Daveed Diggs talks Blindspotting, police shootings, and laughing more than he cries
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Daveed Diggs, of Hamilton fame, has co-written, co-produced, and co-stars in Blindspotting alongside his friend and collaborator Rafael Casal.
The Sundance Grand Jury Prize-nominated film follows Collin (Diggs) and his troublemaking friend Miles (Casal) as Collin tries to stay out of trouble on his last three days of probation. When he witnesses a police shooting, it throws some race and class issues into sharp relief, and may be the end of their friendship.
Diggs spoke with The National Student on the creative process behind the film, police shootings, Bay Area slang, and what’s next for him.
I read that you guys wrote this screenplay ages ago - how much changed from that screenplay to what we see on screen?
A lot and a little at the same time. The biggest change in the scripts since the earliest version is really to do with a change in the world. When we first stared writing — right after Oscar Grant was killed at Fruitvale Station — I was living five blocks away from there at the time. The way that our community responded to that was by protesting, and Oscar’s name was everywhere, and Oscar’s face was everywhere. It was one of the first cases where there was such definitive cellphone footage of the act happening — we all watched Oscar get murdered by a police officer for no reason. He wasn’t resisting, he was on the ground with his hands behind his back. And so I think the fantasy of that protest was that by pushing that footage out into the world, everybody would look at that and say, “Oh my god, what a horrible thing has just happened. Something has to change.” But that’s not what happened. The police officer didn’t do any time for the crime, he wasn’t convicted. It was determined that what he did was reasonable.
And we’ve seen that happen over and over again, and so the climate now that the film exists in is one where nobody protests. I think Miles (Rafael Casal) has that great line where he’s watching the news report and they’re running down the list of who Randall (Travis Parker) was, and Miles says, “Wrong cocktail - no protest for you.” We’re in a world right now where there’s so much fatigue from shouting so much that it’s hard, and we’ll look for a perfect victim, and so the only person who is affected in the day to day by the shooting is Collin (Diggs), because he was there. So that’s the biggest difference - when we wrote it there were protests, there were riots — Miles and Collin got caught in the middle of a riot. It was sort of about the politicising of these two apolitical characters. But that didn’t feel particularly honest any more.
How important was it to bring humour to this incredibly real and painful social commentary?
I think that was the most honest way to do it. The Mileses and the Collins we know — those are both composites of folks that we grew up with — and this is true of ourselves too, we cope with humour. I would say that in most underprivileged communities you would find the same thing. I say this all the time, that I grew up poor but not sad. I don’t remember ever being sad, I don’t remember ever being bored. I remember laughing so much — the bulk of my memories throughout my life are of laughter. I laugh so much more than I cry. And it is still true that I have lived through some tough events, and that my community is changing from under my feet, and I feel unsafe in my own skin, and stuff like that. And yet still I find that most of my memories are of laughing. And so I think that it was important for us to reflect that reality.
You and Rafael obviously have known each other for a long time, but what was it like casting the other characters?
We were very specific about it. I mean, there’s a lot of friends in the film. Jasmine Cephas-Jones we’ve known for a long time doing Hamilton. Utkarsh Ambudkar, who does the hilarious retelling of the crime, is an old friend of mine and Rafael’s and we’ve made a bunch of music together. And the guy he’s standing next to telling the story to is my friend Justin (Liu) — we all went to high school together, we grew up together. A lot of it is in the family in a lot of ways, but the most important thing was just trying to either pick people who were from the Bay Area who really understood — we only had 22 days to shoot the thing, so there was a shorthand at play. We needed people who just kind of understood the world that they were living in.
Particularly characters like Cuttie (Lance Holloway), the dude who comes up and then Miles sells the sailboat to. Lance is from Oakland, and we had auditioned him for a bunch of different parts, and he was just in there one day and we just happened to hand him those lines — he was reading for something else and we said, “Why don’t you look at these.” And his eyes sort of lit up and he said, “Oh, okay,” and he nailed it immediately. Because he understands all that slang. So those are the kinds of things we needed — people who could pull that off, so we were pretty specific about that.
