Lin-Manuel Miranda: ‘Death suffuses my work, and part of that is growing up in New York'

Miranda Sawyer
·7 min read
<span>Photograph: Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP</span>
Photograph: Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP

Lin-Manuel Miranda created and starred in the musical Hamilton, which premiered on Broadway in 2015. The show, about Alexander Hamilton, an American founding father, draws on hip-hop as well as more traditional musical forms, and won many awards, including 11 Tonys and the 2016 Pulitzer prize for drama. Miranda’s songs appear in the Disney animation Moana, he played Jack in Mary Poppins Returns and the balloonist Lee Scoresby in His Dark Materials, which returned to BBC One earlier this month.

How does Lee Scoresby’s character change in this series of His Dark Materials?
He goes all in on protecting Lyra. And it leads to some pretty wild places: it leads him out of the world in which he exists, to witches’ councils and beyond. In his short time with Lyra, he’s changed. He’s made the tactical decision that “my life is what it is, but this kid’s life could be better. We both were dealt a rotten pack of cards and I’m going to do what I can to make sure she’s got a brighter future.”

It’s important in children’s stories that parents aren’t there, isn’t it? It gives the child freedom…
That’s true, but there’s an incredible profound loss that comes with losing your parents. I remember when my dad’s parents passed, my dad was in his 50s, and he was like: “I’m an orphan.” The way I dealt with it in Hamilton, [Alexander] Hamilton and [Aaron] Burr both have this early loss and Hamilton decides to go a mile a minute, and Burr is terrified. He’s in paralysis because of it, because he doesn’t want to mess up in the time he has. It’s not only about how the loss is an engine of the story, it’s also about how that character is marked by it.

You’ve described Lee Scoresby as being a bit like Han Solo, but he’s also Indiana Jones, no?
He’s certainly got the look: the leather duster coat, the hat that somehow stays on in a frigging hot air balloon! We owe so much to Harrison Ford, for his loners-who-find-a-cause characters. Most of my summer, I was in a hot air balloon with “hot priest” Andrew Scott [who plays Colonel John Parry in His Dark Materials]. We got very close. Andrew loves Judge Judy, we laughed so hard. It’s the way you get to know anybody: you start by talking about the work, and then, by the end, you’re saying: “Have you seen this viral video of this cat that does this?”

Related: 25 years of His Dark Materials: Philip Pullman on the journey of a lifetime

Hamilton has come in for criticism from the Black Lives Matter movement for not exploring the fact that the main characters were slave owners. If you were writing Hamilton now, would you have changed your approach?
It’s impossible to hindsight quarterback it. I read the criticisms – all of which are valid, I’m aware of what’s not in the show, and a lot of these criticisms also surfaced in 2015 and 2016 – but, you know, I have these guys singing and dancing and I’m trying to present them as flawed and as complete as possible, and still get you out of the theatre before Les Mis lets out. What I console myself with is the fact that the show is a starting point for conversation. We’ve always seen Hamilton as a gateway, not as a comprehensive history. It can’t encapsulate it all.

Writing Hamilton was like writing about my dad

There was a rap battle about slavery that was dropped from the show, wasn’t there?
Yes, I released that on the Hamilton Mixtape. It couldn’t happen in the show. Within the context of the show, that rap is just four minutes of people saying “This is a problem, we don’t know what to do”, and their various opinions. It was enormously cathartic to write Hamilton calling out Washington for being a slave owner, but it doesn’t get the ball down the field, it doesn’t move time and story. It can’t work, because none of them did enough [to stop slavery]. We have the civil war as proof that none of them did enough. And that’s a lot of what this conversation is about.

You seem more political on your social media these days – what changed for you?
Honestly, the world’s changed. My beliefs haven’t changed, but I think of Twitter as a very loud megaphone, and that’s a responsibility. Twitter has grown from me live-tweeting Buffy while I’m sick in bed – which is how all of us started with Twitter – to anything I write on Twitter now is a press release or an article. So how do you deal with that? You write the things that you believe in.

Have you ever thought of handing your Twitter feed over to someone else?
I love Twitter for the connections and the genuine friends I’ve made. And it was an incredible parallel muscle while I was writing Hamilton, because I was home writing and then I had this audience in my pocket I could talk to, when I wasn’t working myself to the bone to get two couplets. But I find, as I’m working in film more, as I’m writing and doing everything, I need the mental bandwidth for my creative projects. My Twitter feed is not coming to a theatre near you any time soon. I need my brain back!

Your work is positive…
I don’t know about that. The musical I’m most famous for ends in a gun battle and everyone dying, so…

OK, well how do you think about it?
I think we are the product of what we consume. My dad likes escapist action movies and musicals, he’s not here for your Merchant Ivory drama, and my mom likes four-hour movies about two people who almost have a relationship and then one of them dies. That’s her happy place. And so I actually think my work falls in the sweet spot between that. I’m going to try to make you feel really good but you are going to leave crying.

Your dad, Luis A Miranda, works in politics and has a documentary coming out about him…
Although I famously have no chill, I always say I’m the mellowest member of my family. When you meet my dad you understand everything, because he’s really relentless. When he finishes one task, he asks: “What other tasks could I be doing?” He pushes everyone around him to do their best and their most. He’s an extraordinary character. Writing Hamilton was like writing about him, because Hamilton is also relentless. They both came from the Caribbean at age 18 – my dad also came speaking no English, came on a scholarship like Hamilton did, and his life went careening in lots of different directions. When I’m playing Hamilton, I’m playing my dad! That “You have to listen to me!” – that’s Luis Miranda.

Is knowing that death is coming part of your attitude to life?
I think so, I think that suffuses my work in a pretty big way and part of that is just growing up in New York. You’re brought up to believe that’s around every corner and if you take the wrong step off the subway platform… I see my work as pretty morbid throughout, and I think the secret to why Hamilton has had the success it’s had, is it ends on two big questions: it ends on the word “time”; and it ends on who lives, who dies, who tells your story? It forces you to think: “What the fuck am I doing with my life?” If you’ve spent the day watching Netflix and then you rolled up to the Victoria Palace theatre and watched Hamilton, you’d be like: “What did I do today? Look at what they got done!”

  • His Dark Materials is on Sundays at 8.10pm on BBC One. Series one and the series two episodes so far are available on the BBC iPlayer