Following passions key, ‘Hamilton’ star tells Fayetteville audience

Judy Kamau (left) and Daveed Diggs (right), who won a Tony Award for his performance in “Hamilton: An American Musical,” speak Wednesday at the Fayetteville Town Center.
(NWA Democrat Gazette/Caleb Grieger)
Judy Kamau (left) and Daveed Diggs (right), who won a Tony Award for his performance in “Hamilton: An American Musical,” speak Wednesday at the Fayetteville Town Center. (NWA Democrat Gazette/Caleb Grieger)

FAYETTEVILLE -- Daveed Diggs, who originated the double role of "Thomas Jefferson" and "Marquis de Lafayette" in the acclaimed "Hamilton: An American Musical" and won a Tony Award for his performance, believes it's paramount to follow one's passions, rather than worrying about results.

In his career, he's been "rewarded for saying 'yes' to things that felt good," Diggs said Wednesday at the Fayetteville Town Center, part of the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville's Distinguished Lectures Committee series. "There is nothing else but pursuing your passions wholeheartedly."

His art has never been about money, as there are many careers more bankable than being an artist, said Diggs, who also won a Grammy Award for his "Hamilton" performance, then earned Emmy and Screen Actors Guild nominations when he reprised the role for the "Hamilton" movie on Disney+.

"You must love it," he said.

He's also intent on collaborating with friends, and, often, he becomes friends with his collaborators if they weren't already, he said. "The best thing about being an artist is meeting other creatives" and "inspiring" one another, he said.

"It doesn't feel like work. ... You're hanging out, and you make something," said Diggs, who voiced "Sebastian" in the live-action adaptation of "The Little Mermaid," Paul in the Oscar-winning film "Soul," and characters in TV shows like "Bob's Burgers" and "Bojack Horseman." The extensive workshopping of "Hamilton," for example, was "always fun," he said.

"I wanted to be around it all the time," Diggs said.

Whatever the job, "hopefully the best part is meeting someone," Diggs, who met his partner, Emmy Raver-Lampman, on "Hamilton," said. He and his friend Rafael Casal co-wrote and co-starred in the film "Blindspotting," and he first entered the orbit of Lin-Manuel Miranda -- the creator of "Hamilton" -- because he and an acquaintance of Miranda's both showed up to the same substitute teaching job one day.

"Life is a trip," he said with a chuckle. "It's wild."

A lifelong artist, Diggs enjoys educating and interacting with youth because they have "new ideas," he said. His time teaching also made him a better stage actor because "kids don't lie when they're not entertained," he said.

And while his work often has pointed messages -- "Blindspotting," for example, touches on various issues in his hometown of Oakland, from police brutality to prison reform -- entertainment is always the priority for Diggs, he said. He concentrates on stories with plenty of points of entry for many people, but, "first and foremost, it has to be fun," he said.

It's marginalized groups that often lean toward comedy, as "a coping mechanism," he said.

"I grew up poor, but never sad or bored," he said.

"Performing gives me a reason to be in the room," he added. "I'll keep making fun things with my friends, and the rest will just happen."

Diggs also starred in the Emmy-nominated ABC series "Black-ish" and the film "Wonder," according to the university. Also a hip-hop artist, Diggs toured internationally solo and as a member of the trio "clipping.," a triumvirate that received a Hugo Award nomination for their second album, "Splendor & Misery."

They're poised to release another album this fall and go back on tour, he said. The new album is "good, weird, and I'm excited about it," he said.

He's also "finishing up a screenplay," and he acted in several films last year, none of which have yet been released, he said. When considering roles, "story and tone" are paramount, and he strives to remember he's "a small part" of a larger effort, so his job is to "keep the ball in the air for the storytelling."

He's also being more selective because he now has a child. "I do not like spending time not around" family, he said.

Wednesday's event was sponsored by Distinguished Lectures Committee through the Office of Student Activities and was supported by the Student Activities Fee.

It was his first time in Arkansas, but Diggs pronounced the state "beautiful" and said he met "nothing but nice people."

He grew up in a "very vibrant artistic community, an area that celebrated the arts scene," but artists weren't driven by economics, he said. They "had things they felt needed to be said," and they felt they "could lend something to the art form," he said.

His upbringing also indirectly helped prepare him for his "Hamilton" role, he said. "We appreciate a fast rap in the Bay Area. ... I was always working on it."

Prior to "Hamilton," he was relatively unknown, but after the smash hit, "everyone cared who I was, for a second," he said with a laugh. During that time, executives asked him what he wanted to do, which presented variegated opportunities for his career, and he still enjoys the variety.

However, "if I had to choose one, it'd be making music," he said. "I can do it by myself, and I don't need anyone else."

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