Fear The Walking Dead: Colman Domingo interview

With Fear The Walking Dead season 2 now out on Blu-ray and DVD, we chatted to actor Colman Domingo about Victor Strand and the undead...

There are very few certainties in the apocalypse, but one thing you could count on from the start of Fear The Walking Dead was Victor Strand’s awesome display of cool. It seemed like a strange attribute to carry into the world of the undead, yet his initial certainty and control of the situation was like a breath of fresh air when his fellow survivors were still working out the rules of survival.

As Strand, Colman Domingo’s performance has been pitch perfect since we first met him in a holding cell, and has seen a range of revelations and emotions that came as a complete surprise in many ways. Strand is still as close to a hero as the relatively new show has seen, but the constant evolution of the character has stopped him from becoming predictable and the show is all the better for him.

We caught up with Mr Domingo for a chat about all things Strand, which found him in a very jovial mood, so without further ado…

It must have been great to come into a genre show, especially a zombie-themed one, and play a character who immediately bypasses the usual stumbling blocks of how to deal with the undead, as a lot of the other characters had to go through that process. Was it nice to come in and be a character in the know straightaway?

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It was actually. You know, the beautiful thing is I was not really aware of how enormous the genre was to be honest. [laughs] So, I wasn’t coming in with anything on my shoulders. So, I was just interested in the character and the way he was written and I thought that he just stepped out of pages of Shakespeare, you know, like one of the Henrys, or at the time a Richard! I thought he was very interesting to make and I thought his language skills were perfect. So, I just wanted to imbue this character with as much complexity and depth and I loved the idea that he keeps shifting – when you think you know him, all of a sudden you know something else.

So, he goes a little deeper just when you don’t expect it, or he has a softer heart when you thought he was fury. So I think that’s so interesting to play. When I tell you it’s the writers, the writers lay out such delicious scripts for me, that I just cannot… really every single script I can’t even believe that I would be able to do all of that – that I’ve got to go through these emotional depths, that I could just say such acid tongue laced dialogue, you know gallows humour, all at once? I’m like ‘Who is this guy?’ You know who is this guy who can tell a wry joke in the middle of an apocalypse? That is a dude… and he’ll always looks for a glass of scotch, that’s a cool guy! [laughter]

I think, as well, that’s one of the strengths with the horror genre is that it allows for such extremities in character, and it must give you such an open playing field, for want of a better term?

[Laughs] Yeah it’s fun, because all the other characters on Fear The Walking Dead were a bit more, I guess a bit more pedestrian in a way, in terms of the way they were relating and when Strand came along he was just a bit more of a character, you know what I mean, from the very top, because I think just think the way we built him, that he’s a very self-made man, so he’s made his wealth, the way he’s dressed, it’s a bit more artifice in every single way – he was leading with artifice. Then it was his journey in season two to become a bit more human, to go to the places more where Madison and Travis and Nick were already, although Nick is a bit more of an elevated character as well, because he’s living on the extremities of his reality as well as being a former drug addict.

Absolutely, and it was interesting that Strand picked up on Nick as a sort of useful asset immediately, when you would think a junkie would be someone he might think of as a liability, or a waste of time.

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Oh yeah, he knew he would have hidden… this is someone who is fearless and this is someone who absolutely has value in this environment, you know this is someone who will go to the strange places with you, because now we are in the apocalypse. He assessed the situation and found the most useful person in that holding cell was the drug addict! [laughs]

As you do! I was interested to know how much of Strand’s secret motivation you were aware of from the start? Because as you were saying, he develops and he changes so much and at first, you’re led to assume it’s something of a criminal nature by suspicion.

That’s the funny thing to me, the fact that anyone at the beginning of Strand, when people thought that he had something to do with ‘Oh something’s gotta be up with him’ and I’m like ‘Oh why?’ He’s a wealthy man, he’s wearing a Ralph Lauren suit, he speaks so eloquently, that it’s so funny what people put on it, that there’s all these questions around him, like where did he get his wealth? Is he really this wealthy? It must be to do with something bad. He’s just… that’s what I love, I love the fact he says very little and he lets you believe what you need to believe, but he’s got a plan and he’s moving forward and he’s also someone I think that, I don’t know if he survives off of that, but I also think that also, he knows what that image means to people, he knows exactly where it puts people, like how it elevates himself and how it’s status, in every single way.

