Daveed Diggs on Rap-Acting and What’s After ‘Hamilton’

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Photo Source: Joan Marcus

Nothing can really prepare you for making a Broadway debut. But in the case of Daveed Diggs, it’s Broadway that wasn’t prepared for him.

With his electric, see-it-to-believe-it performance, the Tony Award-nominated actor has helped turn Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical “Hamilton” into one of the biggest stage sensations in Broadway history. First as the heroic Marquis de Lafayette, then as the sneering, swaggering Thomas Jefferson, Diggs (the son of a white, Jewish mother and black father) practically erases the prevailing notion that our founding fathers were boring, old white men just by stepping onto the stage. How does he dominate the show so effortlessly? What’s the secret to keeping an audience in the palm of your hand?

“Being an emcee onstage is mostly about crowd control, about monitoring energy levels,” explains Diggs, whose experience rapping in clipping., the experimental hip-hop group, is proving invaluable now. “If you do enough rap shows you get a pretty good sense of an audience. You start to develop this sense of what a feeling of a room or a group is. That’s something useful for me here [in ‘Hamilton’] and in general.”

When Jefferson faces Alexander Hamilton in a cabinet meeting styled as a rap battle, for example, Diggs knows how and when to land each of the character’s verbal jabs. “I feel like any time I’m onstage I tend to feel very connected with people in the audience, or with the sort of heartbeat or tempo of the audience,” he says. “Comedic timing—like where within a beat to place the punchline—is different every night. It’s a group of people’s emotional journey.

“I mean, it could be all in my head,” he adds with a laugh. “Maybe I’m making it all up. But there’s a feeling, for me, when everybody in the room is on the same page. It’s a very special feeling, a feeling you’re chasing all the time.”

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With “Hamilton,” of course, that elusive synchronicity with an audience happens often; Miranda’s retelling of the American Revolution and Hamilton’s role in forming the United States is more hip-hop concert than history lesson. From the musical’s earliest incarnation, Diggs got to push those emcee skills to the limit (as Jimmy Fallon announces in the video below, Diggs holds the record for fastest rapping on Broadway), but also by researching the Founding Fathers’ personal lives.

“The most useful thing for me was letters, written by their actual hand. [Ron] Chernow’s biography, obviously, was the basis of our show and gave us tons of information. But I needed to get a sense of who they were. I looked for personal letters. Lafayette...had these aspirations of being known, of being remembered. Also there’s a kind of sweetness about him. There’s not that sweetness to Jefferson!”

Diggs says holding Lafayette’s actual pistols, or seeing Jefferson’s letters written in his hand, helped contextualize his performance. “It’s been so crazy to come in contact with history in this way. That always deepens things.”

Although there’s no indication Diggs is moving on from “Hamilton” anytime soon, he acknowledges the question has crossed his mind: After such a cultural phenomenon, what could possibly come next? “I’m for sure not going to chase another ‘Hamilton’ because there won’t be another one,” he says. “I don’t know. I ended up in this by just saying ‘yes’ to a thing that felt really good. That’s sort of what I’ve always done in my life.”

Diggs adds that earlier in his career, he spent less time saying “yes” and more time berating himself for not working hard enough within a timeline he had arbitrarily created. “That’s probably, like, 50 more songs I could’ve written instead of stressing about about why nobody was listening to my songs.”

Real artists, he says, will produce art regardless of outcome. “Oftentimes it feels like we spend so much of our life waiting to make art, waiting for somebody to let us do something. You don’t really have to do that. You can make it all the time. And 99 percent of the time it’s not going to be a big deal on a global scale. But 100 percent of the time it’s going to make you feel amazing.”

Take it from Diggs: If you’re an artist, following that calling is always guaranteed to be worth it. In fact, you owe it to yourself. “That’s the way it is. The rest will come in one way or another, but the thing you have to do is create.

“Obviously it’s a tricky business, it’s a tricky industry, and finding ways to support yourself and still be fulfilled as an artist—that’s not easy. But if you can do that, then the rest is going to come. All you can do is say ‘yes’ to the things that feel good. It will come.”

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Jack Smart
Jack Smart is the awards editor at Backstage, where he covers all things Emmy, SAG, Oscar, and Tony Awards. He also produces and hosts Backstage’s awards podcast “In the Envelope” and has interviewed some of the biggest stars of stage and screen.
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