Colman Domingo discusses his role as Bayard Rustin, working with Zendaya, and meeting President Obama. Can I expect the Secret Service to come after me? Colman Domingo talks about his portrayal of Bayard Rustin, collaborating with Zendaya, and encountering former President Obama.


Colman Domingo explains that everything came together perfectly, which is why he has stars on his boots. He happily shows me his clean white Chelsea boots, each adorned with three blue stars on the back. Domingo has an infectious and lively laugh that contrasts with his typically smooth and rich voice. His personality, appearance, and manner are all incredibly charming.

Several stars have come together to form a constellation in the shape of Domingo recently. He has prominent roles in two films and the actors’ strike has ended just in time for him to discuss them. One of them is The Color Purple – a grand adaptation of Alice Walker’s iconic novel turned musical (the white boots are only for a photoshoot; he doesn’t wear them regularly). The other is Rustin, a biopic about Bayard Rustin, the overlooked organizer of the renowned March on Washington in 1963. Ironically, although he fought for Black rights, Rustin’s homosexuality and ties to communism caused him to be erased from historical records. He has been referred to as “the pioneer of intersectionality”. “He was openly gay at a time when it could have seriously damaged his career and put him in danger,” says Domingo. “I mean, that’s what we call cancel culture.”

‘I think very similarly to him’ … Domingo as Bayard Rustin in Rustin.

Domingo takes on his first major leading role as Rustin, and it’s a perfect fit. After delving deeper into the life of Bayard Rustin, Domingo realized they share similar qualities. They are both physically similar in size and both hail from Pennsylvania. Additionally, they are both left-handed and gay (Domingo has been married since 2014). While Rustin was primarily focused on civil rights, his sexuality was simply a part of who he was. Domingo shares this perspective, stating that being gay is just an aspect of his identity, and he sees himself as a man with thoughts, dreams, and needs like anyone else.

Domingo, who is 53 years old, is now gaining recognition, just like the subject he portrays. His dynamic and understanding portrayal is sure to catch attention during awards season. After working as a supporting actor for over three decades, he is now appearing in numerous projects, making him more noticeable.

‘They know: “Oh, Colman will help add to our sets, not just as an artist, but as a human being”’ … Regina King and Domingo in If Beale Street Could Talk.

He mentions that his last visit to London was like a “bookend”. In 2014, he transitioned from performing on stage in the West End musical The Scottsboro Boys to appearing on screen, landing a recurring role in the zombie spin-off Fear the Walking Dead. The series recently concluded after eight seasons. He has since been consistently cast in various screen roles, including Ralph Abernathy in Ava DuVernay’s Selma, a role in Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk, and Zola in Janicza Bravo’s film. He also appeared in the reboot of Candyman. Director George C Wolfe recognized his potential as a leading man and cast him in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020), alongside Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman.

Similar to Rustin, Domingo possesses a strong leadership quality. Those who have collaborated with him in the film industry describe him as an authoritative and charismatic figure who not only delivers on screen (he is known for his thorough research – he learned how to play the trombone for Ma Rainey, the lute for Rustin, and the banjo for The Color Purple), but also has a calming and almost guru-like presence off screen. This is one of the reasons why Domingo has been in high demand recently. “I believe people appreciate me. And I appreciate people,” he says simply. “They know me, and they know that I will not only contribute as an artist, but also as a human being on set… I always try to demonstrate a way of being; to show them how we create our work. And that kindness is timeless and essential.”

Domingo, David Oyelowo, Andre Holland and Stephan James in Ava DuVernay’s Selma.

Sam Levinson, the creator of the popular HBO show Euphoria, is a returning customer. He previously worked with Domingo on his 2018 film Assassination Nation, and specifically wrote the role of Ali for him. Ali serves as a mentor and sponsor to Zendaya’s character, Rue, who is recovering from addiction. One of the most memorable episodes of the show features a conversation between the two actors as Ali imparts words of wisdom to Rue over a meal at a diner.

