Colman Domingo stars alongside Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which hits Netflix on December 18 after its limited theatrical release. In addition to his acting work in films like If Beale Street Could Talk, Assassination Nation, Zola, and the upcoming Candyman, Domingo brings a wealth of experience as a writer, director, producer and actor on the stage, making him an obvious choice for Ma Rainey, which is based on the August Wilson play. I talked about the film with Domingo over Zoom, as well as his acting influences, his camaraderie with the late Chadwick Boseman, and what film lovers might get out of George C. Wolfe’s latest directorial effort.
As an actor, your experience with movies, television, and the stage is pretty prolific. I assume the way you prep for a film role is quite different from when you’re working on a stage role. Which makes this movie pretty interesting, right? You’re doing a stage play adaptation, so what is that combination like for you?
CD: I have deep roots in the theater. And everything that I’ve learned in practice and preparation as a character actor…I sort of have always kept that with my theater work and my television work. I think it’s just part of what I’m used to. I make collages for characters and music playlists and I really love extensive research and detail in my characters…with everything. The way they move, their body, their weight, the way they hold their gait, through imagery. So I love building a character in that way. I feel like that’s my favorite part.
I think, possibly, I enjoy that even more than shooting. Because I think by the time I’m shooting, it’s all over, you know? (Laughs) You know what I mean? I prepared for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom very much the way I do in the theater. We had two weeks of rehearsal, but even before that, I made sure with weeks prior I did my work when it comes to reading the source material, which is the play, did all my research about Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, the time period, and even anything I didn’t understand or I wanted to know, if I thought my character knew. Whether it’s where the train stops in Georgia. I wanted to know what those towns were like and all that stuff. And so I did all this research. I mean, really, that goes into just getting the whole time period and the weight of everything underneath your skin, so you can actually just really be in the moments and trust that it’s all there. So I did this same sort of work as the theater.
For this hybrid, though, I was very…you know, it’s funny, for a moment I was concerned because I think it’s written very “theatrical.” And people have extensive monologues. And usually with any play, you’re trying to reach the mezzanine (laughs). And you’re required to sort of have this hybrid of making sure it had its poetry and its theatrical license. But to really condense it and make sure that it was very intimate for film. Maybe that’s why George Wolfe hired actors that were rooted in the theater, but also had a sense of film and television experience, because we know how to make that hybrid happen.
Let’s discuss your character. What is the heart and soul of Cutler?
CD: I think Cutler is, essentially, a diplomat. He has to exhibit tremendous amounts of diplomacy as he is Ma Rainey’s proxy while she’s not in the room, to make sure he does her bidding and serves her music well. He is one of the members of the band, and he’s also the first face that institutions see, whether they go to a concert venue or a recording session. So he’s got to navigate the systemic, racist institutions at the time. So he’s gotta exhibit a tremendous amount of grace, I believe, and care for all these worlds and how he’s been given power by Ma to really navigate this balancing act to just make good music. So I think that he has a tremendous amount of responsibility and ownership, because I think he loves the music, and he loves these men in the band, so he wants to care for them, care for Ma.
He’s definitely the band leader, he’s been given tremendous amounts of responsibility and is trying to navigate that with everyone coming over on this pressure cooker on this one, hot, summer day as they’re trying to record an album.
Do you see yourself a little bit or at all in that kind of role, creatively?
CD: Oh yeah. I think you’ve gotta bring a part of yourself into every role. But this role in particular, I look at how it relates to Colman as…I consider myself the ultimate host. (Laughs) It comes from my years of being in the service industry. I know how to throw a good party. I know how to have a great cocktail and great lighting, great music, and curate the right people in the room. And so I lean into that, because even as Cutler, and in being a part of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, I made sure I took that role seriously by making sure that I provide dinners for the company, and made sure that the band set out to eat and have fellowship with one another, because I knew that would permeate our set. And we needed that energy to be jocular, so we can inquire and create safe space.
I do think…there’s a lot of Cutler in me. I think that I live a bit more carefree, and I think I’m a lighthearted human being. I’m not as intense as Cutler, but I can be (laughs).
