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New Sci-Fi Show On TNT Challenges Class Structures

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Before the movie "Parasite" swept this year's Oscars, the director, Bong Joon-ho, created another film about class conflict, a sci-fi allegory set on a train hurtling through a frozen post-apocalyptic world called "Snowpiercer." Now that movie has been adapted for television.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SNOWPIERCER")

DAVEED DIGGS: (As Andre Layton) So we the people, the survivors left behind, we invaded their train.

SHAPIRO: That's Daveed Diggs. He stars as a homicide detective who moves up in the ranks of the train to investigate a murder. And he joins us now.

Welcome.

DIGGS: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: To give listeners a sense of your background, you have written and starred in movies, you were in the original Broadway cast of "Hamilton," you've made rap albums, you've had small roles on TV shows. But I think this is the first time you've basically carried a TV series on your shoulders. How was that experience different from other projects you've done?

DIGGS: Well, it is very different. It's hard to say you're carrying anything when Jennifer Connelly is also helping you. So...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) That's true. She does a pretty great job, too.

DIGGS: She's carrying a lot of the weight herself. But, yeah, you know, I was pretty wary about deciding to be a principal on a TV show because I've never really wanted to do anything for six years potentially or whatever the crazy contracts are they have you sign, you know? But this world felt like there were enough stories to tell that I wouldn't get bored, quite honestly. And it's continued to prove me right. There's always, like, interesting twists and turns. Layton is - continues to be fascinating to me and challenging, and...

SHAPIRO: That's the name of your character, yeah.

DIGGS: Yeah, yeah, Andre Layton.

SHAPIRO: You say the world has a lot of stories to tell, but it is a very confined world. I mean, it is a train.

DIGGS: It is.

SHAPIRO: Your character describes it as a fortress to class. Will you just kind of describe the setting?

DIGGS: Yeah. It is - I mean, it's a train that is 1,001 cars long. And it is set up like most trains where first class is up at the front.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SNOWPIERCER")

ALISON WRIGHT: (As Ruth Wardell) Some concerns about the sauna.

JENNIFER CONNELLY: (As Melanie Cavill) Oh, no. I'll send maintenance right away.

ANNALISE BASSO: (As LJ Folger) No. It's not broken. The Europeans are body shaming again.

DIGGS: And there's a second and third class, and then there's the tail, which is where Layton is from.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SNOWPIERCER")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) They just cut our rations again.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) No doubt. It's like slavery the only reason they still feeding us at all.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) They're starving us to extinction.

DIGGS: In the tail, there are essentially stowaways who rushed the train in a sort of bloody last-ditch attempt to not die during the apocalypse. This train is all that's left of the world. Everything else froze over when our scientists tried to overcorrect climate change. And so everyone on here are the last surviving people, and the stowaways in the back were sort of allowed to stay in exchange for labor, but they get none of the social services of the train.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. There was an article recently in The Atlantic about how the COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating the class divide. And one of the lines in this article said America in the era of the coronavirus is less like a train engine pulling everyone along and more like the movie and upcoming television show "Snowpiercer" in which a cocooned elite rides out the storm in luxury. I know you filmed this series before the pandemic hit, but do you think it has a different resonance now? I mean, this was not an article about "Snowpiercer."

DIGGS: Yeah. I mean, I think it definitely does. And I think something about a sci fi show that uses an allegory to examine class structure is probably always going to be very relevant. But it is particularly so now. We're confronted with the idea of resource scarcity, which, to me, is, like, really the main driving force of "Snowpiercer" is just what do you do with limited resources? And we don't often have to think about that. But right now, when we're all inside and it's becoming very clear who is comfortable and who isn't, I think those differences become a lot more pronounced and infuriating.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. In this show, your character has to decide whether to take the opportunity that he's offered and leave his people behind in the tail of the train or stay true to his roots, even if that means giving up some of the privilege he's being offered. And I wonder, as you have become more famous and successful in your career and your life, is that a question that you've had to struggle with yourself?

DIGGS: Whew, bro, no one's ever asked me that question.

SHAPIRO: Really?

DIGGS: Yes. Yeah, of course. That's wild, actually, to think about. Yeah. I mean, there is, and I think this is true sort of for anybody who comes from just a different world socioeconomically than they find themselves in. There's like a - it's something akin to survivor's guilt. That feels like an extreme way to discuss it, in some ways. But I am always sort of hyper aware of my privilege these days and - yeah. And so I try to find ways to - I don't know - pull people along with me who I came up with or whatever, just try to find ways to, in some ways, offset it or use parts of it for other things. But there is an awful lot of negotiation of that kind of space that happens in my brain all the time.

SHAPIRO: Well, I also wonder if this comes back to the kinds of stories you choose to tell. Like, because it is occupying space in your brain, you're engaging in projects that sort of work through some of these issues.

DIGGS: That's possible. I've never thought of myself as a type of actor who uses his work as therapy. But maybe that's what's happening (laughter).

SHAPIRO: What do you do with that? Like, you can't just reject the opportunities you're given.

DIGGS: You can't. I try to be as careful as possible and ask my team to be as careful as possible in terms of, like, vetting organizations that I'm working for. But, you know, I am aware that I am, like, a participant in and sort of thriving in a system that used to hold me down and that is still holding down a lot of my friends and family.

SHAPIRO: Do you mean hold you down as a person of color?

DIGGS: A person of color, as a poor person. You know, it's undebatable that what - you know, as "Snowpiercer" examines, there are different worlds that we exist in based on your class, and race also plays into that in a big way. And if we look at, you know, how New York is being policed during this lockdown and that all to me folds back in to a system, like an economic system, that I am in some ways - in a lot of ways a beneficiary of right now, right? And so that's a complicated thing. Like, I - the neighborhood I live in right now, if I call the police, they're going to come. They just repaved my street during this lockdown. There are so many other streets in LA that need to be repaved.

SHAPIRO: But it must be nice to have your street repaved, too.

DIGGS: I'm saying, right. But our - you know, this voting district also has money.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

DIGGS: So we all interact with this system. And now I'm interacting with it in a very different way than I used to, and it's complicated. It's hard.

SHAPIRO: So it's like, do you blow it up or do you shine a light on it or do you just prosper in it? Like...

DIGGS: Right, right, exactly. And so I guess these days I am trying to shine a light while also maintaining the safety and comfort that I'm acquiring for me and for my family.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: Daveed Diggs, thank you for talking with us about "Snowpiercer."

DIGGS: Thank you so much, man. You got deep in there.

SHAPIRO: Daveed Diggs stars in the TV adaptation of the movie "Snowpiercer," which premiered on Sunday on TNT. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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