Interview: Daveed Diggs on Wonder and Lining Up One Cool Project After Another
When people refer to particular actors as “a star of stage and screen,” they are usually referring to performers who have decades of experience moving back and forth between theater to movies, with perhaps the occasional guest appearance on a TV series.
But at just 35 years, old actor Daveed Diggs has already won a Tony and a Grammy for originating the duel role of Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in the 2015 Broadway musical Hamilton; has had a regular recurring roles on series including ABC’s “Black-ish” and two Netflix shows, “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” and “The Get Down;" continues to front the hip-hop act clipping.; and is now making a serious play as a film star in the recently released Wonder, co-starring Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, and Jacob Tremblay. (Review here.)[caption id="attachment_21082" align="aligncenter" width="639"] Photo courtesy of Lionsgate. Daveed Diggs as "Mr.Browne" in WONDER. Photo by Dale Robinette.[/caption]
More interestingly, Diggs serves as executive producer on the new ABC hit series “The Mayor,” for which he also contributes original music. He will also star in the upcoming TNT series “Snowpiercer,” an adaptation on the sci-fi film of the same name, set to premiere in 2018.
What put Diggs and I in a room together in Chicago recently was Wonder, in which he stars as teacher Mr. Browne, a kind and compassionate teacher to Jacob Trembley’s Auggie, who was born with a facial deformity and has endured about a dozen reconstructive surgeries to get him to the place he is when we meet him. The film is based on the wildly popular novel by R.J. Palacio, and has been adapted by The Perks of Being a Wildflower author and director Stephen Chbosky.
Mr. Browne is a testament to the importance of upstanding teachers to any child with special needs, and Diggs brings the exact right measure of empathy and wisdom to the role and film, which he began shooting two days after his final Hamilton performance. Please enjoy my talk with Daveed Diggs…
A lot of teachers that I know have read this book, and as much as I know that some teachers like to keep up with what their students are reading in general, I think that your character is a real love letter to the importance of teachers in the lives of kids that stand out for some reason, whether because it’s a physical thing abnormality or it’s just because they’re quirky. Talk about the role from that perspective.
That was what attracted me to it; I think you’re right. I had some really great teachers growing up. So when I read this script, it felt like an opportunity to honor them in a way that I hadn’t seen in a film before. As I thought about it, I was like “I don’t know if I’ve seen a Mr. Browne before.” Teachers are often antagonists in films that are about children, since they’re really from kids’ perspective, right? I was really interested in that aspect of it. I was a teacher for a while. I taught middle school poetry classes; I designed a lot of curriculums. So I have a huge amount of respect for teachers and I know exactly how difficult it is and how important I believe it is, and how underpaid they are. So that was definitely a really important aspect of this film, getting to honor great teachers.
One of the first things we hear your character say about himself is that he dropped out of Wall Street to pursue his dream of teaching. Why do you think that’s an important detail in his life?
I think it’s evidence of how passionate he is about teaching, and also sets up his value system. And as the person who is passing on values to these kids, he speaks in precepts, he is very aware of the kind of value system that he is presenting, and I think that sets him up as somebody who is a champion for the morals that the film presents. The thing Mr. Browne hated about Wall Street, besides the emptiness of money, was how everything was about winning. One of the first precepts he presents is, “when given the choice between being right and being kind, chose kind,” and that seems like such an anti-Wall Street sentiment—to not win an argument, but to choose the kind thing to do.
Well, what’s funny about his backstory is that kids going to see this movie, that won’t mean anything to them. That’s for the adults.
Yeah. That is his backstory in the novel as well, and I think that’s really a credit to RJ for coming up with that and imbuing the character with that belief system.
The other thing he says is “Who is the person I aspire to be?” That’s a theme that comes up throughout the story and people have to keep reminding themselves of the answer to that question. Talk about that thought and the answer to that question.
You’re right, and I hadn’t thought about that a lot in the context of this film, but I think you’re right, that it does champion a self awareness and self examination and constantly checking in on if the choices you’re making are ones that are leading you to become the person you want to be.
And not just for the bullies; it’s for everybody. Even the nice people have to be reminded.
You’re right. It’s for everybody, and I think it is also a trait of successful people—whatever your definition of success is. If you’re always working towards being something, then you’re going to keep marching towards that goal. And if that goal is about personhood as opposed to about something that you want, if it’s about who you want to be, then that’s a goal that literally no one can stop you from reaching but yourself. It’s really interesting.
Is that a question that you have asked yourself in life?
Oh, for sure. Yeah. When you’re a “struggling artist,” there are a lot of times where you hit these crossroads where “There’s a thing that I could do right now that would take a significant amount of time away from the art that I’m doing, or would take me into a very different kind of lifestyle, but I would be a little more stable.” And you do have to constantly ask yourself that question: Is this choice going to lead me to being the kind of person that I am interested in being?
If I remember the timeline correctly, this is something that you started doing right after Hamilton. It was your first film.
Yeah, the day after.
Tell me about just that first contact with Stephen and sort of selling you on his vision for this, because it’s not his book, like the last film was. But yeah, talk about what you remember about that initial contact with him.
Yeah, so I had been sent the script and loved it, and then I think I Skyped with Stephen. I think I was sitting on the roof of the Richard Rodgers Theatre talking with him on Skype, and he was describing to me how he felt Mr. Browne was necessary to this story, and the different things he thought I could bring to that. I loved the script from jump. I had already had another project scheduled, so my time was pretty limited, and Stephen was really pushing to get me in this and I was like, “I’d be happy to do this if we can work the schedule out.” But I asked him, what is it about me that you think is useful to this? Because as scripted there also wasn’t a ton there to do. But it wasn’t about that for me. It was just about I know that this is a difficult thing for everybody working on it, so I was like, “Is there a reason for this?” He was like, “Absolutely.”
