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[Tribeca 2021] Interview : Daveed Diggs on re-imagining the smash-hit Blindspotting for the realm of TV

The multi-talented star of Hamilton, Snowpiercer and hip hop group Clipping talks to Kyle Milner.

Oakland native Daveed Diggs seems capable of excelling in just about any creative field he puts his mind to. Actor, rapper, singer, songwriter, screenwriter, film producer – Diggs has made a name for himself wherever he’s gone, bringing a bold creative vision into each of his projects, from his Grammy award-winning dual role as Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in the stage musical Hamilton, to the phenomenal 2020 experimental hip hop album Visions of Bodies Being Burned with his group clipping. to the countless film and television projects behind and ahead of him.

Alongside life-long friend and frequent collaborator Rafael Casal, Diggs hit the festival scene hard with the 2018 release of Blindspotting, in which he played a convicted felon struggling to complete the final three days of his probation period. The duo are returning to the world of Blindspotting again in the form of a television spin-off sequel on Starz, which takes place six months after the events of the film but primarily focuses on a wider cast of characters.

We were lucky enough to speak to Daveed about the initially unappealing idea to transition from film to television, and how the opportunity to further explore the themes established in the 2018 film in a whole new medium – with the collaboration of incredibly talented artists from every field – turned out to be an artistic blessing in disguise.

Needless to say, Blindspotting went down well with just about everybody on release, so I can imagine why you guys might want to revisit it in some form down the line. I was so intrigued to see it was going to be a television continuation, because that really opens up new creative opportunities. I’d love to know what the thought process was behind taking the world of Blindspotting to the TV format.

Daveed: We didn’t want to do it – it wasn’t our idea. [laughs]

It was pitched to us by Lionsgate and we were like, no, pass. We’d told the part of Collin and Miles’ relationship that was interesting to us, and it took us ten years to make that movie. But they wanted to meet about it anyway, and while we were prepping for the meeting, we sort of started thinking if there was a way into it. What we kept coming back to was that there just wasn’t enough Jasmine in the film.

We were so enamoured with Ashley that she developed between the script itself and also the stuff we ended up having to cut in the edit. The final phase of that film was really about focusing it so we were inside Collin’s head the whole time, right? We figured out that that was the way we were going to get the biggest payoff in terms of being able to say the things that we wanted to say.

That was the appealing thing about it, that we could get out of Collin’s head – and really, get it out of either of our heads, because we’ve lived this for quite a while – and put it in a different character’s head. And there’s a character ready to go that we love.

Then, it was just about clearing space. It’s going to be too hard to do that if Collin and Miles are too present, so let’s get them out of there. It’s conceivable. The last thing we saw Collin do was put a gun in a cop’s face, so he’s got to go. [laughs]

Diggs (right) and crew on the set of ‘Blindspotting’

Fair enough!

Daveed: There were many conceivable ways to get Miles out of there but still have him present in this story in some way, because we really did want to tell a story about a family fighting to stay together. I think for all of our friends with families who are incarcerated, that’s the story that exists. It’s incredibly difficult, but what I’m inspired by in the stories my friends who are in similar situations tell me is the ways that they persevere through how difficult it is.

So that was what we were interested in telling, and we presented that to Lionsgate, thinking they would have no interest in a continuation of the story that didn’t have anything to do with either of us. But they were immediately like, “yes, amazing!”, which was maybe a blow to our egos as actors but was certainly the only way we wanted to make the show. We asked Jasmine if she was down, and she said “yes” – so that’s how we got here. It’s been a crazy year.

Jasmine Cephas Jones as Ashley in ‘Blindspotting’

No kidding. I’m amazed they were so happy with that! But as much as I love your characters in the film, what made it really so compelling was how much it was grounded in our world – so to keep exploring that world and those themes with different characters makes sense, even if that’s not necessarily what you knew you were going to do with it.

Daveed: The more we started talking about it, the more excited we got. I think the format of half-hour television is really conducive to things where you know the world really well. And we didn’t know that, right? Because it’s the Oakland of our imaginations. It’s the Oakland that exists in our memory, so we know that very, very well.

It was just really easy to come up with stories. What we realised is, if we were starting with Ashley, that gave us the opportunity to introduce other characters who are composites of other people we haven’t got to tell stories about, people we haven’t seen on TV before. Everyone in the show is a composite of somebody who’s either Rafael or myself, or any of our writers in the writer’s room. These people exist in real life, or at least parts of them. For some reason, we felt our people would be really compelling to watch.

