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The Words Are So Good: Daveed Diggs on Central Park

You might not turn to Apple TV+ looking for the next great American musical. You might not seek such a thing from the creator of “Bob’s Burgers,” either. Yet “Central Park,” Apple TV+’s first foray into adult animation, might be just that. Created by Loren Bouchard, Nora Smith, and Josh Gad (who also plays the show’s narrator), the series follows a Central Park caretaker (Leslie Odom, Jr.) and his family (Kathryn Hahn, Tituss Burgess, and Kristen Bell) as they struggle to protect the park from the machinations of Bitsy Brandenham (Stanley Tucci), a wealthy and conniving heiress and real estate mogul. And Bitsy, like all very serious rich business types in stories like these, has a harried, long-suffering yet oddly devoted assistant badly in need of a vacation, a therapist, or both.

Enter Daveed Diggs. Diggs, a Tony winner for “Hamilton” and increasingly frequent presence on television and in film, plays Helen, Bitsy’s put-upon right hand woman, and does so with relish and more than a little venom. It’s one of many projects on the horizon for Diggs, who currently stars in TNT’s “Snowpiercer,” will play Frederick Douglass in Showtime’s adaptation of “The Good Lord Bird,” and will reteam with “Hamilton” writer Lin-Manuel Miranda for Disney’s live-action remake of “The Little Mermaid,” in which he’ll voice Sebastian. But first comes “Central Park” and its music. spoke with Diggs at the Winter 2020 Television Critics Association Press Tour in January about working in front of a microphone, playing someone very different from himself, and which animated musicals reign supreme in his heart.

Note: This interview was conducted at the Television Critics Association winter press tour in late January. 

Is this your first time playing an elderly white woman?

It is.

No kidding.

I had to think back to all the many roles.

What was your response when you got the casting breakdown? Were you surprised?

It actually didn't cross my mind really. I worked with Loren [Bouchard] on some other stuff, I've done some “Bob’s Burgers.” And I know Josh [Gad], I'm a fan of his and he's a friend. I'm pretty sure I said yes to this before I had seen anything. I didn't know who I was playing. Josh was like, "Do you want to be in this cartoon? Loren Bouchard's going to develop it with me." I said, "Yeah! Yes!"

An easy yes, then.

What's great is that Helen's just so interesting to play. She's just so fun. That's such a fun world to live in. It's always fun to play somebody who is being shit on, and in ways that are so outlandish in this show. There's something about just having to smile in the face of that. And then all of the wild revenge fantasies she has are just so great. I guess, it was funny, because in questions today it's been coming up that she's an elderly white woman. I didn't really think about it. I knew it, but it wasn't really what I was focused on when I was working on this part.

She’s a bit like Smithers [from “The Simpsons”] but with a plan to escape that position. Were any other character a particular inspiration?

Smithers is definitely in there. Recording with Loren is so fun because he's usually reading all of the other parts. He's fast. He's really, really fast. But he knows the inflections that he's going for. At the same time, he's totally open to us trying whatever. It's more in the actual give and take in the room with him that would inspire most of the choices, but Smithers for sure came to mind.

Speaking of speed, you're also a highly verbal person. You can go so fast. As a person who's used to the musicality of language and working with rhythm, do you find that when you’re giving a voiceover performance, you approach it differently than you would a live-action performance?

Yeah. One of the reasons I love doing animated stuff is because it feels like making songs. It feels like being in the studio, and that is something I'm much more comfortable in than in most things in my life. My favorite thing for almost any TV show or film that you end up having to do is ADR [automated dialogue replacement, or dubbing]. It's a special skill of mine because I can hear the rhythm of the thing that they're trying to do and just mimic that, so I'm usually really fast in there and surprisingly precise when it comes to matching what's happening on camera. It's because those are the same things you're trying to figure out when you're trying to squeeze a certain amount of words into a particular bar length. It becomes all about just rhythm.

The premiere includes a hip-hop tune and it's not performed by you. Can you tell me whether or not you get to do any rapping in the show?

I don't know if I'm allowed to say much about the songs that haven't been released yet. What's great about that number, and I think all of the music. It's just so good. For me, when I hear a rap song that I didn't write, that's also not by [a high profile artist]... it's not like they had Kendrick Lamar come in and guest-write that song. It was written for this show, and it's great. It's so well done. I don't know much about much, but I know a lot about rap music. When you hear something, you get nervous. I'm often happy when I'm not the one rapping in a show because sometimes it doesn't end up being that good. This stuff is good. The words are so good.

You’ve done a lot of writing yourself, notably “Blindspotting”. Might you have other writing projects in the works, and do you see yourself writing for “Central Park” at all?

