'Fear the Walking Dead' actor Colman Domingo says the projects he chose have left him fundamentally altered as a person
The opportunity to appear in a work by Baldwin — one of the 20th Century’s most influential African American novelists — is something Domingo had been hoping would come his way
By Scott Huver
If Colman Domingo needed a potent antidote to the violent, bleak and deadly world of 'Fear the Walking Dead,' he may have found the perfect oasis. While author James Baldwin’s 1974 renowned novel 'If Beale Street Could Talk' is rife with social conflict and interpersonal angst, the forthcoming film adaptation — in which Domingo appears in a key supporting role — a more lyrical, sensitive and grounded environment than Robert Kirkman’s post-apocalyptic zombie-filled landscape, particularly in the contemplative hands of filmmaker Barry Jenkins, best known for the Academy Award-winning film 'Moonlight.'
The opportunity to appear in a work by Baldwin — one of the 20th Century’s most prominent and influential African American novelists, essayists and social critics — is something Domingo, a longtime aficionado of the writers’ works, had been hoping would one day come his way.
“I think my soul has been calling out for this for a long time,” Domingo, who once played a version of the author on stage for a celebration of Baldwin’s 90th birthday, tells Meaww. “I've been such an admirer of James Baldwin's work, his legacy. I feel like it's in my DNA. It's become my awakening as a male in America. I've been waiting and waiting for a long time.”
He sees Baldwin and Jenkins as kindred creative spirits. “He has much gentle grace and dignity that he really does stand on the shoulder of James Baldwin in many ways,” says Domingo. “I think he is a very gentle soul who is drawn to the depictions of African American life and putting to center all of our complicated messes that we're grappling with in America, unfortunately — the things that we're always grappling with in America. Finding our way.”
As he considered how he wanted to honor the author’s spirit as he embarked on the role of Joseph Rivers, the decent, supportive father of teenager Tish (Kiki Layne) who faces the loss of her love Fonny (Stephan James) due to an unjust legal system, Domingo settled on the masterful, very specific feel of Baldwin’s words. “I knew more than anything that I wanted to uphold his language,” he says. "James Baldwin can phrase something like no one else can. He is the Shakespeare of our time. All I know is that I wanted to honor his language and the men that he has constructed.”
“I depicted him without any tropes of African American men when it comes to things,” he explains. “This is someone who is so complex and definitely at his core a feminist. He is comfortable with his place in the world. He is a man's man. He also loves his brother so deeply. He loves his wife so deeply and supports her. He has tricky people partnerships, and that's something I think we haven't really seen with these male relationships on screen when it comes to African Americans…There's a scene in this film in the Rivers home that everyone, consistently, is saying to me that they wish they were in that home, they were in that family, because these are families that have so much love and so much generosity of spirit.”
Domingo was impressed with his experience working with Jenkins, whose sensitive, subdued approach permeated every level of production. “He's a gentle, quiet leader,” he says. “He's not leading this movie with a massive personality. He's leading with a sense of pride and integrity. That's something I know that I will take with me forever. I know that he's changed that part of me.”
Indeed, he feels that, like most of the projects he’s taken on in his career, has left him fundamentally altered as a person. “I think I have even more of a visceral understanding of my fellow man” he says. “Of how we are our brother's keepers and how I've had to examine my relationship with my own brother, with my own family and how we can make change together instead. Not let them go. If someone falls out of line, of your family, of love, try to hold closer. Try to keep understanding. That's all that we have at the core. I think at the center of ‘Beale Street Could Talk’ it's a family show that's about family trying to wrestle with America and that it's you against the world man. I think if I've learned anything that's to hang on even tighter to my family. To my loved ones. Fight for them. Teach them how to fight for me.”
Of course, fighting for himself as at the core of Domingo’s most well-known character, Victor Strand on 'Fear the Walking Dead.' And in the current season the mounting losses and fractured bonds that Stand’s experienced has left him in a spiral of increasing despair, which he’s alternately self-medicating with alcohol and by reaching out for new connections, like his burgeoning camaraderie with John Dorie (Garret Dillahunt) — even as their friendship threatens to snuff the long-simmering hope that’s kept Dorie going.
“I think Victor Strand is always a bit in a struggle,” says Domingo. “He's in a struggle and he's fighting his own demons, his own self, and I think his here was a man who was very hopeful about the future. He was a builder. Someone who was a self-made man. That can only be done by an optimist. And then he has lost so much.” After experiencing so much carnage in the zombie-fied world, Strand’s essential optimism may have finally maxed out. “I don't know if he's interested in finding out whether or not there's more because he felt like he's had such a journey. In this moment he still hasn't made peace with all of that. That maybe this is it. Maybe this is all there is.”
Domingo says that Strand and Dorie are at a crossroads, and their relationship may ultimately be the undoing of Dorie’s own optimism. “Victor pulled John Dorie to the other side,” he says. “At the core at John Dorie is he's a positive guy, so possibly he can have an effect on Victor so I think that that pairing may help Victor out. For the future we may see everyone still moving. They're still moving a lot. They've not taken themselves out, so I think if they're still walking they're hopeful.”
Strand’s addiction to alcohol may also be about to come to a head, Domingo suggests. “Quite possibly — I love what he said with the line ‘I was an amateur and I've gone pro,’” he says. “I think it's because of circumstance as well. Who can blame Victor Strand? He's lost everything. Everyone copes in their own way. Right now all of his answers are in the bottom of a bottle.”
The actor admits he can relate to Strand’s sense of loss as the series progresses — after all, cast members come and go as their characters fall prey to Walkers. And because some of Fear’s long-standing characters have recently met their demise, Domingo’s colleagues have also moved on — but not so completely from his own life.
“It's an incredible, difficult dance, because at the same time when I was losing not only cast mates and people I work with every single day, we work long hours,” he says. “We become really close and it's difficult to let them go. Meanwhile, we're bringing on new people and you have to be open to that as well. People are going to change the fabric of the show and bring their superpowers, their way of working, their generosity, their eye. It's a difficult dance, to be honest. [But] that's the nature of our show. The nature of our show is that you're on for the ride as long as you're on the ride. You give it all you got for every single episode.”
“These people are dear friends — there may be a loss on the show, but there's not a loss in our lives,” he adds. “Now Kim Dickens and I, we try to see each other at least once a week for dinner or at someone's house or we'll go see a show together or something. Frank Dillane, I'm always texting him. As much as I was texting him while we were working, so there's no love really lost. Basically only our work relationship has changed.”
“We have new people like Jenna Elfman and Garet Dillahunt and Lennie James and Maggie Grace, who bring so much professionalism and grace and love,” he says. “You have to lean into the fact that it's a new show — and that's the truth, that the element at the center of the show changed,” he said, noting that directing a recent episode of the show made him feel even more connected to the whole of it.
“I think I've been finding my way, and by being on the other side of the camera I know that I was a very strong leader myself as part of the franchise,” he says.