Daveed Diggs on Life, Education, and Empathy
Turn on your television, or follow social media, and you’ll see the name Daveed Diggs. Whether he’s rapping alongside Lin-Manuel Miranda and winning a Tony Award for the Broadway smash Hamilton, or turning up in supporting roles in Blackish and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Diggs is everywhere, and now he’s adding the big screen to his ever-expanding resume. Last month, Diggs made his feature debut as Mr. Browne, a supportive school teacher, in the box office hit, Wonder. The movie follows a fifth-grader with facial differences as he enters the mainstream public school system and makes friends for the very first time.
For his role as Mr. Browne, Diggs drew on his experiences as a middle school teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area. He taught poetry and theater for several years and, in true Hamilton-style, integrated rap with the core curriculum. He retired from teaching in 2012, but the decision to quit was not an easy one; Diggs felt he owed it to his students to be both committed and emotionally present, which wasn’t possible when juggling his many side projects. In a recent interview, Diggs explained that Mr. Browne was the teacher he would have ideally like to have been: “[He] is the teacher I think we all hope we have at some point in our lives. It was an opportunity to honor the great teachers in my life, and he is as committed to the well-being of his students as he is to the material that he needs to teach. I think it’s that kind of empathy that I was really responding to.”
“Mr. Browne is the teacher I think we all hope we have at some point in our lives. It was an opportunity to honor the great teachers in my life, and he is as committed to the well-being of his students as he is to the material that he needs to teach. I think it’s that kind of empathy that I was really responding to.”
Wonder is based on R. J. Palacio’s heartwarming middle-grade novel of the same name, which was in turn inspired by a real life incident involving Palacio and her young son. While waiting in line for ice cream, Palacio and her son encountered a homeless man with facial defects. Concerned that the man might react badly to her son’s staring, Palacio removed her son from line, making the situation worse. Palacio later contemplated her response, and came to realize that the experience could be used as an unlikely pedagogical tool. Her novel, and the subsequent film, centers on the character of August “Auggie” Pullman, who suffers from “craniofacial differences.” Throughout the story, we see how Auggie, his family, fellow students, and the larger community transform as they grapple with the issues raised by Auggie’s differences. For Diggs, “whatever age you are there is something… [you] can identify with [in Wonder]. I found myself feeling nervous and emotionally available in ways I haven’t felt in a long time. You put up… walls so that you don’t feel those things anymore, and I think what the film does so well is put us back in the mindset of a young person who maybe hasn’t done all of that work yet, and allows us to feel things in a way that we haven’t felt in a long time.”
Diggs believes Wonder’s message of empathy is a timely one: “It is so important right now in a time where hate seems to be everywhere… we are inundated with the choice of hate, so I think that [a story] that really shows an alternative to that [is important]. We’re … inspired to not choose [empathy] in order to be successful. You only look out for yourself. You don’t have time to help other people up, and one of the things that’s so wonderful about this film is that watching how the kindness radiates outward and how the whole community, not just the school, [but] everybody is affected by it, and everyone is more successful because of it.”
See more about WONDER and Daveed Diggs, below:
Have you seen Wonder? What lessons about empathy and kindness did you take away from the movie?