So I think certain things that I understood we were laying out in the beginnings of the character and I think his journey was unbeknownst to me, but I knew as much as anyone else knew from script to script, where all I could do was build on just ‘in the moment’ what I believe Strand is. So his does shift like a kaleidoscope in a way, because the next script you have me, you know, killing someone I love. So I look at those complexities and just play in the moment, so once again it’s just playing moment to moment and therefore we keep getting these complicated parts of a character, that make the show very human you know.

It does and it grounds it in a kind of realism, because I always find it funny when people apply rational reasoning to what is such an elevated circumstance. People say things like ‘I would never do that in a zombie apocalypse!’ but how could you possibly know?

Exactly! [laughs] But isn’t that the cool thing? That’s the cool thing about the genre and what people put on it, especially in our show, because we’re in the beginning you can see your ’stll human self’, we’re not such extreme characters yet, like on The Walking Dead. The Walking Dead, everyone’s got their hero outfits, we don’t have our hero outfits yet, we’re still trying to figure that out and figure out what our hero weapon is. I love the fact that people are like ‘This is what I would do’ and it’s like ‘No you’ve got no idea what you’d do actually.’ Everything’s changed. I mean jeez the internet goes down for 48 hours – people will lose their minds and become people they’d never imagined they’d become!. [laughs]

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They might read books and all those controversial things.

Exactly, exactly!

It’s interesting you mention that, because I’ve always been fascinated by the iconography of characters so my brain tries to work out where the characters might end up, visually, and the only thing I realised about Strand was that he does suit a good suit, so then seeing him in sweats after the stabbing – it doesn’t really work. I don’t see that as his future look!

[Laughs] It almost doesn’t make sense for him to be in sweats, does it? He’s trying to adapt in every single way, no matter what. I was just having an email exchange with our costume designer for next season and I said no matter what Strand has this innate ability to seek out a uniform in some way. Certain people feel that they’ll find what their armour is and it may have some style to it in a strange way. Like how do you find style in the apocalypse? I think Strand will find it.

*laughing* Yes! One thing I have to mention, and this is a testament to your performance and to Dougray Scott, that when Strand’s hidden agenda turned out to be love it felt real, and almost surprisingly sensitive, because Scott is known for playing these rough, masculine characters – so it was almost like a misdirection. Did you get much time to work on that relationship together?

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We didn’t actually. The moment that Dougray came onto set we immediately, we just had an immediate camaraderie and we talked about the characters and the relationship just a bit, and then what I thought was so fantastic about how it was written – and written for Strand in particular – is that you got to know so many facts about Strand before you knew that and therefore you have to, you couldn’t discount or believe something else and I love the idea that these are two masculine men in this relationship.

It’s also very complex, it’s not necessarily just about love from the beginning, it’s not a romantic relationship, it seems to be one of a meeting of minds, it seems a little more complex. I love examining and looking at it, because Strand wouldn’t be in a romantic love, like Shakespeare never used the word romance, it was about these other things as well. I think it was about obligation, it became something deeper I believe.

I’m not sure Strand actually values the word ‘love’ from his own experience with his family, so he values something else and then the relationship with Dougray is so ideal. These are two people who are really very cagey and interesting and able to figure each other out and it developed into something more. What I was examining was that if Strand even knew what was attached to the word love, until probably seconds before when he made the decision to kill him. If he possibly did know or he knew right after, that’s what it was.

He was only aware of it when it was too late.

Exactly, but I also think that no matter what, they were two people that needed to be there for one another. I loved the fact that Dougray’s just such an open human being in understanding, you know and again he and I both understand just when it comes to examining masculinity, when it comes to dealing with same sex relationships, that I knew it was conscious that we didn’t want it to suffer any of the tropes people usually put on it and that all of a sudden assume, so you couldn’t assume with these two characters at all. You just have to take them where they are meeting you on the screen and say well that’s just what that is.

