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Interview

Anthony Anderson and Taye Diggs have taken control of their careers, and they encourage other young actors to do the same.

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Hip-hop is riding high with the impressive debut of UPN's new drama Platinum, set against the backdrop of the glamorous hip-hop lifestyle, an Oscar nomination for one of its icons, Queen Latifah, for her supporting role in Chicago, and an Oscar win for Eminem's smash single Lose Yourself from the 8 Mile soundtrack.

Naturally we're primed for a droll send-up of the genre to hit the big screen. Parody is the sincerest form of flattery, after all. Warner Bros. has taken the initiative with the release of Malibu's Most Wanted. The film stars Jamie Kennedy as an unwanted rapper, Brad "B-Rad" Gluckman, who maintains a hip-hop existence that is seriously hindering his father's bid for governor.

In the film, Taye Diggs and Anthony Anderson portray Sean and PJ, two out-of-work actors hired by Gluckman's father's campaign manager to act as thugs to scare B-Rad back into "normalcy." Sean is Juilliard-trained and PJ is a Pasadena Playhouse veteran. The two are no more streetwise than the Malibu rapper, and their attempts at being "ghetto" are absurdly generic. Their antics make for some of the best comedic moments in the film.

A constant desire to surprise seems to be the key to Diggs and Anderson's rapid rise to feature-film success. Following his breakout role in How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Diggs has turned heads in every part, most recently as the bandleader in Chicago. The eldest of five siblings, Diggs grew up in Rochester, N.Y., where he attended a fine arts high school and later earned a B.F.A. from Syracuse University in musical theatre. What followed of course for the self-proclaimed song-and-dance man was Broadway, where he starred in runs of Rent (in the original cast) and Carousel.

Anderson got his start onstage as a child, appearing in local theatre productions. He, too, attended a fine arts high school on the West Coast and later studied the arts at Howard University and UCLA. Anderson has successfully transitioned into television and film. He has numerous guest-starring credits to his name, including My Wife and Kids, Ally McBeal, and JAG. And in the last three years alone, Anderson has starred in six No. 1 films.

The fellas recently sat down with Back Stage West to discuss "thug hats," the return of the musical, and ownership in the business.

Taye Diggs: [To Anderson] You look rather nice today, by the way.

Anthony Anderson: Well, you know I'm with Taye Diggs. Man, I got to bring my shit.

Back Stage West: Has acting always been the career of choice for you both?

Anderson: This is all I've wanted to do since I was 9 years old. This has been my dream. Consciously and subconsciously since the age of 9. I always put myself in a position to be in front of people, speaking. Be it oratory, spelling bees, I was always drawn to that. My mother was an actress in local theatre here in Compton, and I remember her in a production of A Raisin in the Sun at Compton Community College. At that point I only wanted to be three things in life: a professional football player for the Dallas Cowboys, a lawyer, or an actor.

I went to the High School of Performing Arts, here in Los Angeles. I got accepted to Howard University on a talent scholarship and subsequently UCLA for the same thing. Once I came home from school, I hit the pavement just like everybody else. I got an agent. Got focused on what I needed to get focused on as an actor and to be successful in this business, and things just started to happen.

But, you know, I realized a long time ago that you couldn't will it any sooner than when it was destined. Once you accept that, it's really out of your control. As long as you are the best you can be and prepare yourself for what you need to prepare for, that window of opportunity will present itself. Everybody has their time. It's just my time right now. It's unfortunate that I will not always be as successful as I am right now. Hopefully, this ride I am on will last for quite some time, but we can't always be at the top of our game. Taye? I've been speaking awhile.

Diggs: My story is similar to Anthony's, though I didn't know I wanted to act until junior high school. Theatre wasn't really in my vocabulary. I was into soccer, tennis, you know, more into athletics. Then my mother just up and went back to school to get a degree in theatre and dance. She started doing community theatre. And like Anthony was saying, I was brought, dragged, to all the rehearsals and whatnot. I could see that there was something very appealing about her situation. I always wanted to go with her and just witness all that she was going through. But I didn't really recognize that it was a desire that I had. I just liked being included in her stuff. It wasn't until she convinced me to do the school play in junior high school.

I went to a private school for two years, and I was the only black cat in the whole class, the whole grade. They were doing a production of Tom Sawyer. I auditioned for the play, which was being directed by my history teacher. He said, "Now, I am afraid if I give you that part it will be racist because you're the only black kid in your class. So, I am going to put you in the ensemble because I think it would be wrong of me." What he didn't tell me was that he was going to give the role of Jim to a white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl. Put her in an afro wig and blackface her. Afro wig and blackface! Blue eyes and a girl! So my first experience with theatre was bittersweet. But the positive aspect that I took from it was the amazing feeling I got just from being in the ensemble.

