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Diggstown – An afternoon with rising star Taye Diggs

From his meteoric arrival on the Hollywood scene as a Jamaican boytoy in How Stella Got Her Groove Back to his acclaimed supporting role in GO earlier this year, Taye Diggs has taken Hollywood by storm. Not too bad for a young guy from Jersey who at one point in his life was too shy to go onstage. With The Best Man scheduled for release this week and Mary Jane’s Last Dance later on this month, Diggs is one of the hottest commodities in the business. Also in the works are Robert Zemeckis’ House on Haunted Hill and Chris McQuarrie’s The Way of the Gun. Here’s a sure-shot Y2K prediction: By this time next year, Taye Diggs will be a household name.

Accompanied by The Best Man director Malcolm Lee, I spoke with Diggs at the Pan-Pacific Hotel in San Francisco about his relatively recent venture into the world of film. He reflected on his roller coaster ride to success from his roots as a stage actor at Syracuse University and on to Broadway where he starred in Rent and Carousel. He told the story behind his debut performance in How Stella Got Her Groove Back and reflected upon his status as a budding sex symbol. Through it all he spoke with an amazing sense of candor and striking humility. Those same sincere emotions that he puts into his characters are reflected in his cerebral persona, which directors and fans like myself have come to revere. In the opening paragraph of a recent New York Times piece they compared you to Fred Astaire in reference to your history with theater and your gradual transition to film. How do you respond to that statement and how do you feel about the state of modern movies?

Diggs: I would love for film to go back to those days where you had to be able to do everything just to get by. In the forties, fifties, and sixties they were good singers, good actors, and good dancers. That’s the school that I come from. I would love for film to go back to that but nowadays it’s too difficult because there’s a whole ‘cheese factor’ involved. You see someone who sings and you need to know whether or not they are going to have the mass appeal when they cross over. I think that people were just more talented and well-rounded in the past because they had to be. Back then the studios had crafted stars like Judy Garland. You just don’t see the same type of all-purpose entertainers nowadays. You have done a lot of theater acting, both Rent and Carousel on Broadway. Do you plan to return to that?

Diggs: Yes. Actually from this point on until April I’m going to be working on a show called The Wild Card in New York City at the Manhattan Theater Club. It’s a brand new piece taken from a poem. I jump at any chance to go back into theater. That’s what acting is to me. That’s where I learned my craft. Whenever I do acting for film there’s always a certain amount of altering I have to do to my style because it’s so different. I’m always up for going back to the stage. Have you done any stage since your first film How Stella Got Her Groove Back in 1997?

Diggs: No. That was two years ago and I’ve been extremely busy ever since. It’s been quite a whirlwind. The only reason I say two years is because someone else told me. It’s all been a big blur. Just a different person shouting cut on a different day. On the set I never know what day of the week it is. It’s been really crazy. I welcome it though. This is what we all said that we wanted to do when we were in college and now it has come to fruition. It’s very exciting and challenging. It always seems like in your movies that you’re taking your clothes off. I’m sure you get asked about that a lot. Is that just part of the characters or do they add it because of your status as a rising sex symbol?

Diggs: They’ve never added that after I’ve come on to a film. Not one role that I’ve played has been written specifically for me. It’s just been the role of the romantic lead. Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise are always taking off their shirts. That’s just what you do. You have to have sex and take off your clothes. It has been refreshing that the last four roles that I’ve done have not been so blatantly sexual with me being put on some imaginary pedestal. I keep all my clothes on in House on Haunted Hill, Mary Jane’s Last Dance, and The Way of the Gun. Do you consider yourself a sex symbol? How do you deal with all your adoring female fans on a daily basis?

Diggs: I only get bits and pieces of it here and there on the streets. Publicity really hypes it up the most. After this movie comes out it might get a little rougher but until now it hasn’t been that bad. Like I went out to a predominantly black club last night and nobody said anything and I was wishing somebody would so that someone would dance with me. It’s a trip but it hasn’t crossed over to the point where women are throwing their panties at me. Honestly, when people ask me these questions it just tickles me because I wasn’t like this in high school. I mean it was me, but I was thinner and nerdier, and didn’t have as much confidence. Deep down that person still remains and I just laugh when I see myself all studded out in magazine articles and films. I know what the real person is like and it makes me laugh. Is Taye Diggs your real name?

Diggs: It’s a nickname. All my friends from my past would know me as Scott Diggs. Taye Diggs comes from Scott-taye. When I went to college I liked it because it was so different and I have an infatuation with nicknames. How were you perceived in LA coming from Broadway?

Diggs: LA is so vapid. At the time Rent was at its peak and most of the cast was going into the major studios looking for parts. I actually got a couple of TV spots from it. But then all that died down and as far as casting was concerned it didn’t really matter that I had been on Broadway. Everyone was primarily concerned with screen experience. I was lucky enough to land a role where they were looking for a ‘no name’ actor in How Stella Got Her Groove Back. If they were looking for somebody famous Wesley Snipes would have gotten to star along with Angela Basset. It was truly luck that they wanted to bring somebody new on the scene. Your supporting performance in Go has received much critical acclaim. How important was that role to you and what did you get out of it?

Diggs: I feel proud because How Stella Got Her Groove Back wasn’t quite out yet so I had no ‘Hollywood buzz’ going into my audition. I really take pride in being able to say that I would have gotten that part whether or not Stella had ever existed because that’s the kind of cat Doug Liman is. He brought me in. He read me. He hadn’t seen Stella. He didn’t really care, and it was the perfect type of role for me at that time with a cast of gritty young actors. I’m hyped that he found something in me and allowed me to be a big part of that. You’ve had two wedding movies this year with The Best Man and The Wood, how do they compare?

Diggs: The Wood was about young people and the other one is more of a grown up movie. One is much more light and fun and the other really goes to the core of
adult issues, emotions, and feelings, which is why I took it. The large ensemble cast and the fact that it was being shot in New York, combined with a lot of strong positive images as far as African Americans are concerned, really turned me on to The Best Man. It’s a movie about black people that deals with issues that cross over into universal themes that people of all races and creeds can relate to. In The Best Man, why didn’t your character (Harper) feel the need to confess to the people involved before his first novel came out?

Diggs: I think that subconsciously Harper (Taye Diggs) wanted all his friends to find out. That’s why he writes the book in the first place. On the surface his character was ignorant but deep deep down he realized that they should know about what happened and he felt guilty. The way he dealt with his guilt was through writing and he convinced himself that nobody would ever find out, which is where he went wrong. We all make mistakes like that, sleeping with somebody who we shouldn’t have or kissing a girl when we know it is wrong. Me personally, outside of the book I don’t know that I would have told either. I’m an advocate of the old adage, ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.’ If you realize that what you did was wrong and you know that it’s not going to get back at anybody, in a lot of ways confessing will aggravate the problem even more. I’m not saying I’m not an advocate of being honest, but let’s face it, honesty works best when both parties are understanding. You’ve already said you love to dance, act, and sing. Would you ever consider pulling a ‘Jennifer Lopez’ by trying your hand in the music business?

Diggs: I don’t know how it would be taken. I would have to go about choosing a label carefully because I wouldn’t want to be perceived as corny in any way. When you go into that area you have to cope with a lot of stuff that I don’t necessarily want to deal with as far as selling a certain number of units and what not. So I don’t know that I’m ready to add all that stress, but I definitely love to sing and if it were easy then I’d do it. But everybody would be doing it if it were easy.

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