NEW YORK (AP) — Colman Domingo has a commanding physical presence, an expressive face and soulful eyes. But his most limber and powerful tool is his voice.
It can go low in a bone-rattling baritone, like in his Nigerian-accented pimp in Janicza Bravo’s “Zola.” Or it can rise to the warm, erudite rhythm of civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, in “Rustin.” In Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” Domingo’s voice, as a union soldier, is the first thing you hear.
Domingo, himself, isn’t sure when his voice became so resonate. Tracing it sends him back to his childhood, growing up a self-described outsider — gay, awkward, unsure of himself — in west Philadelphia. That voice, he says, wasn’t there 20 years ago.
“At some point, as I grew into this person, comfortable in my own skin, sexuality, my mind, my intentions, who I am in the world, I think my voice developed more,” Domingo says. “I don’t know that I had this voice before. All the resonance in my voice, I can hear it. There’s confidence. There’s gravitas to it. I hear exactly what people hear now.”
People are finally hearing Domingo. His performance in George C. Wolfe's “Rustin" — Domingo's first time atop the call sheet — has made the 53-year-old journeyman actor a favorite for a best actor Oscar nomination. It’s a deft and dazzling leading performance that channels all the complexities of the March on Washington architect.
Domingo also co-stars as Mister, the abusive antagonist of “The Color Purple,” one of the most anticipated holiday releases. The roles couldn’t be more different. Throw in the fall-festival hit “Sing Sing,” in which Domingo stars alongside a cast of mostly formerly incarcerated actors (A24 will release it in 2024), and you have the full spectrum of what Domingo is capable of.
Years of struggle as a supporting player in service of others have finally led to his turn in the spotlight.
“I started to feel like: Well, what happened, God? What is my journey? At some point, my journey felt like Bayard’s journey, which is maybe why I feel we’re so close,” Domingo says. “You know, I’ve assisted many people getting Oscars. I’ve assisted many people getting a lot of shine and love.”
On the heels of the actors strike ending, Domingo met recently at a Manhattan hotel overlooking Central Park. After months of being unable to promote that part of his life, he had been thrown straight into late-night appearances, interviews and a “Rustin” screening in Washington, with Barack and Michelle Obama, whose Higher Ground Productions produced the film. Domingo threw a bunch of cold-weather clothes together and jumped on a plane from Los Angeles.
“Basically, I was shot out of a cannon,” he says, smiling.
Domingo, sincere and amiable in conversation, had the appearance of someone eminently aware that a hard-earned moment had finally arrived.
“I keep telling people that I’m 54 years old. Because for this to happen now, it’s unusual,” Domingo says. (His birthday is Nov. 28.) “Suddenly, after 32 years, it seems like the sun is shining on every corner of my career.”
Domingo was raised in a working-class family by his mother and step-father. Domingo’s father, whom he’s named after, wasn’t a part of his life. It wasn’t until he took an acting class at Temple University that he began acting. In regional theater, starting in San Francisco, he honed the wide-ranging ability of a character actor.
“Growing up, I never thought I was much to look at it. I think it liberated me,” Domingo says. “I know I can play a handsome man and a hideous man because I’m liberated. I can play anything. I’m not looking at myself. I’m not taking myself too seriously. I have the body of a clown.”