The Kitchen

Fear the Walking Dead's Colman Domingo on finding the right ingredients for a fulfilling life of performance, creativity and food.

In one of my favorite films, Mostly Martha, Martina Gedeck’s title character tells her therapist that a chef’s mastery can be told by his ability to cook simple dishes. “Take, for instance, salmon in light basil sauce,” she says. “Most people think it’s no big deal and put it on the menu. But frying or steaming it just right and putting the right amount of salt and spices in the sauce is difficult. In this recipe there’s no distraction, no design, no exotic ingredient. There’s only the fish and the sauce. The fish and the sauce.”

My earliest memories are filled with recipes, cooking, being in the kitchen with my mother. It is a sweltering summer Sunday and I am happy, watching her revolve around the stove like a graceful Tasmanian devil, just in her bra and a slip, young and beautiful. She is narrating her process to teach me how to fry chicken, how to make sure nothing is burned or too pink on the inside. It is masterful, plain and simple, just like Martha’s salmon. I am naturally fascinated how she makes everything look so effortless. “Stay in the kitchen,” she says, “Don’t get distracted. That is how you feed people. With love.” It dawns on me, that she is the ingredient. Her love and her dedication.

Some years later, in California, I am 22 and lanky, staring at the little faces looking up at me as I am spun on a rope, high in the air. I am an aerial web artist in a political circus, touring up and down the coast, playing an evil salamander monster that grows with lies, but is eventually defeated. The good tramples evil in our tale. I am having the time of my life. I answered an ad in the trades looking for a fearless performer. “We will train you,” it said. Master Lu Yi tells me that I have the key ingredient – Moo chi – big heart, that I am courageous. Openness, he tells me, is what you need to fly. In six weeks of training, I learned juggling five pins, stilt walking up to five feet tall, gymnastics and tumbling. I put my heart into it and make sure that I don’t get distracted, like Mom said.

Three years later, I am performing as Antonio in Twelfth Night at Theatre Rhinoceros. The director Danny Scheie, a wunderkind of a man, is at the center of the room. He is introducing his cast to the play and tells us that the character of Malvolio is cut from the script. “He is simply another subplot,” Danny announces. “I am more interested in the love story.” He is treating the play like a master cook, knowing what flavors to bring out, what is chopped off and thrown out. The result is exhilarating. I learn that you can be on the edge, even with Shakespeare, as long as you are clear about what you are trying to make. It is exhilarating to think that I am exactly where I am supposed to be. San Francisco feels my own, like home. My friends are my family.

Colman Domingo as Victor Strand in Fear the Walking Dead

I work part-time as a waiter at Zuni Cafe. I am still consumed by Shakespeare, now as Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It is an extremely stressful environment, but I am focused, I dive in. Through the days of long shifts and the multitude of Judy Rodgers’ roast chickens, I adjust and relax, I start watching the chefs, and asking questions. I am intrigued as to how the salmon gets roasted and pink and flaky, with a brown crust on the outside without burning. I watch and learn. I learn about cheeses, oysters, Northern Italian cuisine and wine. I find the joy in cooking for big groups of friends, those evenings when the time stands still, and there is nothing else.

Years later, I move to New York. I am a participant in Lincoln Center Theater’s Directors Lab, as I have now added emerging director to my moniker. New York is bigger, louder and differently flavored than San Francisco. I pound the pavement with headshots and resumes. I find a job as a bartender at the theater hangout, the West Bank Cafe. Suddenly my life is all about precision: a bit of sweet vermouth, some whiskey, bitters. Cognac, orange liqueur, lemon juice. I get an agent. I audition for everything. I go in and out of town on regional theater gigs. I cook on the road. My whole life is one big workshop. Balancing the acts of art and life.

Years later, I am in London starring in The Scottsboro Boys. Eight exhausting, exhilarating shows a week on the West End. Every week I tuck in to a classic Sunday roast. The Hawksmoor Spitalfields becomes my go-to. Beef pot roast, Yorkshire pudding, roast vegetables, gravy, roasted garlic and onions. I am in heaven as I look out on the grey clouds and listen to the sounds of light rain.

Time goes by and I am in Pittsburgh, working on the screen adaptation of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. My solace here is finding the character of Cutler. I am laughing riotously with the brilliant George C. Wolfe, our fearless leader. He then zeros in on my process as an actor in this moment: “Colman, let things surprise you and allow yourself to not know. You see the big picture, as you have developed into a very strong director and creator. You know the end result. Now I need to take you back. To be surprised with what you are making. I need you to go moment to moment.” It is exactly what I need to hear.

I am now in Malvern, Pennsylvania, at the People’s Light theatre, in rehearsals for my play Dot. It is the first production of this play that I am helming. Morning is filled with laughter and deep interrogation of the text and moments. I present the cast with the world of the play today. Set, Lights, Costume and Sound. I ask the cast to tell the room who they are. Not only as actors, assistant directors, dramaturgs and stage managers. Very personal. Who they are and how they got here. I want the ingredients for what we are about to create, which only they can bring. I hear a clap of thunder and then the pounding of rain banging on the flat roof. We are in it. We are in the kitchen, putting all of our love in it.

Colman Domingo is a Tony®, Laurence Olivier, Drama Desk, Drama League and NAACP Award nominated-, OBIE and Lucille Lortel Award-winning actor, playwright and director. Domingo appeared in Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk and can next be seen in A24’s Zola and in Noah Hawley’s sci-fi drama Lucy in the Sky for Fox Searchlight. He currently stars as Victor Strand on Fear The Walking Dead and had a recurring role on The Knick. He is a recipient of Best Drama Actor award from the 2018 Independent Television Festival presented by the Television Academy® for Nothingman, directed by Eli Kooris and Joshua Shaffer, and is a recent recipient of the Sundance Feature Film Program Grant. Mr. Domingo, his creative partner Alisa Tager and AMC Networks are currently developing an original drama series, West Philly, Baby, which he will write, direct, and executive produce. He is also at work on an untitled half-hour comedy for HBO. His hit Broadway musical Summer: The Donna Summer Musical was honored with two Tony® Award nominations as well as Drama Desk and Drama League. It kicks off its National Tour in Fall of 2019. (Photo by Ogata.)