Daveed Diggs was two weeks shy of wrapping the second season of Snowpiercer, a five-year-long project rife with changes, when all production halted. This was on the cusp of the coronavirus shutdown, around the time that non-essential workers were instructed to stay home. But in the months before that, Diggs was deep in the world of Snowpiercer, an end-times story of class struggle that takes place inside a massive train containing the last remaining human survivors of a second ice age. It began as a graphic novel by Jacques Lob, was adapted into a film by Parasite director Bong Joon Ho, and then (after years of entertainment industry drama behind the scenes) finally made into the TNT show that will premiere May 17.
38-year-old Diggs—a breakout star from the original cast of Hamilton who also makes music under the name Clipping with producers William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes—has a grateful, laid-back attitude towards life that exudes the mood of his hometown of Oakland, California.
Far from being bothered by the turbulence that defined Snowpiercer‘s inception, he emphasized his admiration for the rest of the cast (which includes Rowan Blanchard and Jennifer Connelly) and the intricate work of the set designers. Speaking on the phone last month from his home in Los Angeles, he reflected on how writing informs his acting process, the show’s relevance in a pandemic, and how he learned the value of perfectionism from a meeting at Pixar.
It’s wild how pertinent Snowpiercer is as a narrative right now. We’re discussing a film and a TV show about an apocalypse during what feels in some ways like an apocalypse.
There were themes in Snowpiercer that were always going to be relevant, but there’s something particularly apocalyptic-feeling about the current moment.
People seem to be connecting not only to the apocalypse story, but also the class struggle, in a new way. People’s relationships with celebrities and their content have shifted during coronavirus.
I think with any international catastrophe, it makes clear how wealth interacts with limited resources. And that’s something that we deal with on Snowpiercer a lot—obviously the whole system is one big experiment in limited resources, having to be on this train. There are things that are limited in the world, which the nature of my socioeconomic status and my celebrity—such as it is—allows me access to. Usually it’s something that people can’t get, which they need. And that’s shitty. I think everybody is responding to how unfair that is. We feel it more right now—the class divisions, and how class does affect things that we think of as human rights. You don’t always get to feel that as palpably.
In a way, it’s the perfect time for this show to be released.
I assume that’s what we’re banking on.
When you first watched the film, what jumped out at you?
To me, the most impressive thing about the film, and this is true across all of Director Bong’s work that I’ve seen, is that it feels really propulsive. It moves forward. That film in particular is a guy running forward through a train the whole time. There’s some synergy with the fact that the train is always barreling forward and can’t stop, and the story, by virtue, has to do the same thing. But there’s such clear world-building that we understand the class divisions, and we understand the way that resources are limited. We understand the have and have-not situation, and we understand who’s calling the shots, and the tricky machinations of that. In a very quick burst, you get all of this information because it’s so well constructed.
The film is set up as a crazy roller coaster ride you run through, and the show is a place where you live in for a long time. You understand and acclimate to what is normal. We get to set a baseline for normal, before we fuck it up.
The murder mystery plot is a good trick to allow one character to exist between classes. Layton, who’s from the lower class, then has access to all the other classes that he’s never seen before. You get somebody that, as a detective, inherently is experienced, and then give him the access to be surprised every time he opens the door, in the same way that we hope the audience gets to be.
Did you find yourself comparing the film to the TV series when you first read the script?
No, I hadn’t seen the film until I’d read the script. The movie is obviously a different version of the script. I think what excited me most was the fact that there was enough between the movie and the graphic novels that there was a world here that—it’s tricky, choosing to say yes to a TV show, you don’t know how long you’re saying yes to. During a movie, you’re gonna be done when it’s done, we could end up doing six seasons of this. If you’re preparing for success, you’re going to be here for a long time. So what excited me about it was that there was enough of a world here that I could see myself hanging out in it for a long time.
Did director Bong visit set at all?
Yeah, we met. He came a couple of times. I met him the first time he was walking through. He’s incredibly nice and super supportive, and seemed very impressed. Our budget is 100 times what his was. Which is another amazing thing about what he was able to do. He had to shoot the whole thing on one train car. He was like, “You have so many trains.”
How many train cars did you have on set?
We’ve taken over, like, four stages, so at most, there are probably 15, I would guess. But as soon as we’re done shooting on one, it gets turned into something else. It’s a constant construction site in there. We always joke that we have been there all this time and still can’t find our way around. They tell you what set you’re shooting on, and nobody knows where it is. The crew moves things in the middle of the night because they have to make room for another train car they’re building.
You were in Hamilton, you made the film Blindspotting, you make music with Clipping. But this is your first time going into the world of television drama, and I’m curious how it differs from these other projects you’ve pursued.
The size of things is certainly one big difference. Every time you scale up in terms of scope—which translates to budget—and make a show more expensive, all of a sudden it takes so much more to keep the machine running. There are so many people working on that set every day, and you only interact with a small fraction of them. Being a TV actor is oddly protected, in a way. Because for an actor, you’re shooting these small chunks of story and every time you do that, there are 200 people there just trying to make you look good. There are so many people checking to make sure my makeup has continuity and my hair’s alright, and my sound’s perfect, and if I didn’t nail the words on this take, we’re gonna do another one. The more I work in it, the more protected I feel, which is kind of lovely. It allows you, once you figure that out, to take more chances than you would in some other spaces.