Zendaya and I have a deep trust in each other that feels like we’ve been friends for centuries, according to him. She is one of my top scene partners due to the unpredictability of her actions. Her honesty is what makes our collaboration so beautiful as we dance together.

‘We trust each other as if we’ve known each other for millennia’ … Domingo and Zendaya in 2022.

They have not known each other for thousands of years, but it was not far from that. As a struggling actor, Domingo had various jobs over the years, including working for the California Shakespeare Company in San Francisco. While chatting on set one day, Zendaya mentioned that her mother used to work there and she would go watch the plays when she was five or six years old. She specifically remembered one production (All’s Well That Ends Well) where a man in white rode in on a motorcycle. That man was Domingo, who recalled pulling up on a motorcycle and delivering a speech to the audience, noticing a young girl with curly hair in the front row. He was surprised to see a child at nine o’clock at night watching Shakespeare, and later found out it was Zendaya.

As it gears up for its third season, accusations have plagued Euphoria regarding discomfort among some of the cast members due to the amount of nudity and sexual content. However, according to Domingo, this was not his experience. He believes there is a lot of discussion surrounding the topic, but things tend to be exaggerated. He speaks highly of Levinson, describing him as a kind and open-minded director, writer, and producer. Domingo also acknowledges that with popularity comes criticism and attempts to undermine its success.

Although Domingo appears kind, his characters often have a hint of danger or darkness. This is evident in his role as the ruthless Victor Strand in Fear the Walking Dead and as an African-accented pimp in Zola. In The Color Purple, he portrays Mister, an abusive antagonist who brutally beats and rapes his teenage wife. Similarly, Rustin also struggles with inner demons and Ali, from Euphoria, has a past of domestic violence. When it seems like this violence may resurface, the tension is tangible.

‘I think people like me. And I like people.’

“I am known for being a kind person!” exclaims Domingo, erupting into boisterous laughter. “I find characters with a sense of danger to be the most intriguing,” he adds more solemnly. “I believe those who consistently choose to show generosity, kindness, and love in their daily lives have a deeper understanding of darkness. They know what they are up against.”

Domingo shares that he grew up in a typical working-class family in Philadelphia as the third of four children. His mother focused on homemaking while his stepfather worked as a floor sander. His biological father, who was from Belize, left the family when Domingo was nine years old. He came out to his family at the age of 21 and was met with love and acceptance. While attending Temple University, he took an acting class as an elective and was told that he had a natural talent for it. This inspired him to pursue acting seriously. He left college and moved to San Francisco, where he faced many challenges and obstacles in the industry. Over the span of 32 years, he worked various jobs such as bartending and teaching while also trying to establish himself as a playwright, director, and producer. He did not have the luxury of solely focusing on acting.

A lavish adaptation … Domingo in The Color Purple.

Currently, he is spending time with prominent figures such as Oprah Winfrey (producer of The Color Purple) and the Obamas (whose production company produced Rustin). During his time in the White House, Barack Obama awarded Bayard Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously in 2013. Domingo admits to initially feeling starstruck when meeting the Obamas. He describes them as “two of the most charismatic human beings on the planet.” However, their relationship has now evolved into a partnership in storytelling. In fact, just last week, Domingo introduced a movie at a festival while hanging out with the Obamas. He recalls feeling so comfortable with them that he even patted Barack Obama on the shoulder like an old friend. He couldn’t help but wonder if he was allowed to do so or if the Secret Service would come after him.

Despite Domingo’s recent success, he hasn’t quite reached his full potential. One concern is the current state of his country, specifically the efforts to censor LGBTQ+ literature and suppress education about the US’s history of racism against Black individuals. It’s difficult to celebrate Rustin’s accomplishments when these issues are still prevalent today. “There are individuals trying to push us back to 1963,” he acknowledges. “That’s why a film like Rustin is important now more than ever – to inspire young people and stimulate thoughts, to combat despair and remind people that they have the power to bring about change in this country. That’s why I believe this film is perfectly timed. We need someone to say, ‘This ordinary man sacrificed his life for all of us. What will you do?'”