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“I Am Limitless”: Colman Domingo Reacts to His First Oscar Nomination for ‘Rustin’

Colman Domingo became a first-time Oscar nominee Tuesday morning for his leading role in Rustin, the biopic of openly gay civil rights advocate Bayard Rustin directed by George C. Wolfe.

Domingo has been acting for years, most recently in projects as varied as HBO’s Euphoria and the new musical adaptation of The Color Purple. With Rustin, though, he was able to step away from the supporting character work he’s known for onscreen and lead a film at the top of the call sheet. The Netflix release is produced by the Obamas’ production company Higher Ground and also stars Chris Rock, American Fiction nominee Jeffrey Wright and The Holdovers nominee Da’Vine Joy Randolph.

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Reflecting on his years in the industry, Domingo chatted with The Hollywood Reporter, in the wake of his Oscar nom, about the importance of Rustin, sharing the moment with his husband and the banner year he’s had with the joint release of The Color Purple.

Were you up watching the nominations this morning?

I was listening to the nominations, because my husband was watching the feed. I couldn’t bear to watch, so I was literally in my closet, organizing my closet, when I needed something to do. And then I was walking around, pacing in my bathroom, just listening to friends and cheering them on, like when I heard Danielle Brooks and Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Sterling K. Brown, I just lost my mind. And then I got very nervous when it came to my category, and I went deeper into the bathroom, and then suddenly, because I guess the East Coast feed was coming in sooner, I get a text from my manager, who says “Oscar nominee.” This is literally a second before my husband found out. So I picked up the phone and put it back down. I was stunned, almost like it didn’t happen. And then my husband heard the news, and he laid on the floor and started crying.

Were there people you immediately had to call?

Yes, I talked to Danielle Brooks. And Da’Vine. And, of course, I talked to my niece. She’s like my daughter; she just was so proud and loving on me. And then, of course, you know, in between all the flurry of phone calls and text messages and all that, I’ve called my close friends who I know have been on this journey with me, my friend Sharon Washington, certain key people that I need, these anchors to remind [oneself] that these are the people who’ve really been behind you for many, many years. And know the whole of me. Those are the people that cut through.

You’ve been working in this industry for many years and done so many incredible roles. What does it feel like to be receiving this sort of acknowledgement, which you may not have felt from the industry up until now?

This has been such a long, winding journey. I never expected this kind of success. I knew I was dedicated to the work. And wherever it showed up, whether it was in regional theaters, Broadway, off Broadway, I just wanted to do good work. When I got this opportunity, I just knew I was ready for it. And to lead a film in this way, especially a film about Bayard Rustin, the way we did it with this incredible director, George C. Wolfe, I was receiving some of the gifts of my career. I knew that I wanted to pour everything I could into it. I actually was telling Bradley Cooper this yesterday, because he just watched my film yesterday and he called me with beautiful, full emotions about it. I told him, I said — and he said he felt this way about Maestro — I felt that if this was my last film, that’s the way I approached it, I’m gonna give it everything. Thirty-three years I’ve been working. I’m gonna give it everything I have, and I know I did. And he felt the same way about Maestro. And I said, “I see it. I see that you respected the work, and how you were delivering it, in every single way.” So he feels like a brother to me in this industry already. And of course we’ve already been doing films after that. But we were leaving it all on the floor, we believed and respected the work and the characters and the story so deeply.

So when you first receive the script for Rustin, what is that initial impression? Are you immediately like, I have to do this? Are you full of apprehension? 

When I first received the script, I was very happy that Bayard Rustin’s story was being told. He’s someone I knew about, but I know many people didn’t know about him. And the approach, I thought, was unique. It felt very small and personal, about this person who did so much and gave so much for our civil liberties. And so the one thing I knew was, I think I have everything inside me and the experience and the curiosity and the wherewithal to approach this work. I’m not a person who says “Oh, I got this, I have to do it.” I just felt like I had everything I needed and [was] curious about it. I think it was a moment of gratitude — deep, profound gratitude — that someone would trust me with this work, especially coming from the Obamas and Higher Ground and Bruce Cohen and George C. Wolfe. But also, I thought, I’m a little terrified, because this is a seismic opportunity, not only to be leading the film, but the way I would need to lead this film. Then I go into work mode. So, I don’t have time to be terrified. What I have to do is now respect the work, so I can also lead the film and be the soul of the production, in the way that I believe that Bayard Rustin would want me to do. I knew it was a unique opportunity to really give everything I had, to pull this American hero out of the shadows of history, someone who was so marginalized, and I know that he would be very happy that an openly gay man is portraying him. [The film is] directed by an openly gay man, produced by the Obamas, there’s so many extraordinary things about it. There was no opportunity to not be excellent.

