Lin-Manuel Miranda: How to Be an Artist in the Donald Trump Era

10 minute read

It has been a banner year for Lin-Manuel Miranda. The 36-year-old actor, writer, and composer won a Grammy, a Pulitzer and three Tonys; in recent weeks, Miranda earned a Golden Globe nomination for his work on the soundtrack of Moana and a number-one spot on the Billboard charts for the recently released Hamilton Mixtape. Now, having relocated to London to prepare to film Mary Poppins Returns, he is finally, blissfully, taking a break.

When asked how the move across the pond has been treating him, he cites one of his temporary home’s greatest benefits: way, way fewer people recognize him on the street. Miranda took a break from his break to talk to TIME about his transition from Disney-obsessed child to Disney-composer adult, how he handles the pressure that accompanies having created one of the most massively successful cultural phenomena of the decade (the century? the millennium? the geological era?) and how he’s feeling as the Obamas prepare to vacate the White House to make way for Donald Trump.

TIME: It seems like every day there’s an announcement about a new project you’re working on. Have you had a chance to take a break this year?

Miranda: You are talking to me in the middle of my break, actually. I have a nice two weeks off for the holidays. Getting to work on this film has given me the luxury of regular 9-to-5 hours. It’s been a joy getting to have dinner with my wife and see my son in the morning and tuck him in every night. So that kind of regularity, not having a night gig, has been lovely.

For Moana, you worked with Mark Mancina, a Disney veteran, and Opetaia Foa’i, a South Pacific musician and songwriter. How did your different skill sets coalesce to make these songs?

Opetaia is just a fantastic musician and an incredible cultural ambassador. He has been exploring his ancestry and his people through his music his whole career, so he’s the only person who could have brought this flavor and this musical heritage to the film. I’m a story guy. I’ll change genres to whatever best serves the story. And then Mark Mancina is just one of the most versatile composers. When you have shotgun marriages like this, it doesn’t always work, and we all hit it off right away.

I got the job in 2014. I flew [to New Zealand] to meet them and two days later, we began working on “We Know the Way.” It’s Opetaia’s melody and lyrics in Samoan, and I just started writing English lyrics and counterpoint to what he’d written. And then Mark began playing with chords and arrangements. Whenever the three of us got in a room, we were able to do all the things this score needed to do. We needed to, first of all, represent a culture that doesn’t see itself onscreen very often, in a way that would make them proud and feel like they were being reflected accurately, and two, tell Moana’s story and be able to match the incredible visuals we knew were coming.

Does being a parent inspire you to make work your son can enjoy?

Well, the other crazy thing about the week I flew to New Zealand is that was the week I found out I was going to be a parent. So that was also a part of the excitement. That being said, my creative life is very much tied to who I was as a child. I was a kid making up stories and making films and flipbooks, so I’m always checking in: is this something 10-year-old Lin would think is cool? That’s why I’ve done so much for Sesame Street, for Electric Company, and in children’s music here, because I’m keeping a promise to some younger version of me.

Were you a big Disney fan at that age?

Oh my God, yeah, well, sure—I was a child! I had the good fortune of being just the right age for that animated musical renaissance of the late ’80s, early ‘90s, that string of Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Lion King. Every year, another club banger. We’re kind of in another one now, I hope, between Tangled and Frozen and the success of Moana, where animated musicals have a seat at the table with Pixar and all the other great work being done.

How have you found the transition from New York to London?

It’s been wonderful. It’s nice being a little less recognizable on the street. And also, to get to sing and dance with Emily Blunt all day and then call that work is pretty cool.

Mary Poppins Returns is due in December 2018, and you have an animated film, Vivo, due in December 2020. Is it strange to have so much of the next several years mapped out?

Vivo has been a very happy surprise development. Before I worked at Disney, I was down the road with Dreamworks Animation at the end of the early aughts, so I wrote those songs like eight years ago. I basically wrote the whole score, they did a full treatment, and they didn’t go ahead with it. I’m very proud of the songs, and they were for an animated musical, so there’s nowhere else I can put them. But when that announcement came out, people were like, “You’re doing too much!” No, no, no, I did that! That’s not a new project, it’s an old project that’s been given new life.

Do you feel like you’ll have space to pursue new ideas, with all these projects lined up?

That’s the question. I’m excited to have one job for the next few months and just get to sing and dance, and then proceed from there. I think after acting for so long into 2017, I’m going to really be bursting at the seams to write again. The year I’ve had has been so crazy, but it’s the result of a lot of seeds I planted a long time ago kind of bursting at the same time. But I have to go out and plant more seeds.

After such a massive success with Hamilton, do you feel a heightened sense of pressure not to fail?

I try to dismantle it as early and often as possible. That’s why you see me saying unbelievably dumb things on Twitter half the time. I’m constantly trying to knock myself off any pedestal. I’ll tweet something dumb about an episode of Gilmore Girls and people will be like [in mocking voice], “Pulitzer Prize winner Lin-Manuel, tweeting about a TV show.” I’m like, yeah, I didn’t stop being the person I am. I have just as much a right to binge-watch TV and tweet dumb stuff about it as anybody else. And if that helps people stop thinking of me in a certain way, so much the better. You can’t stop being who you are just because more people are looking at you.

President Obama has been a big supporter of your work. How are you feeling watching him and Michelle Obama prepare to leave the White House?

I’m a guy with less critical distance than most. The opportunity they afforded me by allowing me to perform at the White House early in their administration was career-changing. I’ll always be in their debt for that. And then bringing it full circle by inviting our company to perform at the White House this past year. I got to sing a song about George Washington saying goodbye in front of the portrait of George Washington. Chris Jackson singing as a black first president to the first black president. It was a moment I’ll never forget.

There has been a lot in the ether in the past six weeks about how artists are responding to the reality of a Trump presidency. It goes without saying that the president-elect stands against a lot of the values espoused in Hamilton and that you’ve been outspoken about. Do you feel like your role as an artist is different than it was two months ago?

I think the role of the artist is to chase whatever inspires them and make whatever it inspires them to make. If that’s political in nature, great. If it’s not, great. Honestly, I think you can tell when someone is making a political work and it feels like homework. I don’t think of myself as inherently a political writer. There are politics in my work, but I think they come out of the situations that the characters are in.

Hamilton’s life coincides with the birth of our country, so you’re going to deal with the politics inherent to that era. In the Heights takes place in a neighborhood that’s on the brink of gentrification, so those characters are wrestling with what it means to be displaced. That being said, I also feel like my role as a citizen is exactly that. So I am going to support organizations whose efforts I believe in. That’s what I do as a private citizen. My goal as an artist is just to chase inspiration until I make the thing that’s in my head.

What’s it like to see something you created at the center of political discussions? Is that something that you ever envisioned would happen?

No, and I have to say, it was a little bewildering at first, because I grew up in politics. My dad has been very active in New York politics my whole life. I think growing up in that environment gave me a different insight than maybe another writer would have. “Room Where It Happens” is about the limits of representation. We vote for the guy, but the guy doesn’t necessarily lead in our best interest. All we can do is just pick the person who gets to be in the room.

I write that from the perspective of the kid who was drawing in the coloring book in that room while my dad was helping people make decisions. So I come at it with a healthy dose of cynicism. It has been interesting to both watch the show be embraced by people of lots of different political stripes, because it is an origin story of American politics, in one sense, but also to see the show get politicized. If you like it, you’re this. If you hate it, you’re that. Just like politicians, it will ebb and flow. And I’m cool with that. I’m proud of what I made.

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