Colman Domingo had a general meeting with Jordan Peele in early 2018, and he remembers it quite well since it was the day after Peele won an Academy Award for Get Out‘s original screenplay. Domingo was not only surprised that Peele kept the meeting, but he was also taken aback when Peele actually followed up on their discussion within six months. Eventually, Peele’s producing partner, Ian Cooper, reached out to say that Peele wrote the role of William Burke for Domingo in the Nia DaCosta-helmed Candyman, which Peele was co-writing and producing. Burke is a longtime resident of Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing project, and he brings Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s Anthony McCoy up to speed on the history of the neighborhood, including the legend of Candyman.
“[Peele and his producing partners] did the thing that’s rare in this industry, which is actually follow up,” Domingo tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Jordan said, ‘We want to work with you. We want to find something to work on. We want to create worlds with you.’ When you usually take a meeting like that, you think, ‘I’d like that to happen,’ but you don’t know how it’ll work out. But they followed up within six months, and then they followed up again. There were no hoops or hurdles; it was just direct offers… So it’s been a beautiful invitation so far, and I hope it continues.”
Domingo is also coming off one of the finest performances of his career as X in Janicza Bravo’s Zola, and now he’s reflecting on his chilling scene where X’s mask slips in front of Taylour Paige’s Zola and Riley Keough‘s Stefani.
“We rehearsed it, and usually, Taylour would start laughing because it was so disarming,” Domingo shares. “She couldn’t keep herself together, but it was actually really good for me. I wanted her blood to go cold when I did it. So any time she laughed in a rehearsal, I was like, ‘Okay, keep laughing, keep laughing,’ and it empowered me to go even deeper, scarier and more terrifying when I did it. My intention was, ‘I want to rip her soul out,’ when I switched that accent on.”
In a recent conversation THR, Domingo also discusses DaCosta and why he urges his fellow actors to work with her. Then he discusses his trademark voice and how he overcame a speech impediment at a young age.
I’m going to start with my worst question so things can only go uphill from here.
Perfect. Give it to me.
If Candyman were to tempt you with a piece of candy, what candy would make you think twice about running away?
(Laughs.) Let’s see. It would have to be an Almond Joy. Almond Joys are delicious. Coconut, nutty, chocolate-y. They’re wonderful. Who doesn’t like an Almond Joy? Well, probably someone with a nut allergy. (Laughs.)
You didn’t dive into this franchise until somewhat recently. Were you surprised by how much it had to say, compared to most horror franchises?
I was. To be honest, I didn’t know that the framework of horror could be used for such critical conversation about race, gentrification, art and criticism. I think it’s a great tool to be honest. I had a great conversation with Jordan Peele about this early on; we just talked about horror. As a writer, he asked me, “Have you ever thought about writing in the horror genre?” And I thought, “No, I wrote family stories and musicals.” He was like, “You should examine it. There’s so much you can unpack with horror.” You’re really looking at the true horror and terror of everyday citizens, and I think that’s what Jordan Peele has tapped into, truly. It’s uncovering these truths that are right on the surface, that you think about every day, when you get into the car or walk down the street, whether you’re a person of color, a woman, someone of a different religion or a foreigner in some way. So what are those fears, and what are we tapping into? And how can we unpack that stuff together? How can I see your story? How can I see what frightens you and know that it frightens me, because it’s human as well?
Just to get the timeline right, did you shoot Candyman before Jordan’s season two episode of The Twilight Zone?
I shot Candyman first, and then I did Twilight Zone.
Did Jordan mention the episode to you while you were shooting Candyman?
No, suddenly I just got an offer out of nowhere. That’s the beautiful thing with Jordan Peele. I think he has his feelers out and his eyes on talent, and then he finds a way to invite you in. That’s what he did when he wrote this role for me in Candyman. We had a beautiful meeting where we talked about everything under the sun for a good 45 minutes to an hour, and then Jordan, Ian Cooper, one of his producers, and Matthew Cherry, when he was there, said the thing that you hope that people will say. But then they also did the thing that’s rare in this industry, which is actually follow up. Jordan said, “We want to work with you. We want to find something to work on. We want to create worlds with you.” When you usually take a meeting like that, you think, “I’d like that to happen,” but you don’t know how it’ll work out. But they followed up within six months, and then they followed up again. There were no hoops or hurdles; it was just direct offers, saying, “We acknowledge your talent and we want to be a part of that and in conversation with you. How can we create some new art forms together?” So it’s been a beautiful invitation so far, and I hope it continues.
Your character passes on the story of Candyman so that a younger generation is always aware of its history and inherited trauma. Is there a particular story that you’ve found yourself telling a lot over the years so that it’s not forgotten?
