Widgets Magazine
Q&A: Daveed Diggs muses on fame, the accessibility of theater
Courtesy of Alexander Lee

Q&A: Daveed Diggs muses on fame, the accessibility of theater

On Wednesday evening, Tony- and Grammy-Award winning actor Daveed Diggs — best known for his roles as Thomas Jefferson and Marquis de Lafayette in the national musical phenomenon “Hamilton” — spoke to an excited, fan-filled crowd at Dinkelspiel Auditorium. Currently stretching his legs in television, including parts in “Black-ish” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” Diggs is producing the ABC pilot “The Mayor” as well as starring in the TNT pilot “Snowpiercer.” The Oakland native is back in the Bay Area for a month. The Stanford Daily had a chance to talk with Diggs about his experiences working in theater, keeping the arts accessible and perceptions of fame.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): What was your experience of acting and performance in college, whether that time shaped you in any way — what kind of lessons did you learn?

Daveed Diggs (DD): Yeah, I mean, it’s funny. I took a lot of classes in college and learned a ton of technique, but I felt it was total bullshit. I felt very frustrated in college: learning a lot of technique, doing a lot of shows and trying to marry the two. It wasn’t until I got out in the world and started worked professionally when I realized that the people I admired were the ones who had taken the little snippets of what they learned that worked for them — and strung them together in their own technique.

One of the good things about Brown was getting to learn a bunch of different theories and not having to sign on to anything like, “I’m going to learn Stanislavski!” When I realized I could just pick and choose parts that worked, then it was like, “Oh, this theory is interesting!” I actually came to appreciate my college time a lot more, but not until much, much later.

TSD: I was really struck by your comment [during the main event] about cultural shock. Gaining recognition, but just waiting for someone to say “psych!” and suddenly [the fame is] all gone. Growing up poor and being catapulted into such fame and acclaim as well as being on Broadway, historically known for having that “cutoff” of who can access Broadway shows — how have you reconciled that divide?

DD: I think being on the other side of anything makes you realize that there’s no real reason for those ceilings to be there. It’s actually detrimental that they are there, and it’s mostly due to a general societal and cultural laziness, because changing things is hard.

I think the best thing that “Hamilton” will ever do is the student matinees. They’re very committed to making sure the students get to come through and see it for an affordable price or for free. And representatives from each school perform on the same stage where “Hamilton” is performed. The first time I ever stepped on a Broadway stage was for “Hamilton,” right? Even just the act of walking onto one as a kid would’ve changed everything. Now, actually getting to perform something on one? That’s a total game changer, because all of sudden, you’re like, “This is a stage. It is the same as every other.” The audience is bigger or whatever, but I can do a thing that I know how to do on this stage. It’s not different. It’s about access. Everything is about access. Societally, we spend a lot of time keeping people from each other, creating elite groups. If there’s enough to go around, then why are we doing that? Actually, we’re cutting off our own resources. I never thought about Broadway before. If I had never accidentally stumbled upon it, I never would have gone there.

I know a hundred people as talented as I am, or who care as much about performance as I do, or think art is as interesting as I do. But none of them had the series of fortunate events that led to this. What if the door had been open to them? What if it didn’t have to be an accident, and that was a valid career path for somebody in my circumstance? What about all these other brilliant performers in my circumstance?

TSD: Do you then see yourself playing a role in that accessibility going forward, forging a path in this field?

DD: I don’t know. I mean, I’ll do my part. You sort of do what you can. As more doors open for me, I try to always bring people who I know, through. So right now, I’m working on a project with a lot of friends in mind. It’s a bigger budget than anything I’ve ever done before, and there’s going to be more eyes on it. There’s a chance for everybody to stunt a little bit. Like #BARS, at the Public Theater — Rafael [Casal] got into working there because we were best friends, but it was crazy. It’s not like he wasn’t ready or didn’t earn that spot. We work on everything together, whether or not if it’s only my name attached to it or not.

It’s a very easy thing for me, if I have a platform, to be like, “This is a person that everybody should be looking at.” Rafael Casal is one of those people. He’s always going to live up to that. He’s better than I can brag about.

I sort of have this feeling about change in general. We can make baby steps on a macro level. We can try to shift policy, voting and changing who’s in office. But we can make huge, sweeping changes on a personal level and in your immediate circle, or just the people around you. The act of being nice to somebody at Starbucks is actually a huge thing. It’s a real change you can effect in somebody’s life every day.

TSD: Who would you be if you didn’t have this public profile? Has having this public platform changed who you are, artistically? 

DD: That’s a good question. I hope not — or I hope not too much. I’m sure it has. I’m doing so many things that sometimes I feel like I don’t have time to do anything well. (laughs) Or not as well as I would like to. So it’s made me have to be a lot less of a perfectionist about my own work, just letting things go.

I hope that I don’t censor myself too much. I try to push myself not to do that. If there’s a thing that I believe in, I hope that I am still putting that forward. But maybe as I’m examining those things more closely, I might be being more careful about the statements I make publicly. Maybe.

TSD: Have you seen any movies or TV shows, or listened to any artists, that you think people should be aware of? People or things under-the-radar that deserve more attention.

DD: I don’t think any of these things need me at all. (Laughs) “Moonlight” — obviously it doesn’t need me. It was recognized as great, but that’s also the work of Tarell McCraney. He’s an incredible playwright. Hopefully, there’s also a boost of people producing his plays. The “Brother/Sister” trilogy is amazing.

For TV, I’m just really goddamn into “The Great British Bake Off.”

As for musicians, keep your eye out for a young artist named Elena Pinderhughes. She has a lot of music coming out that is going to break everybody’s brains. Her brother Samora has a jazz project out called “The Transformations Suite” that’s totally gorgeous and incredibly important. That’s for sure something that everybody should be listening to. And SiR — inglewoodSiR— he’s with TDE [Top Dawg Entertainment], he was like “John Doe 2,” but “Her Too,” like his last EP. That’s magic. He has new music coming out soon.

 

Contact Olivia Popp at opopp ‘at’ stanford.edu and Carlos Valladares at cvall96 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

About Olivia Popp

Olivia Popp is a self-proclaimed TV junkie and Stanford sophomore on the side. She has an eternal love-hate relationship with the entertainment industry and her home state of Michigan. Contact her at oliviapopp@stanford.edu with TV recommendations or musings, complaints about the world and love letters to Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.

About Carlos Valladares

Carlos Valladares is a junior double-majoring in Film and American Studies. He lives and breathes the Beatles and Motown. His favorite movies include "A Hard Day's Night," "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg," "Nashville," "Imitation of Life," and anything touched by Studio Ghibli's hands. You can follow his film writings at http://letterboxd.com/cvall96/. He was born and raised in South Central Los Angeles.