'It' guy Taye Diggs is still waiting

Romantic idol looks for a movie role that's not ethnic

Film

October 13, 2002|By Lola Ogunnaike | By Lola Ogunnaike,Knight Ridder / Tribune

Though it may be difficult for many to believe, Taye Diggs didn't always have matinee-idol looks. Growing up in Rochester, N.Y., he was plagued with an assortment of problems -- bad clothes, dorky glasses, a spastic personality. In short, he was a nerd.

"I didn't fit in, could never get the girl that I wanted," says Diggs, 30, who was often teased because of his dark skin. In fact, it wasn't until he attended the High School of the Arts in Rochester that Diggs' social life started to pick up. There, he says, "It didn't matter how much money you had, it didn't matter how you looked. It just mattered if you had talent, and I had raw talent. All of a sudden, I was cool and got some confidence."

That confidence has transformed Diggs, voted one of People magazine's 50 Most Beautiful People last year, from an anonymous geek to a reigning "it" guy in Hollywood. In the past four years, the Syracuse Univer-sity drama grad has appeared in more than 10 films (including 1998's How Stella Got Her Groove Back and 1999's The Best Man), three musicals (Rent, Carousel and The Wild Party) and a television series (Ally McBeal). He will appear alongside Catherine Zeta Jones and Renee Zellweger in the musical Chicago's film adaptation, due out later this year.

Diggs has worked in the crime and horror genres, but he seems most comfortable with romance, as in his latest, Brown Sugar, which opened Friday. In the film, he plays a slick music executive who, despite his marriage, is not-so-secretly in love with his childhood best friend, played by Sanaa Lathan. Diggs and Lathan, fast becoming the Hanks and Ryan of the urban romantic-comedy genre, have strong onscreen chemistry. Having worked with Lathan in The Wood (1999) and The Best Man, Diggs says: "We're really comfortable together."

Though Diggs says he doesn't feel typecast yet, he is keenly aware of the limited number of roles available to African-Ameri-can actors. "Hollywood is very shortsighted," Diggs explains. "They have no problem putting a $100 million movie on some young white dude that has never opened a movie, who just did one independent film that everyone raved about. ... When it comes to black folks, it's taken them a lot longer to figure us out."

Diggs is encouraged by the success of Will Smith as a rapper-actor-producer and Magic Johnson as a theater operator (Johnson is also executive producer of Brown Sugar), but says this progress is "taking too long."

With a flurry of films due out in the coming months (Basic, Just a Kiss, Equilibrium) and a marriage to longtime girlfriend Idina Menzel (whom he met six years ago in Rent) on the horizon, Diggs says he's happily counting his blessings. But he's not completely satisfied.

"I just want to get to a point where I don't have to wait on Hollywood for certain scripts, where I don't have to wait for white actors to fall out of projects," he says. "I'm waiting for a point when they don't think it's stunt-casting when I get to read for a role that's not ethnic."

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