Lin Manuel-Miranda’s breakout musical Hamilton became part of the cultural zeitgeist thanks to its inventive songs and inclusive casting of America’s Founding Fathers. The show made its small screen debut on Disney+ last summer, with a filmed version that triumphantly captured the theatrical experience and scored seven Emmy nominations this year for its original cast members. Among them was Daveed Diggs, who’s been involved with the project ever since Miranda began conceptualizing it in 2012.
Though he starred in various plays before the Broadway hit, Hamilton marked Diggs’ musical debut. And what a debut: The multi-hyphenate played Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson from 2015-2016. Since then, he’s exhibited an impressive range in movies and on television, garnering a lead role in TNT’s Snowpiercer adaptation, co-writing and co-starring in the Sundance sensation Blindspotting (which was also adapted for TV), and making appearances in sitcoms like Black-ish, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and Central Park. He’s also set to play Sebastian in Disney’s upcoming The Little Mermaid.
Most recently, Diggs played another historical figure in Showtime’s limited series The Good Lord Bird, a darkly comedic story about John Brown’s attack on American slavery. His version of Frederick Douglass was met with rave reviews and acclaim, including a Broadcast Film Critics Awards nomination. But it was his roles in Hamilton that scored him that first Emmy nod. The A.V. Club spoke to Diggs about how the play still resonates, and the joy of being up for an Emmy years after his final bow in Hamilton.
The A.V. Club: Hamilton came to Disney+ over a year ago and resulted in massive downloads for the streaming platform. How do you think the essence of the musical transfers to the small screen? Why does it still work after a stage-to-TV shift?
Daveed Diggs: Hamilton became a cultural event while it was still a piece of theater. Taking it to television allowed it to be available to way more people who wouldn’t have been able to see it otherwise. Tickets to watch it on Broadway got really expensive. It’s also about it being the original Broadway cast, so it was a way of somewhat democratizing the viewing process and making it available to people. The real reason it was successful was because of how it was shot. [Director] Thomas Kail figured out a way to make it still feel alive even though it was on stage.
AVC: You started your Hamilton journey with Lin-Manuel Miranda almost a decade ago, but you haven’t been a part of the cast since 2016. Now that you’re separated from the project by a few years, how do you feel about it and about how Hamilton has taken on a life of its own?
DD: It’s pretty great but it is weird to talk about Hamilton during awards season. I’m working on 100 different things, and none of them are Hamilton. It feels like if I had a kid and they were off at college or something, they’re on their own now and I’m very proud of them. It was a great moment in my life and a bunch of my friends made something that we all thought was really good and it ended up being something the world thought was important. That doesn’t happen a lot of the time. You may get one or two of those in your life. It gives me great joy to see it’s still meaningful to people and it can be viewed in a number of different contexts and still resonate. I’m fortunate to have been a part of it. It’s more a sense of pride at a thing that’s not mine. It belongs to everybody now.
AVC: You were part of Hamilton pretty much since its beginning. When you guys were starting out, what was your vision for the play and how do you feel that evolved as you were working on it?
DD: I just thought it was a cool and funny idea and I got to play two characters I loved and hang out with my friends. My metric for Hamilton is my metric for everything. 90% of the things I do with that metric, nobody cares about. This was an anomaly. I had never done a musical or been on Broadway before. There were a lot of new things, so I tried to learn as much as I could and bring the skill set.
AVC: You said you were trying to learn more about the process from the team. Over the years of your time with Hamilton, what do you feel you learned about your craft?
DD: I definitely wouldn’t have sang in front of people if it weren’t for Hamilton. I’d been rapping for most of my life but I never considered myself a singer, and I still don’t, but I do feel like I know more about the process now. I end up doing a lot of it. It’s hard to think of yourself as a singer when you’re standing in front of Leslie Odom Jr. or Emmy Raver-Lampman or Anthony Ramos. These guys sang. I learnt about the mechanics of singing and the storytelling capacity it has. It’s nice to have that tool in my toolbox.
The other thing I learned was I’d never been part of something that ran for so long before or knew of the stamina it takes. There are folks who have made their whole careers on Broadway, particularly ensemble members. People who are engines of the show. If they weren’t there, nobody would’ve liked the show but they also got no credit for it. They kept us afloat and they work so hard, doing back-to-back shows, singing and dancing live. Broadway was not necessarily on my radar as a community I’d be part of. But it’s now really special for me and I have a new appreciation for what real Broadway actors are going through.
AVC: Do you think you’d want to return to Broadway now in some form?
DD: I do love theater. If that happens to be on Broadway, that’d be cool. I also don’t feel the need to do a musical again. I’d do it if the right one came along. I managed to go back a couple of years ago and do White Noise and it was nice to be back on the stage again. I’m happy in a small regional theater just as much as I am on a Broadway stage.