What was the reason? Did he tell you?
He was like “The energy you exude and your background as a teacher,” and he spent a lot of times watching interviews of mine and stuff, he was like, “I really think you are Mr. Browne.” I was like, “Well, great. If we can make it work let’s do it.” So we made it work, and I’m so grateful that he and Lionsgate and everybody jumped through all the necessary hoops to squeeze this into the schedule that was already filling up.
And for the second time in a row you didn’t have to audition for a part.
I don’t do well auditioning.
I was going to ask you, are you ever going to have to audition for anything?
I audition all the time, but you probably don’t see those because I don’t get them [laughs]. I actually auditioned for “Snowpiercer” and worked very, very hard on that audition because I wanted it so bad. So that is I think the one example of an audition that has worked out.
I am beyond thrilled that is happening. I have no idea what it’s going to be. The movie was my favorite from that year. Can you talk at all about the execution for the series?
I wish I could. I wish I could talk about it more, but I don’t think I can yet because we’re waiting on a whole bunch of confirmations for things.
It’s just the pilot so far?
Yeah, we shot it. It’s so cool. It’s life on a train. The whole thing takes place on this train. It’s built—we were on train cars for six weeks.
Is it another story on the same train, or is it different? It’s not retelling the movie I’m assuming?
It’s the same premise as the film. I’ve been describing it probably wrongly. The studio will hate me for describing it this way, but I always describe it as “The West Wing” on a train. It is highly political. It’s complicated. Although the dialogue is really spare, which would make it un-“West Wing” like. But it’s not a heist movie. We’re not finding out about the train by this linear movement from back to front like we are in the film. We’re finding out about the train in a more difficult, complicated way that’s really based in relationship as opposed to goal, because that’s a thing you can do in a TV show that you can’t do in a 90-minute film.
The cast is like international, it’s diverse.
It’s really, really cool.
Back to the film for a second, working that closely with…wait do you have scenes with Julia Roberts or Owen Wilson?
[laughs] No. I didn’t meet them until like a couple of days ago in London.
But you do have scenes with Jacob, who is at this point the grand master of acting. Talk about working that closely with someone of that age who is as talented as he is.
He’s so good. I hadn’t met him before. Stephen did this great thing where no one got to see him in his makeup until he walked on with his makeup, and it was mostly for the kids to make sure he got an honest reaction from them. So that first scene where he walks into the classroom, that first classroom scene, that’s the first time any of those kids and me had ever seen him in his makeup, but I also had never seen him without his makeup and I never got to because he was always there hours before I got there getting into his makeup, so for me, that is what Jacob looked like for months. He’s obviously incredibly talented, but really off camera is where that kid is even more impressive to me. He’s so sensitive and so aware of the room and so witty and funny. He’s really a phenomenal human. I think the interesting thing about Auggie is that Jacob really gets to shine through. The kindness that Auggie emits, Jacob also has all of that.
You have a really innate gift for selecting projects and roles that are not just really interesting, but just plain cool. Going back to Hamilton, but then everything after that too, like “Blackish,” “The Get Down,” “Kimmy Schmidt,” or “Snowpiercer,” certainly. One thing is cooler than the last. How are you doing that?
I have an incredible team, obviously, but then also I’ve had this luxury in a few projects of having these roles created for me. So Johan on “Black-ish" was written for me. I sat down with Kenya [Barris, creator], and he was like “I have this idea about Bow’s brother,” and I was like “I’m obsessed with Rainbow!” Similarly with “The Get Down.” I got to meet and talk with [executive producer] Nas a bunch about that character, and “Kimmy Schmidt,” the same thing.
So I have a great team who’s always on the lookout for that. I also have been in this fortunate position. I was in Hamilton for years, and everybody who was coming to see it wanted to meet everybody in that show. So I’m sitting down having meetings with people for years, but I was unavailable, so it gave this opportunity for people to come up with things for me to do that I think is really rarified air for an actor.
It certainly is when you’re in a long-term commitment like that to suddenly have options. You don’t have to take the first thing that somebody drops in front of you.
Oh, I know! I’ve been so, so lucky about that. And because of that, it allows me the freedom of only saying yes to the things I think are really cool. It’s pretty amazing.
I didn’t realize you were a producer on “The Mayor.” Why is that show special for you?
It’s outsider politics, but it’s local politics. It’s for us. The constant example of outsider politics that we’re presented with right now, I’m not in love with it, right? [laughs] Our current president, who was undoubtably an outsider, has really sucked the heart of the country in a lot of ways, so this is an attempt at a counter narrative. But also, it’s based in the Bay Area, so what I’m able to bring to it I think as an executive producer is a knowledge of musically how that place works—he’s a rapper as well.
So I get to be in charge of how the Bay Area sounds in this fictional presentation of it, which is very important to me. I’m always concerned with how the Bay Area is presented, so I’ve been very proud to be associated with it. Also, it’s got an incredible group of actors on it. Brandon Michael Hall is just one of the most charismatic people I’ve ever seen; Marcel Spears is so, so funny; Bernard [David Jones], and of course, Yvette Nicole Brown is just an incredibly special actress.
Are you still making music?
All the time, and my same band works with me on all of these other projects. They’re making music for “The Mayor” and some ESPN stuff.
Well best of luck with this. Thanks a lot; it’s great to meet you.
Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.