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Photo by David Lee, courtesy of Netflix.

Filmmaker George C. Wolfe Talks Mining ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ Cast Members for Netflix’s ‘Rustin’


George C. Wolfe, the Tony Award-winning theater director-turned visionary filmmaker, takes the helm of Rustin, the impactful biopic now captivating audiences on Netflix.

With Colman Domingo commanding the title role, the film delves into the compelling life of Bayard Rustin, the unsung hero behind the monumental 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his iconic ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.

Produced under the prestigious banner of Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions, Rustin pays homage to Rustin’s legacy. Rotten Tomatoes’ “Critics Consensus” summarizes the film as a “a stirring biopic that shines an overdue light on a remarkable legacy of public service.”

In an exclusive conversation with Casting Networks, Wolfe opens up about the film’s casting choices and how he blended established names with emerging talents.

Director George C. Wolfe and CCH Pounder on set filming Rustin. Photo Credit: David Lee, Netflix

Casting Bayard Rustin is a critical filmmaking choice. After seeing Colman’s performance, one can’t imagine anyone else but him in the role. You previously collaborated with him in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, where he played a supporting role. How did you come to make him your leading man in Rustin?

It was an organic process. There were a number of names that were floated around and his was one of the first ones. As I was working with the script and I started to scout locations, what started as a possibility became an inevitable choice.

How so?

I would read a speech and go, ‘Hmmm, it’d be interesting to hear how Colman would do that.’ Or I would imagine a shot or a dynamic that would play out, or when I’d asked Audra McDonald to play [civil and human rights activist] Ella Baker and went, ‘Oh, it would be interesting to see the two of them.’ As the film was forming, so was the idea of Colman as Bayard.

Tell me how some of the others came together.

Jeffrey Wright [who plays Rep. Adam Clayton Powell] is an actor I’ve worked with many times [including 2005’s Lackawanna Blues]. I said, ‘You’re doing this role.’ Adrienne Warren (Black Cake, The Woman King) was doing Tina Turner on Broadway at the time.

I called her up and asked her to play Elias’ [Rustin’s love interest] wife. She came down on her day off, filmed her two scenes and then went back to her eight shows a week on Broadway.

Glynn Turman sitting in a suit smiling. Photo Credit: John Pack, Netflix

There are actors from Ma Rainey in this film besides Colman. You mined your previous cast for this film!

Glynn Turman [who plays labor unionist and activist A. Philip Randolph] and Michael Potts [who plays labor organizer and activist Cleveland Robinson] were in Ma Rainey with Colman. These are ferocious and brilliant craftspeople with such heart, now playing people who had heart and ferocity and who were so committed. It was about pairing that up and making sure you had the right dynamics.

Ma Rainey and Rustin are both ensemble casts. Do you think there would have been a part for Ma Rainey star Chadwick Boseman in Rustin if he were still alive today?

Oh absolutely. Absolutely.

Filmmakers such as Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach and Christopher Nolan have a repertoire of actors they like to work with repeatedly. You’re similar in that way as well. Was there anyone in Rustin who you would likely add to your go-to group of actors?

[British actor] Aml Ameen, who plays Martin Luther King Jr. is a wonderful actor whom I loved working with.

Aml Ameen in a suit portraying Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Photo Credit: David Lee, Netflix

The film also has recognizable faces, including Chris Rock as civil rights activist Roy Wilkins and CCH Pounder as civil rights leader Dr. Anna Hedgeman. Any young discoveries that you found during the audition process?

The kids who surrounded Bayard [as he was planning the march] were all actors who auditioned, who I didn’t know previously. These were kids who were just out of Juilliard, NYU or Carnegie Mellon. It was fun discovering them.

I found it very joyful to meet the young actors who comprised the team that helped put the march together with Bayard. It was thrilling to get to know them, see their work and see how smart and committed they were.

Rustin is currently streaming on Netflix.

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