He was 7-years-old when “The Little Mermaid” became a surprise animation hit and soundtrack juggernaut in 1989, and she was still a baby. But the Tony-winning “Hamilton” alum Daveed Diggs and the comic actress Nora Lum, who is better known as Awkwafina (“The Farewell,” “Crazy Rich Asians”), both retain vivid memories of the film (the latter fondly recalls it as “definitely a major player in my Disney VHS collection”). Now they’re co-starring in the director Rob Marshall’s ambitious live-action reimagining, currently in theaters: Diggs, 41, as the sympathetic crab Sebastian, and Awkwafina, 34, as the birdbrained gull Scuttle. The pair discuss on-set rap battles, supporting the new Mermaid Halle Bailey and the art of stealing scenes by the seashore. Below are edited excerpts from the conversation.
How do you navigate the legacy of Samuel Wright and Buddy Hackett, the actors who originated the voice roles of Sebastian and Scuttle, without being weighed down by it?
AWKWAFINA: These characters are not only performances that we know, they’re seared into our minds, so I think the idea is really not to go in to duplicate a performance that is beloved, but to add what you can to it. There was a way to do these characters that is just on the book, but Rob [Marshall] really facilitated a good environment to bring our own selves into it and improv.
DAVEED DIGGS: I’m not really a singer singer. My voice can only do what it does, I can’t do what Samuel did. So I didn’t have the option of copying it, you know what I’m saying? It’s a narrow window of choices I have, but I feel like I made the best ones I could.
These are not your first voice roles. What have you learned when you don’t have two of the biggest tools at your disposal as an actor, which is your body and your face?
AWKWAFINA: Oh man. You know, it’s actually more fluid. There’s so much more possibility, I realized, without the body involved.
DIGGS: Your physical appearance is really limiting in a lot of ways, right? And the way your body moves through space and the way it has to react to a camera is also pretty limiting. So what I love most about voice acting is you can make any choice. Also it’s cheap for them to record, so no one gets mad when you want another take. Just do another one! You don’t have to reset all the pyrotechnics.
You’ve both rapped professionally and released albums and mixtapes. But when you got Lin-Manuel Miranda’s rapid-fire lyrics for the new song “The Scuttlebutt,” what was the difficulty level for you?
AWKWAFINA: It was intense. I didn’t know Scuttle was going to have a song originally. And knowing that it was something that Lin was doing, and that it was very much in his voice, I felt pressure in that I wanted to do a good job. He wrote Daveed in as we were recording it, And I remember listening to Daveed and Lin talk — just going over his part, which he had just been sent, and absolutely nailed just in the reading, and thinking, “This is so cool to see them work together.”
DIGGS: I was just excited to get to hear Awkwafina rap again, I’ve been a fan.
You’ve also both been part of projects with color-conscious casting before, but this one elicited some particularly ugly feedback online. How was it watching Halle Bailey walk through that, the reaction to a Black mermaid?
DIGGS: Halle is, I am convinced, the only person in the world who could have played this part. To watch her navigate the world post the announcement — that would’ve probably broken me, particularly at her age. I mean, so much excitement is already one thing, and then also that kind of intense racism just being fired towards you, it’s insane. But I think her performance is so undeniable. The best way to silence a hater is to just be great.
The movie does seem to evoke some really powerful reactions, because of all the attachments to it.
AWKWAFINA: People have told me that they were crying from like, the second that Halle started singing “Part of Your World,” then never really stopped.
DIGGS: I am one of those people. I was right behind you, trying not to cry audibly.
AWKWAFINA: I think the really cool thing about the best kinds of adaptations is that they truly do bring people back to whatever their relationship with the movie is. When I was young, it taught me so many themes about life and storytelling and character that still really hold true in this new one.
Did playing these roles change your relationship to seafood? How do you feel about crab cakes now?
DIGGS: Still love ‘em.
AWKWAFINA: People keep asking me why Scuttle has not eaten Sebastian. It’s come up so often actually, constantly! Until they started asking, it never occurred to me.