"It's like being black in America": "Snowpiercer" star Daveed Diggs on the Tailies with no agency

Salon talks to Diggs about the draw of his new TNT show: "Maybe it makes us feel less bad about where we are"

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published May 24, 2020 3:30PM (EDT)

Jennifer Connelly and Daveed Diggs in "Snowpiercer" (TNT)
Jennifer Connelly and Daveed Diggs in "Snowpiercer" (TNT)

The following conversation with Daveed Diggs tooks place before the citizens of the United States were even thinking about novel coronaviruses, before hydroxychloroquine became a topic of dinner conversation, at a time when to most of the West, the end of the world was still something of a theoretical concept. January, in other words.

Diggs was in Pasadena, Calif. to promote his work on series adaptation of TNT's adaptation of "Snowpiercer," which premiered on May 17. Even then Diggs, along with the rest of the planet, had already witnessed plenty of apocalyptic destruction: the conflagration that tore through the Amazon rainforest, the horrific bushfires that leveled entire communities in Australia, the flames raging through California, and other parts closer to home for many Americans. In that context the incident that propels "Snowpiercer" into existence – an extinction-level event involving scientists launching missiles into the sky in an attempt to cool down the earth, but kicking off a new global ice age instead – doesn't seem so improbable anymore.

At least the roles Diggs plays in this fiction and others coming soon to TV are inspiring "Snowpiercer" is one of two new TV series in which the "Hamilton" star appears that casts him as  a revolutionary. The other is Showtime's series adaptation of James McBride's "The Good Lord Bird," set to debut on Aug. 9, in which Diggs portrays the legendary abolitionist Frederick Douglass. This count doesn't include the Disney+ recently announced July premiere of its filmed version of "Hamilton," the Broadway phenomenon that launched Diggs from stage to screen alongside the musical's creator Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Suffice it to say the performer is well-suited to play Andre Layton, the leader of the downtrodden underclass on the post-apocalyptic train for which "Snowpiercer" is named.

Then again, both Douglass and Thomas Jefferson, whom Diggs played in "Hamilton," sided with the eventual victors in their wars. Whether Layton succeeds in his aim to liberate his fellow tail-of-the-train dwellers is yet to be revealed and might not be known by the end of the first season of "Snowpiercer." Fortunately TNT already picked up the drama for a second run.

In the following interview, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity, we discussed the appeal of dystopian visions in fraught times like these, the means by which "Snowpiercer" examines class division, and find exactly how closely the actors were packed in to those dark, crowded tail-end cars.

"Snowpiercer" is such a strange premise in the realm of all these dystopian visions of how the future is going to be. Placing an end-of-the world story inside of an enclosed structure that never goes anywhere but on a track is unique, and I've got to imagine that it might've been challenging to expand upon the original story as it series moved along.

No, we're just . . . on a train. I mean as actors get the great fortunate of working with an art department that's amazing. The set design is crazy. So I show up to work and I'm just on trains all day. And it feels like being on an actual train. Like, I'm a little motion sick by the end of the day. They rock all over the place, and it's dark and it's tight and so yeah, you don't have to imagine very much. It's not like doing a play where you have to imagine the whole thing. You just have to pretend the cameras aren't there.

Did you ever experience claustrophobia inside those sets? I've spoken to actors who have prepared for roles in various period pieces that place them in closed situations as part of their role. For instance, playing a Jewish person during in the Holocaust, where they've been placed inside a cattle car and were left with an acute sense of claustrophobia. Was that something that that kind of manifested at all with you?

What I'm aware of is like how hard it is to truly live that way. Like, in the tail of the train, that is particularly tight even by train standards because there are so many bodies in there. So more than even the claustrophobia was the feeling of the impossibility of privacy. Even just as actors between takes, trying to like whisper jokes to each other or whatever, everybody hears everything. So that was like an interesting and sort of unintended bit of like acting information that I got from just being on the set. Privacy doesn't exist back here.

I would imagine if I were in that situation I'd have a lot more of a physical empathy for people who really were in those situations during various points in history – whether it's human beings who are, say, packed in slave ships or any horrific situation similar to that.

I mean, I was pretty empathetic towards them before but yes, absolutely. And it was interesting: Right after we finished shooting our first season, I went and did this play "White Noise" in which the protagonist asks his best friend to purchase him as a slave – his white male best friend, who is voluntarily enslaving himself. And it was interesting having felt so much of that lack of agency over your own body, having that inform the choices I was making in that play. It was really interesting.

