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Interview: Colman Domingo on How ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ Elevates the African-American Experience

December 24, 2018Ben MK

As The Beatles so famously sang, "All you need is love." But in If Beale Street Could Talk, writer/director Barry Jenkins shows viewers just what it means to live your life by that phrase — as seen through the eyes of a young black woman living in Harlem in the 1970s.

In this adaptation of the novel of the same name by James Baldwin, newcomer KiKi Layne and Stephan James play a couple named Tish Rivers and Alonzo Hunt, whose dreams of a life together are shattered when Alonzo is falsely accused of a crime and imprisoned. Left with no other recourse, a pregnant KiKi, with the support of mother Sharon (Regina King) and father Joseph (Colman Domingo), must find a way to prove Alonzo's innocence.

I sat down with actor Colman Domingo to find out more about what it was like being a part of such a talented cast, how his work in the mediums of stage, television and film inform one another, and more.

How did you become involved in If Beale Street Could Talk?

Domingo: I became involved with If Beale Street Could Talk by putting myself on tape for another role, the role of Frank actually. And then within about 48 hours my agent called me and said that I had an offer from Barry Jenkins, but it was for another role. And I thought, "Well, what role?" And he said, "Joseph Rivers." And I couldn't have been more pleased to play this man, this father — men that I think I've always known all my life.

You're working with some very talented collaborators, including Barry Jenkins, Regina King, Stephan James and KiKi Layne. What was your experience working with them?

Domingo: With Regina King, I have been such a fan of her work for so many years, I felt like I received an award just by working with her. [laughs] I guess people in this business, they say, "When do you think you've ever made it?" And I felt like I made it by working with Regina King, cuz she's one of the greatest actresses of our time. Working also with Stephan James, we did the film Selma together — we were arm in arm playing civil rights leaders. And the idea for me, playing his sort of surrogate dad was just extraordinary to me.

You're also a playwright, and you're in Fear the Walking Dead. How does your work in one medium inform your work in the others?

Domingo: They inform each other in such a fascinating way. I believe that I've become an even more collaborative actor by being a director and a writer. I respect language even more so — I've always respected language, but I know that, being a writer, what actors need. And I know they need action, and I can slip into their minds and hearts. As an actor, I think it informs all of these things, because I'm always looking at the big picture, which is why people like myself and Regina King are also television directors as well. Because we're just looking at the whole process, not just being an actor and not just be a writer.

Speaking of that, what other actors, filmmakers, writers or works influence your own work?

Domingo: Wow, so many. But what a great question. There's so many. I think there's directors like Steven Spielberg that I'm inspired by, because I think that he has an element of impressionism in his work, which I love, that helps elevate any film. I love directors like Mike Leigh, that I've always admired. And I'm a huge fan of Sidney Lumet, because I think Sidney Lumet is just a master of character-based storytelling, and knowing how to frame an actor in a scene. I'm inspired by stage directors like Robert O'Hara, who's one of my dearest friends, or Susan Stroman, people who direct musicals as well.

I'm influenced by everyone. I'm influenced by architects and scientists. I think all of that informs you work as a storyteller, I think it's important for us not just to be inspired by these fellow storytellers. But I think it's important to have interests in other things, because that also informs your work.

I often ask people what they hope viewers will take away from the film, but I want to ask you what did you take away from this film?

Domingo: Wow. I'm still reeling from the film. If Beale Street Could Talk is a film that is a tragedy that is wrapped up in so much love. And that is a narrative that I don't usually see. It doesn't suffer the similar tropes of African-American life. I think it actually elevates our experience and really talks honestly about who we really are and why we're still here, knowing that I'm a descendant of slaves. We couldn't exist and keep going by leaning into the tragedy of our existence in America. We have to move through so much love and humanity and heart and laughter. And so I see that in the film, so I take that away. I really see a depiction of my family, that I don't usually see.

Last but not least, what are you working on next?

Domingo: I'm working on a few things. I'm going to work on a film called Zola, directed by Janicza Bravo. And I'm also going to work on a film called Harriet. And I'm going to go back to Fear the Walking Dead, and I'm starting to direct even more television. I'm going to direct an episode for season five, but hopefully we stay in Texas a little while longer, because we've moved from Vancouver to California to Mexico, and I'm ready to stay put for a minute.

If Beale Street Could Talk is in theatres Christmas day.

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