Dead, moving to shoot in Vancouver and Los Angeles—and then eventually to Mexico and whatever else—I didn’t know, and I was really curious about it. I felt like it scared me a little bit, so I decided it was a time in my career to continue to do the things that scare me, and jump off a ledge. And I did with Fear. And, to be honest, I know for sure I’m so grateful for it. I never thought that I would be on a show where I would play a character that keeps evolving and changing.
AVC: Something I’m always curious about, with a show like Fear, where your castmates can be “offed” at a moment’s notice, is, what are those days like, where you’re filming their death scene and you know you’re going to have to say goodbye? Are those sad, somber days on set?
CD: Yes! It’s the worst, oh, my god. Honestly, I remember when Kim Dickens called me—I’ll never forget it. I was walking near Penn Station in New York, and Kim Dickens called me and told me that she was going to be killed off the show. I leaned up against Penn Station, and I started crying, because the journey, it marked such an ending to this working relationship. Like, we were workhorses, and we worked well together, and we love playing off each other, so that was truly a loss. So I think the losses that you see on screen are the same losses that we felt. So it was a tricky dance for everyone. I know it was a tricky dance for Garret [Dillahunt] and Jenna [Elfman] and Lennie [James] when they came on board because they knew we were suffering enormous losses. These are people who we spend probably more time in the day with than our partners. So it’s that intimate and that close.
Assassination Nation (2018)—“Principal Turrell”
AVC: Euphoria’s another show with a very dedicated following. Given that it’s really resonated with younger Gen Z, do you suddenly have a lot more teens recognizing you in public?
CD: It’s funny because, I think I realized in the past few years, I’ve always been paired with some young Hollywood, in a way. Like with Assassination Nation, here I am doing a movie with Bella Thorne and Odessa Young and, you know, all these young kids. I don’t know what this says about me. [Laughs.] But, doing a show like Euphoria, I love that role, in particular. [Ali] really is someone who allows Rue to be Rue—to be honest, to be sincere—he demands that of her: “You don’t have to bullshit with me.” Speaking of, we have our episode that’s going to air in December, which is a nice little bridge episode between seasons until [Zendaya’s] able to come back, so we can shoot after she’s done with [the next, untitled] Spider-Man. But it’s a really beautiful episode, and it’s just me and Zendaya, and I think it’s really special. We just filmed that about a month and a half ago, and it was just super awesome.
AVC: But, you’re right. Ali is so essential to the show because he’s maybe the only character that’s able to cut through the bullshit with Rue.
CD: Apparently that’s my role now! On the side I teach here and there—I teach at Yale and Juilliard—and I’m really that voice of reason to my students, I guess. I guess I’m the cool dad. [Laughs.]
AVC: You brought up Assassination Nation, which, like Euphoria, is from Sam Levinson, so I wondered how you met Sam, and whether or not that first collaboration directly lead to the other?
CD: It did. I met Sam at a party at Sundance in a basement. [Laughs.] He just saw The Birth Of A Nation—a film that I did—and we were talking about that. I met he and Jeremy O. Harris at the same time, because they’re best friends, and so it was the three of us, and we could not stop talking. When I tell you it was such a bromance immediately—we stood over in a corner talking for, like, an hour and a half. You know, at a Sundance party we should be mingling, getting to know other people, but immediately we just kind of fell in love. And then we met up in New York. We had a bro date at Soho House. He was nervous. I was nervous. It’s beautiful when that can happen, like, “Oh, I think I’m going to meet my new friend!” Especially as grown men, to feel this way. So we really did have a bromance. And I knew that immediately he was a guy I wanted to work with. And so he wrote the character in Assassination Nation for me, and then he also wrote Ali for me as well.
AVC: Hopefully we get to see Zola sooner rather than later, but—since you brought up Jeremy O. Harris—
CD: Jeremy O. Harris! The historic Tony Award-nominated playwright!
AVC: Very eager to see this from Jeremy and director Janicza Bravo. From what I’ve heard out of Sundance, this is quite the character piece for you. What can you tell us about the film and your role in it?
CD: I play one of the most volatile characters I think I’ve ever played. I play a down and dirty pimp, but it’s a pimp that you love in some odd, awkward way. You know, I like to investigate any character by going to the interior life of them and finding out what makes them tick.—why do you love them? Every character, even a villain, I’ve got to love this villain and figure out what he wants, what he needs. And I found that with this character. I think he really challenges people. I think he goes to the dark side and challenges you with what you feel about the dark side. He’s just trying to find agency in the world with what he has, which happens to be trafficking young women. [Laughs.]