So it ended up being a really wonderful opportunity, and also to just try some more artsy shit. The challenge we set for ourselves in the experiment we were trying was: the film was about justifying that verse at the end, right? So how do we train an audience’s ear enough over the course of a show to accept that moment, and also be able to hear it? It was about subtly weaving verse in this very present, practical way throughout the film. With a half-hour, what’s nice is that if there’s an audience for it, they’re going to come back. They have to come back the next week, so you don’t have to hold anybody’s hand as much. You just do shit. It’s pretty cool.

The verse work in particular was nice, because this was Ashely’s version of it. This isn’t Miles or Collin, so she doesn’t act with her friends the same way they do. It became this very personal, confessional direct address to camera thing that Jasmine accomplished so wonderfully. We really wanted to add this movement element, and this dance element, and that was pretty cool. We had our heads spinning on this Greek chorus of dancers that are there to represent moments when the prison-industrial complex is forcing its way into peoples’ lives.

We pitched that to Lil Buck and Jon Boogz, who are two of my favourite dancers in the world, who work together a lot and who do a lot of narrative work. They were very excited about it. When you get the right collaborators in place, all you have to do is like, “so this is a scene that’s kind of about this,” and they’ll go away for about ten or fifteen minutes and come back like, “something like this?”. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen…give us a minute to figure out how to film it. [laughs]

Cast of ‘Blindspotting’

I was interviewing somebody the other day, and he said the best piece of advice he ever got in his career was from Guy Ritchie who told him that as a director or showrunner, to basically be the dumbest person in the room, surround yourself with very smart people and let them do what they do best. You’ve obviously gone to great lengths to figure out how to play all these people’s strengths in a way that you might have never even considered when Blindspotting was just a film.

Daveed: Yeah, that’s exactly right. Just trying to create an environment where all these brilliant people who decided they wanted to spend their time in the middle of a fucking global pandemic, and risk their lives to come to work on this. It was really about trying to honour that. You’re like connective tissue in a lot of ways as a creator and a showrunner; Rafael was showrunning. But I was there the whole time also. We were still tweaking and writing episodes at the time, so it was this crazy trial by fire. But what we ended up learning was that really, the gig is that somebody in this department wants to do this – and that’s a great idea. So now we have to go to all the other departments to make sure everybody knows that this great idea should happen, and what do they need in order to make that happen? And they’ll be like, “oh, that is a great idea. But I have this idea”. So it’s our job to figure out how to make those things work together. It’s facilitating, more than anything. [laughs]

It sounds like you had a creatively satisfying COVID period last year, which I guess is quite a silver lining.

Daveed: It was, yeah. We felt very lucky to be able to work. It was also incredibly stressful; keeping that many people safe all the time is tough. But we were in LA, and in the middle of it, they were shutting everything down. But for some reason they let us keep going, which I thought was actually a bad idea. But everybody needed money, and we had 270 jobs going.

I’m so glad that it did work out despite the circumstances and that you can finally share it with everybody, because it must’ve been a real weird 12+ months for somebody like you who’s always doing something creative. I’ve been following your livestream shows with clipping. throughout lockdown, and it must be a troubling time for someone who loves to create but is in a situation where creating is actively dangerous.

Daveed: Yeah, and it sucks, you know. The clipping. stuff, we figured out a way to keep making music, but it sucked. It’s not fun to not be able to hang out together and make songs. But hopefully we’re starting to see whatever the next phase of this is, and it feels like things are starting to come back and we have a new set of best practices.

2020 saw the rise of the home musical performance, thanks to YouTube

But I’m happy the show’s coming out. I’m so happy with it. I hope people will see it! So many people worked so hard on it, and TV is such a big machine, you know? It takes so many people to make something. Folks would come to work, and everybody was just so in love with the project. They really busted their asses for it. I want people to watch it to see all the amazing work that these folks did. It’s a humbling thing to have that many people look at something that, at some point, was just sitting inside you and your friend’s head and was kind of a dumb idea.

Everybody is putting everything into it; all their energy and all of their brilliance. It’s pretty amazing. I watch it and I’m enamoured with the characters and everybody’s performance. I think it looks beautiful, and the music is so amazing. Our composers are talented and we got to put so many Bay Area needle drops in it. We got to shoot Oakland – I get to see Oakland on my TV screen with all these people I grew up with. It’s just a joyous experience and I hope other people get to see it and feel that way too. Who knows how people watch TV anymore? [laughs]

BLINDSPOTTING is currently airing on Starz.

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