by Bella Mattam
It’s official: Taye Diggs’ famous smile is infectious even through the phone. With every baritone laugh, Mr. Diggs has me smiling right back and soon we are chatting comfortably like old friends. Of course, one would expect no less from the gent who helped Stella get her groove back. But there is much more to this versatile actor than just his charm. Over the course of our interview, the conversation ranges from the value of theater versus film, to the raging healthcare debate, to the complexities of race today. Indeed, Diggs is a surprising jack-of-all trades, equally at ease on a live stage as in front of a camera, and just as eager to talk politics as style. And, oh yes, he can now add one more title to his ever-expanding resume: father.
Although most well-known for his roles on television and film, Diggs is one of few Hollywood actors who would select theater as his favorite when given the choice of preferred acting medium. As someone who was trained in singing, acting, and dancing, from middle school through university, it is not surprising that the stage is his first love. “It’s the most fun,” he says adamantly. “Nothing is better than that audience response, that instant gratification… there is nothing like it.” This affinity for theater is what landed him his big break in the enormously successful Broadway musical Rent in 1996. Of course, he does acknowledge the challenges the come with live performance, obstacles that not just any TV and film actor necessarily has the chops to handle. “When I first moved out to L.A., I was surprised at how many successful actors had never done theater in their lives,” he says. When asked whether he thinks having stage experience on one’s resume makes them a more legitimate actor, he admits, “I do, but… there are some really great theater actors that are awful film actors.” He explains,” here’s the thing: It’s much easier to take a theater actor and make them a film actor than it is to take a film actor and transform them into a theater actor. With theater, you are given the correct tools to do anything, but I think if your training is only in TV and film, you’re going to be ill-prepared to do theater without more training – in my humble opinion.”
His opinion on this matter is anything but humble – it is downright expert. Diggs has run the whole gamut of acting success, from Broadway to Primetime. After his public exposure through Rent, film seemed like the natural next step, although the actor had never really planned on becoming a Hollywood star. “It just kind of came naturally, you know… the doors started to open, and I just went where the path was laid.” That path led him to a part on a set featuring some of the most famous African-American actors of our time, as the seductive younger man to Angela Bassett’s cougar in the hit film How Stella Got Her Groove Back. This role skyrocketed his name from theater obscurity to household knowledge, and other directors began knocking on his door. In a few short years, Diggs was catapulted into the league of A-list actors, and his stardom as one of the most famous black actors in America was secured.
This topic of race is an important issue with Diggs, and one that he is eager to discuss at any time, with anyone. “Especially right now, with Obama being where he is, I love talking racial politics. They’re so complex,” he says. “At the end of the day, we’re all human and we all have weaknesses. I just feel that if we could all open ourselves up, and not be afraid to ask questions and have a conversation, we’d be a lot better off.” Known for being equally outspoken about his political opinions, Diggs dives right in when I ask him about his recent time in New Orleans, where he has been filming his next movie. “The people there are very resilient, but it’s definitely left a scar on how a lot of them view this country, and our government, with how they responded.”
Then there is the healthcare debate, so prevalent in the news right now, and one of Diggs’ more passionate issues. “I’m almost embarrassed for this country and how the opposition has chosen to present themselves, with the antics, and the marches, and the town hall meetings, and the names that are being thrown around. These are also Americans who are doing this. I don’t wanna be this cat, but I love my country and what it stands for and what it represents, and there are these moments where I have to claim these other Americans and it’s embarrassing.” Getting more heated, he continues, “I’m overcome these days every time I turn on the news and I hear yet another chapter of these people trying to sabotage it. It’s just ridiculous. It’s a travesty.”
His thoughts on Obama are clear. “I’m still his biggest cheerleader,” he smiles, as I ask him how he thinks our new president is doing. “I get really upset when people find things wrong with what he’s been doing. I think he is doing the best he can and I know that he is very capable, very smart, and I’m trusting in that.” As a black American, Diggs obviously has a somewhat emotional attachment to Obama, as well as his decisions and the precedents he is setting. “The way he handled the situation with the professor and the police – I thought that spoke volumes. I think a lot of African-Americans would agree with me that at that moment he was not only President, but he was a black man just like any of us. We could see that he related and that he understood. To see such a visceral reaction was a great thing for minorities everywhere.”
Even in 2009, race is clearly an important issue in our country, and one that Diggs considers when contemplating the trajectory of his career. “Well, I guess for the most part I’m always cast as a black man,” he jokes. “No, but seriously… there have been a few times where I’ve been cast in a role that wasn’t specifically black and that’s always a great thing. I know you’ve heard the black actor complaint, that there are not enough roles and whatnot, and that’s going to be there for a while. But the biggest movie star right now is Will Smith, so you know things are changing. I’m very thankful for where I am.” As for the pressure of choosing roles that are representative of his race, Diggs doesn’t see it as a problem. “I feel fortunate that my mother raised me well, so I think that me just being who I am, the roles I gravitate to do represent that inherently. I don’t necessarily feel a responsibility [to do so], but I accept it and realize that people are watching, and I take that very seriously.”
While the biggest roles that he’s chosen, such as Brown Sugar and The Wood, have mostly fallen into the category of lighter plotlines, Diggs’ latest endeavors have more than proven his talent as a dramatic actor. “I think I did my best work on Day Break… it’s a shame more people didn’t get to see that.” When the show was cancelled due to low ratings despite wide critical acclaim, Diggs jumped at the chance to be a part of the charismatic cast of Private Practice, led by director Shonda Rhimes and main actress Kate Walsh (both of the enormously successful Grey’s Anatomy). “Shonda has done a great job at picking interesting actors that appeal to people… we have great chemistry.” And viewers are loving it, as evidenced by a loyal following that has kept ratings high into the show’s third season.
His next endeavor? Trying his hand at something new, of course – playing the bad guy. As an actor known mainly for being cast as the romantic leading man, Diggs will be going against type in the role of an evil vampire in the upcoming comic book adaptation Dead of Night, set to be released later this year. “Bad guys are always a little more interesting to play… and I’m looking forward to seeing how I look in fangs,” he laughs. I think most American women would share that sentiment.
In addition to everything else in his repertoire, the actor has another, more important project on his hands: the birth of his first child, son Walker Diggs. Our conversation takes place just two weeks after the baby was born, and his joy is practically tangible. “It is amazing how it does immediately, overnight, change your perspective on things,” he says. “I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure he has the best life possible.”