But I’m excited for people—I know people who saw it at Sundance who were just blown away by the magnitude of the film, the expression of the film. I think I would compare Janicza Bravo to John Cassavetes, you know? I think she’s really unique in her storytelling and really singular in that way. I love working with her. She’s very strong and committed and really knows the palette that she’s creating and where you live in it. She gave me the true permission, as an artist, to really create. I had a great time. I can’t wait for people to see it en masse, you know? I think it is an incredible piece of work. It’s dark, and it’s funny, and it’s sexy, and it’s weird.
If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)—“Joseph Rivers”
CD: It felt like a meditation to me. It was as quiet as it felt. Barry [Jenkins] allowed us to do our work. He’s a very graceful man. It makes me feel like he’s choreographing dance or music in some way. Because he’s really gentle, and he’s confident knowing that he cast you to perform a duty, and he trusts you. There was a lot of trust. When you have all these actors that I felt like are beasts—you have, you know, Regina King, Aunjanue Ellis. You have Michael Beach. We’re all in there, but there’s such a sense of generosity between all these actors that you know that you can’t do this, and you can’t have your performance, without someone else. There’s nothing that’s a solo. So, it was created that way.
I love playing Joseph so much. He reminded me of all the blue-collar men that I thought were superheroes that never got their story told. The ones who hold down their families so everyone else can fly. And he knew that that was his job, and being in service to that—to create strong, interesting, and powerful young women, and put them into the world, and not feel challenged or threatened by it. To have a strong woman who was able to go off to Puerto Rico. And it’s all in James Baldwin’s writing. These men I understand, but you don’t see often. You see these over-sexualized tropes of Black men. Then you have this examination, which is such a partnership between husband and wife, between daughters, things like that. It’s beautiful.
And, you know, James Baldwin—if I just showed you my [Motions to office.]—he’s everywhere. And he’s always been everywhere. He really reflects Black life in the way that I understand it. He is the conscience of America and has always been for many, many years, since the ’50s. I just love being in this world with his words. I’m very much a wordsmith. I’m seduced by language. I’m seduced by the way people will take turns in their words. It’s intriguing, it’s intelligent, it’s sexy. I love writers and the way they’re able to frame a conversation or an argument. James Baldwin gets to the heart of everything that I wrestle with, not only as a Black man in the world—as a gay man in the world, as an intellectual, or an academic. You know, he just goes to the heart.
AVC: A scene I’ll always remember is the one where we see you and Regina dancing in the living room.
CD: You know what? That was improv. Because we’re like, “Well, what are they doing before the family comes over?” I feel like, in that moment, I look like my dad, and Regina looks like her mom. And I love that we just knew the way their bodies fit, you know? And Regina—it’s not hard to be attracted to Regina King. You know, I’ve had such amazing wives in my career. From the Gabrielle Union to, you know [Laughs.], but I feel I’m a very lucky man. I think the way our bodies sort of held each other was beautiful. And I knew that that was a story that we wanted to tell, that, if you’ve seen dance, then you can see your parents in this moment. And that’s all you need to know about them right there in that little bit. Because it’s the one moment that it’s just the two of them. What do they do when they’re just by themselves? Do you see them on their first date? Do you see them without children? You see them just as husband and wife, as man and woman, not as father or mother, or anything like that.
BoJack Horseman, “The Old Sugarman Place” (2017)—“Eddie”
AVC: Not only is this one of the best BoJack episodes, but it also includes a duet between two Broadway legends: yourself and Jane Krakowski.
CD: I was truly lucky. When they offered me that role, I was like, “What? This is beautiful!” What was I, a flea or something?
AVC: I believe a dragonfly.
CD: Yeah, but I had a wing that was busted. I couldn’t fly. You know, he didn’t like to fly because he had emotional trauma. [Laughs.] And I loved creating his voice because he’s like any old, craggy Black man that I know—just through with all of it. Not for anyone’s bullshit or anything. Again, he goes into my canon of men that I understand. I always try putting in a little bit of someone that I truly know and understand, so that it’s personalized to me and I can hear the voice.
AVC: So, did you know going into it that this duet with Jane Krakowski as Honey Sugarman would be a part of it?
CD: No! No, I sang my part of it, and I didn’t know who was singing the other part—I had no idea. When I saw it I was like, “Are you fucking kidding me? Jane Krakowski?” Oh, I’ve been a huge fan of hers for years. It’s beautiful. It’s really emotional, actually. I think people have rated it many times—like, one of the highest-rated songs on BoJack Horseman, or episodes, as I understand. Because it really goes to the emotional core of true trauma for both of these people. But that’s what I love about BoJack Horseman. That was a cartoon like no other, really getting to the guts of our industry, of humanity, that people are capable of doing. So I love it.