AVC: You, Renée Elise Goldsberry, and Anthony Ramos all scored your first Emmy nominations, which could have just as easily been for your respective performances in The Good Lord Bird, Girls5eva, and In Treatment. Were you all surprised it was Hamilton that got you to the nod? Did you talk about it?
DD: We haven’t talked about it. I wasn’t paying attention so I wasn’t even sure Hamilton was eligible honestly. We’ve been in awards season for a year and a half now, so I just assumed they’d happened already or something. I didn’t sit around waiting for a nomination. When they did come out, I was confused because of the timing. I was on set filming. Everyone was congratulating me and I did not understand at first what everyone was talking about.
AVC: How cool was it that Hamilton and Blindspotting’s Jasmine Cephas Jones announced those Emmy nominations [with her father and fellow actor Ron Cephas Jones]?
DD: That was amazing. Jasmine is one of my dearest friends. We make music together and we’re working together on Starz’s Blindspotting. Having her and her pops do the announcements was special. She is the most talented person out there right now in my opinion.
AVC: Do you feel like you’re making a conscious effort to diversify the projects you’re taking on post-Hamilton or does it happen naturally?
DD: It’s a bit of both. I like to do different things, things I’ve never done before. I think there’s an element of that, that’s just who I am. But also, after Hamilton I’ve been asked to be in every musical ever. Anything musical that’s happening in film or TV comes my way, and for the most part I turn them down. You start to see how easy it would be to only do one thing. I would be bored if that were the case.
AVC: So how do you go about picking projects that help you get out of the box?
DD: There’s a couple of things. I get sent a lot of scripts and I get easily excited about things. What I’ve had to learn to do is wait a day and see if I’m still excited. I also have a really great team who make sure good stuff comes my way. But I have this thing, when I’m really excited about something, the hair on my left arm stands up. I get a weird tingling sensation on my left arm. I’ve also heard that’s what a stroke feels like. When I have that feeling, I’ve noticed that’s probably something to pay attention to. It happens when I’m reading a script or a book, but most often it’ll happen during meetings when I sit down with creators, producers, or collaborators. It’s the vibe I get. It’s the thing you can control, and then you can share the results of your experience with the people you work with. So I tend to get mostly excited about a vibe with another creative person.
AVC: One of the musical roles you’re doing is Apple TV+’s Central Park. What drew you to the role of Helen and what’s the process of getting into—and singing—in her shoes?
DD: I’ve done a lot of animation. It’s actually easier for me to sing in character. I don’t love my voice, so if you give me a character, it’s fun to sing and not be me. Singing as Helen is so interesting because her range is a lot greater than mine, it turns out. It gives me access to notes I couldn’t hit if I was singing as me. I don’t even think I knew who I was playing when I said yes to join. Josh Gad said he’s making a show with Loren Bouchard. He asked if I wanted in, and I just said yes. That’s the thing I was saying earlier about people over projects, right? I was pretty sure it would be a good time. I’ve done a lot of voice work in the last two years, I love it, so it was a no-brainer. I don’t think I was even aware of how much of a musical it was but the songs are incredible, they have no business being that good. The voice talent is amazing. Emmy [Raver-Lampman] coming on board for season two was great, there was a lot of family vibes there, too.
AVC: You’ve said that James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird was one of the funniest books you’ve read. Did you get the chance to read it before or after you got the part of Frederick Douglass?
DD: Ethan Hawke came and saw me in White Noise in 2019 and we got coffee the next day. He basically said “I’d really love for you to play Frederick Douglass in this new show from this book I’m adapting. It’s a very particular take on him and I want to make sure you’re okay with it.” He then gave me his copy of the book. He told me to check it out and see if I’d still be into it. I read it that very day and fell in love with everything about it. I loved that whole project so much, I’m proud of that performance and working with Ethan. I’ve now become a lifelong fan of the author, I went back and read everything James McBride has written. I’ve taken so much with me from that job.
AVC: What kind of talks did you have on set for Hamilton or even The Good Lord Bird about how to portray history as we know it, but also take the artistic liberty to shape your story in the play or the show?
DD: For The Good Lord Bird, my job was to honor the book, so that was a bit of a different thing. For Hamilton, it was sort of based on a book, I guess. Our directive was to sort of ignore that all of these guys have streets named after them or have statues. The Public Theater where we were performing was literally on Lafayette street. But our idea was to get beyond the history of it and make these people, the everyday heroes walking around, and try to make it as contemporary, honest, and human as possible so everybody could see themselves in it. That was the big trick with Hamilton, we were getting everybody to buy into the creation of America. Most of us don’t feel that way most of the time, so I think that’s the trick we were trying to pull off, to say “Hey, this is yours too. Just because these people historically didn’t look like you doesn’t mean you don’t also get affected by their decisions. Decisions made by 21-year-olds hundreds of years ago. So you get to imagine yourself in it.”