Colman Domingo Was ‘Born to Play’ Bayard Rustin

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
The IMDb Portrait Studio At The 2022 Outfest LA LGBTQ+ Film Festival Opening Night - Credit: Corey Nickols/Getty Images for IMDb
The IMDb Portrait Studio At The 2022 Outfest LA LGBTQ+ Film Festival Opening Night - Credit: Corey Nickols/Getty Images for IMDb

Although Colman Domingo’s spent three decades in the entertainment industry, with title roles in the theater, he says he’s been sidelined in film and television. He played a trombonist in Chadwick Boseman’s final film, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom; counselor to Zendaya’s troubled Rue in Euphoria; a violent, turn-on-a-dime pimp in Zola, and the father to a wrongly accused Harlem artist (Stephen James) in If Beale Street Could Talk. 

The craft and the composition comes first, he says, and by working in the margins of breakout shows and award-winning theatrical productions, he has built on the skill sets necessary to perform at the center of the storm. Deep down, he knew the right role would eventually come along.

More from Rolling Stone

In Netflix’s Rustin, directed by George C. Wolfe, the acting vet and playwright found that role. Domingo portrays Bayard Rustin, the unapologetic queer activist and head organizer behind the 1963 March on Washington, whose fight for civil liberties has been criminally overlooked. Here, civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. takes a backseat as Rustin tirelessly strategizes and plans the historic march, while fending off resistance from law enforcement and homophobic critics.

“I’ve been working toward this my whole career, especially someone like this who I deeply admire,” Domingo tells Rolling Stone. “I truly care about his impact and significance in our world, so I was ready for it.”

Domingo calls Rustin his North Star. He first discovered the activist leader at age 19 while attending a Black Student Union meeting at Temple University. He was drawn in by Rustin’s Quaker upbringing and identity as a gay Black man and head architect behind the March on Washington.

“There was no one more American, I believe, than Bayard Rustin,” Domingo says. “He gave his life and service to this country and tried to make it a better place.”

The Candyman star reconnected with the unsung hero, as Domingo calls him, for filming of the Netflix biopic in 2021, and spent five months, with 40-hour weeks, researching his written work, his speeches, and his mannerisms. He also spoke to Rustin’s loved ones, such as Rustin’s partner Walter Naegle (whom Rustin met in 1977) and organizer Rachelle Horowitz to capture the spirit of the strong-willed, nonviolent protester.

“I had to have a sense of openness and vulnerability to play someone who’s lived on the margins of society but was so full in his experience and who he was,” Domingo says.

The film explores Rustin’s personal life through intimate moments with boyfriend Tom, played by Gus Halper, and an affair with a married Baptist preacher named Elias (Johnny Ramey). The romance between Rustin and the preacher exists in the shadows — under the dim lights of a nearby bar or behind the blinds in Rustin’s home. Julian Breece (When They See Us), who co-wrote the screenplay with Dustin Lance Black (Milk), says the preacher is based on two different people from Rustin’s life.

“Bayard’s relationships with white men have been very well recorded, but his romantic relationships and intimate friendships with Black men in the movement aren’t recorded,” Breece explains.

Domingo reveals that he wouldn’t have been ready to play grassroots organizer 10 or 15 years ago and neither would Hollywood, which lacked the producers who would greenlight such a project. (Rustin was produced by Barack Obama and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground production company.) Casting a Black gay actor like Domingo helped the film feel possible, Breece says, as Domingo’s boundless charisma made him a sure fit for the role.

“He was able to take this complicated character and really just completely personify him,” Breece offers. “The people who knew Bayard, they see Bayard in him. He was born to play this role.”

Rustin. Colman Domingo as Bayard Rustin. Cr. David Lee/Netflix © 2023
Colman Domingo as Bayard Rustin in ‘Rustin.’

Other cast members include Glynn Turman as A. Philip Randolph, Jeffrey Wright as Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Chris Rock as Roy Wilkins, CCH Pounder as Dr. Anna Hedgeman, Audra McDonald as Ella Baker, and Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Mahalia Jackson.

Aml Ameen, who plays Rustin’s mentee Dr. King, met Domingo on the set of The Butler and recalls cracking jokes and dancing with him in the streets of New Orleans. Ameen says he admires Domingo’s selflessness and ability to lead from within rather than from a hierarchical standpoint, a character trait he recycled for Rustin.

“His energy, his zest for life, his warmth, his artistry is extremely authentic to him,” Ameen tells Rolling Stone.

And Rustin is the first of many intriguing projects for Domingo over the next year. After the eighth and final season of Fear the Walking Dead wraps up on Nov. 19, he’ll next star in the musical adaptation of The Color Purple, hitting theaters Dec. 25; as Chief in Ethan Coen’s comedy caper Drive-Away Dolls, out Feb. 23; will take the lead once more in the indie drama Sing Sing, recently acquired by A24; and will return to the Euphoria cast for the show’s third season, expected to be released sometime in 2025 on HBO.

Domingo, who received an Emmy as Rue’s patient sponsor Ali in Euphoria, says he cares deeply for Zendaya, who he affectionately calls “Z,” and looks back fondly on their shared special episode, “Trouble Don’t Last Always.” Although the show hasn’t begun filming Season Three, he says you can expect creator Sam Levinson to take some huge swings.

“He’s going to have a plan for us that is going to make you rethink Euphoria again,” Domingo says. “Day one of our table read for Season Two, the first thing he said is, ‘Let’s forget about the success that we had in Season One.’ That’s the only way to be honest.”

As someone who’s long been a supporting player in TV and film productions, Domingo carries Rustin’s spirit within him. In the meantime, he’s accepting his flowers for this leading-man role.

“You don’t need to know who’s in my bedroom,” Domingo says. “What you need to know is what I think about and how I create, and how I make people feel. That’s the most important thing.”

Best of Rolling Stone