Lincoln (2012)—“Private Harold Green”
AVC: Starting with Lincoln in 2012, you have this pretty stellar run of historical biopics with some big-name directors. Given that you’ve played these real people—or characters inspired by real people—I’m curious if that’s something that specifically excites you. Do you enjoy diving into someone’s life in that way?
CD: I’ve never been asked that question, and it’s funny because I do look at—I did have a run in all these history films—my place in it. And all I can say to that is that it may speak to something that I am curious about, or the questions that I have in my heart about justice, about history, and being useful. I’ve always been an actor that chose to be useful with my work, and I know that I’m a character actor to my core, where I want to know everything about the character—to really build this character in this world and how he operates. I make decisions on his sign, what I eat—you name it—I mean, the way my hands move. Because I feel like I want to really be placed in that environment and in that story and help it move it forward. I know that, when directors invite me into a room to be part of a project, they want not only an actor; they want someone who is also an activist. They want someone who is going to raise questions, who wants to create the thing and make it really awesome. People who don’t have—well, people have an ego, but the ego is not about who’s right or wrong. It’s more about the ego of saying, “Yeah, I want you to do your work.”
So anytime I’ve been invited to a room—with Steven Spielberg or Ava DuVernay or Lee Daniels, you name it—I know that they want all of me. Because I am a research whore. Before I do any part, that’s the part I love. I love rehearsal. I love reading. I love finding out what makes everything tick so I can know so much about the character, and then make it look easy and just live in that world. That’s the beautiful part for me as an actor—what I love to do. I love that I’m able to interpret. If I have something massive to interrogate, the more thrilled that I am.
For the limited screen time that I had in Lincoln, I took myself to the Civil War Museum in D.C. from, you know, I spent my own money and did my research, learning the different battles, etcetera. I learned everything so I can really be centered in the moment, you know? So that’s the part that I enjoy. I enjoy, possibly, the rehearsal and research more than actually shooting.
Selma (2014)—“Ralph Abernathy”
AVC: In a 2015 piece for Playbill about Selma, you wrote that being an artist, a filmmaker, inherently makes you an activist. Has that always been a philosophy in your work, or is that a realization you came to over time?
CD: I think being an artist—how can I say this—I think being an artist helped activate the activist in me. I think it was something that was possibly dormant, and I used to always believe that what I believe, in being an activist, will show up in my work. I allow my work to do it. You know, what I wrote as a writer, what I directed, the way I directed it, the way I cast something, and how I perform something, everything is a responsibility, in some way, to show complexity. I know I’m a 6-foot-2 Black man in the world, and there’s a responsibility to that. How do I show our humanity and be multifaceted? And I don’t have to always play heroes. I love playing very interesting characters, and in doing that, I want to give them a baseline of honesty and integrity and some truth and complexity and humor. So I like to investigate all of that with the character.
And so, essentially, you become an activist because you’re concerned about the representation that you’re putting out there and how it’s being done. It’s the way I became a director, because I have a question about everything. I would go into an audition and I’d know when I wouldn’t book something, because if I had too many questions for the director that they didn’t want asked, that I would not get cast. I remember, when I was a young actor, I went in for a role on Nash Bridges, and the character’s name was Cool-Whip Tyrell, and I was like, “So why’s his name Cool-Whip Tyrell? Why?” I grew up in the inner city all my life. I’ve never met a Cool-Whip Tyrell, someone named after Cool-Whip. So I just wanted to know what was the thought put into it? Because it would seem to me that it was suffering from a trope, that it was what an outsider would think these “funny names” are. Like, if you want to make a name, I know some hood names that are interesting and funny and actually are based on some truth. So, by being outspoken, I inherently became an activist.
And now I think that my activism has taken another step because I always felt it was my responsibility to let my work speak for itself, but now I understand that’s not enough. And it’s only because the world has changed, and it requires us to actually be a bit more forthright in what we speak, in what we’re trying to say, and what we’re trying to do. And I think that I’m just following in the footsteps of, you know, Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte and Ossie Davis. I feel like I have great people to look up to—they use their work as artists to activate and create change, and real change, that I stand on the shoulders of.
AVC: Even with all the streaming platforms today, I think a show like this would be considered too niche, so I don’t even know where this gets green-lit if not for Logo.
CD: Well, I think now—I look back at some of the sketches—a lot of things are so un-PC now, but it was very niche in terms of what gay people laugh and talk about. And so, you know, we were always all in on the joke. But now there’s such a level of sensitivity over certain things—and rightfully so—that I feel like you can’t touch now. I mean, people look at that, especially, what, we had three seasons? I did two of the three. And with Kate McKinnon’s work on it as well—we all came from this place of really creating this interesting, weird sketch show that was truly filling a niche and was really honest about what it was.
