After Rue hits rock bottom, fueled by a tour de force performance from Zendaya, the latest episode of Euphoria offers a much-needed comedown. She still has a shaky relationship with her mother (Nika King) and sister (Storm Reid), who must bear the brunt of her drug-induced outbursts, but in the throes of withdrawal, Rue tries to make good — at least with her sponsor, Ali (Colman Domingo). She apologizes for breaking his trust earlier this season in a heartbreaking phone call; Ali accepts and orchestrates a family dinner for the Bennetts. His presence forces the women to speak openly with one another, allowing space for Rue’s sister, Gia, to voice her skepticism about Rue ever getting clean and her mom, Leslie, to double down on her love for her daughter. Ali plays therapist, mediating the conversation without ever exonerating Rue, and ultimately provides a sliver of hope for the family.
Vulture caught up with Domingo to discuss the dinner scene, how he approaches the heavy subject matter, and his hopes for an Ali-centric episode in season three.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
In the first special episode that aired between seasons, Ali tells Rue about his family and his struggle with addiction. Earlier this season, Rue throws it all back in his face. Why does he keep coming back to support her?
First of all, it’s an extraordinary violation of trust and faith in one another. I love going to that special episode. I think it’s always a good callback to help you digest season two, because Ali has laid out the framework for the entire season: the questions you wrestle with, themes of faith or redemption, and how deep the disease of addiction is. Rue has a choice, and her disease chooses the dark side. Ali’s purpose is to be the moral compass and a grounding force for Rue.
But even he has limits. He understands what the disease of addiction can do to someone and he’s always there to offer redemption, which is something he set up in the special episode when he talked about how society is not interested in redeeming people, but that’s what being loving and human actually is. That people can be their worst selves but can be on the road to recovery and come back into grace. He’s offering grace. He’s asking for redemption in his life as well. He’s saying, If I’m expecting this from the world, I must offer it as well.
In this episode, Rue apologizes to Ali for the cruel things she said to him, and he’s gracious in his response. You’re not onscreen for that scene, but Ali’s forgiveness and warmth come through the phone. How do you approach scenes in which a necessary emotion like that is required?
We actually did it in the room together. Zendaya and I sat there and looked at each other, and we played the scene. I wanted to make sure there was a nice long pause before he says, “I forgive you.” He’s got to let her live in that space of being uncertain, to see if it’s really worth it to her. Does she really want this? He’s examining forgiveness and saying, “Be in your truth and I honor that truth, and I can also forgive you.”
Is that the usual process for similar scenes you’ve done on other projects?
No! Usually with film, if you’re off-camera, you’re doing [the call] with a script supervisor. But Sam Levinson can feel every detail and wanted it to be that honest. He wanted to give us that space because he knows connectivity between Ali and Rue is so important.
Ali’s big set piece this week is a dinner at the Bennett household, and his presence lightens the mood for the whole family. Ali can never replace their dad, but for one night, it feels like the family is more complete, and it also seems like Ali also has a surrogate family. Did you view that scene in the same way?
In every single way. I thought, This is something Ali needs. He needs this connection as much as they do. Once he met Leslie in episode two, he knew she needed support dealing with her girls, even if it’s just one moment of human connection — of coming over, making a meal, and talking to one another. I think he knew he could be the conduit for that. But it’s also something Ali needed. It’s kind of beautiful and serendipitous that Sam Levinson gave Ali a wife and two girls in his past — it is filling a hole that Ali desperately needs repaired. Who knows where it’s going, but Ali knows it’s helpful for him to be in this house as they’re going through something. He knows he can make a difference in some way.
Ali uses the dinner as an opportunity to bond with Rue’s sister, Gia. Why do you think that was important to him?
He knows the toll it’s taking on the little sister. We can always draw a line back to one of Rue and Ali’s early conversations outside of a meeting, where he finds out Gia saw her OD. He’s like, “Who’s taking care of that?” He knows everyone is focused on the problem in the family and no one’s ever thinking about the other person who’s hurting — no one’s giving attention or love to her. All the energy is going to Rue. He’s acknowledging her presence, saying, You can be angry, you can feel the way you’re feeling. That’s justified. You can be full in your experience as well.