I felt like I was kind of getting to know Colman Domingo a little bit in this role, you know?
CD: Oh, that’s nice! Well, you know, I guess you’re right. I guess there’s a bit of his demeanor, even the way he holds his body or the way he dresses or the way he speaks, he knows that he has to sort of massage the relationship between the band, Ma, and the systemic institutions. And he’s also had to be one of the members of the band, so there’s a lot of code switching as well. And that’s something I innately understand, you know what I mean? Although, I do believe that I’m pretty much the same in every room, but that comes from a tremendous sense of maybe being a bit more self-obsessed in being assured in my abilities and the way that I communicate with people. I don’t necessarily code switch so much. But Cutler had to, because that was the world he was living in. But I think I approach it a bit more boldly.
I really wish I could have seen you do Fences on the stage. So this isn’t your first time working with August Wilson’s dialogue.
CD: Not at all.
Why do you think something like this, which was written for the stage, translates as well is it does to being so cinematic?
CD: I think August Wilson writes so boldly about Black life. And examines it with every intent. There’s colloquialisms, there’s academic conversations…but it’s really the way Black people talk. And the way they relate to one another, especially when white people aren’t in the room. I always consider August Wilson our O’Neill. Our Pinter. Our Shakespeare. Because he really does go to the heart and soul of what African Americans dream about, desire, relate to when it comes to each other, or the systems of America, in a way that is very human and full. No one is suffering any tropes whatsoever.
There’s truly a fullness, and his characters don’t have to be kings, queens, they’re the most ordinary human beings. That’s what I love about him. I think he invites everyone to sort of be their own hero in their own story. Everyone’s in the center of their own story in an August Wilson. That’s why any actor worth his salt is eager to be a part of an August Wilson production, because you get to have a full, full experience. In calling the experiences that you know, that you’ve seen in your own families. Stories from your grandparents. Stories about the great migration, you name it. You really get to be in that conversation with these characters. And they have such highs, and they’re usually spiritual at some point, but they’re really interrogating life, and I don’t think that we usually get that in our work.
But August Wilson has set a great stage that makes you want to wrestle with that. I played Gabriel in Fences when I was 28 years old…with Gabriel, I remember I would walk out into nature and put my feet in the dirt because he was connected to it. And I was able to read text and know my place in society and do the work. You feel lived in when you’re doing an August Wilson play. You can do all the work so it can feel lived in. As I’m talking about it now, I realize that’s what I love about it, that I get to have a full experience, not just being in the periphery, or being a little part, a cog, of some other great engine. But every character has their truth and they have something that they want, and they have a really incredible arc. And it’s usually complex, and most characters have some frailty, they have some issues they’re working with, so no one’s a monolith.
You have all these Black folks with these different points of view and that’s incredible to see. Not everyone’s praising God, and “Oh, dear Lord,” and all that. Someone’s questioning God. Someone has a different ideology and a different philosophy in ways that we understand as African Americans because usually in work we are all meant to believe one thing. I’m always just amazed when people say, like when it comes to voting, “Getting the Black vote.” As if all Black people think the same. (Laughs) You know what I mean? So I love that August Wilson debunks that and says that our people have very different points of view. So you want to get in there and give it all you got.
I know this is a pretty sensitive subject, but I do want to take a moment and celebrate the life and achievement of your colleague, Chadwick Boseman. And I really want to hear your take on him in this movie on your own terms.
CD: Chadwick was my fellow Sagittarius brother. He was born on November 29th. I’m November 28th. And for years we wanted to work together. We had a moment together on the set of 42, where my role was actually cut, but we had a really wonderful scene. Me, him, and Nicky Behari. But then we finally got a chance to work together, and I remember the first thing he said to me. He was like, “Ah, man, I can’t wait to dance with you.”
