Why 'Black-ish' Was the First Thing Daveed Diggs Wanted to Do After 'Hamilton'

"It does this really important thing which is sort of normalize the different expressions of blackness," the Tony-winning theater star tells THR.
Mitch Haaseth/ABC

Two months after leaving the Broadway smash Hamilton that earned him a Tony Award, Daveed Diggs is ready to cause agida for Anthony Anderson’s Dre on ABC’s Black-ish.

“I just try to keep my eyes open and hold on,” Diggs tells The Hollywood Reporter of playing opposite the Emmy nominee and comedic veteran. “You never really know what he’s going to do.” Diggs, who played the dual roles of Thomas Jefferson and Marquis de Lafayette in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s cultural phenomenon, begins his run as Johan, the brother of Tracee Ellis Ross’ Bow on Wednesday in an arc that will span "at least" six episodes.

Johan moves into the Johnson household to help with Bow’s pregnancy, and immediately begins to clash with Dre. “He’s an interesting foil to Dre, because he’s not as young as his kids, but he’s still of a generation where he hasn’t had the same black experience as Dre,” Diggs SAID. “He’s a lot less jaded; there’s fewer differences for Johan between black culture and mainstream American culture.”

One example: “He’s really into fancy coffee.”

Diggs explains that Johan sees himself as more of a child of the world rather than as just a black man in America. “He doesn’t really see himself as an outsider. He sees himself as a natural consumer. … That’s where he and Dre sort of bump heads. He doesn’t feel at odds with mainstream American culture, whereas Dre is always going to feel that way.”

That chance to play a black character that had a culturally different upbringing compared to someone like Dre is what made him jump at chance to be on a show he’s been a fan of since Day 1. “[Black-ish] was one of the first things that came out of my mouth,” he said of finally being able to chart out his next career avenue. “It does this really important thing which is sort of normalize the different expressions of blackness.”

With Black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat and freshman comedy Speechless, ABC boasts one of the most inclusive comedy slates on television. However, Diggs cautions that true inclusion is treating characters of ethnic backgrounds the same way as their white counterparts.

“What I’m looking for is not really the strangeness of blackness being on display, I’m looking for the reality of the situation, which is that we’re all different,” he said. “We’re very used to seeing a huge diversity of white people. You never just expect two white people on TV to feel the same way.” Diggs adds that, other than prior sitcoms that featured predominantly African-American casts, Black-ish “doesn’t paint all of the characters as having the same set of values. It allows there to be a huge amount of diversity in African-American culture. … I hadn’t really seen that expressed so well in a sitcom before.”

Trading in the stage at The Richard Rogers Theater, where Hamilton still runs with an almost entirely new cast now, for the ABC’s show set in California was an adjustment for Diggs. Going from the “intense, sustained energy for three and a half hours straight” to one where there’s a lot of standing around and waiting for your cues.

“It’s really about how you manage your energy,” he said. “TV is really about keeping things fresh and making sure you have the most energy possible for these very short spurts of time.” Diggs added that he may spend 12 hours on set, he’s only in front of the camera for two of them.

“How you manage to always feel alive and present when you’re back and forth, you’re in and out of a scene, you’re shooting out of order, you’re doing things that are very different than the linear storytelling that you do in a play,” he said. “I’m just trying to learn as much as I can from [the cast] and hope I do anything to ruin any takes where they just totally off-the-cuff do something amazing. It happens all the time. There’s so much spontaneous incredible things that happen.”

Diggs is diving head first into the on-camera world. Aside from Black-ish, Diggs will star alongside Andy Samberg in his HBO sports doping mockumentary Tour de Pharmacy; he also will make his big-screen debut next year in Stephen Chobsky’s adaptation of R J. Palacio’s novel Wonder, with Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson and Jacob Tremblay.

“I was just excited about getting on to other things and trying out all of things that I don’t know anything about: Figuring out what it’s like to be on a TV show or working on a film, be in a pitch meeting. Every day is a new master class for me.”

Though he’s forever grateful for his time with Hamilton, he doesn’t have any regrets about leaving the role that turned him into a household name.

“That show should have the most excited people in it. And I still loved doing it every night but I was also starting to get really excited about the potential of doing other things," he said. "I had said all of the things I had to say with those roles. … Part of my decision was about: well it’s important for the success of the show, and a show that meant so much to me, for somebody else to come in here and answer the question differently.”

That, however, doesn’t mean he’s done with theater for good.

I’m not opposed to it,” he said about any potential return to the stage. “I’m also not really looking for it. I think it would have to be a very special project, because of the open ended commitment of it. If the right thing came along, of course I’d be excited about it. I’m not running out to seek my next Broadway play.”

Black-ish airs Wednesday at 9 p.m. on ABC.

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