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'Rustin' star Colman Domingo says the civil rights activist has been a 'North Star'

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University. Actor Colman Domingo has been nominated for an Oscar for his title role in the film "Rustin," the biopic about civil rights leader Bayard Rustin. Rustin was the chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, in which Martin Luther King gave his "I Have A Dream" speech. The march drew about 250,000 people from around the country, and it was Rustin who oversaw the planning and logistics. It was Rustin who also introduced the idea of passive resistance to Martin Luther King. But Rustin was gay, and in 1963, several civil rights leaders feared that his homosexuality could discredit Rustin, the march and the larger movement. For that and other reasons, Rustin was forced to remain in the background.

President Obama did his part to credit Rustin in 2013 by posthumously awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The film "Rustin" was produced by the Obamas' production company, Higher Ground. It was directed by George C. Wolfe. Rustin (ph) also recently played Mister in the new film adaptation of "The Color Purple" and won an Emmy for his performance in the series "Euphoria." Terry Gross interviewed Colman Domingo last December.

Let's start with a scene from "Rustin." Bayard Rustin knows there's pressure on him to resign from any role in the march and to resign from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was led by King, played by Aml Ameen. Rustin tries to convince King that the movement should resist the threats of blackmail or smear campaigns targeting Rustin's homosexuality.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RUSTIN")

COLMAN DOMINGO: (As Bayard Rustin) Each of us are taught in ways both cunning and cruel that we are inadequate, incomplete. And the easiest way to combat that feeling of not being enough is to find someone we consider less than - less than because they are poorer than us or because they're darker than us, or because they desire someone our churches and our laws say they should not desire. When we tell ourselves such lies, start to live and believe such lies, we do the work of our oppressors by oppressing ourselves. Strom Thurmond and Hoover don't give a [expletive] about me. What they really want to destroy is all of us coming together and demanding this country change. Are they expecting my resignation?

AML AMEEN: (As Martin Luther King Jr.) Some are, yes.

DOMINGO: (As Bayard Rustin) Then they're going to have to fire me because I will not resign. On the day that I was born Black, I was also born a homosexual. They either believe in freedom and justice for all, or they do not.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: Colman Domingo, welcome to FRESH AIR. You're terrific in this movie, and I would be shocked if you were not nominated for an Oscar.

DOMINGO: Oh, Terry, thank you so much for having me. That means the world. Thank you.

GROSS: You know, I knew so little about Bayard Rustin. I grew up with his name. I heard his name. But he was, like, a guy in the civil rights movement. That's about all I knew about him. What did you know before you were asked to do the movie?

DOMINGO: I knew a little bit more than most people, and I think any of the listeners out there will question why they didn't know about him. He was all but erased in the history books. I stumbled upon him - I was a student at Temple University in Philadelphia, and I joined the African American Student Union in my junior year, and I think we were just having a discussion about the civil rights movement and some of its leaders. And then they were describing Bayard Rustin. And Bayard - the more that someone described him, I became more fascinated - the fact that he was a Quaker and from West Chester, Penn., that he was - he played the lute, and he sang Elizabethan love songs. He was a star athlete. He staged, you know, sit-ins and protests when he was a teenager. And he organized the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. I was, like, wait, what?

GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah.

DOMINGO: How come we don't know about this person? This is a person of such size and someone who seems to be full in their experience in the world. How is it possible that he's been erased from history? But, of course, I understood - once I found that he was openly gay, I understood exactly why.

GROSS: And did you know at that point that you were gay?

DOMINGO: Did I know at that point that I was gay? I knew. I think I always knew. I grew up in inner city West Philadelphia. And, you know, you - I think people know. You know. But then I was coming to terms with my own sexuality probably at the same time that I had that spark of understanding who Bayard Rustin was in the world. And I think I sort of maybe quietly and privately looked at Bayard Rustin as a North Star, someone who not only was true to himself and his experience and his sexuality, but with limitless possibilities of what he could do, what he could be. He didn't marginalize himself. And so I must have downloaded that information in some way, shape or form, and that's sort of helped me live my life completely and wholly. Now I'm 54 years old, and I think he was very purposeful to me at a young age.