He used those words in particular. “I can’t wait to dance with you.” While he had his trumpet out, he just had his rehearsal and he’s looking at me like to say, “Oh, we’re about to spar.” And I think he was just always willing…he had an incredible work ethic. He gave it his all. The thing I know about Chad, which is very interesting, he played all these kings and legends. When he walked into the room, he walked in quietly. It was like a quiet grace and focus. There was no pomp and circumstance whenever he entered the room. He was in deep thought. He was storing it up and doing the work and thinking a lot.
I always think of Chad as…I feel like it’s limiting to think of him as an actor. And I feel like I’ve never thought of him as sort of an actor. I’ve thought of him as something more like a prophet. Because I loved what he was doing out in the world and how he was inspiring generations and promoting exceptional representations of Black people. I just loved listening to him, and he was an intellectual, an artist, a painter, a musician. He loved talking about…I think he was studying Hebrew and then hieroglyphics. And we had a great conversation about how he wanted to move to Portland. And I was like, “Why do you want to move to Portland?” And he was like, “Ah, man, the mountains and it’s beautiful and still.” So he was looking forward to things like that.
I always knew his thoughts, but we never really talked about acting, or the work about acting. Because I think that we always related to each other about all these other big things. And we were sort of rooted in the fact that this is our calling. To let all those thoughts and things we want to do, and what we care about, come through us as actors and artists.
I loved working with Chad. Chad was always game. We worked hard together. We went to some very deep places together. We even held each other up after one take and cried because we knew we were leaving it all on the floor and putting our hearts and souls into it…we always felt the weight of how we have to tell other people’s stories. And I know that’s the way we respected each other and respected each other. And he gave me a beautiful wrap gift. Which is a record player. It’s a little record player that I have in my living room. And I thought it was the kindest gesture, that he wanted to make sure that I had music. So I buy lots of vinyl and every time, of course, I listen to it, now, I have to think about Chad. I think he knew he was setting me up to always have a part of him in my consciousness…So I put on some Cole Train and I hear it go around and I think about Chad. I think that’s the gift that he gave me. He wanted me to be a part of his music so we could, like he said, so we can dance together.
I think saying Chad was a friend is kind of limiting. I look at him more as a comrade. Because I feel like he was a brother in arms. And we were trying to do the same work together.
What do you really hope people are going to get out of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom?
CD: This is the end of one of the most disruptive years in modern times. When Black people have been marching and saying to see us and see our full humanity, that Black lives matter. I think it’s important for us as a country, as human beings, to know each other’s stories…how to really take in that person that you’re looking…you may have some thoughts about. And I think this film is part of doing the work. You can have an examination of Black life and Black thought. And also, I think at the center of it you may have this enormous figure like Ma Rainey, who…she has done so much, not only for the recording industry, for women, for gay people, she had to be a pioneer. She was very self-possessed, and so I think it was good to look at her as an examination.
But also I think Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom really is about America. Levee is America. The character of Levee played by Chadwick Boseman…he’s trying to move so forward, but he’s got such deep scars of the past. That’s America. And he’s blindly trying to go forward and break through, break through, break through, but he’s not dealing with the scars of his past, and because of that, is why he has pitfall after pitfall…And so I think it’s an examination of America, to be honest. And I think that we’re ready for those conversations.
I tell people, “Throw away white fragility and watch movies like Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” (Laughs) You know what I mean? You need some tools? Film, the cinema, is an incredible tool because we can sit in the dark and we can have these conversations. Hear people speak their truth. And hopefully move the dial. And hopefully we can all get better and we can heal a little bit more. That’s what I hope.
And it’s entertaining, and it’s fun, and it’s great music…and all that stuff. But it’s a trojan horse, you know? It’s coming in with all the trappings of a, “Look at this, it’s Hollywood, it’s Netflix, it’s Viola and Chad and me and Michael and Glynn, George C. Wolfe, Ann Roth’s costumes!” So it’s a glittery, beautiful package. But then it’s going to go a little deeper. It’s a trojan horse of 2020.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom comes to Netflix on December 18.
Jon is the co-host of Cinemaholics and author of two books: the novel Killerjoy and a book about Pixar called The Pixar Theory. His favorite movie is usually The Mask of Zorro (don’t ask).