Did Sam give you any specific directions for that dinner scene?
We made the decision that he’s just going to set the table and let the conversation happen. Sam said, “Don’t be afraid of the silences. It’s okay if you need to take a moment to digest before you react. It’s all new for this family and it’s new for Ali as well, so it’s okay to respond in a way that’s unique.” Ali is there for Rue and we’re responsible to each other, so it’s a unique opportunity that would probably spin out to yelling and fighting [otherwise]. For me, there’s always another layer of acting: We had conversations, the four of us really getting to know each other, so when Sam called “action,” we were already laughing and talking and enjoying each other. There was something really natural happening, so we could really let the scene play out.
I’ve read that Sam based Ali on his own sponsor. What kind of research did you do to get into character?
Since Sam is the brain trust of the entire show, I had many conversations with him, about the disease of addiction, and small stories about how his sponsor loved Thelonious Monk. He was this cool dude who was that voice of reason for Sam. I’ve also researched with people in my life who suffer from this disease of addiction: asking them the “why” question, or what are they seeking, or how does it make them feel? And then I listen with no judgment.
One of my greatest resources is Marsha Gambles. She plays Miss Marsha on the show, the woman who starts the meetings, and she’s also the waitress in the special episode “Trouble Don’t Wait for You Always.” Marsha has been in recovery for over 17 years and she is a vast resource of stories that are funny, wild, dark, and painful. She’s very honest and she’s an open book. When Marsha is there with me and Zendaya, the truth is always in the scene. It can ground you to do the type of work you need to do.
Ali’s scenes tend to be heavy since he’s often dealing with Rue at her worst. How do you and Zendaya prepare?
We both prepare individually and then we come together on set. I’m from the theater and I study a lot. For the special episode, I rehearsed for at least 120 hours. In typical episodes, I may put myself through my own rehearsals of 30–50 hours for a few scenes. Then I show up with Zendaya. We read the scene and we’re very open with each other. We don’t set a lot of things — it’s a real listen-response exercise. We rehearse ourselves in such a way that on the day, we’re in the moment with each other doing a dance together.
Ali practices tough love with Rue. Why do you think he uses that approach?
I don’t even know if he practices tough love. It’s the only way he understands. He said, “You have to earn love. Something’s gotta cost you as well and you have to show up for it.” He’s being tough in the way she needs. He knows you have to be a little tough with kids. If you’re soft, they’ll run all over you. You gotta be tough and hold the line, and that’s the way they’ll respect you.
Do you think that’s based on his experiences or if it’s what he sees Rue needing?
He sees a bit of himself in Rue, and that’s how he knows how to deal with her. He’s like, Oh, she needs it tough because I needed it tough, but nobody gave it to me tough. So I ran all over people and I did what I needed to do. But if I’m a little harder on her and she can take it, hopefully it can bring her to her better angels.
He’s the voice of reason she needs.
Absolutely. He knows she showed up to a meeting, so not all is lost. She’s high, but she’s here. There is a granular amount of hope.
We only see Ali in his interactions with Rue and her family. As an actor, how do you fill in the blanks of what he’s doing off-screen?
I have a whole life built up for Ali. He’s one of those dudes who still shops at the strip malls, but he’s got a great sense of style. When he finally meets her family, I wanted him to be a bit more sharp, a bit more clean. I make choices about if he’s dating or not. I believe he shoots pool, he goes to a game once in a while — he’s very much an everyman. But because of his past, he also stays to himself a bit.
Will we get to see any of that backstory in a spotlight episode in season three?
I am dreaming of that. We’re overdue for an Ali backstory. And I hope it goes back to his childhood so we can unpack that. Sam and I have made some decisions in his present, but we haven’t talked about a lot of his background. We made sure of a few things, like that he’s from Philadelphia, where I’m from. But he’s got a unique background and I would like to see how that has informed the man we see today — how intelligent he is, how loving he is — but also what he’s had to overcome to get to where he is. It would be an exceptional episode and the audiences are ready for it. So tell Sam. [Laughs]