GROSS: So who did you talk to? There're still some contemporaries of Bayard Rustin's who are alive, who worked with him on the March on Washington. Were you able to talk with any of them?

DOMINGO: Oh, absolutely. I was able to talk to in particular, Rachelle Horowitz, who's featured in the film, played by Lilli Kay. Rachelle Horowitz and I - we actually have a text feed. We - she texts me pretty much every day now. I think we just really share a kindred spirit. And so I'm able to ask her private questions, things that, like, maybe have helped inform some of my choices but also things that may not have. I just wanted to know the soul of this guy. And I literally was just at Walter Naegle - at his apartment, which was he and Bayard's apartment. He still lives in the very same apartment, and...

GROSS: They were a couple for about 10 years, from 1977 until..

DOMINGO: Yeah, until Bayard's passing.

GROSS: ...Bayard Rustin's death. Yeah.

DOMINGO: Yeah. And Walter Naegle and I had lunch. It was the first time I went over to Bayard's apartment, and it looked like time stood still. It was amazing. Walter Naegle has been the keeper of Bayard's legacy. And there's all this religious sculpture and art and books and records and walking sticks 'cause Bayard Rustin was a collector of everything. He - wherever he traveled, he got a lot of stuff.

GROSS: Now, the woman who you mentioned, Rochelle - what was her role in the march?

DOMINGO: Her role in the march - she organized transportation...

GROSS: Oh, her. OK, yeah.

DOMINGO: ...For the March on Washington. And she was only - she was 19, 20 years old.

GROSS: What did you do to try to get his voice and his way of speaking? He had a very formal way of speaking, I think.

DOMINGO: Well, it was formal, but it was also - he created it (laughter).

GROSS: He created his accent, right?

DOMINGO: Oh, yeah. He created his accent. He - as I was doing research and I was, you know, finding any materials that I can find of interviews, debates, you name it, I noticed he had sort of a somewhat Mid-Atlantic standard accent, very much akin to like, Katharine Hepburn or Betty Davis. And at times it would sound a bit more British, and at times it was sort of fall away. And I was like, wait a minute, this guy is from West Chester, Pa.

GROSS: (Laughter).

DOMINGO: I'm from Philadelphia. We don't sound like that.

GROSS: Yeah, they're close to each other. They're very close to each other, yeah.

DOMINGO: Yeah, pretty close to each other. So I was like, something's going on there. And I asked Rachelle Horowitz. I said, well, where'd that accent come from? And she said, well, he made it up. And I thought, wait, what? He made it - who makes up an accent? Well, this guy does, which is brilliant. But he made it up for a couple reasons, one in particular is that he had a speech impediment. He used to stutter, so he would do work to make sure he was clear in his language. And he would also heighten it because he was a bit of - he just was obsessed with anything British. That pitch of his voice in the march is even fuller than actually - really, I mean, it was even higher-pitched. (Impersonating British accent) It was a bit more like up here. And he would do - you know, flourish it a bit more up here, even more so.

I was trying to find ways - how he used it in different scenes, whether he was with, you know, members of the NAACP or when he was just in private, and then when it fell away, when he was a bit more vulnerable. So I had to figure out how to calibrate it for a film. But in reality, it was all over the place. In every recording, it's something else.

GROSS: Now, you mentioned he had a stutter. You had a lisp when you were young.

DOMINGO: I did.

GROSS: Did you have a stutter, too?

DOMINGO: No. You did your homework (laughter). I did. I had a lisp. I had speech classes up until I was about 11 or 12 years old where I would have to go into - with a speech therapist in school and dentalize my T's and S's and X's and just really learned how to use my teeth and my tongue. Because I was an avid reader - I read everything - but I think it just gave me more confidence to have a love for language. I think that's where my love for language started - and speaking. Again, we have a similarity in that way, me and Bayard, where we had something to overcome when it comes to language. And I think it's made us - I don't know. I love speaking. I'm not afraid of coloring my words.

GROSS: Well, that's probably really good training for theater, but also really good training for learning how to speak differently, like, learning how to speak like Rustin, because you learned how to speak without your lisp.