It’s such a big deal, still, in today’s climate, for an openly gay actor playing an openly gay character to be nominated in lead actor. 

It’s exciting to me, too, because I know that this is history-making, in many ways. And I’m glad people could see the craftsmanship and see the work ethic and see the work in it. I’m overwhelmed in so many ways. But the most extraordinary way, for me, is I love that the more people know my name, the more they know Bayard Rustin’s name.

It’s been such a banner year for you with The Color Purple out as well. What’s it been like having both of these out in the same year?

I’m so appreciative, because Rustin was supposed to come out last year. And then it was moved on to this calendar year. And I actually got very nervous, because I thought: “These are two huge films, and two very large swings, when it comes to my acting chops.” And I thought, “OK, how am I going to promote these? I’m overwhelmed already.” I believe that everything happens for a reason. I love the idea that people can witness the way I want to show complex Black men — very different, unique experiences and how they all live in me. Any actor worth his grain of salt would want that: to be able to be viewed as an actor the way I see myself — that I am limitless. So what an extraordinary opportunity. I love being a part of The Color Purple. I think it’s one of the most magnificent, beautiful films. Of course, I do wish it got more love. I think it’s extraordinary. But I think it will continue to resonate with people as it’s out in the world, people will continue to discover it. And it’s something I’m very proud of.

You mentioned Bradley Cooper in Maestro. Are there other films or nominations from this year that you were personally moved by?

Oh, I’m personally moved by my [Color Purple] co-star Danielle Brooks, watching her work, and watching her perform, in this one pivotal scene at the Easter dinner table, it took my breath away. I had known Danielle for years, when she first came out of Juilliard, so I couldn’t be more proud and excited for her. Also Da’Vine Joy Randolph: We’re friends; we’re both from Philadelphia. I’m very happy for her. David Oyelowo created this beautiful short called The After. People like Bradley and Paul [Giamatti] and Cillian [Murphy], we’ve all become friends on this run. I really respect and admire them and getting to know them. I can’t rally enough for them. It’s never a contest. For these awards, anytime anyone has won an award, I’m the first one to stand up and shout for them. Because I know their work. And it’s just a random game in this way, when it comes to the win. Right now, this is the win, being in the room, hearing your name called with your colleagues and knowing that your work is amplified, what that does to the world. It’s really beautiful.

Do you know who your date will be to the ceremony? I’m assuming you’re taking your husband.

I’m looking at him; he’s sitting across from me right now in my office. Absolutely. Because there wouldn’t be this moment without him. We’ve been together for almost 19 years. And he’s been with me since I started, when I was in regional theaters. We first met when I was in Berkeley, at Berkeley Rep, doing a show, and he’s been on this journey of me moving through the theater, losing my parents. He picks me up, loves on me, helps me believe and encourages me. He’s always right beside me, so of course, at this moment, he’ll be right beside me.

Is there anyone you would be starstruck to run into at the Oscars?

You know what? I really hope that my executive producers, the Obamas, come. I hope they’re also my dates, because I’m always starstruck with them. And I get giddy thinking about them.

Are there types of roles or genres of films that you’re interested in tackling next?
I love character pieces. I feel like if there’s something that Yorgos [Lanthimos] has for me, I love these directors with these really wild minds. I would love to do something like Poor Things, whatever genre you call that. I feel like I want to work with experimental directors and anyone who wants me to push the boundaries of what I do, physically, emotionally, world building. For me, it’s always whatever you saw me do before, make sure it’s wildly different. I don’t like to do the same thing twice. I want something that’s going to continue to stretch me and it doesn’t have to be a big tentpole film, it can be a small character study.

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