Daveed Diggs The Exclaim! Questionnaire
Published Jul 24, 2018Oakland-born actor, rapper and writer Daveed Diggs is not exactly easy to pigeonhole. Musically, he's as likely to be found experimenting with the edges of hip-hop in the Sub Pop act clipping. or delivering family-friendly raps about American history as an original cast member of Hamilton. His growing, fascinating resume expands further this year with the arrival of Blindspotting, a film he and his creative partner Rafael Casal have been chasing for a decade.
As co-writer, co-star and co-producer, the critically acclaimed flick is another career milestone for Diggs. And, fitting with his body of work, it's both personal and hard to pinpoint. "It's set in Oakland. It's following the story of my character Colin on the last three days of his probation. He witnesses a police shooting of an unarmed black man on his way home from work one night," Diggs says before adding the kicker. "And it's a comedy."
What are your current fixations?
I'm always obsessed with music, since I was a kid. New albums used to come out on Tuesdays, back before digital releases changed all that. But I was at the record store every Tuesday getting whatever was new. Now every Friday, I'm scouring all of the various streaming sites and still going into record stores when I can. Jay Rock's album that just came out is great. I'm also diving into this Freddie Gibbs album. I just listened to it for the first time this morning while I was on a run. It feels like that one's going to be on repeat for a bit.
Why do you live where you do?
For work, basically. I live in Los Angeles. I'm from Oakland. We're raised in the Bay Area with what feels like a one-sided feud with Los Angeles. We assume there's beef between us, and a lot of folks from Los Angeles don't know that, actually. I thought I'd never live down there. But I've moved to L.A. four times, and every time I do, it gets better and better. That's where I live now, but I'm there for proximity to my jobs.
Name something you consider a mind-altering work of art.
I would say whatever the first N.K. Jemisin book you read is. Reading her work changed everything I thought about sci-fi. Talk about fixations, I'm like a sci-fi freak too. I would also say Funkadelic's Uncle Jam Wants You. That's also a paradigm shift.
What has been your most memorable or inspirational gig and why?
My band clipping. played a show in Katowice, Poland, and we had never been there before. It was a music festival, and we assumed nobody would come to see us — this was pretty soon after we had put out our second album — and the place was packed during our set. It was maybe three or four thousand people. More people than we had ever played for before. And so many of them knew the words to all the songs, and it was in a place we had never been. It was super fun, because it was the first time I had ever played a show that size, but also just kind of an eye-opening experience to the power of the internet and the different way that culture travels these days.
What have been your career highs and lows?
Finishing this film was probably the career high. It's been something we've been passionate about for so long. Actually getting to make it, that would have been enough. But getting to premiere it at Sundance, and then Lionsgate picking it up, and now it actually being in movie theatres is definitely a career high.
A career low: We played a horrible show with clipping. at a fucking for-profit anarchist coffee shop in Portland, OR that was just, oh man. It was the worst. All of these shitty white 35-year-olds with their kids, because the opening band was like a punk band for kids. And then even after we told them this might not be child-appropriate, they were hell-bent on staying with their kids and watching our set. So we're going through our set like normal, I'm screaming "dick in your face" at a bunch of seven-year-olds, and then the owner of the coffee shop has the nerve to tell us that the frontman of the band should not curse so much in their songs. That's probably the career low.
What's the meanest thing ever said to you before, during or after a gig?
It was probably that, but that wasn't even said to me. That fool wouldn't say it to my face. He went and told one of my white band members that, and would commiserate with them about the black kid who curses too much.
What traits do you most like and most dislike about yourself?
They're kind of the same answer. I really like that, as an artist but also a person, I tend to get obsessed with the minutiae of things and tend to fixate on a part of the work or my life or my intellectual thing that I'm thinking of that probably doesn't actually matter to the final product. Whether the product is a song or a movie or myself as a human being, you know? Ultimately it isn't going to make a difference, all of my thinking about it. And I both like that and hate that about myself.
What's your idea of a perfect Sunday?
A perfect Sunday is just being somewhere warm with whatever album I'm obsessed with at the time, turned all the way up, preferably by a body of water and preferably surrounded by people I love.
What advice should you have taken, but did not?
The advice I wish I had taken sooner, which is the advice I always turn around and give, is to stop stressing the timeline. I wasted a lot of time as a young artist wondering why I wasn't on yet, or being upset that I was 21 years old and didn't have the career I had already envisioned myself having. And the same thing at 25 and the same thing at 30. I think I wasted time that could have been spent making things.
What do you think of when you think of Canada?
I guess the biggest chunks of time I've spent in Canada have been in Vancouver, and I've always been fortunate enough to go during the summer, so when I think of Canada in my head, it's sort of stunningly beautiful, because it's Vancouver in the summer. Which, I know, people have a different opinion of it in the winter. But my experience there is that it's almost offensively beautiful. It's almost showing off too much. When the sun's out and you're walking over a bridge and looking at three other bridges, and all the buildings are fucking reflective, it's like, alright. We get it. It's hella pretty here.
What was the first LP/cassette/CD/eight track you ever bought with your own money?
I'm pretty sure it was an MC Hammer tape. I'm pretty sure it would have been the tape for Please Hammer Don't Hurt Em — that one might've been bought for me, because I was pretty young at the time. But I'm pretty sure it was an MC Hammer tape.
What was your most memorable day job?
I used to work at this bakery called Just Desserts. This was my most memorable positive one. It was kind of great because they just let me take cakes home all the time. I got really good at writing on cakes in icing. I would just bring cakes to my friends' parties, so I was quite popular. That was a good one.
But right before Hamilton, I was delivering catering. Basically the place I was working for mostly got contracted out by pharmaceutical companies to deliver catering to hospitals to sort of bribe them to use their drugs. I was delivering this catering at like five in the morning in Los Angeles driving my shitty '97 Honda Civic, with a trunk full of fajitas driving like an hour-and-a-half to some outskirt town to a hospital and figuring out who to deliver this catering to. I was working for minimum wage plus tips, but who at a hospital knows that you're supposed to tip a delivery person for catering? So I was working for minimum wage. It was a pretty sad time. And I was there literally up until the day I left to do Hamilton off Broadway.
If I wasn't playing music I would be…
I'd probably be a teacher.
What has been your strangest celebrity encounter? (Perhaps you are the celebrity here; perhaps someone else.)
Maybe it was my fault for walking through Times Square. People are generally so nice and so polite when they come up to me, so I haven't had many of these. But I'm in Times Square and I'm on the phone and I'm trying to get to a different play. I was going to see The Band's Visit, which was so lovely. But I'm in a hurry to get there, and it's busy in Times Square and a woman sees me and she's like, "Oh my god, my daughter's a huge fan. Can I take a picture?" Which I normally always do, but I'm so late at this point, and I'm talking on the phone, and I'm essentially running and dodging people. I say, "I'm so sorry, I can't right now. Tell your daughter I say hi," and I just keep running. And she starts running next to me and turns on her camera and starts videotaping me running with the phone right in my face. I've never had anybody do that before, and I also don't know what the end result is. Some weird closeup of my sideburns that's blurring because we're both moving through Times Square, actually dodging people. It was really weird. I don't know what was accomplished from that.
Who would be your ideal dinner guest, living or dead, and what would you serve them?
Whoa! That's a trip of a question, man. That's stressful. Maybe Prince. But I have no idea what to serve Prince and that would give me such anxiety. I would love to have dinner with Prince, but the anxiety over what to serve him might actually force me to just cancel.