Daveed Diggs speaks with such an extraordinarily spirited confidence that even if you didn’t recognize his famous face or voice, you would immediately peg him as an entertainer. You might think he looks familiar—which makes sense, given the success of Hamilton, for which he won a Tony Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical in 2016.
While affable and not at all self-important, Diggs takes an approach to his work that is marked by true devotion and painstaking thoroughness—even when it comes to portraying a cartoon crustacean. Or, perhaps, especially then. About his role as Sebastian, the overbearing yet well-meaning guardian of Ariel in Disney’s upcoming live-action remake of The Little Mermaid starring Halle Bailey, Diggs says, “All of my skill sets from Hamilton, and all of the rap stuff I’ve done in my life, came into play in this.”
Diggs imagined Sebastian’s world, beyond the small glimpse that was offered in the 1989 animated film—pondering details like where the red crab would have grown up and gone to school to build out his version of the character.
“I talked to a lot of people to get a handle on the things Sebastian may have gone through, what could have led him to be the advisor to a king, trying to let those things inform the dialect choices as opposed to just taking on a standard Caribbean accent,” he explains. This called for a research trip to Jamaica, as well as weekly video chats with the late calypso historian and Trinidadian playwright and director Tony Hall.
“Sebastian’s a Calypsonian, and Calypso was born in Trinidad, so I wanted to lean Trini with it,” Diggs notes. “I wanted ‘Under the Sea’ to capture that extemporaneous vibe. Calypso music was initially a sounding board for political issues, to teach lessons as well as to entertain. It was also initially heavily improvised, so I wanted to try and create that feeling.”
A gifted artist with an impressive track record onstage and on-screen, Diggs earned an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Male Lead for his role in 2018’s Blindspotting, which he also wrote and produced. He then got a Primetime Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or Movie, for his part in the 2020 Disney+ live stage recording of Hamilton. It makes his self-effacing attitude regarding his significance in The Little Mermaid’s ensemble cast rather charming. He seizes every opportunity to exalt his scene partner Awkwafina’s comedic chops as Scuttle—and to talk up Bailey, whom he calls “transcendent” as Ariel.
As he discusses anticipation around the film, Diggs is right there with the audience, a fan above all else. “I remember lining up at the Grand Lake Theatre in Oakland to go see it, opening weekend,” the California native recalls of the movie’s original release.
This time, journalists will be lining up to talk to him. For Diggs, that is almost too good to be true. “I feel very lucky I got to be a little part of it, but really my experience is going to be as part of the fandom,” he admits. “I’m pinching myself that I might get to go to the premiere. Like, that’s crazy!”