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Colman Domingo Explains Why He Attended the SXSW Premiere of ‘Sing Sing’ the Same Weekend as the Oscars (EXCLUSIVE)

When Colman Domingo steps to the stage to introduce the SXSW premiere of his new film “Sing Sing” — a deeply affecting depiction of the Rehabilitation Through the Arts program at the titular maximum security prison in New York — he gets a standing ovation before a second of the film has screened. That might be in part because, less than 48 hours later, Domingo will be stepping inside the Dolby Theater for the 96th Academy Awards, nominated for his performance as civil rights activist Bayard Rustin in “Rustin.”

This wasn’t even the world premiere for “Sing Sing” — that was at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival, where A24 scooped it up for a theatrical release this July. But as Domingo explains to Variety following the film’s screening at SXSW — where the film received another, much longer standing ovation — there was never any question for him about whether he would attend.

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“The funny thing is, I’m shooting a movie in L.A., I’m shooting a series in Toronto, and even my publicist asked me the other day, ‘Are you sure you want to go to Texas?’” he says with a smile. “I said, ‘I have to be there.’ It’s just instinctual.”

Domingo plays John “Divine G” Whitfield, who channels his roiling frustration at his wrongful murder conviction into his work as an actor, writer and founding member of the RTA program at Sing Sing. Other than Paul Raci (“Sound of Metal”), as the group’s civilian director, and theater actor Sean San Jose, as Divine G’s best friend and fellow RTA member Mike Mike, the rest of the film’s core cast consists of alumni of the RTA program who were once incarcerated at Sing Sing, playing versions of themselves. One of those actors, Clarence “Divine Eye” Maclin, conceived the film’s story with the real Divine G, as well as director Greg Kwedar (“Transpecos”) and writer-producer Clint Bentley (“Jockey”).

Along with the uncommon make up of the cast, Kwedar, Bentley and fellow producer Monique Walton (“Bull”) took an equally exceptional approach to profit participation on the film: Everyone was paid the exact same day rate during production, and the entire cast and crew has equity in the film based on the amount of time they worked on it.

At the premiere party for “Sing Sing,” Domingo spoke with Variety exclusively about why that model was so appealing to him and his husband Raul Domingo — both are also executive producers of the film — as well as the effect shooting in correctional facilities had on him, and what he learned from his co-stars.

This is a very busy weekend for you. Why was it important for you to come to SXSW for this premiere?

The funny thing is, I’m shooting a movie in L.A., I’m shooting a series in Toronto. And even my publicist asked me the other day, “Are you sure you want to go to Texas?” I said, “I have to be there.” It’s just instinctual. I think larger movies will get the love and amplification that they need. A film like this needs its star. It’s a small film, we built it in a very small, beautiful way. Films like this matter so much to me. So I was like, no, I have to. Even if I’m a little tired. I wrapped last night, got on a plane at five in the morning to get here and I leave in the morning [tomorrow], but it’s worth it. I’m here because this is the work that I believe in. Every actor hopes that they can do work like this, I think. I’m very proud of the way we built this in a very equitable model. I’m very proud of what it can possibly do to change minds and amplify these voices, and also to really change the system.

Can you talk about that equitable model, how that came about?

Yes. That came through Greg and Clint and Monique, our producers. And then when Raul and I jumped on board as executive producers, we thought that that was the way to go. They really asked us in every step of the way, “What do you think is the healthiest way to do this? Should we go to the studio route? Should we go getting a lot of large investors? Or should we keep the overhead low, and make sure that it’s equitable with everyone above and below the line?” The points that you get are based on how much work you’ve done in this film, so it’s equitable in every single way. Something about that feels good, too. It feels just right. Every single person on that set felt like this film was theirs. It didn’t feel like you were a work for hire. It felt like a mission.

What has it been like for you to watch your co-stars who are playing essentially versions of themselves get standing ovations for their work?

I love watching them because I know never in their life did they ever think that this could happen for them, that the circumstances that they were in before could lead them to do this, to transform that pain, that hurt, that harm, whatever it was, for something beautiful and graceful. [Points at Sean “Dino” Johnson, one of his co-stars, sitting nearby.] I love watching Dino. Dino’s the tallest, most sensitive one of the bunch. Look at this guy. It’s written all over his face. He would never imagine this could happen in his life. That his trauma, tragedy, human experience — there’s some flowers growing because of it.

You shot a little bit at the actual Sing Sing, and at a different correctional facility upstate. What was it like for you to be in those spaces that a lot of your co-stars had lived in?

You get the feeling that you were filming in hell. The air felt different. I would always get lost whenever we were in them because I think they’re designed for you to not know due north. It was hard to find sunlight. There are so many things that I found that were psychologically helping to suppress, not to actually heal or to rehabilitate. You can’t rehabilitate that environment. You just can’t. Not in the decommissioned prisons that we shot in. I knew immediately just by being in the space, this has to change. This isn’t how you treat human beings, and this is not how you make things better. This is how you keep a system going. It’s designed for people to come back.

So it was hard. I think maybe that’s why suddenly I needed Sean [San Jose]. At first, my best friend, Sean, was going to stay in a hotel, and I made him move in into my one bedroom suite that I was in, Airbnb, because I think I needed a roommate. I needed the light and love and joy while I was shooting to go into the spaces.

You’re coming in with so much experience in film, TV and theater, acting opposite people who are playing versions of themselves. Was there anything you took away as an actor from their performances?

Yes. I think I’ve been working with a certain level of experience for a while. And this, I had to go back to zero in a way, and just be available as I would any other film actor and say, what are they giving me? How can I take this and respond to this organically? It doesn’t have to be perfect and it can be a bit more raw. Because I think the the sleight of hand for me was to slip into their world. I didn’t want to for them to become at the level of myself as an actor, I had to fall in line with them. I had to lean into whatever they were giving me.

Part of what I loved about the movie is that for most of the characters, we never learn about why they were incarcerated. It seems like the movie is saying, it doesn’t matter why they’re here; just deal with who they are now.

Well, I think that that’s an always a choice that one has to make. I made that choice that it wasn’t necessary for me to know who my co-stars were when they were on the inside. I met them on the outside of where they were. Whether a person has worked through their issues or whatever, I meet them where they are and what we’re creating and how they’re doing it. And they’ve become brothers to me.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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