I mean, Jesus, it lived in my wheelhouse, you know? I think, when I tell people I started out in the circus and some of the other things I did with sketch comedy, they’re like, “Wait, what? Who are you?” Because now I’m doing all these major dramas and television series. Yeah, but in my heart, I’m a clown. I’m actually a clown, and a clown that’s like, you know, I’m a Pierrot clown. I think I’m a clown that is sensitive, who has questions, who leads with an open heart but has a dark sense of humor, you know? So that makes sense to me that I’m a part of things like The Big Gay Sketch Show. I mean, jeez, I got to play Maya Angelou, Nick Cannon, Morgan Freeman, Tyra Banks, and Beyoncé—I mean, what?
AVC: You mentioned the audition, and I wondered what that process was like? Everyone knows about the SNL audition process, was it as intense as that?
CD: Apparently—and this is coming from [cast members] Nicol Paone and Steven Guerrino—it was just as tricky as as MadTV and SNL. There were the round auditions and pairings and chemistry [reads]. With me, it wasn’t. I don’t know why, I think that they were just looking for a new actor to fill the season. And I went in, and they asked me, “Oh, could you play Maya Angelou?” I said, “Well, I’ll try!” [Laughs.] “I’ll figure it out. Give me some material.” I went in with a few characters, and they saw something that appealed to them, so I got cast pretty quickly. I’ve always been an actor that feels—I like to say I’m very malleable. I always tell directors, “I can do this in a hundred different ways.” I don’t have that ego of being like, “Oh, it must be this.” I’m like, “We’ll figure it out together!” Because I’m also an actor that is not afraid of making a mess of things or being wrong or going down a really bad road. If you’re just saying, “Oh, that’s a terrible choice,” I will go for the terrible choice first because I think I want to try that. And then I know! I know where I need to go from it, and that there’s something in that terrible choice that will be useful to me as I go on the journey of making the right choice. Again, I like process. I really enjoy making some fumbles and stumbles and doing some weird things to get to the best stuff.
AVC: I still laugh thinking of you as Tyra in the “America’s Next Top Bottom” sketch.
CD: Oh, my god. All I think about is my skinny, skinny legs. They put me in 6-inch heels, and I’m not, like, in the drag world or anything. I couldn’t walk. [Laughs.] So I would just stand there teetering on these heels. But, each time, it was so much fun.
AVC: Passing Strange is a show you’d been with since the beginning—it premiered at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre 14 years ago, then you followed it through its initial off-Broadway run, and then its Broadway run in 2008. And you’re also in Spike Lee’s filmed version for PBS’s Great Performances. What’s the show meant to you over the years?
CD: I can tell you this: That show changed my life. I auditioned for the show on July 24. I know that very well because I lost my mother on July 20. I was devastated and at her home in Philadelphia, cleaning out closets, etcetera. Beyond bereaved. And I got a call for a callback, and I had to say, “I’m sorry, I’m burying my mother so I won’t be available,” but they held the callbacks for two weeks for me. Something about that show felt special, so I went back in there and did my callback. I sang like I’d never sang before, and it was emotional. I just I thought I’d fucked it all up because—I didn’t know the operating system I was working with. I wasn’t in control of what I was doing. I was raw. So I went outside, and I met my friend Eisa Davis. She comes up, and she’s like, “Are you okay?” I was literally crying on the side of The Public Theater. She’s like, “Well, go back up and see if they’ll see you again.” She walks me up there, and the casting director comes out and says, “It was fine. It was all we needed. Thank you so much.” And I felt like I’d ruined something that was gonna be special for me, because I knew I needed to do the show. Everything about the show, I felt like it was written for me—to play a German performance artist, a Dutch nudist, a choir director. I’m like, “Only I can play that!”
So I get cast, and I go off to Berkeley. I used to live in Berkeley—I used to live in San Francisco for 10 years—so I felt like my mother was sending me back to the place that sort of nurtured me in my twenties, that it would give me some comfort during this time that I had lost my mom. I worked it out, and I feel like it changed and transformed me. I did a lot of my healing in Berkeley. And then we moved to The Public [Theater, in New York City], and then eventually to Broadway. And, in the Spike Lee film of Passing Strange, there’s a moment at the very end where we’re saying, “Yes, it’s all right,” and Stu’s holding me. We got to this place that we’re trying to get to for a long time, which was pure ecstasy and art transforming, coming through this religious, cathartic moment. And it did! I’m laying in Stu’s arms saying “It’s all right,” and we’re looking at each other, and I’m looking up. I look at it now as if I was looking to the heavens, talking to my mother saying, “It’s all right now,” because I needed this journey, this piece of theater. I always believe that art does save lives, and I know that that piece of art saved my life. If I didn’t have this piece of art that was going to help me wrestle, transform, and deal with my grief, I don’t know where I would be.
