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Daveed Diggs tackles murder, class division and possible revolution in ‘Snowpiercer’

Actor, rapper and songwriter Daveed Diggs of "Snowpiercer"
Tony- and Grammy-winning actor, rapper and songwriter Daveed Diggs stars in the sci-fi series “Snowpiercer” and the animated musical series “Central Park.” Oh, and the filmed version of a little show he did called “Hamilton” bows in July on Disney+.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

When it comes to the future, there are generally two tracks to take: the “we all pulled together to survive” clean surfaces of “Star Trek,” and the “apocalypse schmocalypse, man is still the greatest threat” grit of, say, “The Walking Dead.”

The new TNT series “Snowpiercer” is set in a frigid post-apocalyptic wasteland (in 2021) on board a never-stopping train carrying the last remnants of humanity. The sleek, bright front cars are opulent to the edge of madness. The rear cars are packed, darkened crates teeming with human desperation. Bridging the two and trying to head off all-out class warfare — complete with pointed sticks and lead pipes — are Melanie Cavill, the enigmatic “voice of the train,” and Andre Layton, possibly the last cop on Earth.

Guess which future track this show pulled out of?

“I think there’s a lot of grasping for normalcy, and there are some people who are good with a fluid definition of that and some people who are not,” says star Daveed Diggs in an early May phone interview. “‘I need these things to be true. If they’re not true, I don’t know who I am.’ We see a lot of that in characters on ‘Snowpiercer.’

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“But we also see, particularly for Layton and Melanie, people who are a little more cagey about what they believe. They’re both aware of the currency of information. They thrive on finding other people who are willing to say the things they’re actually thinking if you stress them a little bit more.”

Daveed Diggs and Jennifer Connelly represent opposite ends of the train in TNT's "Snowpiercer." on TNT.
Daveed Diggs and Jennifer Connelly represent opposite ends of the train in TNT’s “Snowpiercer.” on TNT.
(Justina Mintz / TNT)

While production on the second season is still frozen by the pandemic, the actor, writer and socially conscious rapper who projects a laissez faire cool is doing swell in L.A.'s burgeoning pre-summer heat. The show is his first as a TV lead and he has come to recognize that one of the responsibilities of being high up on the production’s call sheet is to “help establish a culture” that’s welcoming and nurturing.

The Tony and Grammy winner (for “Hamilton”), costar of the new Apple TV+ animated musical series “Central Park” and co-writer and lead of last year’s passion-project film “Blindspotting” (which directly addresses police brutality and class divisions) had to adjust to the violence on “Snowpiercer.” He says it was easy for him to take choreographed beatings but he would have a hard time shaking the scenes where he would have to dish them out.

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In a conversation still weeks away from the #BlackLivesMatter protests over police brutality, Diggs points out he “grew up running track for the Oakland Police Athletic League, so my coaches were cops. Despite the sort of healthy Black fear of police I have, you know, just growing up in my body, I also have profound love and respect and am thankful to some specific police officers in my life.”

His character, Layton, was a police detective in Chicago before Earth experienced a sudden deep freeze that wiped out everyone unable to get on the perpetually moving Snowpiercer. While the cars approaching the engine escalate in luxury, the “tail” sections, with Layton and the other desperate ones who jumped aboard without tickets, are nightmarishly squalid. As the show opens, seven years in, Layton is plucked from the tail car to solve a murder among the paying passengers. As he wades into the increasingly strange new worlds of the third-, second- and first-class sections, he collects intel for his true purpose: revolution.

The Korean auteur’s first English-language movie is as thoughtful as it is action-packed. An international cast (Chris Evans, Ko Ah-sung) are gripping stand-ins as the last people on Earth.

The revolution plotline has survived from the original French graphic novels (“Le Transperceneige”) and Bong Joon Ho’s revered 2013 film adaptation starring Chris Evans. The murder mystery and most of the characters — including Layton and Cavill (Jennifer Connelly) — are inventions for the show. The series owes much more to the film than the comics, especially in the ways Bong vibrantly fleshed out the world of the train and explored class conflicts.

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“To me, [the class struggle] feels more foundational and a little more lived-in to the show,” says Diggs. “I think the show explores class as an ongoing thing, whereas [Bong’s] film — by nature of it being a film — has to give you flashes. It’s one of the amazing things about the film, that he allows you to understand the class structure of the train even though you were literally sprinting from the back to the front.

“Because we have more time, class feels more like this system none of us chose, but we’re all participating in.”

Daveed Diggs and Sheila Vand in "Snowpiercer"
Daveed Diggs and Sheila Vand in “Snowpiercer,” in which the only known remnants of humanity live on a train endlessly circling the Earth.
(Justina Mintz / TNT)

Because the show takes place in an alternate timeline rather than a far-flung future, Diggs’ preparation more closely resembled work for “Chicago P.D.” than “The Hunger Games.”

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“Most of my research involved trying to feel a certain Chicago-ness,” says the Berkeley High School alumnus, who is wearing an “Oakland Roots” T-shirt for this Zoom interview. “Even watching it, there are so many inconsistencies where I’m like, ‘That’s a very West Coast reaction to this thing.’ What I was trying to achieve was a somewhat colder-than-me way of living and zero in on the qualities a good detective would have.

“Layton is hyperobservant. I am not. I have not ever figured out where all the things in our kitchen are because my girlfriend put them where they are, and I still don’t know. I would not make a good detective,” he says, laughing. “We’ve been in this house two years.”

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Trailer for Season 1 of the TNT series, “Snowpiercer.”

Diggs says he talked to “a lot of detectives” and listened to “a lot of Chicago music” from the years preceding the show: “Just trying to get myself into a mind-set to break the unconscious rhythmic things that place does to a person.”

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The character undergoes some significant changes in the show’s first year.

In TNT’s “Snowpiercer,” based on the film by “Parasite’s” Bong Joon Ho, Jennifer Connelly and Daveed Diggs are passengers on a post-apocalyptic train.

“Almost all of Layton’s core beliefs are tested over the course of this season, and it really is based on new information. ‘I’m totally about this revolution life, but I don’t really think we should martyr ourselves unnecessarily because it’s not going to change anything.’

“If you’ve never traveled before and then you travel, like, for work — I’ll never forget that feeling of the world getting bigger,” he says of his character’s tunnel vision. “All these things I thought were true were really from a very narrow perspective.”

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The cast of TNT’s “Snowpiercer” sits down for an LA Times Comic-Con interview nearly a year before the show’s premiere.


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