Daveed Diggs is about as far as he can get from his breakout role in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway juggernaut, Hamilton. He’s ditched musical sermons on democracy for rousing speeches meant to fuel a rebellion. He’s left the stage and hopped aboard a train that’s circumventing the earth at dizzying speeds, keeping what’s left of civilization shielded from a nuclear winter.
Well, not at this very moment. Right now, he’s holed up in his home, like the rest of us, waiting to hear what fans think about the long-awaited Snowpiercer spin-off on TNT, set to drop May 17th. Diggs is familiar with fandom – Hamilton managed to make show tune geeks out of theater virgins – but he also realizes now might be a strange time for a post-apocalyptic drama, even one that carries the prestige of being created by Oscar-winner Bong Joon Ho. A strange time, but not necessarily the wrong time. We chatted with Diggs about the weird kismet of Snowpiercer landing during a pandemic, the trajectory of season one, Hamilton reunions, and making art under quarantine.
Between the film and the comics, there’s a pretty devoted fandom that comes along with this world. Was there pressure to get this right?
I knew about the fandom. I hadn’t seen the film when I was sent the early version of the pilot and I hadn’t read the graphic novels yet, so I went and did that before I auditioned. I know what it’s like to be a fan of things but I don’t know that I was nervous about it, because I think this version exists in a different space. It doesn’t feel like it takes away from it. Because what frustrates me when I’m a fan of something is when I see somebody come along and make a mockery of the thing that I love. [This] feels more like another reason to dive back into a world, if you love it.
The show makes an interesting choice early on, using a murder-mystery storyline to introduces us to different characters in different cars. Why did having that procedural approach make sense?
I think the thing that television gives the opportunity for in this world is to spend time in each class, and to spend time with a lot of characters — getting to understand their motivations and what makes them tick, and just live in the world a little bit longer. I think the kind of procedural-esque structure, particularly of the early episodes, is mostly useful because if we’re hanging out with Layton, everything’s new to him too, right? So we’re getting to experience things with him. I think once the tone is set for that, we get to sort of spread out and it becomes a little less procedural feeling.
You can’t do anything about the timing, but are you worried at all that people might not have an appetite for apocalyptic stories right now?
I’m sure somebody is worried about it. [Laughs] That’s not my job. You know, when I read the really early and very different version of the script years ago, it felt like it was in conversation with our current times. And it still does, maybe in a different way. I think all the conversations that the show is having still continue, because we are all still existing in a pretty similar class structure to the one that is made obvious for the sake of simplicity on a train, right? I think all of those conversations get to continue, but different things jump out based on what the big moment that we are going through as a society and as a culture is. Right now that is COVID-19 and so I think the claustrophobia of it, the lack of movement, the limited resources, like, all of those things come easiest to us because those are the things we are experiencing. It definitely hits different.
Andre Layton is the protagonist of the show early on, but I don’t know if you’d classify him as the “good guy.” Are there any good guys on this show, or is that kind of the point?
I just don’t think any story is really served by heroes and villains. That doesn’t help us. What I like about this show is that it tries to make sure that every character is a human, and then asks us to empathize with them, to try to understand their motivations. That’s something that I think culturally we have a hard time doing. It’s a big ask. But Layton feels real to me because he is flawed.
Also just as a career choice, right, as a character that I may in the event of success be playing for a very long time, it’d be super boring if he was infallible.
That brings up an interesting point that relates to Jennifer Connelly’s character and her journey throughout the season. She’s positioned as Layton’s enemy, but the more he learns about train life, the more that changes. How did you build that complicated relationship off-screen?
The more we hung out on set, the more I grew to understand her. I think the great thing about those two characters is that they respect each other an awful lot. They grow to respect each other even when they are working against each other. That is a really interesting thing to play. And particularly with someone like Jennifer, who is so great, there’s like, I don’t know, I wouldn’t call it competition because I don’t think she felt it at all. [laughs] But for me it was like, “All right, I’m not going to let Jennifer act circles around me in this scene today. Not today.” And so, you know, having so much respect for her made it easy to transfer that to her character.
Layton is the face of this revolution in season one, but is he the right choice to lead once the dust settles? Do you think sometimes our “heroes” have shelf-lives?
That is really the question of the show for Layton, right? What you see him grapple with all the time is that he leans so much on his moral compass and on his code. That gets challenged so often based on new information. Whatever he thought, he had no idea how this train worked or why it worked. And I think that leads him to make a lot of really tough choices. Whether or not he’s going to succeed … I don’t know. I’m fascinated by that journey too. It certainly continues on into the second season. I don’t think we answer that.
Can you answer anything about where we’re going in season two, because there’s a big cliffhanger we’re left with?
I think the spirit of the show is that it doesn’t really slow down very often. There’s not a lot of room to breathe and that trajectory does not stop at the end of season one.
Thinking about how Wilford is portrayed in this first season, is there something we can learn about how these characters worship him, and how that worship blurs the line between belief and harmful ignorance?
Yeah, that is one of the big questions that Snowpiercer asks us as an audience to ask ourselves, right? The interesting thing about Wilford is he did create the world so there’s an interesting argument for a God status there, I suppose, if you’re looking for religion. Something that’s brought up a lot is that people need something to believe in and this is such a complicated question when we apply it to our leaders, right? Does the necessity for belief equate giving that much power to somebody, or to a group of people? And is it also necessary that that come at the expense of not educating your public? Not giving them all of the information so that they can make informed choices. This show does such a good job of bringing up a ton of issues that we are all struggling with and systems that we’re all living within, whether we know it or not. You can engage with it at whatever level you feel comfortable with but I hope, for people who feel so inclined to revisit the show after their first viewing, they’ll get another bite at some of these issues that are going on.
We’ll end on Some Good News, literally. How did that Hamilton reunion happen?
I mean, John [Krasinski] reached out and everybody said yes. It was kind of a no-brainer. You know, I will say this about quarantines: it makes it really easy for you to do things like that. All we had to do was record ourselves doing our part of the song. There are things that I think we’re learning about the effect we can have, at least on people’s moods, particularly for performers, or celebrities, or whatever. It’s the same thing that Some Good News showed me. I watched the first episode days before John asked me to do the thing, and found myself just like crying the whole time. Like really happy tears.
That was sort of the first time I had let myself cry during the pandemic. I had a lot of stuff pent up. I think we’re all going through these waves of anxiety and stuff and that show helped me so much. John will tell you himself, he’s just scouring the internet for good news and regurgitating it. You know? So, it allows us to take some of the pressure off of creating something that is perfect or creating something that looks a certain way or whatever because we all understand the constraint. We’re all stuck inside. I’ve been doing a lot of performances with The 24 Hour Plays organization. And that’s the same thing. The conceit is always, this is what writers and actors and directors were able to put together in 24 hours from start to finish. That’s as long as you spend on it. So it removes the need to be perfect and to be polished and just gets at the heart of the thing. It makes it pretty easy to spread a little bit of joy when you can.
TNT’s ‘Snowpiercer’ premieres on Sunday, May 17th at 9:00pm EST.