‘Rustin’ Star Colman Domingo on Portraying the Fabled Civil Rights Leader: ‘He Makes Organizing Sexy’

Also watch an exclusive featurette from the film

Rustin
Colman Domingo in "Rustin" (Netflix)

Colman Domingo is ready to take center stage.

The actor, a veteran of stage and screen, is known for his scene-stealing supporting roles in projects like “Zola,” “Candyman” and “Selma,” but in “Rustin” (out now on Netflix), he is in nearly every scene. Domingo plays Bayard Rustin, an important but historically marginalized member of the Civil Rights movement who organized the March on Washington in 1963. (He was openly gay and, as depicted in the film, that aspect of his life was often weaponized against him.)

It’s a miraculous performance, full of rich detail and raw emotion, with Colman bringing to life a historical figure that most people have probably never heard of. Thanks to Colman, after you watch the film, you’ll feel like you know much more about what made him so special.

TheWrap spoke to Domingo about what the process of bringing Rustin (and “Rustin”) to life was like, including where that accent came from and what it was like re-teaming with director George C. Wolfe. And watch an exclusive new featurette about the making of the film below.

You’ve had quite the year. Only you could have played a sentient planet in “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts” and a groundbreaking Civil Rights leader in “Rustin.” That’s range.

When you say it like that. Yeah, that’s a lot of range. I like that.

How much did you know about Bayard Rustin before signing on?

I knew more than others. Most people don’t know anything about him, but I stumbled upon him when I was about junior year in college when I joined the African American Student Union. And his name came up in a conversation. And when his name came up, and then they also said he was openly gay, and quaker, and young communist, and from Westchester, Pennsylvania, an athlete. He played the lute and sang Elizabethan love songs. I thought, Wait a minute. And he organized the march in Washington. I thought, Whoa, how come we don’t know this? For my money, it really started to help me acknowledge what history does, how history will shine lights on some and diminish the others. And I knew that he was marginalized because he was openly gay. And he became very much a personal hero for me, just looking at how he navigated his life and still was dedicated to his work of service, regardless of all the knocks and things that were against him. I thought it was really heroic.

How did this project come into your orbit? Was it something that you went out for?

Well, I heard that it was being put together. And I had a conversation with the producer, Bruce Cohen. And George Wolfe was directing. And I had worked with George on his previous film, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” I don’t know if I was head-on direct about it, but I knew I was being discussed about I might be great for this in some way. And I hoped because I knew that there was something I think I could process and work with. Did I know I would absolutely be able to do it? No. But I thought that I have a lot inside of me and a lot of history, and work ethic, and passion to tell the story. Then I was cast. There was not an audition. It was an offer from George for me to be Rustin.

You’ve done all of these amazing supporting performances, where you come in and make your mark. But here you get to shine and are in almost every scene. How did that feel? Were you nervous?

Yeah, of course it’s demanding. You know what? The moment you’re tasked in something like this and you know the amount of work that it’s going to take when it comes to research and development, and I think I had about five months to prepare, and then I would use every day of that. You don’t have time to be nervous. You actually don’t even think about being nervous. You think, I just have to work, and I have to get as much inside of me and know so much and figure out his voice and his body and his hands and his eyes and the way he sings. I had a lot of this stuff to figure out, so I didn’t have a chance to be nervous. You know what I mean? Maybe that’s what I do. I just don’t get nervous because I think I’ll freak myself out then.

Once I looked at the day-to-days when I was like, Oh, I’m working every single day, every single day. And then you start to think, Well, how I’m going to learn that speech? How am I going to learn that? And you think, I just have to get ahead of all of it. I had to learn the entire script before I started shooting and I had to learn all of that. I had to be way more ahead of the game, so then I can also be a leader on set as well, because then they became that level that you needed to do as well.

It was truly demanding, but because of the film, the subject matter, what we’re doing, that felt more like a mission. It didn’t feel like work. It felt like, I’m honored for this task, for… We don’t get this opportunity all the time. You just named “Transformers.” I mean, that’s something you go into a studio that they had a good time, but it’s not calling on my whole being. You know what I mean? Just called on everything that I’ve worked for thirty-two years. They called on everything. All the skills that I learned in the theater, all the skills I’ve learned as a producer and director, it was in that film.

Tell me about that five-month period. Was there something that you found during that period that unlocked the character and your performance in some way?

