Off Script: Daveed Diggs Talks Thomas Jefferson, 'Hamilton' Dance Parties and Brunch in NYC
The Tony-nominated rapper-turned-actor finds himself texting his hero MC Hammer and confesses of his toughest number, "It’s a leap of faith every night."
When Daveed Diggs earned his first Tony nomination for Hamilton on Tuesday morning, friends of the rapper-turned-actor broke into his New York City apartment with a bottle of Dom Perignon. “Champagne for breakfast, the 9 a.m. turn-up!” he laughs to The Hollywood Reporter. “It was amazing. Delicious.”
It’s an appropriate way to celebrate — not only is Diggs’ featured actor in a musical nomination one of a breakthrough sixteen noms for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop musical phenomenon, but his lyrically-dense Broadway debut is an impressive double-billing as both Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson. Diggs, 34, goes Off Script with THR to talk switching historical characters, conquering his singing anxiety nightly and pursuing his newest New York hobby: brunch.
What’s the best part about playing your characters?
I love that I get to do them both because they’re different experiences onstage. Lafayette is Hamilton’s homie so he functions as part of the story, which means I’m so focused on making sure that character’s arc makes sense. I don’t notice the audience at all until the second act, and I come out as Jefferson and literally wave at people and blow them kisses. To exist in these two ways in the same show is pretty rare and really fun.
What helps you most when making that transition?
Just throwing on that great purple coat, that’s really all it takes.
What’s your toughest scene?
The rapping is where I’m at home, that’s the stuff I’m comfortable with. [Jefferson’s] “What’d I Miss” is hard for me — I never sang in front of people before this show, so that song terrifies me every time. I’m always backstage saying, “I’ve done this song five hundred times and I still don’t know this note.” It’s a leap of faith every night.
Daveed Diggs as Thomas Jefferson in 'Hamilton.' Photo credit: Joan Marcus
What new habits have you adopted for these roles?
Right before I came out from L.A. for this, a vocal coach named Mary Jo DuPrey helped me once when I was on tour with my rap group. Rapping is a crazy thing where you’re yelling into a room filled with weed smoke every night and not sleeping at all, and I lost my voice very quickly. When I got cast in Hamilton, I went back to her and said, “Can you teach me how to sing? Because I don’t know how to do that,” and she gave me some warm-ups and techniques. But mostly I just walk around the building and listen to what other people are doing, and try to do that.
What have you given up to play this role?
My rap career is not on hold, and I have a fair amount of help now, but it’s much slower. I used to write songs every day, on the subway, and there’s not that kind of time.
What time do you wake up on a show day?
If there are no meetings, I’m usually up around 10:30, 11 a.m. I move very slowly, walk the dog, hopefully get to spend some time with my girl if she’s around, but she’s in Trinidad a lot these days. If there’s still time left, I try to write some music.
Do you eat dinner before or after a performance?
Before. I’m working out after the show, at midnight. That’s the only time I can do it.
What’s something special in your dressing room?
My friend mailed me a big, heavy, adorable bust of Thomas Jefferson that has black hair glued to look like mine, and wrote a bunch of quotes from the show and the actual guy.
Any pre-show rituals?
Just hoping I get there on time!
Favorite number you tune in for each show?
“Wait for It.” I’m onstage at that point, but I just get to sit in the dark and listen to Leslie [Odom Jr.] be a damn genius.
What do you do when you’re not onstage during the show?
I’m not on my phone; I leave mine in the dressing room. When [Jonathan] Groff was there, there was always a party in his dressing room, the hangout spot. And there are a series of very important offstage dance parties at specific points during the show.
Do you have trouble sleeping afterward?
I haven’t been sleeping great as of late, but that happens periodically always. But this show, no matter how tired I am, it wires me, so I haven’t been to sleep before 3 a.m. in a long time.
What do you do on your day off?
Brunch, everywhere, now that we have Sundays off. I try to find new places, but I still love The Grange [in Harlem]. They have this eggs benedict-like thing with pork belly. Also, their drinks.
Favorite backstage guest?
MC Hammer. I’m from Oakland, Calif., and me and my friends on the block I grew up on used to call ourselves the Little Hammers. Every time he dropped a new song, we’d put his tape in the tape deck in my mom’s room and dance around and pretend we were his backup dancers. That guy is a real hero to Oakland, and he’s seen the show twice now. We text sometimes, and that blows my mind.
Best stage door reactions so far?
I signed somebody’s face once. And I just had a woman say she wishes I were her son-in-law.