Full disclosure: It’s not often that a Zoom Q&A makes the back of my neck prickle. That’s what happened early in the Oscar season, when “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” star Colman Domingo revealed what really happened in a key scene with Chadwick Boseman, and how the film’s most powerful moment almost didn’t happen at all.
Just before the April 22 Independent Spirit Awards, I asked the Spirit-nominated actor to share the moment that could win Boseman a posthumous Oscar, the second in history after Peter Finch’s win for “Network.”
It was the sixth week of shooting. With Viola Davis wrapped, director George C. Wolfe focused on Boseman and Domingo — two band members in a basement rehearsal room.
“This was rigorous, and George knows how to work his actors,” Domingo said. “We dramaturged every scene; we went deep and were able to dance and play with it in every way possible.
“We were doing Chad’s coverage. First he goes into that monologue about questioning God’s will. He starts, and before he makes that turn, he stops halfway through. I see him put his hand on his head, like he’s about to stop. I don’t want him to stop: That has to come out. I start [to improvise,] yelling at him: ‘Tell me! Tell me!’ He turns around, bringing all that fire you see. ‘God hates us, with all his might. God takes our dreams and throws them in the garbage.’ That’s the cut.”
Domingo continued: “It was breaking his heart, and it was breaking my heart hearing it. I threw the stage punch and pushed him against the wall. We started fighting and George called ‘Cut!’ Our fight turned into an embrace. We started sobbing. We sobbed and held each other. When we finally let go, it was about a minute. It was a long time in stage time. I look around and there’s tears in Glenn [Turman]’s eyes, in Michael [Pott]’s eyes. George is silent. The crew is silent. You could hear a pin drop.”
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”
Domingo wiped his eyes at the memory. “I was called to bat at that moment to make sure whatever was going on in my dear friend’s mind, his soul, whatever he was wrestling with, the questions of God’s will, was deep in the room,” he said.
“This felt like that marriage, that thin veil between actor and character. We are both men of faith. Hearing that, the things we know now, I don’t know where I’d be if I didn’t have my spiritual core. If I challenge that, where am I? Chad was a man of faith. I’m sure what he had to say hit a chord within him. He’s a good man. You wonder why terrible things happen to good people. That’s what that monologue was about. We held each other in the silence.”
Afterward, Turman told Domingo he did good. “You hope you can be of service,” said Domingo. “I was glad I was able to be there for my fellow actor at this moment of crisis. I didn’t know of his private struggle. He showed up every day with joy and enthusiasm and camaraderie. I know he gave everything to that film, knowing it was going to be his last film. He had a huge work ethic, he was the one asking for one more take. ‘George, I want one more.’”
Colman Domingo at the Indie Spirit Awards.
For the band of actors, it was about serving August Wilson. “It’s rare language that comes from Black people you know, depictions of your uncles, cousins, auntie and your mama, stories of the great migration,” said Domingo. “It’s not easy. He’s our O’Neil and Shakespeare. It’s difficult work that challenges you. There were no egos in the room. Viola didn’t come in as Viola, and Chad didn’t come as Black Panther. We all came in to say, ‘We’re in service to August’s text.’”
With the Spirits behind him, Domingo moves on to Oscar night where he and his Broadway brother Andrew Rannells will host ABC’s “Oscars After Dark” from an exterior courtyard at Union Station. They’re hoping to change it up a bit, talking to fellow actors peer to peer, and digging a little deeper than “Hey, how does it feel?”
“It’s less exterior,” he said. “It’s performers who understand each other. We have questions for the winners they’ve never heard before. We’ll try to make it feel intimate, like you’re there.”
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