Out gay Philly native Colman Domingo is having a good year. He appeared as Pastor West in “Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse” a few months ago and plays another man of the cloth in the medical ethics drama, “The God Committee,” coming out July 2. But it is his astonishing turn as X, a pimp, in “Zola,” a slick and kicky new film out June 30, that will have people talking.
Directed by Janizca Bravo, and based on A’Ziah aka Zola’s tweets, the film has Domingo playing both ferocious and protective as X. He is a pimp who escorts the title character (Taylour Paige, Domingo’s co-star in last year’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”) and her new friend Stefani (Riley Keough) on a dangerous weekend road trip to Florida. The actor is wonderfully mercurial, slipping in and out of moods (and even accents) as he tries to maintain control as things get out of hand.
In a recent phone interview, Domingo chatted with PGN about ethics and playing X.
What appealed to you about playing X, and how did you not make him a pimp stereotype?
The goal was to humanize this character who is pretty terrible. He has wants and dreams like everyone else. That was the only way I could play him — to find out what I loved and admired about him, and not put judgment on him. His actions in every single way are terrifying and terrible. I took it upon myself to look at it as an immigrant story. He is a man of Nigerian descent who came to this country. He knows how to traffic and has some agency in the world. I wanted to show how anyone who was open and available could fall prey to someone like this. I made him charming and compelling and dangerous and tricky.
X shifts from seductive to sinister often in the same breath, and he uses different voices, as if he has a split personality. How did you approach the character?
There is something A’Ziah [Zola] wrote in her tweets that was a clue about this guy. At some point, a Nigerian accent came out and it terrified her. The person she thought she was with was a totally different person. I took that literally. It was scripted well; we found some key moments for it to happen. He was sly, so you could never see it coming. We should never see X coming. Just when you think he was being kind, or gregarious, he is pretty terrifying in the same breath. That keeps the film on a very tricky axis. Anytime X is in the room he is in the center, and he is spinning everyone in a way that only he understands that keeps him in power. You never know who you’re dealing with. He’s passionate and operating in the moment. He just wants what he wants. But he has to do that with some charm, good humor, and flashy clothes.
X is complimented on his rattlesnake shoes. You got some real attention for your fabulous suit at the Oscars earlier this year. What can you say about X’s style?
He can’t help himself. He is a man from Nigeria trying to appropriate African American culture — a little flash, a little bling. He’s trying so hard to blend in that he absolutely stands out. He can’t help but dress like a pimp, flashing that he has money and is from a different class. He needs a label on everything. He has to have a G-wagon. It’s all for show. He wants whatever the “American Dream” is.
You worked with Taylour Paige on “Ma Rainey,” but this was very different. What can you say about calibrating your performance with the two leading actresses? How did you develop your onscreen relationships?
We all stayed in the same hotel in Tampa, and got to know each other outside of shooting. We developed a sense of trust. To go into that nightmare — where he’s trafficking Zola to another man —[Taylour] had to know that X had her back, and that she could trust me to care for her. That was partially why I needed to do this film. As much as a feminist as I am, I had to protect these women and let them know that as they go to these tricky places, I would be there to hold them up.
What can you say about playing with guns and the film’s violence, which is brief, but disturbing?
I am the least gun nut in the world. Any rifle or gun training I’ve had gives me a sick feeling in my stomach. But I think it’s interesting to slip into the psychology of these people that feel they need a gun to feel powerful.
The film has an interesting morality. Do you think the film is satirizing or celebrating these people?
I think a little of both. I hope we are not judging anyone, but letting them be in their full truth, whatever that is. I love Stefani; she is such a tricky character. She appropriated part of African American culture — her hair, the way she spoke, it is really cringy. But this is the truth in our culture. It’s a great examination of that: Who are we as a culture? What do we buy into? Zola has bought into this whole weekend without knowing anything. The whole film is an examination of our culture.
What can you say is the worst weekend or road trip you’ve ever been on?
I have a sense when I shouldn’t do something. I can get close to it, but I am usually the one who says, “It’s time for me to go home.” I have a sense of smell when things are going to get bad that Zola didn’t have — This is not going to be right. I’ve been protected from the worst weekends because I know I’m going to go home.
You are also appearing in “The God Committee” which also deals with squishy ethics. Can you talk about that role?
Both films are about the moral quandaries we have in America. It’s a deeper examination of who we are. It’s fascinating for people to know I’m playing a pimp in one movie and a priest in another. I was drawn to the arguments that it makes about who has the right to life — whether it’s done for moral or political lines. You can really weigh all the arguments — everyone is a little right and a little wrong at same time.