Yes, lots of other writing projects and other writing projects with Rafael [Casal, with whom he wrote “Blindspotting”.] We still work together all the time, and on way too many different things. All that's forthcoming. I've been asked to write songs for “Central Park,” which I'm excited about. That's cool. I don't know about being in an actual writer's room or anything. I don't know if I'm actually built for that. I have a lot of friends who are writers who are writer writers like that, for TV, in writer's rooms. That's a totally different process than the quieter, slower version of writing a movie. I'm dabbling in it and trying to figure out whether it's a thing I'm good at or not, but I don't think I know yet.

But screenwriting still, for sure?


And more music, maybe?

Lots and lots of music.

You said in the panel [at the 2020 Winter Television Critics Association Press Tour] that you were not really a musical fan. Did you like animated musicals as a kid?

Yes. My favorite growing up was probably “Robin Hood,” actually.

The music is so good in that. All that Roger Miller.

It's so good. [sings] “Oo-de-Lolly, Oo-de-Lolly, golly what a day.” Yeah, I loved that one. And “Winnie the Pooh”. I liked all the ‘70s Disney films that got really cheap, a lot of repeated backgrounds. They look like old Hanna-Barbera made for TV stuff. The voice acting in those is so great, maybe partially, because you had to be there. I still go back and watch those sometimes. I'm in awe of those performances. I think the music in them is great too. [And the first movie] I remember coming out was “The Little Mermaid,” and now I'm doing “The Little Mermaid,” so that's wild. It's wild to be doing a thing when I literally remember going to the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland with my dad to see it, the opening weekend of that movie. It's a big deal. It's the first cartoon I remember. I must've been seven or eight or something. Sort of the first thing I remember going to see, being excited beforehand, being aware that a thing was about to come out, and going to see it.

Have you gotten to do any playing around with the music on that yet? Those songs are so good.

I was just up in London, mostly just rehearsing and hanging out with Alan Mencken. Lin [Manuel Miranda] was up there. It was really cool. It was really cool to just play around with that music, and songs that I knew were great are even better when you start really digging into them. It's just like, "God, every choice on this is really, really smart."

Is there one in particular where you think, "Wow, that's even better than I thought it was."

Yeah, the end of “Under the Sea” is crazy. There's one just pitch choice in it that I would never have made. It's in the last run, the final hook. The fact that they did three of the same instead of two of the same of the pattern, which I never would have done if I were writing the song, and it's so good. [sings] “Each little clam here knows how to jam here, that’s why it’s hotter under the water...” That kind of blew my mind. I think, in my brain, I was singing it the way I would've written it. I didn't know that until I was looking at the sheet music. Then, I read it the way it was and sort of lost it. I was like, "That is so smart. It's so much better that way."

Do you ever see yourself doing another musical on stage?

Yeah, I'm not opposed to it. Yeah. Probably if a friend of mine wrote it and asked me to do it.

But you're never going to do My Fair Lady or anything?

I don't think so. I think there are many people better suited to that than me. Should leave that to them. In general, I like developing new things. It's more fun for me.

You and Rafael Casal did an amazing “Calvin and Hobbes”-inspired web series. Do you imagine adapting anything else?

Yeah. Adaptation is great, I think, if you can find the right thing. I read a lot and I'm always looking at books. Because of “Splendor & Misery,” our clipping. album that got Hugo Award-nominated, we have ended up connected to a lot of writers in the sci-fi/fantasy world. So, I get sent a lot of books early, which is always so exciting because I'm just a fan anyway. I'm always thinking about it, if there's something. For me, there just has to be something that I think I have, something about my take on it that is going to be not better, but will add to what already exists. If I'm just going to copy it and try not to ruin it, that's scary. But if I have something that I feel I could add to the legacy of the thing. “The Deep,” a song of ours that we wrote for “This American Life,” got adapted as a novella by Rivers Solomon. That came out recently and that was amazing because we had this song that the premise of is based on... it's like a crazy game of telephone. Drexciya, this Detroit house band, had this mythology around their albums that it was the music of a race of the descendants of pregnant mothers thrown overboard during the Middle Passage. We took that and made this song out of it for “This American Life's” Afrofuturism episode. Then, Rivers Solomon took that song and made this incredibly beautiful story about one of the keepers of memories of this race. They added so much to the thing that we did. Then, timed to the release of that novella, we also recorded three more songs as in the same world, but now we had the information that Rivers had added to the pot. We're talking about how to further adapt that, mostly just because it's so interesting. Whether we did it ourselves or not, even passing it off to somebody else and seeing what other directions they can go is a pretty cool project.

Allison Shoemaker

Allison Shoemaker is a freelance film and television critic based in Chicago. 

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