“This Is About to Get Hardcore”: Colman Domingo in Conversation With Natasha Lyonne
If you haven’t been paying attention, then Colman Domingo has gone from a reliable journeyman actor to the top spot on call sheets in just a few short years. But for those who have been following the 54-year-old actor’s grind since the early days of Law & Order guest roles and off-Broadway shows, the rise doesn’t feel so sudden. One of those people is Natasha Lyonne, who finally met Colman a few years back at the premiere of Zola. They clicked immediately, and ever since then it’s been a blur of pool parties, meditation rooms and Real Housewife encounters, all of it leading up to this.
MONDAY 2:30 PM OCT. 23, 2023 LA
COLMAN DOMINGO: Hello!
NATASHA LYONNE: Hello, Colman Domingo. Wait a minute. This is terrible lighting.
DOMINGO: Well, yeah. You’re back-lit. You have to turn the other way. Wait, what is happening with your angles? Are you going to lie down?
LYONNE: I see this as an opportunity to relax and hang out with you.
DOMINGO: I love that it’s the opposite of a shrink’s office, because you’re laid-back and reposed.
LYONNE: Listen, you’re the shrink, I’m the patient. That’s been clear from day one. I don’t know why this would be any different than our usual hangouts.
DOMINGO: That’s what I’m talking about, because part of our friendship is that you live in the land of making sure that things are easy.
LYONNE: Easy like Sunday morning.
DOMINGO: Yes. Are you going to hit me with the heavy questions?
LYONNE: This is about to get hardcore, like triple-X hardcore.
DOMINGO: [Laughs] Wow.
LYONNE: We’re going to do a deep dive. I’ve been studying your body of work. I spent the weekend in a deep Colman K-hole.
DOMINGO: As I hoped you would.
LYONNE: I like to be an A student. Let’s see. I could start with a deep cut from Passing Strange [the 2009 Spike Lee film of the play, which Domingo also starred in]: When you come on and you say about Albert Camus and The Stranger, “Algeria see ya, wouldn’t want to be ya.” Do you remember that phrase?
DOMINGO: Are you kidding me? I remember that phrase deeply because that show changed my life. It was the first show I did right after I lost both my parents and I needed a lifeline. I had to interrogate the world and society and humanity and music, and what is Broadway made of, and who am I as a Black man in the world. It did all those things, so I remember every single moment of that journey, seriously.
LYONNE: It’s such a beautiful show. That’s when you first came on my radar, as a New Yorker. I guess that was 15—
DOMINGO: I think 15, 16 years ago. We were babies. But what I love about our friendship, Natasha, is that you called me the other day—
DOMINGO: And the next thing you know, we’re hanging out at an after-party for Mr. Chow and his incredible new documentary [AKA Mr. Chow], meeting all these really cool people. I met a Real Housewife while I was getting—
LYONNE: I didn’t even clock that one was there. And that’s what makes us such a good unit.
DOMINGO: Because we’re both butterflies when we go somewhere socially. We hang out, we talk, we have some existential conversations, and then leave together.
LYONNE: Yeah. And I do like our FaceTimes because sometimes we’re both not fully dressed and they feel a little flirty. I should confess that in our early days, I was like, “Maybe this is a vibe.”
DOMINGO: [Laughs] It could still be, Natasha. You never know.
LYONNE: Do you remember when we first met?
DOMINGO: I do. It was the premiere night of Zola at the Sunset Tower [Hotel]. I was like, “Listen, I’ve been a fanboy of yours for years.” And you were telling me how much you love the character that I played. It was an immediate connection. We were a little bit in love with each other and we exchanged numbers and made a plan. Within a week, you were in my backyard eating ribs by the pool, right?
LYONNE: That’s correct.
DOMINGO: [Laughs] That’s the way I roll.
LYONNE: With a handsome fella, there I was.
DOMINGO: That’s right. You came with a handsome fella. You always bring gifts.
LYONNE: I like to give gifts to the community. Oh my god, that food was so good and your house was so good. I remember there was a room dedicated to spirituality, and we sat in there together.
DOMINGO: My meditation room. It’s tiny and no one ever sits in there with me. I think I hit the Shinto bell and we experienced that together. We sat there for a while, just me and you.