DOMINGO: Yeah. And I also had - when I was portraying Rustin, I had to wear prosthetics for my upper teeth because he had...

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah, go ahead. Yeah.

DOMINGO: Because he had three teeth out. So that was also something - I had to put those prosthetics in at least an hour and a half before. So usually, when we get to set, I put them in immediately. And I would start working with my mouth to make - because Bayard speaks a lot and he speaks with alacrity (laughter). And he's got a lot to say. So that was a great challenge. But I think it also gave me a slight lisp like he had, which was pretty awesome.

GROSS: Oh. Yeah, I was wondering about those teeth. He got his teeth knocked out when...

DOMINGO: In 1942, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah, when he refused to move to the back of the bus.

DOMINGO: Yeah, when he was one of the first people doing these bus protests, you know, before Rosa.

GROSS: So I was wondering, like, how you - I was thinking you didn't have your teeth pulled, I was hoping you didn't (laughter).

DOMINGO: (Laughter) No, but people keep asking that. I'm like, I am not that method actor.

GROSS: Yeah, I'm hoping.

DOMINGO: I'm not that insane.

GROSS: When you were doing, like, speech therapy to overcome your lisp and you learned how to, like, pronounce your T's clearly and your S's, and you learned to, like, really clearly enunciate...

DOMINGO: Yes.

GROSS: Were you considered phony when you started speaking that way?

DOMINGO: No, I wasn't. I think - at least I don't think I was, because I would say things like - I would go (mimicking lisp) boxes, you know? And I would have to just, like, dentalize and keep that tongue behind the teeth - boxes, boxes, boxes. You know, it's funny, I still warm up - very much when I do my warmups in the morning before I'm acting, I warm my whole mouth up because it's just a habit that I need to do to make sure my mouth is operating and doing the thing I need it to do. But I think, every so often, I feel like even if you've gone through any sort of speech therapy, at times you can hear it slip, once in a while. It's ingrained in some way, although we do the work to overcome it.

GROSS: Can you share some of what your vocal warmup is like?

DOMINGO: Sure (laughter). Let's see. I would start by going - I love to do things with T's and with language. I would say one fat hen, one fat hen, a couple of ducks, three brown bears. Four slippery sliders. Five freakish felines freaking frantically. Six Sicilian sailors sailing the seven seas. Simple - seven simple - see, that's the hardest one.

GROSS: (Laughter).

DOMINGO: Seven simple Simons sitting on a stump. Eight egotistical egotists eagerly echoing egotistical ecstasies. Nine nimble Nicks nibble, nibble nuts, not on a cigarette's butt (laughter).

GROSS: That's great. Did you make those words up? Did you make those phrases up?

DOMINGO: No, I didn't make those phrases up. They came from - you know, it's all these theater games. Some teacher taught me that years ago, but it really opens your mouth up. And, you know, also, you know, the (vocalizing). You know, you get your nasal passages open, you get your ping sound. So if I'm working onstage, I want to make sure that I'm supporting my voice and that somebody can hear it in the 1,000th seat on Broadway, you know?

BIANCULLI: Colman Domingo speaking to Terry Gross last December. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRANFORD MARSALIS' "BLACK STRENGTH")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview from last December with Colman Domingo. He's nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his performance in the title role of "Rustin." The movie is streaming on Netflix. Domingo also plays Mister, the abusive husband in the new film adaptation of "The Color Purple."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: So you are really at an incredible point in your career now. Like, it seemed like you were really at a turning point about 13, 15 years ago. I mean, you were in the off-Broadway, then Broadway musical "Passing Strange," which was adapted - it was filmed by Spike Lee and shown on public television. You were in "The Scottsboro Boys," a Kander and Ebb musical. And then you ended up bartending again and thinking that...

DOMINGO: Yeah.

GROSS: You had studied photojournalism, and you're thinking, well, maybe I'll just go into doing headshots for...

DOMINGO: Yeah.

GROSS: ...People in movies and TV. And then you got a part on "Fear The Walking Dead," and that turned things back around again. But here you are in, like, two of the biggest end-of-the-year movies. And you're in your - you're 54 now, right?

