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‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ Actor Colman Domingo on Why James Baldwin’s Work Still Resonates

Colman Domingo says he enjoys pursuing a wide range of projects. Between writing recent musicals about Donna Summer and Nat King Cole and starring in Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel “If Beale Street Could Talk,” the multihyphenate must be having a hell of a time.

How does the film bring James Baldwin’s world to life?

Barry Jenkins and his production designers were very in tune with Baldwin’s language, making sure that it was represented in the environment. I love the fact that we weren’t on a soundstage. We filmed all of the family scenes in apartments in Harlem; we were in a brownstone in the neighborhood where their stories took place. So it had all the feel, even the sound, even the air of what James Baldwin’s intentions were. Everything was the way I imagined it to be.

What was it like on the set?

Barry is a gentleman in every sense of the word. Filming can often be stressful, but this experience was so easy, like a breath, like a dance. There were no hardships. There was such kindness and gentleness on set. The way Regina King and I came together as husband and wife, we sort of fell into one another, because we understood the characters and the story — and there’s a reverence we have for James Baldwin’s language.

It seems like people are rediscovering Baldwin’s work. Why do you think that is?

I think people are wrestling with these ideals of America and the American dream, or race, or gender, and society, and government. These are things that James Baldwin has always been wrestling with. No one can lay out with such clarity and so much grace and intelligence the things that we’re wrestling with in our society like Baldwin.

You’ve written about diverse topics, from Alzheimer’s to Donna Summer. 

I always write with a series of questions, whether I’m trying to deconstruct an American icon like Donna Summer or Nat King Cole. It’s about deconstructing America in some ways, and I think the only way to wrestle with those [issues is] as a writer. With [my play] “Dot,” I had questions about Alzheimer’s and families. How does it affect families and marriages? How do families stay together?

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