You lived in San Francisco when you were starting out, didn’t you?
I lived there between 1991 and 2001. I moved there [from Philadelphia] to become an actor. I really owe a lot to my Bay Area years because I was in my 20s—that’s when you become who you’re going to become. My closest friends and comrades who I still create with are there. Like Sean, who I met at Berkeley Rep while we were doing youth theater. We did a touring production of The Yellow Boat and he became my best friend. To this day, we’re on the phone at least a couple of times a week. I have deep roots in the Bay Area. San Francisco is truly one of my artistic homes. It’s never left me.
Is there a stage role from your time living here that you look back as a turning point in your career?
One was Blues For an Alabama Sky [at TheatreWorks in 1997]. I got so much attention for that and people started to understand what I did. That was a turning point. And I came back to Berkeley Rep to do Passing Strange in 2006, and it was the little show that changed my life. It offered me my Broadway debut. I had lost my mother a month before we started rehearsals and it was like a calling that I had to be back in the Bay Area. It’s where I did a lot of my healing ... and it changed my entire career.
I’d like to talk about your role in Euphoria. You play Ali, the sponsor of 17-year-old Rue (played by Zendaya) who’s struggling with drug addiction. Whenever you two are together, it’s like a battle between the disillusionment of youth and the wisdom that comes with age and experience.
That’s a great way to put it. That’s exactly it. I think there’s something about Ali that [Euphoria creator] Sam [Levinson] is very intentional about. Ali is an anchor. Because the narrator for the show, Rue, cannot be depended on. You can’t depend on her because she is struggling.
I think the special episode you and Zendaya did between Seasons 1 and 2—just the two of you talking in a diner—was probably the most powerful piece of television from 2020.
When we were about to start Season 2 of Euphoria, we had a table read, it was wonderful, then the pandemic happened and we were shut down. In the second season, there were fragments of that conversation with Zendaya spread throughout the season. And so Sam had the brilliant idea of actually making that a more intimate experience and not spreading it out. I think honestly, the reason that episode is so powerful is because it was the end of the first year of this pandemic. This script felt like a prayer, it felt like a meditation on the year.
How did the two of you prepare for such raw scenes? How do you make it so real?
I put my entire soul into that because it was touching on everything that I care about. Revolutions, and inhumanity, and people being able to come back into society, and the disease of addiction which takes so many forms. So I put myself through at least 120 hours of rehearsal. I come from theater, so a 40-hour rehearsal week is not anything for me. I decided that the work needed that attention. I rehearsed it in a way to be available. I wanted to understand not only the characters, but the moments and the things that they’re wrestling with. I didn’t want that to look like work. I didn’t want you to see the work. I wanted it to just be breath, and living, and experiencing. And I think Zendaya put herself through the same process. I look at that [episode] and I recognize it as some of my best work.
Do you find that Euphoria is what people most recognize you for now?
Right now, it’s Euphoria—it seems like Euphoria has taken on a mind of its own. But my fan base is all walks of life. Usually these days, I can tell who my fan base is just by looking at them. I like to guess where they know me from. Usually, you can tell who the Euphoria base is because they all look like they’re in Euphoria! Black people know me from every historical Black film I’ve done. But I also have a queer fanbase that knows me from when I did sketch comedy on The Big Gay Sketch Show with Kate McKinnon. I also have a rabid, voracious, Walking Dead universe fan base.
Do the Fear the Walking Dead fans hate you since your character, Strand, went full villain in Season 7?
Oh yeah, they completely hate me (laughs). But I love it because a good show should be polarizing. People are complicated. I enjoy that he’s not just ... to the middle.
In the first season of Fear the Walking Dead, Strand was trying to help a teen addict survive the apocalypse. I can’t help but see parallels of that role in what Ali is doing in Euphoria now with Rue.
It’s funny. I was such a nerdy kid. I wasn’t a troubled teen. In my family I was the youngest of three. I watched my older siblings run the streets and be a little wilder and I think my responsibility in the family was to be a good boy and not be a problem. But I could see the problem because I’m an ardent watcher of people. I think my superpower is being an empath and understanding people, and understanding things without judgment. And maybe that’s why I’m called on to play these roles because there’s something about my own story as Colman that I can bring to these characters.
Since you’re going to be in the Bay for Valentine’s, will you be visiting that Berkeley Walgreens where you met your husband?
I am bringing my husband with me! The funny thing is, it’s now not a Walgreens. It’s now a Target. But we’re making this a five-day event. We’re taking a long drive, we’ll stop at Big Sur, then on up to the Bay, get in a little early, hang out with a couple of friends, and stop by New Conservatory Theater, which is where I got my start. That’s the first place I ever did any show. They’re actually doing my play Dot. So we’ll check in, look at the set, probably meet the cast. I used to live on 22nd and Valencia right above Valencia Cyclery. So I’m sure I’ll stop by and look up at the window. I’m a softie in that way.
And what food will you be running towards the fastest?
Oh my god! The Slanted Door. It’s one of my favorite places. And I want to go to Tartine! Also, Pancho Villa. They always had the best burritos. I have found that there is nowhere else in the world that makes a good burrito besides the Bay Area.