Breaking Baz: ‘Rustin’ Oscar Nominee Colman Domingo On Breaking Through After 33 Years As A Journeyman Actor, The Art Of The Red Carpet & Talking Diplomacy With President Obama

Colman Domingo — with Oscar, BAFTA and SAG Awards nominations under his belt for his powerful portrait of influential civil rights organizer Bayard Rustin in the Netflix movie Rustin — wants people to know that he’s “having the time of my life” after 33 years in the industry as a proud journeyman actor. And he’s had the thrill of discussing diplomatic matters with former President Obama.

“I know so many journeymen in this industry, and I feel like I’m a journeyman that broke through,” he tells me.

More from Deadline

That he’s having a good time is evident from the whirlwind of red carpets the actor has graced in recent weeks — dressed, as he puts it, “like a peacock.”

RELATED: Colman Domingo On Why ‘Rustin’ Matters, Taking On Mister In ‘The Color Purple’ & Where ‘Euphoria’ Could Be Heading Next – The Actor’s Side

But there’s more to it than that. Domingo’s using the opportunity to allow what he wears to be viewed as a form of performative art. And this awards season he’s perfected his look with aplomb.

Take the flowing textured gold Valentino coat flowingly draped over a mustard suit that he wore to the Critics Choice Awards last month.

It’s impossible to forget that Domingo stopped red carpet traffic bedecked in Valentino.

Colman Domingo at the Critics Choice Awards in January (Amy Sussman/WireImage)
Colman Domingo at the Critics Choice Awards in January (Amy Sussman/WireImage)

“Listen, I’m having the time of my life,” he tells me. “I’ve always been this way when it comes to telling my story. How do you tell your story when sometimes all they have is an image? And I’m very conscious of that.”

RELATED: Colman Domingo On ‘Rustin’ Oscar Nom, Pulling Bayard Rustin “Out Of The Shadows Of History” & What It Means For LGBTQ+ Representation

Domingo reasons that he’s not going to turn up in a simple black suit unless it’s required in some way.

“But I feel like, this is the middle of the awards season — I do feel a bit like a peacock. I feel like I want to let people know that I’m having a great time.

“It’s about being in the room,” he says, emphasizing the point with a theatrical flourish.

“How do we show up? I want to inspire other people to show up and have a good time,” he says. “Whether I take the stage and accept an award or not, it’s pointless, actually. … But I want you to know I was here and I had a good time.”

In over three decades of covering award seasons, Domingo’s probably the first time I’ve paid close attention to what a male actor’s worn, aside from the utterly effortless cool displayed by Bill Nighy (Bridgerton’s Jonathan Bailey knows how to cut a dash too). And a shout-out must be given to Frank Sinatra, who used to sport a red or orange silk pocket square to give a pop of color to formal attire — a look that yours truly admits to borrowing.

That’s enough about me!

Jonathan Bailey and Colman Domingo at the Golden Globe Awards (Baz Bamigboye/Deadline)
Jonathan Bailey and Colman Domingo at the Golden Globe Awards (Baz Bamigboye/Deadline)

Oftentimes it’s hard to remember who actually took home an award, but I sure remember that Colman Domingo was there in the room.

He laughs and says, “But we know who won the red carpet, don’t we?!”

He adds: “I can tell a story with every outfit that I wore. It’s all very conscious, every single one.”

RELATED: Emmy Awards Photos: Best Of The Red Carpet

Domingo discusses the Louis Vuitton outfit he wore for the Emmys, which had jewelry and broaches dangling from the beautifully cut fabric “because I felt like it was a coronation time in a way. Stepping into my full self, my full being as an artist in a way on this platform.

“It was like, yeah, I wanted to wear things that are very regal, very tailored. It felt very British in a way, felt like I was part of the royal family,” he jokes.

There’s a serious point here, though. Domingo knows that the Oscar, SAG and BAFTA nominations, and all of the other accolades, allow him to occupy a “rare space.”