Janina (Gavankar) was such a great addition — she taught us so much about Val that I think we didn’t know, you know? Making her very deliberately a child of immigrants and inserting all of that, all of the pressures that into Val was a thing we didn’t intend, that I think gave that character so much more life and understanding than we would have been able to without her. So sometimes that concept just happens in the audition room — you meet somebody like that and say oh! They actually know more about this character than we do.
Were there a lot of ad libs and improvisation involved on set - with the rap and the jokes?
The rap — all of the verse is very written, very very scripted. We needed stuff to tie in later. And that’s what we come from, so it’s actually the easier stuff to write. But we filmed long sections of Miles and Collin just freestyling in the truck, but it all ended up getting cut. We’re releasing some of the audio as part of the soundtrack, the Collin EP is out right now with a little truck freestyle, and that audio is just Raf and I in the truck driving around freestyling. We’ll put more of that out on the Miles EP too when that comes out.
At what point in the process did you guys come up with the title — assigning that name to that concept?
Literally in the last revision of it. It’s one of the more recent things. We were looking for a moment of slang creation, and we really wanted it to be Val, because we thought that was interesting because she gets accused a lot of not being from the town. But one of the most town things you can do is create new slang — we really pride ourselves on that. So we thought it would be really great if it was coming from Val, if she was using it for this very practical thing of studying.
It was actually Rafael’s idea — he was searching really hard for this thing, and then when he was looking through old textbooks and landed on Rubin’s Vase and called me and was like, “What do we call this?” And we started just riffing on terms. But I think we weren’t sure if Blindspotting was right for a long time, but we sat with it and it kept coming back. Still, there were some arguments between us and the producers over whether that should be the title, and whether it was two words or one word, and is one word too close to Trainspotting? All those kinds of stupid things. Titles are hard. I’ve never been particularly good at them, but I’m pretty happy with this one.
Is directing something you see yourself doing soon, since you’ve taken on so many different roles in the industry so far?
Directing? I am not … I don’t think I have that mind. Rafael is for sure, he’s already slated to direct something which we can’t talk about yet. He is for sure a director and has been a director — he would have directed this, when we were initially talking to our producers they were like, “Do you wanna direct?” But we felt it was one too many hats to wear at the same time.
He for sure will be directing a bunch of things. I don’t think I have that … if there is a thing that makes me good at my job as an actor, it’s the fact that I have a pretty narrow focus. I’m very good at ignoring everything that’s not my job, so I end up being able to focus on the honesty of the character that way. The flipside to that is that I’m very bad at holding a ton of things in my head at once, and that’s really what a director has to do. So I don’t think I have that muscle.
Can you tell us anything about any projects that you’re working on at the moment?
Well, I’m in Vancouver right now shooting Snowpiercer for TNT, it’s very cool. It’s based on the same graphic novel as the film was based on, so i’m spending pretty much every day on a train! It’s a great cast and a really cool story.
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Lots of music — clppng’s working on another album, Rafael and I and obviously trying to get out the Miles EP as a follow up to the Collin EP, and that music is done and being mixed right now. It’s so so good, so I can’t wait for people to hear that.
We’re in the process of formalising a production company with the two producers, Jess and Keith Calder, who produced Blindspotting, and we have a bunch of interesting new projects, and I’m just excited about working with some voices who maybe haven’t had the same kind of opportunities that we’ve had lately. Getting the chance to shine the spotlight on some new writers and some new directors. So that’s the vibe right now — to just try and make sure that the whole community is eating. To really get some other people to be able to get some great work produced.
There’s a bunch of other great movies coming down the pipeline — contractually we’re not allowed to talk about them though. I’m in talks about some plays again, very early stages, I’m not sure if any of that’s going to work out, but I would love to get back to some theatre stuff so I’m working on that too.
That all sounds amazing — good luck, and thank you so much for your time.
Thank you, and thanks for helping get the word out about this thing. I have no idea how it’s … you know it’s pretty unbelievable to us that it’s even coming out over there!
Blindspotting releases in UK cinemas on October 5th, distributed by Lionsgate.