'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' star Colman Domingo said it felt 'like God was in the room' during one scene where Chadwick Boseman broke down into tears
- Insider spoke with actor
Colman Domingo, who played Cutler, the band leader, in Netflix's Oscar-buzzing adapation, " Ma Rainey's Black Bottom."
- Domingo revealed that he put on 10 pounds to look older than his late costar
Chadwick Bosemanand permed his hair to prepare for his role.
- During the epic scene where Boseman and everyone on set begins to cry, Domingo remembered thinking, "This is the good stuff. This is what we try to get to as actors. Don't leave it. Bring your soul. Don't just be Levee. Be Chad too. Let both of them come roaring out of you."
- The actor explained that he feels a sense of responsibility in making sure Boseman's legacy stays intact.
Action. This word seems to be magical for Colman Domingo because when he hears it, he gives us everything that he's got in front of the camera. And what he's got is the gift of bringing characters to life in a way that makes it impossible for us to forget them.
The 51-year-old Philadelphia-born actor, writer, producer and director has been acting for 30 years, but this year his epic performances have been causing quite a stir, giving him the recognition that he's deserved for some time.
Watching him obliterate zombies on "
It wasn't until college that one of his professors saw, and acknowledged what we all saw as he stood beside
Insider had an in-depth conversation with Domingo just a few days before the Netflix premiere of the film adaptation of August Wilson's stage play. He spoke about how he's handled the pandemic, detailed ways that he prepared for his role in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," and shared the responsibility he feels to protect Boseman's legacy after the actor died earlier this year, succumbing to a private battle with colon cancer.
Domingo put on 10 pounds and permed his hair to prepare for his role in 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom'
How did you get started with acting?
My mom was always saying, "You should take a class to sort of get you to open up more." So, I took an acting class as an elective [in college] because I was shy and that's what started it. I just made contact with the teacher who inspired me to be an actor. His name was Christopher Wolf, and he said, "Have you ever thought about acting as a profession?" And I was like, "No, I come from West Philly." I didn't know people who did this for a living. And he was like, "I think this may be your gift. I would be really happy if you just took a look at that." For years, I was like, "I got to tell this guy that he was the one who told me I had a gift, and he changed the course of my life."
Speaking of changing the course of your life, this year has pretty much changed everyone's life. How have you handled the pandemic?
Immediately, I thought of this pandemic as sort of like a time out for everybody. So, the first thing I did was create a show called Bottomless Brunch at Colman's, which was just from my home. It was an opportunity to innovate, and I thought, "Let's not let this stop us. How can we find different ways to continue to do the things that we love?"
Let's get into "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." You were both brilliant and powerful. How did you prepare for this role?
The first thing you do is you go to the source material, which is the incredible play version of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" by August Wilson. This is the way I've always learned in the theater. I put a collection of images together from Black folks during the Great Migration and created a lookbook for myself. I looked at Ma Rainey's music and then her counterpart Bessie Smith. Everything that your character needs to know, you have to do research on.
So, you didn't just play Cutler, the trombone player and band leader, you were Cutler. He's basically the glue that holds everything and everyone together, the level-headed peace maker.
I do months and months of work in detail for any character since I'm a character actor to the core. I decided to put on 10 more pounds because I thought, Cutler is not a man who has a mostly vegan diet like me. He eats more meat and he's a southern boy and he has a southern body. I wanted to look a little older than Chad as well. Also, everyone had a very definitive way they did their hair. So, I had a relaxer in my hair.
You permed your hair. That's commitment.
Yeah, I got a perm because he's the ultimate sort of diplomat. He had to be one of the boys, Ma's proxy - her right hand, and then deal with the recording companies. So, he had to look and hold himself in a way that white people could understand, also the way Black people could understand. So, he had to code switch a lot.
Domingo said it felt 'like God was in the room' during one scene in which his late costar Boseman broke down into tears
This play was written in the '80s and set in the '20s, but much of the words spoken are true today. What do you think? Would you agree?
Absolutely. I think there's a tremendous lineage from the Great Migration to Black Lives Matter. I think that we're dealing with a lot of Black folks moving to the north from the south with hope of a better future and asking for agency in the world and to be seen as human. And it's something that has been entombed on memorials since Black people have been in this country that we've been asking for and fighting for and marching for. And now, they're finally marching, fighting, and actually demanding. So, I can see a direct line from the themes of this play and the Great Migration to now.
There's been a lot of talk about the scene where Cutler and Levee, played by Chadwick Boseman, are going toe to toe about faith and God, and Boseman's character becomes enraged and denounces God. Boseman breaks down crying in that scene and you push him to keep going. Now that you know that he was a man of faith battling cancer and fighting for his life, what are your thoughts on that scene and his breakdown?
I know for sure that we possibly gave him that permission to lean into whatever questions he may have had. I just started yelling, "Tell me, tell me, tell me" because I didn't want the scene to stop because it does feel like God was in the room and you're like, "This is the good stuff. This is what we try to get to as actors. Don't leave it. Bring your soul. Don't just be Levee. Be Chad too. Let both of them come roaring out of you." And he did it.
Afterwards, how was the temperature on set?
We put our arms around each other and we just cried. And consciously, I don't know why we were crying. But it hurt us to say these words, to have this argument, to have these very strong Black men come to blows because of that question that could possibly be in our hearts and our minds sometimes. What if the character of Levee is right, that "God hates n-----s, that God hates them with everything in his heart? He takes n-----s' dreams and throws them in the garbage. God hates your Black a--. Don't care nothing about you." That will break Cutler to the core.
During that conversation, Levee questions where God was when his mother was crying for Him. While Boseman was a strong man of faith, he was human and fighting for his life. I wonder if in that moment, he was also thinking, "God, where are you?"
The difference between Levee and Chad, which is why I look at him as sort of a king among kings, the thing that I do know about him, is I think he believed that, OK, God, if this is your will, I will trust your will and I will trust my journey. And I think that's why he made every moment count in his life. Since he was in "Black Panther" and he was struggling with this, you look at his career. He made everything count, every opportunity to speak on something, to move the dial forward when it comes to representation and things that concern Black folks and making people aware. He used his time.
If you could go back, would you have still pushed him?
Yeah, I think I would have still pushed him because I think that I was pushing him for good.
When you learned of his passing, mentally, where did you go?
I don't know where I went. To be honest, I just felt a tremendous loss. And not even about him being an artist, his cultural impact. Man, it just felt like he was just getting started.
This film is definitely Oscar worthy. You all were extraordinarily remarkable, and we'll be talking about these performances for years to come.
You know, when it comes to this film getting out there, I was like, "Viola and Chad will just lead and I can go do other things." And then, I was like, "Now, I will have to take on the mantle and the responsibility to make sure that my brother's legacy is intact, so I honor him by speaking his name." And I think that's exactly what I want to do.
"Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," also starring Glynn Turman, Taylor Paige and Michael Potts, premieres on Netflix on December 18.
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