Nerdette

Former ‘Hamilton’ Star Daveed Diggs On 'Wonder' And His Many, Many Projects

Daveed Diggs, a co-star in the film 'Wonder' out Friday, is seen here visiting WBEZ in November 2017. Jason Marck/WBEZ

Tricia Bobeda, Greta Johnsen

Daveed Diggs says starring in the hit musical Hamilton opened a lot of doors for him, such as meeting one of his heroes, blinged-out rapper Busta Rhymes.

“One of the first famous champions of the show was Busta Rhymes,” Diggs told Nerdette co-host Greta Johnsen, adding that during an early performance, the rapper “sat in the front row with a red shirt and a bunch of gold chains on.”

“Like, I can text Busta Rhymes right now. That? That is a crazy thing to me.” 

Diggs stopped by the Nerdette studio to talk about Wonder, his first feature film that comes out Friday. He plays the teacher of a young boy named Auggie, who has a facial deformity and struggles to fit in at elementary school. 

Diggs also talked about formerly starring in Hamilton, his ABC TV series The Mayor, and his rap group Clipping. Below are highlights from the conversation.

On ‘Wonder’ 

Daveed Diggs: I really hope that it encourages kids to just be brave enough to show up and be themselves — and be fully themselves — because you realize how brave that is when you’re watching this movie. You watch Auggie go to school for the first time. For me I was taken right back to my first day of a new school and being so nervous. Overcoming that is a big deal. But I think it’s that kind of bravery that we really need in the world, and so I hope the film encourages that.

The kid focus is what allows us to get as emotional as we do when we watch it, for adults, because all of the sudden you’re taken back to this time before you had figured out how to not feel things. 

On ‘The Mayor’ 

Diggs: The writers’ room is so smart. They do a really great job of creating humor that is topical and political but not mean-spirited. That is a tricky line to walk. 

It is easy to be cynical, and there’s a lot of good comedic points in cynicism — that’s kind of the quick way to the joke — but The Mayor manages to stay away from that and it’s very cool and very tricky, so I’m super proud of the show.

On ‘Hamilton’ 

Diggs: I was an intern at the Hip Hop Theater Festival in 2001. Hip hop and theater have been happening together for a long time. The reason that Hamilton feels like such an anomaly for all of us I think is because the way plays work, you do a play, you have an incredible time, and generally nobody cares. Right? You did it, the people who saw it had a transformative experience, and that’s how it goes. The world at large doesn’t pay attention to it at all.

I think for those of us who work in theater, hip-hop’s been creeping its way in for a long time. It was always surprising to me that it took it as long to be successful on Broadway as it had, mostly because when you look at Broadway in the ‘40s and 50’s and even the 60’s, it was sort of relying on the popular music of the time in order to sell tickets. I don’t know when that stopped, but rock musicals came about and then that was it. Hip hop’s been the most popular music in the world for 15 years. It’s been a huge money-maker. It seems obvious, but probably because it was long overdue.

On Clipping

Diggs: I started writing rap songs probably not long after I started doing school plays, early in high school or middle school or whatever. For me, the writing of rap music ended up just being the easiest way to express myself. 

I work well within constraints — it’s the same reason I like acting, actually, because what acting really is is a set of constraints through which you have to tell a story. I am this kind of person from this place. Here are the words I have to say. How do I tell a full story through that. 

Rap’s the same thing. You have this constraint of meter. You have this constraint of time signature. How do I use that to tell a story in a way that sounds cool and that makes people hear it?

Daveed Diggs’ nerd obsession: N.K. Jemisin’s ‘Broken Earth’ trilogy

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The 'Broken Earth' trilogy is the highly-praised sci-fi series by author N.K. Jemisin. (Images courtesy of Orbit Books)

Diggs: They’re so good. I don’t even want to tell people, cause there’s that awesome trick that happens most of the way through the first one that just like — it changed the way books work for me. 

I was just like, “No! You can’t possibly! How? I don’t know how to feel about this!” It’s an awesome bit of misdirection.

Note: In the audio of this week’s episode we state that a groundnut is “an acorn that has fallen.” This statement is actually quite false.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire conversation, which was produced and adapted for the web by Justin Bull.