It goes back to the horror genre, I think back to The Night Of The Living Dead and the fact it was made at a time when George Romero put a black actor in the lead role and had him as the hero and everyone just kind of accepted it, because it was done within the genre.

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Absolutely and I think that’s the thing I’ve been loving about Victor Strand as well, is the way he’s written. I think Dave Erickson even told me he wasn’t specifically written for a black actor, he was written as Victor Strand and then I walked into the room and that’s who Victor Strand became. [laughs] I think in every sense of the word Victor Strand has a true sense of himself and being a man of African American descent, but I think that he leads with so many things that are just specifically him and from his experience, but they are very universal.

Talking of his relationships with other characters – I think the most interesting one for me, as a viewer, has been through the Clarks, so we’ve mentioned Nick briefly, but with Madison in season two, we really see that relationship develop. I guess that is predetermined by the scripts you’re getting, as to where those two characters are going, rather than chemistry?

Our writing staff, I think they are very keen on feeling out what is the strongest complication in a way. I think the wildest thing is that Kim Dickens and I have become such close mates in every single way. I think we have a very similar work aesthetic and a sense of generosity with one another. I think it’s one of those things, I didn’t see it coming I thought that my character was going to be going on the ride with Nick. I had no idea that season two was more about a Madison/Strand thing. It was immediately these very strong personalities and once again I think if you put Victor Strand and Madison Clark in the same room pre-apocalypse you’d never think that they’d get along, or have anything to do with one another.

I think that’s a commentary on the world, of love and race and gender. Where do you go when the world has changed and you have essentially to get to the core of who you are? There is a closeness they have that they never imagined they could have. They’ve developed in a strange way, into best friends very quickly and we are really looking after one another. It may look at times romantic, which I think there could be there as a possibility, but once again there are different rules now. So there are no rules of life now and when it comes to tropes about gender and sexuality – that all goes out the window.

Once again we go back to the basics and in a sense the strongest survives and you come together and you seek each other out, for what you can give to one another and what you can gain as well and how you move forward together. I think that’s the central messages to the show as a whole too, which I think is very cool. You see how people, who think they’ve got nothing to do with each other, so polarised when it comes to religion, race, gender, politics – put them in the apocalypse and you can see how they have so much use for one another and how you can still find love and something to bind you.

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It’s a shame in a way that we watched that relationship grow and then at the end of season two, they end up going in separate directions. But I guess as we’ve already seen with other members of the group, they always seem to find their way back to each one another.

Yeah, I think hopefully they’ll find their way back to each other, but there is truly a sense, I guess it sort of mirrors life in that you may come together for what you need right now and then sometimes you have separate and to go off on your own journeys and then hopefully you’ll find each other again. That’s another message that’s just generally about life – this is a good thing, but right now I need to stay and you need to go – and I think that they understand that and in the silences.

You know, Kim and I and our director for that episode – I just really love that moment. We wanted to make sure it was complicated, it wasn’t just an easy thing – there was the gun and then there are all these silent moments and acting beats happening between the two of us and I’m glad that they decided to keep that in. It’s just like ‘okay’, there is an agreement being made and they are doing it together. So when things are compromised and one must go one way and the other another, there is still an agreement that they want to separate.

I love the scene between you and Madison, or should I say Kim, in the bar getting drunk and reckless, but I’m assuming you didn’t have any piano lessons for that?

[Laughs] No I didn’t have piano lessons for that! It’s funny you know, because in one year I’ve simulated playing the piano on the television show Lucifer, on Fox and now on my show. I’m like what if this is my new thing playing piano? Maybe I should take lessons now! [laughs] Maybe somebody is trying to tell me something!

Colman Domingo, thank you very much!

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Fear The Walking Dead: The Complete Second Season is available on Blu-ray and DVD from 5th December courtesy of Entertainment One.