How so?

I just think again, there was less left up to the imagination, I think, than would have been before. Something about being in the tail, particularly those times in the show where it's not only that you have no resources or no space, it's also that at any point somebody can come in and just grab you and take you and would be within their rights to do that. And for everybody living in that situation, trying to create a sense of self, with agency, when actually someone could decide to kill you and there would be no consequences for that. [It's] like being black in America.

There were a couple of things that were running through my mind as I was watching the first episode. One is that it must've been interesting to be at the center of this show, to be filming this while the world is in such trouble. The climate is being degraded at such a huge rate. I don't know if you were in production while the wildfires were really raging here [in California], but they've also torn through Australia. Were those catastrophes ever discussed on the set?

All the time. I mean, like what's interesting about the show is it's like sort of picking up from it a potential end game of a choice that seems fairly reasonable to make right now. When we talk about the film as being sort of a fantastical conceit, it doesn't seem that way anymore. While we were shooting a New York Times article came out about a potential plan to help to slow down climate change by shooting missiles into the air. I don't know enough science personally to know whether or not that's a bad idea, but I'm working on a show that imagines that going horribly wrong.

When we first started shooting in Vancouver, it was the worst year of the forest fires they'd ever had. And then there's just trying to grapple with the concept that science would suggest that by most metrics it's already too late. There's not really a way to come back, not without every country in the world immediately buying in to some wholesale plan, which seems difficult to accomplish. We're not going to get away from this. We could hopefully still slow it down. But yeah, knowing that we've known about this for so long in the scientific community and like very deliberately just kicked down the line in terms of policy is terrifying.

There have been so many portrayals of dystopias lately. Of course, there are always a few that remain hopeful about the future, particularly in the "Star Trek" universe, it's always been very hopeful about the future. But most of the recent series and films about the future are quite pessimistic. And I wonder what you think the appeal of watching these stories is, especially right now when there seems to be so much bad news in the world around us. Why do you think people might be drawn to shows like "Snowpiercer"?

Maybe we like to have some of our fears validated a little bit, but then there's also like an element of survival to them. You know, the common thread through all of these dystopian shows is that the people have made it through conditions that are way harsher than any of us are dealing with right now – at least relative to the first world, people who can subscribe to cable and Netflix. People are always finding a way to survive. So that, in a sense, is hopeful, right? Seeing something that is worse than your situation and watching people sort of figure out a way to survive it and hopefully, as people do, still laugh and cry, be in love and fall out of love, and all of those things that still make us people, they're still happening in the face of catastrophe. I think there's something comforting about that. Maybe it makes us feel less bad about where we are.

Between this and "The Good Lord Bird," you're in a couple of shows centered upon examinations of societal fracture. In "Snowpiercer" the main division is along class lines. In "The Good Lord Bird" there are issues of race and class and a very clear story of personhood, and what it means to be seen as a full participant in America. What were some of the things that you found to be the most interesting in these series in terms of the way each portrays these social divisions?

You know, the setup of the story from the graphic novel, and then the film, is such a useful allegory to look at class as this linear thing. Right? We're situated on a line: we see first class up front and the working class, and as we get further, further back, with slave class sort of at the very back. That's an interesting thing to look at class.

In the structure of movie, it has to be essentially a heist. You can only go one direction. The great thing about this show is it allows room for the complexity of it. Where we don't only spend time in one class or another class. We're not just watching the machinations of how one person or one character moves through different classes. We're getting to sort of watch all of the decisions that are being made by people in various classes that have to do with survival and everything else and then watch the consequences of them.

I appreciate art that allows for an issue to be more complicated than you can solve in one episode. Or even one whole story that allows people who normally would be heroes to make a decision that they will ultimately regret, and that they might never be redeemed from, and allows people who would normally be villains to make complicated decisions also, that erase how easy it is to paint somebody as a building. We tend to turn people who we don't interact with every day into heroes and villains, right? We do that with our politicians all the time as think about them.

And one of the reasons it's easy to do that in either direction is because you never see the machinations by which any of those decisions are made. So I appreciate shows that are political and that allow us, as opposed to just having the emotional response to a choice, to sort of understand why they would make that choice. Even if ultimately we totally disagree with it – or totally agree with and they still feel like a hero to us. Like it's the, the why is the important part. And that's what I think art is particularly good at. But that sometimes gets skipped a lot. Like we were actually pretty good at examining the why without a value judgment attached to it.

"Snowpiercer" airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on TNT.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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