This story draws on an interview done with Daveed Diggs for the Down to the Wire issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
Daveed Diggs first heard about “Hamilton” long before it became the talk of Broadway. A veteran of experimental theater in the Bay Area of Northern California, he heard from his friend, director Thomas Kail, of a hip-hop musical about America’s founding fathers that another friend, Lin-Manuel Miranda, was putting together.
He was not impressed.
“It’s a terrible pitch,” said Diggs, one of seven actors who have now been nominated for Emmys for Kail’s filmed version of the play on Disney+. “It’s still a terrible pitch. A hip-hop musical about Alexander Hamilton is a bad idea, except that it turned out to be a great idea.
“If it hadn’t existed and you pitched that to me today, I would definitely pass on it, had they not been my friends, and if I was in a position to pass on anything that paid.”
Of course, because of “Hamilton” Diggs is now in a position to pass on anything he doesn’t want to do, and to work on projects he loves: starring in the TNT series “Snowpiercer,” appearing as Frederick Douglass in “The Good Lord Bird,” supplying the voice of Sebastian in the upcoming Disney remake “The Little Mermaid” and making music with the hip-hop ground clipping.
Meanwhile, his fellow “Hamilton” nominees are directing movies (Miranda’s “tick, tick … Boom!”), starring in TV series (Renee Elise Goldsberry in “Girls5eva”), landing Oscar nominations (Leslie Odom Jr. in “One Night in Miami”) and playing the lead in big movies (Anthony Ramos in “In the Heights”).
“It was such a springboard for all of us,” Diggs said of the show. “All of the brilliant artists in this show got seen, and it’s nice that we’re all at a point where we’re able to capitalize on that. I love those guys, I thought that they were incredible artists and so it’s very cool to see that get recognized.”
The Emmy recognition, though, feels odd to Diggs. “I didn’t know we were eligible,” he said. “And most of the time, if you’re doing the press circuit for something, you have a very present memory of making it. But we made this so long ago.”
The film, in fact, was shot at three performances in the summer of 2016, and was scheduled to be released theatrically five years later until Disney decided to put it on Disney+ during the pandemic. “I feel very proud of it, but I don’t think of myself as part of it anymore in the same way,” he said. “It’s like having a kid that’s grown up and you’re very proud of all the work.”
Still, he can think back to the particular challenges of playing the Marquis de Lafayette in Act 1 and Thomas Jefferson in Act 2. “That was part of the joy of the role,” he said. “Lafayette gets to have this journey from barely being able to speak the language, but just wanting to fit in so bad, to becoming a great general with arguably the most virtuosic rapping in the show. And then you come back as Jefferson, who’s in his mind starts where Lafayette ends, but with no validation. He’s so sure that he’s great that he has side conversations with the audience – he knows people are watching him all the time. They’re very different characters, but that was the fun of it.”
As to how well the performance comes across in the film versus on the stage, don’t ask Diggs – he hasn’t watched the Disney+ version of “Hamilton.” He may have originated his roles and performed them for about four years, and he may have seen the show many times with different casts since he left, but he can’t bring himself to watch the movie.
“I have talked about it so much that there is a version of the show in my head that is like a greatest hits of 500-something performances, right?” he said. “It’s this collage of every time I ever did the show, plus all the workshops plus all the off-Broadway – and also, three people sitting in a room trying out a song for the first time.
“All that stuff is part of the ‘Hamilton’ experience that I’ve been describing publicly for five years now. As soon as I watch the movie, I don’t think my brain is strong enough to handle the fact that things will be different. I think as soon as I watch the movie, that’s going to become the version, and I know for a fact that it is substantially different than the one in my head.
“So until I don’t have to talk about it anymore. I’m not going to watch it. Because if I see it, I’m going to look back at every interview I did, like, ‘Oh man, you were lying.’ I just can’t deal with that yet, but at a certain point maybe I will be able to.”
Read more from the Down to the Wire issue here.