A Lifelong Friendship Fuels the Chemistry of Oakland-Based 'Blindspotting' - NBC Bay Area
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A Lifelong Friendship Fuels the Chemistry of Oakland-Based 'Blindspotting'

Actor-rapper Daveed Diggs and artist Rafael Casal attended high school together, then reconnected years later. They worked on "Blindspotting" for nearly a decade

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    Daveed Diggs was busy. Too busy. The actor was doing eight shows a week as Jefferson/ Lafayette in the Broadway sensation "Hamilton," and wasn't answering his emails.

    So there was only one thing his writing partner and creative soulmate, Rafael Casal, could do: Move across the country, and set up camp in Diggs' dressing room.

    "Every night, he'd just be there at intermission," Diggs laughs now. "He had to move to New York for us to maintain a level of creative output."

    With the opening this week of "Blindspotting," their Oakland, California-based, rap-infused feature film debut, the duo is earning buzz for the onscreen chemistry that gives the film its energy. That chemistry, in turn, is fueled by a nearly two-decade friendship and a creative synergy that both men call remarkable.

    "As long as I've known him, I've never had an idea that I didn't run by him, and that includes character choices in 'Hamilton,'" Diggs, 36, said recently over tea in New York. "I don't have a ton of things that don't involve him, and even if they don't in name, realistically they still involve him."

    To Casal, 32, a spoken-word artist, what's most rare is how versatile the partnership is. "You pick your partners in the trenches because they make you better," he says. "What's unique about our dynamic is that it's cross-medium — film, music, theater, television. That's not even a once-in-a-lifetime thing, because many people go through life and it never happens."

    Though "Blindspotting," directed by Carlos Lopez Estrada, is a buddy film — both comic and tragic — it's also very much about a place: Oakland, a town both men hold dear. It's there, in the Bay Area, that they first met, at Berkeley High School. They didn't become friends right away, because Casal was a freshman and Diggs a senior. "That might as well be a 50-year gap," Casal quips.

    Diggs went off to Brown University, where he ran track and studied theater. By the time he came back, Casal, who'd made a name for himself on HBO's "Def Poetry Jam," had opened a recording studio and needed artists.

    "Somebody played me his music. I loved it. He came by, and we just hit it off," Casal says. "From then on, all I remember is him being around."

    It was nearly a decade ago that they began work on "Blindspotting," the story of Collin (Diggs), who has three days left on probation for a violent incident, and Miles (Casal), his mercurial, unpredictable best friend. Collin witnesses a police shooting of an unarmed black man; the two must navigate the next few days together, each in his own way, in an Oakland that is rapidly changing. The film explores themes of race, economics, gentrification — and friendship.

    Back in 2009, when they started the project, Oscar Grant had just been killed by a San Francisco transit officer. "His face was everywhere," says Diggs. "There were rallies and protests and riots." It became a key element in early drafts.

    The pair wondered how their idea would fly. "It's a hard sell, a race-politics comedy-drama that's in verse," says Casal. "But it's the movie we wanted to make."

    The project came close to being made a few times, and then didn't, for various reasons over the years. Meanwhile, their lives changed.

    "In the early days, it was the two of us huddled over one laptop," Diggs says. "Long drives up and down the I-5 between Oakland and LA, trying to impress (producers Jess and Keith Calder) and pretend we knew how to write a script."

    Casal recalls nights in LA sleeping "in one of our crappy cars. Trying to pretend we weren't so poor that we had to sleep in our cars."

    It seemed like the movie was about to happen when suddenly Lin-Manuel Miranda's "Hamilton" came up for Diggs. They figured it would be a quick project for a few months. It turned out to be — well, "Hamilton."

    Diggs won a 2016 Tony Award, and left the show the next month. A slew of opportunities, including TV's "black-ish," awaited. In early 2017, Casal was home watching "Moonlight" win the Oscar. He was so happy, "I drunk-texted one of our producers and said, 'I wish we had made OUR 'Moonlight.' And then they said, 'What if we made it right now?' And I was like, I don't know, Diggs is really famous, and really busy."

    But it turned out that Diggs, who was involved in at least four projects, would have exactly 22 days free that June. "You know the script isn't ready, right?" he told Casal, who suggested he could move to LA and grind it out, calling Diggs every night with updates. "To me it sounded like an insane undertaking," Diggs says. But he was in. He adds: "There's nobody else I would trust to write raps for me."

    The duo makes clear that "Hamilton" wasn't the reason the film got made — in fact, it interrupted things. But Diggs' rising fame has made it a lot easier to sell the film. "I think my name opens some doors now," the actor says. "A lot more people will see it. Which is great."

    The film screened on opening day at Sundance. What was most gratifying, both men say, is how eager people were to discuss it afterward — and argue. "The best works of art are ones you come away from and want to talk about," Diggs says. "We'd have been disappointed if everybody walked away with exactly the same feeling."

    The two have lots more going on. "I think we just cherish it," Casal says of the partnership.

    "Somebody referred to us as platonic life mates," laughs Diggs. "It's a pretty apt description."

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