LYONNE: We sat there peacefully and then we went back out to a sea of attractive people in bathing suits and jumped in the pool. We straddle both at all times. I love you so much in Zola, and it’s so radical spending this weekend with your work. Your entire body, person, and soul seems to change role to role. Can you tell us about that?
DOMINGO: It was out of necessity. Early in my career, I was never cast as the leading man. I was always the utility man, the one who could play five different roles. It’s all a part of my theater background where I learned to play a full character. So when I meet people in the street and they’re like, “Hey, your voice is deeper, or you’re thinner or you’re younger or you’re older,” I’m like, “No, it’s specific for the role.” And then I let that go and become this neutral, weird dude that I am. [Laughs]
LYONNE: I’m not sure that anyone would ever call you neutral, but you’re certainly singular and extraordinary. But in Zola, it’s so wild when you drop the fucking act out of nowhere and you’re just like, “Who is this guy?”
DOMINGO: Thank you. It was one of the first times that a director, our friend Janicza Bravo, gave me full reign to create a character. I really understood what she and our co-screenwriter Jeremy O. Harris [Interview’s consigliere] were trying to do. She just stepped back and let me craft it, so I feel like I own that character in a very unique way, and I thank her for that.
LYONNE: You’ve collaborated with [the director] George C. Wolfe on multiple occasions. I’ve only had one experience with him, which was reading for a play [Lucky Guy] that Nora Ephron wrote that Tom Hanks starred in on Broadway. We spent a weekend workshopping it and he was so extraordinary.
DOMINGO: George C. Wolfe is a well-known genius, and it wasn’t until I started to work with him at length that I understood why. He has a sense of play, and he examines the work in a myriad of ways. I think he’s affected my work because I feel like I start to interrogate it a bit more. It’s funny, I used to tell my agents to please make sure that directors know what they’re getting when I walk in. You’re going to get someone who has questions. I’ve never known how to just sit in the actor’s lane. I’ve been a collaborator all my career. I’m like, “I should have opinions on scenes that I’m not even in, or on character work that I have nothing to do with.” I used to say, “If you want somebody to just hit their marks, and not raise any questions, that’s not me.”
LYONNE: I identify with that a lot. It’s like when you go somewhere, you don’t ask, “What can I get from this situation?” It’s more, “What can I bring to this situation?” I think that’s why we hit it off. We have “bring the party” energy.
DOMINGO: It’s funny because even the last party that you had, and for our readers out there, Natasha throws what I think is something bigger than just a party. It’s not a salon, it’s something new. And I’m curious to see if you even understand what you’re building right now, because you’re bringing in such different people that are all connected in some way.
LYONNE: I think it’s really important for us to have a space to be together for no reason at all, with no stakes and nobody watching. We need a safe space to let go and remember that we’re alive in this thing together, for better or worse. It’s a reminder that it’s all an illusion.
DOMINGO: We need that reminder.
LYONNE: Alright. I’m going to pivot over to our friend Barry Jenkins. Tell me about the work and what it’s like working with Regina [King].
DOMINGO: When I worked with Regina King and Barry Jenkins on If Beale Street Could Talk, I think that came at the right time in my career. I was just moving out of New York to L.A. and James Baldwin [whose novel was adapted for the film] had been ingrained in my entire soul most of my teenage and adult life. He’s such an interrogator of our culture, of who we are as Americans. He can always give voice to things that I can’t come up with words for. Did Barry Jenkins know this? I don’t know. But when he called me to audition, and when I was offered my role, I was surprised because for years I was always the supporting guy. Barry Jenkins saw me as one of the leads.
LYONNE: Barry is right as rain.
DOMINGO: [Laughs] I knew I was ready for that, and to work with Regina King. We truly fell in love with each other. I still call her my wife. We put our whole hearts and souls into it. I’ve been working for 33 years and the industry is just starting to see me as I’ve seen myself for years. A lot of times I built my own universes, I became a writer and a director out of necessity to keep working. I built my own production company. I didn’t know that that was part of my journey. I thought I was just going to be an actor for hire.
