Over the last 20 years Daveed Diggs has gone from being a track star at Brown University to becoming a Tony and Grammy award-winning star in Hamilton. There was even a Film Independent Spirit Award nomination for his costarring role in Blindspotting, a hip-hop love letter (albeit gentrifying) to his Oakland roots. But he finds his latest achievement—TV’s newest leading man on Snowpiercer—to be one of his most daunting to date.
“So much of the process was about learning how to be an actor that is high up on the call sheet on a TV show,” he tells ESSENCE about his new role. “There’s a stamina that is required of you.” That’s an understatement.
Inspired by the protagonist in the acclaimed 2013 sci-fi film of the same name, Diggs’s Andre Layton is a former detective turned rabble-rouser condemned to the lower-class tail section of a 1,001-car train orbiting the Earth’s frozen wasteland. The actor sometimes has multiple fight scenes per episode and carries the weight of the drama that engulfs Layton when his unique skill sets are beckoned by the elites (led by Jennifer Connelly) at the front of the convoy, compromising his longtime alliances.
While on-screen combat and being in nearly every scene of a series are new challenges for the actor, whom audiences also love as Tracee Ellis Ross’s fictional younger brother on black-ish, he is most interested in exploring the nuances that come with interrogating the status quo.
“One of my favorite things about Layton is that he starts the show with a pretty fixed mission: To get his people to be able to participate in the society of the train,” Diggs says. “His message changes as his circumstances change because he had no clue about the stakes of challenging the status quo.”
Gaining a new perspective on his acquired privilege while contesting class warfare is also true for Diggs, who like many of us is on lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic. Growing up Black in an increasingly gentrifying Oakland, he’s no stranger to social injustice. But he recognizes that his heightened celebrity stature has given him an advantage that many others aren’t afforded in this dire time.
“I am definitely in the category of people who should not be able to get tested [for the virus], and yet it was offered to me,” he says. “That’s incredibly unfair and entirely a function of socioeconomic status.”
Snowpiercer’s uncanny timing in the current dystopian climate is merely a coincidence, but its themes of protest and discrimination could be applied to any era in our history. And it’s not the only way Diggs is hoping to connect with audiences this summer.
The original production of Hamilton is making its way to Disney Plus, allowing many who have not been fortunate to experience the hottest—and arguably most expensive—ticket on Broadway, to do so from their own couches.
“Many more people have listened to the album than have been able to see the show, which is the nature of the beast,” Diggs says.
He hopes that the filmed production will at least give some a reason to smile again. “Anything that brings people a sizable amount of joy is a good thing these days.”
Candice Frederick (@ReelTalker) is a film and TV critic.