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Finding Stardom in His Fifties, Colman Domingo Is Living

Photo by Jenna Jones

The out star of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Zola, and Candyman says his success comes with responsibility. 

Morgan Stanley's CEO recently made news by saying, "If you can go to a restaurant in New York City, you can come into the office."

So many of us are starting to be confronted with the Catch-22 of when and how to go back to work. There are those who want to continue to work from home, and some looking forward to leaving the home for work. Faced with the specter of returning to an office, some are simply quitting their jobs.

There have been so many surveys, so many "how-to's" and so many studies done about the right way, or the wrong way, to get people back to work - or not - post-pandemic that it's a bit head spinning. There's a real transformation occurring in corporate America and even in Hollywood, where all of the rules and dynamics seem to be changing at breakneck speed since the pandemic has waned.

Granted, making a comparison to an office job and an actor can be a bit cumbersome, but many in the entertainment industry are still trying to find their way back to their offices - sets and locations shoots. There's been precipitous gaps in production of movies and films, and as such, holes in the resumes of many crew and casts. Many are scrambling to catch the post-pandemic wave; however, some are finally getting overdue recognition.

After working for nearly 30 years as one of the most reliable background and character actors in the industry, this summer is Colman Domingo's moment in the sun. It was during the pandemic, with his brilliant performance alongside the late Chadwick Boseman in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, that Domingo began to pop.

Now, the 51-year-old actor plays a crucial supporting role in Zola, a movie based ingeniously on a tweet thread; out this week, it's getting impressive reviews. Also, this week, Domingo swings wildly from his role as a pimp in Zola to that of a priest in the Julia Stiles-led drama The God Committee, about transplant recipients. And in August, Domingo stars in Oscar-winner Jordan Peele's latest screenplay, a new sequel to the horror classic Candyman and the buzz (wink wink) is already electric.

Somehow, after being featured in The New York Times, Architectural Digest, and Entertainment Weekly, Domingo squeezed in some time for me this week.

So, I asked him rather sarcastically, have you had any trouble adapting to post-pandemic life?

"Well, I'm not lacking for anything to do," he said. "This whole thing has been an incredible moment of transformation, not only now and with all that is going on, but also what I learned about myself during the pandemic. It has really helped me accept all the good that's happening right now.

"I learned some lessons through the pandemic. It was a moment to realize that I can do more to advocate for myself and all that I'm capable of. The year of reflection was really an auspicious time. I was able to develop Bottomless Brunch, (his weekly digital series on AMC's website where he shows off his incredible fashion sense and hosts Zoom parties with legends like Patti LaBelle) and enjoyed relaxing, particularly by spending more time in the garden. I also established a much deeper connection to my husband. And, I just decided not to sweat the small stuff anymore."

All of the films and projects rushing toward the public domain certainly aren't among the small stuff. Did he realize that all this big stuff was going to hit simultaneously, and right as the country started emerging from the pandemic?

"The films, including Ma Rainey, were shot before the pandemic, but no I didn't know that they would all come out at the same time. My God, I feel so lucky, and like I've been given the opportunity to go out and talk about these projects in a way that tells people it's ok to go back out there. Go to the movies again and enjoy life. I guess it's my contribution to making the post-pandemic world a little bit better."

Domingo says that a film like Zola definitely provides a reason for people to get back into the movie theater. "It's wild. It's weird, and it's so much fun. It's about a slice of America with some wild characters doing some terrible and weird things. You've got to see it in the theater to appreciate this crazy adventure."

Is Domingo finding that he's become more recognizable, particularly after the enormous success of Ma Rainey? "Yes, absolutely! And, I think a lot of it is due to so many of us watching so much film and television during the pandemic, and probably seeing glimpses of me throughout. There's that aspect of it, and then with all the attention Ma Rainey received. I'm definitely getting stopped a lot more than I did before the pandemic, and I suspect that will continue once all the films come out this summer."

Domingo joked that on days he doesn't want to be recognized, he puts on his mask and a hat.

"Seriously though, it seems success has come so late in my career, and I think there's a reason for that. After 30 years in the business, I am able to handle it better. Being more mature also allows me to have a more honest and sincere connection with fans. As an actor, our job is to connect with the audience, and I think that plays a part in how you interact with people who come up to you and want to meet you or take a selfie.

"I don't mind all of this exposure particularly if it helps amplify the stories and characters I'm creating, and also helps shine a light on my story. Getting more attention means you have more influence. So, I'm very conscious about the incredible responsibility that comes with that.

"For some time, particularly before and during the pandemic, Domingo questioned what else he had to do to get the notice that is now coming his way. "For a while, I thought, I can't do anymore. I've written plays, musicals, I act in so many varied parts. It makes you question what the industry wants from you. I guess I've stuck around long enough that, metaphorically, all the lights are on in my house now."

How much does it mean that all this is happening to a 50-something, out Black man in Hollywood?

"It sends an incredible message and comes with great responsibility. It's wonderful to be seen and appreciated for your talents. I've never been anything but an out, gay Black man. I've always been true to myself. Now having said that I'm at least a thousand other superlatives. I play all kinds of characters through my acting, and there's no limitations put on my gifts, including writing and creating, and I feel very blessed about all of it. I'm a lucky man.

But yes, being who I am does feel significant, and I hope that I'm carving out a great legacy for myself that is a beacon to other gay Black men in the industry, and those who aspire to be in the industry. The message is that you can be all you want. And it starts with you. That's the motto I teach, and that I live by. There's such a freedom in being true to yourself - always."

John Casey is editor-at-large for The Advocate.

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