He was seven years old and she was still a baby in 1989 when “The Little Mermaid” became an animated blockbuster and soundtrack hit. But Tony Award-winning Hamilton alum David Diggs and comedian Nora Lam, best known for her role as Awkwafina (The Farewell, Crazy Rich Asians), are both the film’s sharpest faces. (the latter recalls fondly) as “definitely a staple of my Disney VHS collection”). The two are currently co-starring in Rob Marshall’s ambitious live-action remake, which is out now. Diggs, 41, plays the sympathetic crab Sebastian, while Awkwafina, 34, plays the bird-brained gull Scuttle. The two discuss rap battles on set, supporting rookie mermaid Halle Bailey, and scene-stealing techniques on the beach. Below is an edited excerpt of the conversation.
How do you get over the legacy of Samuel Wright and Buddy Hackett, the actors who created the voice roles of Sebastian and Scuttle, without becoming a burden?
Awkwafina: These characters aren’t just the performances we know, they’re burned into our minds, so instead of replicating the performances we love, we try to add as much as we can to it. I think it’s important.There was a way to represent these characters just by being in the books, but Rob [Marshall] Really fostered a good environment for us to put ourselves in there and improve.
Daveed Diggs: i’m not really singer singer. My voice can only do what it can, I can’t do what Samuel did. I mean, there was no option to copy, you know what I mean? My options are limited, but I feel I made the best possible choice.
These aren’t your first voice roles. At his disposal as an actor, what did he learn when he was without his two greatest tools: body and face?
Awkwafina: hey you It’s actually more fluid. I realized that there are many more possibilities without going through the body.
Diggs: Your appearance really limits you in many ways, right? It also severely limits how the body moves through space and reacts to the camera. What I love most about being a voice actor is that you can make any choice. It’s also cheap to record, so no one gets mad when you want another take. Try one more! No need to reset all fireworks.
Both of them rap professionally and have released albums and mixtapes. But how difficult was it for you when you got your hands on the rapid-fire lyrics of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s new song, “The Scuttlebutt”?
Awkwafina: It was intense. Originally, I didn’t know that Scuttle had a song. And knowing that’s what Lynn was doing and that it was heavily in his voice, he felt the pressure to do a good job. He wrote about David when we were recording. He remembers listening to a conversation between David and Lynn. He was just reviewing his part that was sent to him and was completely hooked just by reading it and thought: Watch them work together. “
Diggs: Being a fan, I was so excited to hear Awkwafina rap again.
Both of you have worked on color-conscious casting projects before, but this one caused particularly bad feedback online. What was your reaction to Blackfish seeing Halle Bailey walk in it?
Diggs: I believe Halle is the only person in the world who could play this role. Watching her travel the world after her announcement would probably be heartbreaking, especially for me at her age. I mean, this much excitement is already one thing, but it’s insane to have such intense racism fired at you. But I think her performance is undeniable. The best way to silence an asshole is to just be bossy.
The film seems to evoke a very strong response because of the different emotional attachments.
Awkwafina: People say that the moment Halle started singing “Part of Your World,” she started crying and never stopped.
Diggs: I am also one of them. I was right behind you, trying not to cry audibly.
Awkwafina: I think what’s really great about the best adaptations is that they really bring people back, whatever their relationship to the film. In my youth, this film taught me so many themes about life, storytelling, and character, and that still applies in this new production.
Did playing these roles change your relationship with seafood? What do you think of crab cakes now?
Diggs: i still love them.
Awkwafina: People keep asking me why Scuttle didn’t eat Sebastian. In fact, it comes up really often, all the time. It didn’t occur to me until they started asking.