That’s a great question. I’m going to sound a bit like a Pollyanna, but I tell stories about my family. And I guess that’s the purpose of a griot: to tell stories about grandma and grandpa, what they did, how they laughed, how they built a life for themselves, and where they came from. In the middle of the pandemic, I went on an Ancestry.com journey because I wanted to find and tell my own story. So I found stories of how my grandfather went from Spanish Honduras to Scotland in World World II and how he never came back after two years. That story was always a mystery, and I found out that he had an aneurysm and died there in Scotland. And because I’m sure my family didn’t have any means to get there, in any way, he went alone. So I want to tell that story to my nieces and nephews so they know who they are. We have to know our history so that we can go further. They’ve gotta know that we had people who were out there, trying to make a life for their family. He was a lumberjack. A whole lot of men from British Honduras and Spanish Honduras went into World War II. So no one tells their stories, and it’s important to tell all these stories to find out more about who you are and then amplify it. The writers that I admire always say this: “In order for us to know ourselves as Americans, we have to go deep and know our stories.” The reason we have so much strife between each other — whether it’s racially, economically or socially — is because we don’t know ourselves. So it’s even more important to find out who we are and tell each other our stories.
Yahya’s [Abdul-Mateen II] character is an artist who’s struggling for inspiration. When you find yourself in a similar situation, what do you do to get inspired?
I go into nature. Nature will tell you everything. I’ve become a gardener. I love going to the mountains. I sit in stillness. People will tell you that it can be a meditation, but it’s also if you’re searching for answers. You find answers in quiet spaces, to be honest; that’s something that I know for sure. So whenever I need inspiration, I go to silence. I go for a walk. I make sure I engage with other people, and it’s one of the simplest things, too. You really just try to have some sort of human contact by saying, “How are you doing, today?” That is something that I’ve been doing even more, and I find inspiration by doing it. That’s not a norm, it seems, but I want to make it the norm. I think that’s where you find inspiration, connectivity and other truths. And you feel a part of the world, which you’re supposed to feel.
You’ve worked with many talented directors, and Nia DeCosta is the latest example of that. If a fellow actor called you to learn about working with her, what would you tell them?
Don’t walk, run. Run towards her. She’s an innovative, gentle, graceful director, who is a true collaborator. She listens. She guides her team quietly. That’s what I remember the most. There wasn’t a lot of boisterous ego or anything. It was just ideas all laid out on the table, interrogation and everyone doing their work. And she guided us, beautifully.
You have one of the best voices in Hollywood, and while you were born with it to some degree, did you receive any formal training on how to maximize it? Or did you teach yourself?
I guess I sort of taught myself. It’s a very learned thing. When I was in elementary school, I suffered from a speech impediment; I had a lisp. So I was very quiet because of it, until I worked with teachers to do things like dentalize my Ts and do all this speech therapy. This taught me to have a love for language and how to use my voice. And when I was doing plays and musicals, I would learn how to use and stretch my voice in very different ways to be a tenor or baritone. I’m a character actor through and through, so I always make a decision on where my voice is pitched. Not every character speaks in my lower resonance; they may speak a little higher… Or they may have an accent. I try to make every decision to give a fullness of character, so I’ve learned to stretch and use my voice. It’s funny because I didn’t actually know my voice was one of my greatest weapons for a long time. People say, “Oh, I love your voice,” but the more I got to know myself, the more my voice dropped and resonated. It’s a bit more commanding. I think everything is in the voice. When people have no power or agency in the world, the voice is pitched somewhere else. It’s not grounded in the chest and in the belly. Or as some speech therapists would say, “Underneath, a little further down, that’s where your voice really comes from. It’s gotta be in your sit bones.” So I think it’s a learned thing. It’s one of my instruments, and I think it’s one of my greatest instruments. So I have to take care of it, warm it up and know what to do with it. It’s like the thing that I teach. I may teach acting, writing or directing, but I’m actually just teaching people to have a voice and articulate that voice more than anything. And to use it with all the power that it has. All the high notes, low notes and middle notes as well.
Zola was brilliant, and it illustrated exactly what you just mentioned when X switched to his native accent. What do you remember about shooting that terrifying scene?
Well, by the time we got to that scene, a lot of decisions had to be made. We had to make decisions on X and his accent. We had to make decisions on how he uses it, when he uses it and how detailed it is or not. Everything was a crafted decision because it was also a part of his power and his access. So when we shot that scene, we had already made decisions about his eyes and how everything he has is designed to keep people off-kilter, which keeps him having power. So I had one hazel contact lens. I wanted to make the choice that when he slipped into this slightly or vaguely Nigerian accent… Because I admire my Nigerian brothers and sisters, I didn’t know how specific I wanted to be. So I was like, “Okay, maybe we don’t know if he’s Nigerian or if he’s African-American. By the end, it’ll be interesting to not know which was which.” So I think that both were an amalgamation in some way. And then I wanted to make the choice that he let it slip and had to get it back in the moment. And I thought that was fun to suddenly switch from this accent into his Americanized, regional African-American dialect. So I wanted there to be some fun in that. So everything was a character choice and based on what he wanted in the scene and how he was trying to attain power at all times.
Did you withhold the accent until the actual day so that Taylour Paige and Riley Keough could be blindsided like the audience?
No, we rehearsed it, and usually, Taylour would start laughing because it was so disarming. She couldn’t keep herself together, but it was actually really good for me. I had to make sure that I stopped her cold. I wanted her blood to go cold when I did it. So any time she laughed in a rehearsal, I was like, “Okay, keep laughing, keep laughing,” and it empowered me to go even deeper, scarier and more terrifying when I did it. My intention was, “I want to rip her soul out,” when I switched that accent on. (Laughs.) And when I pull it away, it’ll be even more terrifying.
Candyman opens exclusively in theaters on Aug. 27.