“I know how I’m being possibly perceived,” he adds.

Also, he understands “that it’s like looking at how we perceive Black men, how we perceive Black queer men, Black women or Black men from from inner-city west Philadelphia.

RELATED: Colman Domingo, Keke Palmer, Ayo Edebiri, Victoria Monét Lead NAACP Image Awards Nominations

“There’s a lot of eyes on me. And I want to show how I represent my communities in many ways and how we don’t just marginalize ourselves or anything,” he says. “I’m like, no, I’m stepping into my fullest self and the way I believe I should be seen in the world … whether it’s being a Black man, whether it’s being with an Afro-Latin father, whether it’s being from West Philly, whether it’s being queer. I’m like, I got a lot of communities who are saying, ‘Hey, you represent us.’ So I’ve got to show up and show out.”

I remember smiling when Domingo turned up at the Universal Filmed Entertainment soiree that Donna Langley hosted at the Sunset Tower last month. His all-red ensemble consisting of a Jill Sander cashmere top and Casablanca trousers outshone the Oppenheimer cast and creatives — though that movie’s canny costume designer Ellen Mirojnick’s pink trouser suit popped.

Colman Domingo and others at the Universal Filmed Entertainment soiree (Baz Bamigboye/Deadline)
Colman Domingo and others at the Universal Filmed Entertainment soiree (Baz Bamigboye/Deadline)

RELATED: Colman Domingo On Career Versatility And Keeping His Plate Full Between ‘Rustin’ And ‘The Color Purple’: “I Feel Like I Should Be Able To Play Fabulous And Very Butch”

Domingo gives credit to stylists Wayman + Micah, who also dress Regina King, Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor and Aja Naomi King, though he thinks “I’m their only man.”

He says they really collaborate “and they also help challenge me a little bit.”

They’re also conscious of every room he enters and the story they’re  telling in it.

When he appeared on Graham Norton’s BBC talk-show last weekend to discuss Rustin, the stylists discovered that the set’s color palette had red chairs. Even so, they decided to wrap him in a red sort of military suit, which had little flecks of gold in it. “It’s a very Michael Jackson feel,” Domingo says, referencing the fact that he’s portraying Joe Jackson, the singer’s father, in filmmaker Antoine Fuqua’s Michael biopic that’s shooting now.

RELATED: ‘Michael’ Cast: Who’s Who In The Michael Jackson Biopic

“There’s something that starts to set up some ideas about things that are on the horizon instead of the moment that I’m in right now,” he say while addressing the roles he plays in Rustin and his turn as Mister in The Color Purple.

I’m in awe of Domingo’s work ethic. Back in the day, I’d spot him night after night at stage openings in NYC and London — sometimes he’d be performing on those stages himself — and then he’d be off filming something during the day. Now he has a string of movies lined up, some in post, some shooting, others in pre-production.

Along with Michael, he has a role in Ethan Coen’s Drive-Away Dolls; he’s leading the Chernin Entertainment miniseries The Madness that’s headed for Netflix; there’s a TV drama in the works set in his hometown called West Philly, Baby; and the Nat King Cole biopic that he’ll be starring in and is writing and directing.

RELATED: Colman Domingo On George Floyd, Nat King Cole And The Deep Legacy That Connects The Two – Guest Column

And don’t forget the movie It’s What’s Inside, which his husband Raul Domingo produced and he executive produced. It sold “to Netflix recently for $17 million at Sundance,” he tells me gleefully.

Colman Domingo at Gersh’s Sundance party in January (Araya Doheny/Getty Images)
Colman Domingo at Gersh’s Sundance party in January (Araya Doheny/Getty Images)

He’s visually moved because Raul is president and producer of their Edith Productions company. “He’s got such a sweet, mellow energy,” Domingo says of his beloved partner.