My work is the same, but the experience of it is different. I don’t do anything different in terms of how I prepare to understand a character. I always describe TV as rehearsal with no performance.
There has been a ton of talk surrounding Snowpiercer: the comparisons to the movie, the long lead time, issues behind the scenes with showrunners, changes in management, moving the release date up, and now it’s eligible for Emmy nominations. How are you feeling about all of this chatter?
I don’t care. I’m just happy people will get to see it. I have zero control over how it’s received. I have zero control over the rollout of it, what press were doing, how many billboards are up. That is not my job, thank god. I have a great time working on it, and I’m working with incredible people, the cast and crew are my favorite folks. We’re interpreters. We get a script and we all bust our asses to try and create a version of a real, living person. So you form relationships with people, sure, and those change and those people come in and out, but ultimately, my job is the same. I did a bunch of things I’m pretty proud of it, and I think so did everybody else working on it, and hopefully people like it and we’ll get to do it again. But really, we’ve already done it again. So y’all gonna get two seasons, regardless.
How much do you split up your work between making music and acting?
Because I make more money acting, I have had to focus on that. Your life ends up skewing heavily toward the thing that pays you. Particularly with Snowpiercer, because you spend so much time there, I’ve had to start saying, when I get home, I’m not doing Snowpiercer stuff anymore. However long I have on set, when I get home, it’s my time and that’s when I’m making music, or that’s when I’m pursuing one of the other 20 projects I’m working on. I try to do all my script work when I’m on set, if I have stuff I have to study, I’ll do that during my downtime on set. That’s a choice I get to make just shooting our second season. I didn’t do that at first, and I realized once I reached eight months of working on that show, I’d let everything else fall to the wayside. I had very little progress made on the other scripts I’m writing. It’s become a time management thing, but I think it’s like that for everybody. You have something you’re passionate about, it isn’t what’s paying the bills at the moment, you still have to make time for that thing.
What spurred this realization?
It was partially Clipping. We were so far behind trying to get this album turned in. I was wracking my brain for how that had happened and realized it’s mostly my fault. Also, Snowpiercer gets pretty dark. I’d never worked on a show for that long before; the effects of taking that home with me wasn’t always great, emotionally. Leaving a very dark situation and going right home and continuing to live in that world and figuring out how you’re going to re-up and do that again tomorrow, kind of got to me. I was not always the happiest leaving those shooting days.
You just don’t want to hang out in that world too much. Some people can. I just can’t work like that. Some artists work really well from a place of sadness or from a place of struggle. I’m not that guy. I am always going to do the best work if I am happy and healthy and laughing a lot.
Can you talk about the “20 other projects” you mentioned you’re working on?
We have this Blindspotting TV show set up at Starz, so we’ve been grinding on that. I’m executive producing a couple of things. More Clipping music, always. I’m also working on some solo stuff. Josh Gad’s show for Apple, Central Park, is coming out soon, and I’m a character in that, plus I got the opportunity to write some music for it. Soul is coming out, from Pixar in November. I wrote a little, tiny bit of music for it—not even really music, just a funny easter egg. I got to be a part of the cultural counsel for that too, which is a really interesting way that Pixar works.
I’m also so curious what goes on behind closed doors at a place like Pixar.
It was a trip, because I got to sit in on notes for Soul. They’ll have people come and watch the movie and then give notes on it. But I also got to sit in on the notes from the higher-ups and all of the producers at Pixar. They are the harshest note sessions I have ever been in. I don’t think I could write for them. They definitely never pull any punches and they’re relentless about it. Everybody there was taking it in stride, and I’m like, I think my soul would be crushed after one of these. But it really is the reason their work is so consistently great. They are not afraid to speak up when something isn’t working. And then brainstorm relentlessly to try and fix it, or try and figure out what the solution to the problem is. It was pretty inspirational to be around this commitment to making the thing good. And your feelings do not matter. That’s not part of the equation. That’s not what’s gonna make this movie good, is you feeling good about yourself. It was intense. And then everybody left and loved each other.
Maybe you learned from that experience and applied it to your character in Snowpiercer.
Yeah, I think you’re right. As an actor, you become the champion of the character. I’ve spent more time thinking only Layton’s thoughts than anybody. When something pops up in the scene that makes you think, “Layton wouldn’t do that,” I have to say that. I actually know Layton better than anybody else does. I only have to think Layton’s thoughts. You have to, to a certain degree, insist on it.
[Writer Graeme Manson] was always open, the writers on set were ready to change things. If there was something that was bugging one of us, we would sit down and figure it out during rehearsal time, before shooting.
I learn more and more every day about what works for me and what doesn’t. I think I approach everything from a story-first perspective, not a character-first perspective. Maybe it’s because I’m a writer also, but I’m always trying to figure out—how do my character’s choices help tell the story? I think immersing myself into a character would mean I’m not able to see the bigger picture like that. Living every moment as that character, that’s not how I think. I’m a little bit more utilitarian than that. I’m a very small part of a very big machine, and ultimately we’re all just trying to tell this story.