There’s a recurring lyric in Hamilton that goes, “In New York you can be a new man.” It’s poignant, to say the least. Taylor Swift wrote an entire song about the idea, “Welcome to New York.” But Hamilton manages to get the point across in only nine words—such is the genius of Lin Manuel Miranda. Like any writing, the line is effective because it’s true. “In New York you can be a new man.” No one can speak to this more than Daveed Diggs, except maybe Alexander Hamilton himself. Daveed Diggs never thought Broadway was in the cards. That is until something revolutionary came along: Hamilton, where Daveed can currently be seen playing founding fathers Lafayette and Jefferson. He’s at home on stage, giving one of the most energized, dynamic, free-flowing performances I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing. Daveed’s experience as a rapper proves helpful while he spits Miranda’s rhymes, sure. But his real showstopper as Jefferson, “What’d I Miss?” is a real testament to Daveed’s singing ability—something he didn’t know he had and something he was sure would keep him clear of Broadway. So how did Daveed become this new man he never thought he’d be: a star in Broadway’s biggest musical? Hard work, mad talent, and kindness, of course. In this interview, Daveed explains.
When did you catch the theater bug?
Probably in middle school. I loved doing school plays back then. Actually, the first time I remember performing really was when my fourth grade teacher used to make us memorize poems and then recite them to the class. It was everybody reciting the same poem and at one point I decided I would do something—act it out—to make it less monotonous. It was kind of a light switch [moment] for me. Everybody laughed when I wanted them to laugh. I was very quiet, a quiet kid, so that made me feel like I had a reason for people to listen to me.
You’re quite the wordsmith. Growing up were you very into reading, word-play, and stuff like that?
I started writing things early—I liked rhyming words. [Daveed laughs] I didn’t read a whole lot if it wasn’t assigned. And I’m still to this day a very slow reader. I love it now and I read quite a bit. But it takes me a long time to finish a book. But I have always loved writing. I’m intrigued by the sounds of words and how they sound next to each other.
You studied Theater Arts at Brown University. What were some big take-aways from that educational experience?
The great thing about Brown’s set up, or at least it was at the time, in the theater department…was that there wasn’t one method or philosophy that you were taught the whole time: each teacher had their own thing. So if you took classes from everybody, you’d end up with a wide range of techniques to choose from. But I really didn’t know how to implement any of it until later…when I went home to the Bay Area and I started doing plays, none of [the theories] made any sense until later when I’d been working professionally for a little while and watching other people create, watching them work. Being able to watch older actors who were a lot better than me trying to create characters…I also did a lot of work in the Rites and Reasons Theater, which is also part of the Africana Studies Department at Brown. They did a lot of research performance method: plays that students were writing with a thesis…I got into the idea of plays with a point.
Did you have any odd jobs while trying work?
I did administrative work for a community center. That was sort of the most odd. Other than that, I was teaching. I was substitute teaching for a while. And then through an awesome organization, the Marsh Youth Theater, they started writing grants for me to teach poetry in middle schools in San Francisco. I got to do that through them and also work with Youth Speaks a bunch—I was a teaching artist for them too. So mostly I would teach poetry or rap classes or other classes that I designed which, for me, was really useful because it was something I was doing anyway. I also really loved teaching. I think it kept me from ever feeling too disconnected from being an artist, which is really important to me.
That’s a very lucky thing to be able to do—not have to do the waiter thing.
Right. And also in the Bay Area I managed to get cast a lot, so I was pretty much from show to show. But the thing about the Bay Area is you can’t make enough money to support yourself doing plays there. You always have to have some other gig but it’s also a great place for art education.
You were quoted in an interview that you had decided early on that Broadway would not have a space for you. Why did you think that?
I don’t know because I had never seen a Broadway show…You know very little of the theater that happens in New York makes any sort of imprint in California. The fact that anybody knows what Hamilton is [over there] is still amazing to me. I didn’t know what was happening in New York. And still, the vast majority of my friends don’t have any idea what I’m doing.
That’s crazy to me! Even with Hamilton’s enormous success and acclaim?
Yeah. The folks involved in the theater community there do [know about it], but not the regular people. It’s still a play. [Hamilton] is still a play. It’s not a blockbuster film. It’s not the hottest album on the charts. It’s a play and you have to be here in the room to get it.
You have to be “in the room where it happens.”
[Daveed laughs] Right, right. So it doesn’t permeate in the same way. Even at it’s biggest, even at it’s most culturally phenomenal, it’s not going to do the same as the next Kevin Hart movie.
But anyway, I didn’t know much of what was going on but whenever something came my way I was like, Broadway is about big sing-songy musicals. I’m not a singer—I never sang before this show. So, I was like, Okay, that’s not what I do. And occasionally I’d hear about a play that was there and it would be old white people talking to each other across the table. And I was like, Okay, alright that’s great. I’m glad that exists. I’m glad people are interested in theater how ever it comes. But that’s not what I’m going to do. So I’ll make this work some other kind of way. [Daveed laughs]
Do you think Hamilton has set a precedent for us to move away from the homogenous Broadway you just described: white people talking around a table?
