As an actor, undertaking a part in a remake of a beloved classic film isn’t an easy task. And if you’re a fan of The Little Mermaid, you know that these characters are nearly untouchable– from Ariel and Ursula to Ariel’s sidekick Flounder and her father’s crustacean advisor, Sebastian. For Daveed Diggs, who plays the Jamaican crab Sebastian in Disney’s live action remake of The Little Mermaid, landing a role like this isn’t something he ever thought was possible, but was filled with excitement for the opportunity to take on the challenge.
Best known for his Grammy and Tony winning role as the Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit Broadway musical Hamilton, and the comedy-drama Blindspotting, Diggs took the role of portraying Sebastian very seriously, stating that he did more research for this role than any other role he’s ever taken on. Diggs found himself traveling to Jamaica and exploring a few different Caribbean accents before landing somewhere between a Jamaican and Trinidadian accent, one that worked beautifully for his personal acting and speaking voice, while staying true to the essence of Sebastian.
As Sebastian, Diggs breathes new life into the iconic songs from the original animated film. His renditions of classics such as “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl,” as well as the new addition “The Scuttlebutt” penned by Miranda, are vibrant, soulful, and infused with an irresistible Caribbean flavor. His range and musicality are truly a delight to experience, leaving the audience completely enthralled.
In conversation with Schön, Daveed Diggs dives into his experience portraying Sebastian in The Little Mermaid, reuniting on set with his close friend Lin-Manuel Miranda, and recounting his first time seeing the magic that is Halle Bailey as Ariel.
Congratulations on the release of The Little Mermaid! How does it feel to be a part of such an iconic film?
Thank you, it’s been a real trip. I grew up on this movie, so the fact that I get to play a part in the live-action version is something I’m still trying to wrap my head around.
The film is already breaking box office records and is projected to surpass the original animated version. How has it been to see the fan reactions?
What means more to me than any box office records or numbers is seeing how much of an impact this movie has had on little black and brown girls. It’s been so beautiful to see their response to the film and how much it means to them to have Halle as their role model. Growing up, I never experienced that type of representation and I hope their responses to this film reinforce how much representation matters.
Being one of the voice actors in the film, what was your first reaction to seeing the finished product years after you recorded your part?
I was actually one of the few in the cast who didn’t see the film until our LA premiere, so not only was I watching it all come together for the first time, but I was seeing it in this huge theatre full of cast, creatives, friends, family, press, etc. I don’t think it really hit me until I saw Halle come on to the screen for the first time – I just burst into tears. Her performance is so incredible and captivating, as is the rest of the cast’s, and Rob’s cinematography was truly unlike anything I’d seen before. I was blown away.
I read that you saw the original animated version of The Little Mermaid in theaters with your father on opening night. What do you remember about the first time watching the film?
I remember standing in line with my dad at The Grand Lake Theatre in Oakland and I, like everyone else, instantly fell in love with the music from the film. I didn’t really realize how much those songs stayed with me until I was in my audition for The Little Mermaid some 30 years later and could still recite every lyric from memory. That’s the genius of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman
Sebastian is such an iconic sidekick in the Disney lineup. What about him specifically made you want to audition?
I actually didn’t want to audition! When my team told me Disney was considering me for the role I didn’t believe them and figured they’d made a mistake. And then I went in to audition, still thinking they had made a mistake, and had so much fun that I was like ‘oh man, now I actually want the part which sucks even more since I’m not gonna get it.’
I read that you spent some time in Jamaica to study the accent that you used to bring Sebastian to life. How was that experience for you?
I was really mindful and intentional with my performance and wanted to approach the accent with knowledge and understanding of the area. I actually did more research for this role than anything I’d done before. I explored a few Caribbean dialects and landed on something that probably sits somewhere between a Jamaican and Trinidadian accent for the film, which worked best with my speaking and singing voice. I worked closely with two friends to find the voice – the late Tony Hall, a Trinidadian playwright, and my good friend Chris Walker, a brilliant dancer, scholar and choreographer from Jamaica. The process was a lot of fun and I hope the voice is still very recognizable to Sebastian fans.
“Under The Sea” is obviously one of the most well-known and beloved songs in all of Disney’s soundtracks. What was your experience like putting your spin on such an iconic song?
We definitely wanted to keep it in line with the original because Samuel E. Wright’s version is incredible and you know, if it’s not broken don’t fix it, but it also needed to be done with my vocal capabilities in mind and what I was able to do with the accent and my register. I have to say, my favorite part of the whole song is when Halle comes in and does her little riffs throughout. The second she opened her mouth I knew there was no competing with that, so I didn’t even try.
You’ve obviously worked with and are great friends with Lin-Manuel Miranda, and you had the chance to collaborate with him again on this film. What is your work dynamic like working with such a close friend?
Working together isn’t much different from how we interact with each other outside of work. I always say, our text thread just transitions into real life when we get to work together. But we do have this shorthand just from knowing each other so well and knowing how each other operate, so that came in handy while recording.
Did any of the work you did with him on Hamilton help prepare you for this role?
I mean, knowing his cadences made learning the new song really easy. I always like to make things with friends so this was just another one of those things.
We have to talk about the new original rap song that you and Awkwafina perform, “The Scuttlebutt.” I read that Sebastian wasn’t originally supposed to be on the song. How did that come to fruition?
I think Lin knew me well enough to know he couldn’t write a hit rap song and not put me on it. I’m kidding! Awkwafina killed that song and I was lucky enough to play a tiny part in it. I’ve been a fan of her since her early days rapping so it was really cool to be on that track with her.
The film is not only breaking box office records, but it’s also breathing new life and introducing new fans to the original story. How does it feel to be a part of a diverse, groundbreaking cast in a film that brings so much hope to young people?
I don’t think I can put it into words just yet, I’m still processing it. I just keep saying, how lucky are we that Disney decided to make this live-action version at the exact same time that Halle was the perfect age for the role. Her performance speaks for itself, but she is truly the greatest role model for this next generation of fans. I’m in constant awe of her.
You’re currently working on a new singing competition show for Audible with Sara Bareilles called Breakthrough. What can you tell us about this project?
It’s a really cool project. It’s all on Audible, so contestants are judged solely for their voices and not their looks or persona. My favorite thing about it actually, as a recording artist myself, is that there aren’t any eliminations. So you listen to all of the contestants go through the whole process and get to see the journey it takes to record a song and get an understanding for what it’s like to be in a studio with someone. It’s an incredibly personal process and one I’m excited that people get to experience with Breakthrough.
What does the rest of this year look like for you?
I’m coming off of a busy few months on set, so I’m hoping the rest of my year includes a nice vacation, preferably on a beach somewhere with a drink (or two) in my hand and some downtime with loved ones.
Disney’s The Little Mermaid is in theatres now.
photography. Pooya Nabei
fashion. Alvin Stillwell @ Celestine Agency
talent. Daveed Diggs
hair. Tania Becker
grooming. Juanita Lyon @ Celestine Agency
photography assistant. Braden Moran
interview. Rachel Martin