DOMINGO: Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. So what's it like for you to be in this totally different professional space right now in your life after almost giving it up a few years ago?

DOMINGO: Yeah. You know what? I've been working now for - what? - 33 years. And I think I made a commitment early on that it was the life of an artist that - I always thought that I was successful if I just got paid for doing what I love. And I was just committed to the work. And so even when I started out in, you know, educational theater tours and also, you know, off-Broadway, regional theater - I performed in probably at least 50 regional theaters around the country. I have off-Broadway credits - you name it. Just - I just wanted to work and do good work, though, being very specific about being useful with work.

And so by the time I finished "The Scottsboro Boys" in London in 2013, I thought this was everything I wanted to do. I literally was nominated for an Olivier. And then I came back to New York, and I was being offered these, auditions - not even offers auditions - for, like, you know, under five. In our business, it's, like, under five lines. And I just thought, I don't think I'm being used properly. And I think it's time to do something else. And I went home one day after a series of disappointments. And one in particular was I auditioned for "Boardwalk Empire" to play the host of a club. And the casting director brought me in. She said, oh, you're perfect for this. You're perfect. We need a song and dance man. We need a charismatic guy to be the host of this club, Chalky's club. And I thought, oh, great, wonderful. I auditioned for it. They love it. They call me in for a producer session. I go in there. I kill it.

So I go to the gym. And I'll never forget this day. And my agent calls, and she says, Colman - I thought, here, this is it. This is something, something. I need something. She says, Colman, hi. She said, I just heard back from "Boardwalk Empire." I was like, OK. And she said, they loved you. OK. Casting loved you. Producers, directors - everyone loved you. You were great. And they wanted to say thank you and all your work. I said, OK. And she said, but unfortunately, one of the researchers poked their head up and said, oh, but did you know that hosts of these clubs were all light-skinned...

GROSS: Oh.

DOMINGO: ...At that time?

GROSS: You're kidding.

DOMINGO: And I literally screamed in this gym. And I burst into a puddle of tears after screaming. And my agent was so upset. She's like, oh, my God, Colman, where are you? Where are you? Where are you? I said, I can't take this anymore. I can't do it. And as I was processing that, my dear friend Daniel Breaker - I was telling him this. I said, I'm done. He said, OK. He said, you know, my managers have been wanting to meet with you for years. I said, no, no, no, I just got rid of my manager. I'm going to wrap things up. He said - he talked to them. He said, they really just wanted to meet with you once. I said, OK, for you.

So I go into this meeting. And I have my arms folded. And I know I had a bit of an attitude. I wasn't the bright, fuzzy, warm person that I think I know myself to be. I sat there. And I said, well, this is what I do. I do this, this, that and the other, blah, blah, blah. I think - I don't know. I'm done with this. And they were like, well, we would love to work with you. I said, well, how about we give it six months and see? We can see. And then my very first audition with this new agent, who I'm still with and the new managers was for "Fear The Walking Dead" and also the Baz Luhrmann show "The Get Down." I booked both roles off of self tapes. And I realized at that point, you know, I was with an agency. They were - she was lovely and wonderful, but I guess they had no access. So my tapes were not being seen. I think none of my work's being seen for years.

GROSS: Oh, wow.

DOMINGO: I think I didn't have access. But suddenly, I get series regular off of one self-tape audition. So it reinvigorated my faith in what I had to give. And "Fear The Walking Dead" really changed my life. It gave me - it set me up differently in this world. And now I feel very peaceful, actually. I feel that I'm being seen the way that I see myself.

GROSS: I'm happy for you. And I want to congratulate you on the success you're having now, between the Emmy for "Euphoria" and your two new movies, "Rustin" and "The Color Purple." Congratulations.

DOMINGO: Thank you, Terry. This has been really wonderful.

BIANCULLI: Colman Domingo, speaking to Terry Gross last December. He's nominated for an Oscar in the best actor category for his starring role in "Rustin." The Academy Awards are March 10. For longer versions of today's interviews, visit the FRESH AIR website.

Coming up, Justin Chang reviews "Drift," a new independent film now in theaters. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRANFORD MARSALIS' "SHOW ME YOUR IDEAS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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