LYONNE: We are a very similar case study of the long game. That’s obviously the same for me with Russian Doll. It’s out of necessity that you start writing, directing, and producing. It’s a wild thing but without that 30-year hustle, I don’t know that you’re really ready for it.
DOMINGO: Well, there’s no road map for our careers, Natasha. At times I teach and students always want to know, “How do I get from this chair to your career?” I’m the first to tell them that I have no idea. I can give you tools on how to hopefully live a happy and healthy life and hopefully have a voice. But my job isn’t to teach you how to be an actor. It’s an unwieldy, crazy journey and there’s no guarantee you’ll get there. You have to figure out what makes you tick. And nothing’s ever a failure. That’s the one thing I’ve started to understand, as an artist who’s been doing this for a long time: that the pitfalls were helping me move to the place that I needed to be.
LYONNE: And when that moment comes, the world can catch up to you. Alright, so you were nominated for an Olivier for The Scottsboro Boys. What was your time like in London?
DOMINGO: I loved living in London. I loved working on London stages. I was there for a good year and a half. The last time I was onstage was in London in 2014 because after that I came back to the States and started doing more television.
LYONNE: But you were also nominated for a Tony as a producer of Fat Ham?
DOMINGO: Yes. I love producing, especially things that have nothing to do with me. I’m like, “Let me see what I can do to help amplify it, give it access, funds, you name it.” I love throwing the party. I don’t have to always be the party.
LYONNE: It’s wild that you cowrote the book for Summer: The Donna Summer Musical.
DOMINGO: Yeah. With a Tony-nominated Ariana DeBose, who two years later would become an Oscar Award winner. I’m very proud.
LYONNE: And you also produced and starred in Sing Sing.
DOMINGO: Yes. I star in a movie called Sing Sing that we just sold at TIFF to A24, the coolest kids on the block. It’s a beautiful, intimate film about incarcerated men who are going through this program called RTA, which is Rehabilitation Through the Arts. The premise of the film is that we’re putting on a play while these two incarcerated men are up for parole. It’s about friendship, brotherhood, and what can actually aid the system to help true healing.
LYONNE: I can’t wait to see it. And I did spend part of my weekend accidentally purchasing Sing the animated comedy and not watching it. [Laughs] I was like, well, this isn’t right, Amazon, but I’ll take the hit.
DOMINGO: [Laughs] Invoice Interview.
LYONNE: Speaking of Interview, Jeremy O. Harris would like to know if it feels like an existential burden to be America’s newest heartthrob?
DOMINGO: The funny thing is, I was driving down the 405 and I looked over and there was a group of teenage girls in a car all looking at me. And Raúl, my husband, is sitting next to me and he’s like, “What’s going on over there? I think they’re fans from one of your shows.” I was like, “What? Get out of here.” And I look over and I wave. And next thing you know I hear, “Ahhhhhh!” Somehow I’m a 53-year-old heartthrob. It’s awesome. Eat your heart out Timothée.
LYONNE: Speaking of that, do you want to tell us all about how you met your partner on Missed Connections?
DOMINGO: That’s a story of such lore. We found each other 18 years ago. We had this beautiful passing and he wrote a Missed Connections ad for me. It was before any of these apps and things like that. So it’s very innocent, just, “Saw you outside of Walgreens, Berkeley.” And I answer because I remember that interaction. I’m like, “That’s him. That’s the guy I’ve been thinking about for two days.” We met up, and I told him I loved him on our first date. I have no chill. I was like, “I think I love you.”
LYONNE: Best thing about you.
DOMINGO: I’m just that nerd where I have the heart of a clown and I tell the person I love them immediately because why not? People think you need time to do it. I’m like, you need to do it immediately because time isn’t promised to us. So I told him I loved him and we’ve been together ever since.
LYONNE: I love him so much.
DOMINGO: And he loves you, too. I’m always telling people that to be an artist and to actually be in this world, you need love, you need friendship, and you need to make time for it. People will say, “Oh, I don’t have time for relationships.” I’m like, “Yeah, you do.” At the end of the day, you need real friendships like the one I have with you. You need love.
Grooming: Jamie Richmond.
Production: Carisa Barah at JN Production.
Fashion Assistant: Jaiin Kang.