“Yet, he’s also training to be a pilot,” he says admiringly. “And he’s learning Japanese! So he’s very much like me in a way. We really know how to balance each other out and complement each other in a great way. And then he’s just a kind, gentle soul. And it’s consistent. What people see is actually the truth. That’s him all the time.”

For himself, Domingo says: “Since I came out of the womb in this industry when I was about 21 years old, I’ve always been a multihyphenate” who can work at a high level “but also make time for going for walks in the garden. I love to cook a meal, making dinner, putting a fire in the fireplace. I really have some easy time. People never believe that. They’re like, ‘What are you doing tonight?’ I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m just on the couch.’ They can’t even imagine that I’m doing that.”

I feel part of that remark’s addressed to me because I’ve known the artist Colman Domingo personally for over two decades, having first seen him perform in NYC and London, and I’ve often remarked, “Please find time for yourself to rest.”

“I really have military precision,” he counters. “It has be military precision because I actually organize my rest time as well. I may wake up a little earlier because I actually just want time to sit with my coffee, and I may just want to listen to some jazz. So I make sure that happens an hour before I have to do anything.”

To that end, he’s already mapped out his agenda for the plane ride back to the U.S. — like he knows he’s got time to learn some lines, look over the budget for the Nat King Cole film. ”I’ll eat my meal, and then I’ll go down for a nice nap.

“The more I’m organized, the more I get things done,” as I tell him that there’s a best-seller in the offing here.

How did he acquire such organizational skills? I ask enviously.

“I think some people are just born like that,” he says. “I feel like I have one of those brains that can do it. I can hold a lot. I didn’t learn this from my parents. My parents,they would just have one job and they would come home. They weren’t multi-taskers like that, but I think I’ve always always had a lot of energy. And I was able to focus it. I think when I’m doing three to four things at once, I can focus even stronger.”

After our conversation, I rewatched director George C.Wolfe’s  Rustin and saw Domingo’s performance in a new light in the sense that his acting is much, much deeper than I’d realized and how effortlessly he plays him. And the fact that both men possess great organizational skills is a bonus.

RELATED: Colman Domingo Says ‘Rustin’ Movie, Produced By The Obamas, “Was A Great Calling” – Contenders Film L.A.

What’s so joyful, yet also so bittersweet, about the rightful acclaim he’s receiving now is that it wasn’t always so. I saw him in Susan Stroman’s production of the John Kander-Fred Ebb musical The Scottsboro Boys — both on and Off Broadway — and again when it moved to London. I figured Domingo must have returned home in triumph because we really embraced him and his castmates over here.

He shakes his head and corrects my assumption. “I had such a great time here. And then I go back to New York, and when I tell you the auditions that I was getting, they were embarrassing. I thought, ‘This doesn’t make sense for my soul.’ These were really nothing. I couldn’t get into the door to get other more complex, beautiful roles. And I thought after I’ve done a show like The Scottsboro Boys, nominated for Oliviers and Tonys, and I go back to this. And now I’m in my mid-40s ,I thought, ‘I can’t start over.’

“I can’t do this anymore,” he says speaking candidly as I refill his water glass. “I really was going to leave the business.”

He returned home to Raul after what he calls a devastating week of not getting anything. “I talked to Raul, I said, ‘My heart was so broken.’ I said, ‘Would you be OK if I did something else?'” knowing it was a decision concerning them both.

He took a moment to think it through, objectively, while thinking of his body of work to date, and the fact that he could continue working his “side hustle” doing headshot photography — “and actors always need headshots” he reasoned. He was making $300-$400 a session, “and I would do two or three a day.”

During that time, I spotted him when I visited the set of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, playing a small but pivotal role. He changed his representation, and the first thing he landed was Fear the Walking Dead. “And it changed my life,” giving him a new footing in the industry.