I don’t know. I guess it remains to be seen. The success of it, the fiscal success of it, certainly bodes well because once people know you can make money off a thing, they try to replicate the thing. But that’s not what it’s about. I think, the best thing that happens with Hamilton is you see kids come to the show, young people who are interested in theater, or not, who were my age when I got interested in theater, they see themselves up there. They see a place for them in this world that maybe they didn’t see before. Fifteen to twenty years from now when these kids are the ones writing the plays that are being produced, that is what I am most excited about with the ripple effect this show.
What was the rehearsal process like for the show? It seems like everyone involved with Hamilton is just so vibrant and full of creativity.
It was the best working environment you could ask for. Every time we got together, even before we started rehearsing for Off-Broadway…there was a great culture where you felt like the best idea won all the time. You never felt like you couldn’t make suggestions. Lin [Manuel Miranda] has this thing that every single person was so enamored with when we started working on it. Every single person in the room wanted only what was best for the show all the time. Everybody’s egos just went away because the importance of [the show] was paramount. What can we do right now to make this thing as good as it is?
What’s the experience as an actor playing two characters, Lafayette and Jefferson, every night? Does it require a mental shift? How did Thomas Kail work with you on that?
We were working on this for so long, [the characters] always felt very different to me. Tommy helped pull out the thing that was going to make that read. Lafayette really has a coming of age story. If we just look at Lafayette’s story, he’s a guy who came to America to fight for this idea that he believed in but was a kid, you know. He didn’t really know how to do that and found himself of value in the war. He found himself as a General: this is what I’m meant to do for the cause that I believe in and I can help the world.
And then Jefferson is more of a political power game. He’s just so privileged. Jefferson’s story is about how to deal with this kid [Alexander Hamilton] who’s beating him when no one has ever beat him before. He’s never been challenged. He’s always been the smartest guy in the room and everybody’s always loved him. But he comes back to the United States, where he may as well be a foreigner because he’s been in France for so long, and doesn’t understand the workings of [the U.S.] really but has to pretend as though he does to not lose his status.
The point being that their stories and paths are very different so they feel very different to play. I’m glad that seems to come across. It also helps when one has an accent and one dresses in head to toe velvet. [Daveed laughs] Those are easy physical markers.
I read a lot of letters from both of them. That I found to be the most useful: things that they wrote in their voices. [The letters] gave me a sense of how they thought about the world. That I found really helpful…
What do you find freeing about performing and being on stage?
It’s a structure—it’s a framework—to present ideas that I think are cool, or important, or fun or I think somebody will get something out of. I’m not always the life of the party, you know what I’m saying? [Daveed laughs] If I go out, I’m not necessarily the best conversationalist in regular life. I’m getting better as I get older, I hope. The structure of performing is what is good for me, useful for me. The idea that people came here to see a thing and there are certain kinds of expectations that have to be met or challenged. It’s sort of an intellectual exercise in giving people something that (hopefully) they really appreciate and enjoy.
And it uses all of me. At its best, performing uses everything that I have. So when I do one of my rap shows, I’m like, here are the best words I’m capable of writing right now, done in a cadence that I think are the best, and I’m running around and exhausted and trying to put on the best show that I can. It uses all parts of myself: it’s physical, it’s intellectual, it’s about a conversation with the audience, trying to shape a show that has a good feel and a good flow to it, there’s spontaneous interaction, there’s everything. Plays are the same thing. How many people get to have a job where they feel like they’re using everything—where you’re really pushed to all of your limits? That’s not a common thing, I don’t think. It’s wonderful.
Performing is such a demanding thing—and Hamilton seems particularly rigorous. What do you do to prepare for the show and gear up for it every night?
Well, right now I’m eating a wrap—a duck wrap. I try to eat and then stretch as much as I can. The show has its own energy involved so once I step on the stage even when I’m the most tired, it just kind of works out. I hope! But that’s part of the fun, you never know! Every night you’ve got to do it again.
You’ve been doing the role for a while now. Does doing the show feel as lively as it looks?
It’s the most fun right now because we’re all so comfortable with it. We’ve all been doing it for long enough. For me, I’m not worried about what I’m doing so I can really have fun with everybody else and pay closer attention to what everyone else is doing. That’s the best part about acting…reacting to somebody else.
What’s your advice for aspiring Broadway performers?
Oh man, I have no idea because I don’t know how it happened to me! I guess it would be that…the communities of artists that you’re working with are the ones that you’re going to keep working with. You’ll get work in other places, but it’s the people you really feel connected to—who understand you as an artist and who you believe in—who you’ll want to keep really close and keep working with. That is how you’ll develop your skills when nobody is hiring you.
You don’t need anybody to make art. No one needs to allow you to do that. You can do it yourself or you can do it with your friends—other artists that you admire…It’s just pursuing the things you love and staying inspired and not being frustrated when it doesn’t work out. The times you’re going to get paid to do the things you love (which is not always going to happen) but when it does, it’s not going to be enough. So if this is the thing you love and feel like you’ve gotta do, then do it and figure out a way to structure your life so you can do it because you are fulfilled by it. Don’t wait on somebody to tell you that you are good enough or ready for this. Auditions are a crazy thing but they don’t have any bearing on who you are as a performer. You can make your own art. ♦