So I owe it to that experience and those people—they truly are my family as well. That’s my Passing Strange family because we all went into it to try and change all of our lives. It changed my career. It changed how I do my work. That’s the way I learned to live my life, without really caring about the response to the art or the work. My job was to do it and be committed to it, and I think that transformed me as an artist and as a human being. So, really, the whole experience of Passing Strange is really meaningful to me. It’ll always have a special place in my heart.
AVC: Spike Lee has said he wanted to film Passing Strange “for generations and generations to see,” and having that kind of recorded live theater feels even more crucial in a time when we don’t know when, for example, Broadway can safely re-open again. What do you think is the path forward for the medium?
CD: I think the first thing that I’d been in conversations about, when the shutdown happened, was, how are we going to innovate? We’re just, “Oh, when I get back to the theater…,” but I’ve said, “We can’t think about that right now.” It’s an opportunity for us to innovate and think, “How can we still get that experience but use the technology that we have now?” And I don’t mean Zoom. I just think it’s about a very different way to express theater.
We’ve got to figure this out. You’ve got to actually get out of our mind that we’re going to be in a theater next to each other for the next few years. And I know they’re saying next year, but maybe I always believe that when they say next year, that means two years from now. So, therefore, instead of us sitting and licking our wounds, let’s look forward to the opportunity of what we could have. We could have some tremendous breakthroughs, but we’ve got to be on the cutting edge and believe that that’s possible. And I do believe it’s possible. I have a first-look deal with AMC Networks, and we’ve been having conversations about that. I mean, I bring them ideas for theater all the time. People want theater, and they want that live experience, even if they watch it at home. I know that people have that with Passing Strange. You do feel like you’re part of the audience in some way—you actually get a little closer to that. I feel like we’re going to be able to innovate, but I think that we’ve got to go in with that spirit of innovation and not loss.
Candyman (2021)—“William Burke”
AVC: I’m sure there’s a lot that can’t be said about Nia DaCosta’s Candyman quite yet, but I’m curious: What does the original film mean to you, and what can you tell us about the direction on this one?
CD: I love that they’re calling it a spiritual sequel because it is sort of the legacy of what was left behind in the Cabrini-Green projects. What does trauma do to a neighborhood and to a community? And I think that my character is someone that sort of owns the trauma of the neighborhood—they call him “an old-timer.” He’s someone who’s still living there while people have been moving out, while buildings have been abandoned, you name it. But he’s still part of the old order, and what does that mean for the people that sort of have been left behind? As gentrification comes in and takes over? Do they still look at the guy who runs the laundromat and look at his story? Or do they just come in and believe that this is all brand new when it’s their world? The thing I could say is, what my character is trying to wrestle with is that you can’t have one without the other. I think he’s sort of proposing that question. How do you gentrify a neighborhood without actually knowing the neighborhood and knowing the history of what was there? And so I think that that’s a great question—it’s a huge question. It’s about displacement of people.
Again, here’s another project that I think I’m very passionate about. [Laughs.] It makes sense to me that Jordan [Peele] wrote this role for me. And I guess he knew that he wanted to write this character for me that was willing to be an incubator for these questions that we have—in our minds and our hearts—in America.
So, I’m really happy that I’m a part of it, and really happy with the role that I play in it. It really does help raise more questions. Going back to an earlier question you had, I think that I’ve actually realized—this is maybe the first time I’m ever saying this—I’m very inquisitive, and I also love raising questions. I think that if I can be of service as an actor, director, writer, producer, it doesn’t matter to me which platform I’m on, as long as I’m part of raising these questions that we’re wrestling with, the secret in our hearts. It’s that thing where we want to do the right thing, we want to figure out what the best way is, and it’s a wrestling match. It’s not easy, actually, but I’m willing to do the work, as an artist, and I want to be a part of that conversation. So I think that’s why I choose the work that I do, but also, that’s why that work chooses me.
AVC: Right. Willing to do the work—even when it comes to questioning a character name like Cool-Whip Tyrell.
CD: Even that! Even as a young actor, I’m like, “You know, I just want to know why he’s named Cool-Whip Tyrell.” If you can justify that, I’m good. If you’re like, “My cousin was named Cool-Whip Tyrell,” then I’m here for it. Otherwise, I’m going to call you on it. [Laughs.]