RELATED: ‘Fear The Walking Dead’ Series Finale: Colman Domingo On Victor Strand’s Journey, Spinoffs & Finding The Right Way To Say Goodbye

Domingo directed three episodes and was one of the producers of the final season. “You know me, Baz. Listen, I’m a boy from inner-city west Philadelphia, if you give me the opportunity, I’m going to come out with everything I need in some way. I’m going to take everything off the bone because I have to. It’s survival.”

I ask some more about the Nat King Cole film, and he says that it’ll be framed in 1957, when the singer had his own variety show, and he described it as a “kissing cousin” to his musical Lights Out: Nat King Cole that he did at the Geffen Playhouse. He stressed that the two works are not the same, saying, ”They’re cousins to the framework.”

The film’s about “the choice of grace,” he says, “because everyone thinks that Nat King Cole would always take the high road when he was almost being dragged off the stage by the Ku Klux Klan and things like that.”

Cole always took the high road, he says, “but I wanted to get into the psychology of the choice to take the high road. Because I think, as we know, it’s a choice. But he also has as much fire and fuel as everyone else inside him; that’s why he was the way he was.”

Do you take the high road? I ask.

“It’s always a choice,” he says. “I do. But also, I do think it’s a choice because I think I have rage and fury and all that other complicated stuff inside of me, like everyone else. But daily I make a choice because I’m very conscious of my words and actions and how I want people to feel.”

And how you’re perceived, I quietly venture.

“And how I’m perceived,” he readily agrees. “But more than that, I think it’s more like how I want people to feel. My husband says, ‘You could run for president if you wanted to.’ He always says that — ‘because you have a diplomacy about you.'”

“Let’s not go there,” he warns.

Taking no heed of that, I say, “Let’s go down that road, baby.”

“On having a great sense of diplomacy, I don’t disagree with him,” he says. “I disagree with him that I’m going to run for president because I don’t want that responsibility. But I do know that I have a great sense of diplomacy and a sense of integrity. It’s always a work in progress, trying to get better. I’m very conscious of that. So that is a choice.”

RELATED: Barack Obama Pays Tribute To Civil Rights Pioneer At D.C. ‘Rustin’ Screening

Former President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama are executive producers of Rustin.

Domingo says that while they didn’t discuss politics, the president really believed that if there was “no Bayard Rustin, there would be no Barack Obama, because he really admires Bayard’s organizational skills. Bayard was the most fascinating thinker and organizer, being able to bring coalitions and unions all together.”

Colman Domingo and Jeffrey Wright in ‘Rustin’ (Netflix)
Colman Domingo and Jeffrey Wright in ‘Rustin’ (Netflix)

I mention his solo show A Boy and His Soul, which played 11 years ago at the then-Tricycle Theatre, now called The Kiln, in Kilburn, London. I was on the theatre’s board and can remember Indhu Rubasingham ushering it into the building where it was directed by Titas Halder, now associate artistic director of the Donmar. Rubasingham now is artistic chief designate of the National Theatre.

RELATED: Breaking Baz: UK National Theatre Picks Indhu Rubasingham As First Woman For Top Post

Domingo says that he chatted with Rubasingham recently “because we both are trying to get me back to London on a good stage here.”

Smiling, he says proudly that Rubasingham ”has the biggest stage in the country.”

The idea of possibly having Colman Domingo grace the stage of the National Theatre someday is too tantalizing to comprehend. Somebody make it happen, please.

And there’s Halder over at the Donmar. “Ao maybe I can play with him as well,” Domingo says, his eyes lit up.

“And these are just mates of mine that were creating on smaller stages. And now everyone has evolved in many ways,” he adds.

Earlier, Domingo referred  himself as a journeyman actor, and my sense is that his achievements of late are a signal of hope for other artists. He refuses to use the term “struggling artist” because “there’s something that’s diminished about that, instead of actually committing to the life of an artist.”

He feels like his “journey” is inspiring people to say, ”Hey, stay in it, that’s your journey. And it’s a journey of an artist.”

Best of Deadline

Sign up for Deadline's Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.