How Daveed Diggs Found Common Ground Between Frederick Douglass and Modern Rappers

TheWrap awards magazine: ‘We have a similar understanding of what it’s like to mine your past for your fame in the present,” Diggs says of his role as abolitionist Douglass in “The Good Lord Bird”

Daveed Diggs in The Good Lord Bird
William Gray/SHOWTIME.

This story about Daveed Diggs first appeared in the Limited Series & TV Movie issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

If the pandemic was supposed to be a period when film production slowed down and people had more time to take it easy, Daveed Diggs got it all wrong. Over the past year, he appeared on screen in the filmed version of “Hamilton,” in which he plays the Marquis de Lafayette in Act 1 and Thomas Jefferson in Act 2; he was seen in the first two seasons of the TNT series “Snowpiercer” and shot Season 3; he supplied the voice of Sebastian the crab for Disney’s live-action remake of “The Little Mermaid” and was also heard in Pixar’s “Soul”; and he made music with his experimental hip-hop group, clipping.

And then there’s “The Good Lord Bird,” the Showtime limited series in which Ethan Hawke plays 19th-century abolitionist John Brown and Diggs appears in a couple of episodes in the crucial role of the formidable statesman, orator and activist Frederick Douglass, a former slave who became one of the most famous men in the world.

“He was a rock star and he knew it,” Diggs said. “He used that both to his own advantage and for the cause of abolition. And that’s a much more interesting, more human version of Frederick Douglass than the one that I was ever taught.”

In fact, Diggs had turned down the opportunity to play Douglass more than once in the past, because he felt the projects put the character on a pedestal. “That takes away so much from him as a real person,” he said. “Making your heroes into statues means that you can never be a hero, right?”

But “The Good Lord Bird,” based on the historical novel by James McBride, created a Douglass who is both larger than life and wholly human — a brilliant and blustery leader who knows the effect he has (particularly on women) every time he walks into a room. “This was the first project where I thought, ‘Oh, I know this guy and I can play this guy,’” Diggs said. “He’s struggling with a lot of the same things I’m struggling with. I mean, he’s way smarter and way more famous than me, but we have a similar understanding of what it’s like to mine your past for your fame in the present. That’s what rapping is, you know.”

He laughed. “It’s pretty fun to play someone who is incredibly impressive and knows it.”

While Diggs was on screen as three different historical figures over the past year, it was never his intention to steer his career in the direction of playing heroes in period pieces. Neither was it his goal to work on as many things as he’s been doing lately. But when “Hamilton” opened a world of opportunities for him after it became a sensation on Broadway, he was understandably eager to take advantage of that newfound clout. (But don’t expect him to watch the filmed version; he’s reluctant to mar the “Hamilton” that exists in his head.)

“I was in my mid 30s by the time ‘Hamilton’ got off the ground,” he said. “So all of these opportunities that I never thought I would have, I started having. And the early motive was yeah, I want to do everything.

“Then I got a little bit smarter and it was like, there has to be like a goal associated with it. And now I’m entering a new phase. I’ve had to turn the question around to myself: Am I actually going to bring anything to this? Should it really be for me or should it be for somebody else? And if the answer is yes, it should be for me, do I have the capacity for it? Do I actually have the brain space or the time, or have I spent too much time away from my family or my partner? I’m trying to understand the real-life cost of working on things.”

And no, the pandemic didn’t actually help him cut back. “Everyone told me things would slow down,” he said. “I started looking forward to the break, but I’ve been very fortunate to work on a lot of projects that I’ve loved and keep things moving.”

A shrug. “Yeah, it’s been a trip.”

Read more from the Limited Series & TV Movies issue here

Cynthia Erivo EmmyWrap cover
Cynthia Erivo on the front cover of the June 15, 2021 issue of the EmmyWrap Limited Series & Movies magazine


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