That’s a great big question. First, I start with a lot of research. I need to know everything. Anything I could possibly find out, I want to know. I looked at Bayard Rustin’s writings, and his papers, and his debates and any interviews that was on him at all. I’d listened to his album. I found his album of him singing, which is great, and playing the lute, and found out he was also in a Broadway show with Paul Robeson.

You find out all this information and then you start to figure out the person, the body, the physical body as well. I would look at imagery of him, and the way he sat, the way he held his hands, the way he would stand when he’s just… things that he’s not posing at all, but just looking at images of him.

And then also had some access to a couple of people who are very close to him, Rachelle Horowitz, who’s also featured the film, who will be able to give me some personal anecdotes about him. And also Walter Nagel, his partner that he had into his passing, and that’s really important. I think that’s the cherry on top when you’re able to find out the person are, like what kind of jokes did the person like to tell, or… all of that personal stuff that is not even in the script and no one would know or what did they like to eat? Or when they travel, what’s the first thing they did? I want to know all that stuff because it helps inform the performance. It could even help inform when I go to my costume fitting if this costume makes sense while he’s at home. I know we have a huge conversation, me and my costume designer about that.

At first when I had a home scene with Audra McDonald, and she had me in a suit. It’s like a dress shirt or something. I was like, “Hmm.” And we went back and forth and said, “But what about when he’s home and nobody’s watching? What does he look like?” I know I look different when I’m at home. I said, “Not the part that he didn’t come from anywhere. He’s just having his friend over for dinner. Can we show a little bit of the fact that he loves to travel, and he buys things in India or Africa or places like that?” Then she was right on somewhere.

All of that stuff helps him form the character because I did all this work. And I wanted to know… I can always know whenever he was in any space, how he would respond, or how he would feel, or how he would use his body, or how he would use his accent that he made up, which was a mid-Atlantic standard accent of his own making. I didn’t make that up. It’s like, “No. He spoke like that.” He spoke probably a little further than I did for the film. I wanted to just make sure it was enough to a taste of it. I didn’t want you to be focused on the accent but there’s a slight loop that he does. And sometimes he serves it up a bit more and it’s a bit more British at times. And that’s in all my research. It changes. So I would ask, “What is this accent?” And Russell Harwood was like, “Oh, he made it up.”

Tell me about your relationship with George and how it has evolved.

George is one of the most demanding directors for an actor, he is. Because he doesn’t let you get away with any of your tricks, which I appreciate. He trusts that you’ll do your research and your work. He wants you to know as much as he knows but also he wants you to unknow things as well, which is kind of liberating, actually. He asks you to liberate yourself. When you’re finding something in the moment that’s kinetic, and honest, and beautiful, it’s real. He said the other day, “Because you can’t act vulnerability,” and it’s true. You can’t. You’re either vulnerable or you’re not. He will set the room up and set up moments and scenes for you for it to happen, but you can’t force it. He’ll set you up in every way, whether it’s the scenic design and the music, you name it. But he’ll set you up in a gorgeous way.

I love working with George. He’s become a dear friend and collaborator as well, because I love that we can argue about a moment. And all he asks is that you back up what you’re thinking. So he said, “Okay, just try it.” And he said, “Oh, I like that. Good, good.” Because he may not be able to see it. But he’s fine with it, but you’ve got to be strong with your convictions as well, because he is very strong with his convictions. I love working with George. He’s one of my favorite directors.

George talked to me about how he was just amazed at how much Rustin accomplished with the March and rallying all of these people.

He makes organizing sexy. It’s a movie about organizing. That’s what it’s about. That’s the sexiest thing. They’re talking about organizing and getting coalitions. That’s hot.

You’re going to be introducing Rustin to millions of people. Do you feel the weight of that at all?

I say this sincerely and maybe it’s just me but I feel very calm about all of it. You know why? Because I feel like we did what we attempted to do and I feel like I’m not someone who believes that I can’t respond. I can’t tell people how to receive it, whether it’s criticism or people in their homes. I can’t tell people how to receive it. I experienced it in what my hope was and what I poured into it. And then, if you receive any of that, wonderful. That’s great. I don’t feel nervous. It’s wild. I feel very happy, actually, that it’s finally getting out there because we’ve worked on this for a bit. I’m just happy that people finally get to see and get to know the man that is one of my personal heroes and the beautiful film that I think that George and I made together. I’m very, very proud of it. Hopefully, what messages that are out there today that hopefully people can receive, which is about, I think, it’s very hopeful at a time that’s very dark. That’s the way I hope it’s received.

“Rustin” is on Netflix now.

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