After that, my mom entered me into the High School of Performing Arts in Rochester. I didn't really have much of an identity. I was kind of insecure. I was nerdy. But when I got to that school it didn't matter how much money you had, how cute you were, how popular you were; if you had talent you were accepted.

BSW: Your latest film humorously addresses stereotypes. Has typecasting ever been a concern in your careers?

Diggs: One of the main reasons I took the role was because it comments on stereotypes and it gives you the opportunity to laugh at it.

Anderson: You know what, Taye, tell your story, dog, about you and your boys auditioning in New York.

Diggs: Oh! [Laughs.] There was a period when young black men were in—you know, right when I got to the city—there were all these roles for the white guy's best friend on a sitcom, the dude with the glasses on the computer, the thug, the funny best friend who talks jive, and some other stuff. We would walk around to our auditions with a black scully in our back pockets. What did I say we called it?

Anderson: Your thug hat.

Diggs: Yeah, thug hat. We would go, literally, from an audition at The Public reciting Shakespeare to an audition for some dumb-ass sitcom, put on a "thug hat," go in and do the role. It was that cut and dried. We all had them. "Oh, this is what you need. Oh, all right, no problem" [reaching in his back pocket].

Anderson: [Laughs] Yeah, right! I just left doing Hamlet, but I can do Brotha No. 2.

I sort of missed that phase. I was out just having fun. I didn't really get serious about my career until 1995. I came home from college in 1991, and that was sort of the tail end of that whole gangster-hood genre in films. So I was never really confronted with being Thug Boy or whatever. But, you know, roles are limited, especially for black actors in Hollywood. Until we have more people of color who are directing, writing, producing, and who are heads of studios.… We're steadily making that slow climb. People think that just because Denzel and Halle won Oscars one night…

Diggs: …things are going to change, immediately, miraculously.

Anderson: It's not like heads of studios are saying, "We need to get a new brotha in a movie now." I've just created my own television show that I will star in, produce, and write for the WB. We shot our pilot last week. So that's where the change happens. I'm in a somewhat small position of power where I can go back and give somebody an opportunity who wasn't afforded that opportunity before my project got off the ground.

But the bottom line in this industry is dollars and cents. Talent is out the window. There are thousands upon thousands of people who can act Taye and myself under the table who have yet to get a job in this business. As soon as Hollywood is done with you, they're on to the next flavor. That's just the reality of our business.

BSW: How long did it take you guys to realize that?

Diggs: It took me a little bit. I was just happy to be invited to the party when I first got here. Jobs were coming to me, and I felt like I didn't have the right to complain. I feel it's not until you get to a certain point of success where you see what's really going on around you.

Anderson: It all about creating and controlling your own destiny. For the longest time I always told myself, I don't want to be 40 years old sitting across from somebody's desk talking about, you know, I can be the security officer in this movie. I understand his anger and his angst.

I can't stress enough about ownership in this business and intellectual property. That is what is tantamount. When you write stories and movies and television shows, you own those things, and that's what it's about. Like, I could have done television years ago. But I wanted to do television on my terms. I had to have a substantial stake. I didn't want to be a hired gun to come in and do what you want me to do.

For your readers out there, they need to read these trades. They need to read Back Stage West, they need to read The Hollywood Reporter and know what the trends are in Hollywood. We're in show business. It's not just about talent.

Diggs: I was very reticent when I came in. I was like, I don't want to read. I was proud of the fact that I didn't know what Variety was. It wasn't until I really started realizing if you want to be successful in this business you have to know the inner workings. I thought, Oh, that would mean I was "Hollywood." You know, I'm from New York, from the theatre. I didn't want to be "Hollywood"; I just wanted to do the work. But if you want to be in a position of power, you have to learn how these people do their thing. You have to know it almost better than they do.

BSW: Taye, being a song-and-dance man, you must be excited about the recent big-screen musical trend?

Diggs: I'm excited. But of course because of the success of projects like Moulin Rogue and Chicago they are going to start coming in droves. There are going to be a lot of really whack projects out there. But regardless, it will be work for people and work for a lot of musical theatre performers, which is always great.

BSW: What words of advice can you offer green actors?

Diggs: Study.

Anderson: Your talent is a muscle that needs to be exercised. If it just sits there you'll only get to a certain level. You may be happy with it…

Diggs: …other people as well, and it may make you money. And unfortunately this is the only career outside of modeling, maybe, where you can acquire success without practice.

Anderson: But you look at those cats, and those are the flavors of the minute. They're here today and gone tomorrow. Those are the Milli Vanillis of Hollywood. BSW

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