Finding Center

Outgoing Frank Sinatra Chair in the Performing Arts Taye Diggs reflects on celebrating who you are, where you are, and Mickey Mouse.

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Finding room for a little joy and a lot of openness leads to amazing things. / Image courtesy Getty Images

Taye Diggs isn’t wearing any shoes. It’s about 4 p.m. on April 11, 2019, the second-to-last day of Diggs’ artist residency at Santa Clara University, and the award-winning actor of Rent, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, and Private Practice, and all-around professional heartthrob is taking a minute to decompress. In about 24 hours, he’ll take the stage with students as part of a farewell performance. There will be stress then, but not now. Now, he’s in a calm, reflective place: seated on the floor of his campus office wearing gym shorts and a Mickey Mouse shirt, looking out the window as he ignores the Bay sun in his eyes. Shoes off, mind open.

Lately, life has been different for Diggs, who turned 48 this year. He’s tackled fatherhood, divorce, and his chang- ing career head on. He’s intentional with how he lives and processes life. He says “yes” more than he ever has. The father of one—Walker, age 9—wants to experience more. That’s part of the reason he’s here. He sat down with us to look back on a unique experience at Santa Clara.

SCM: You kicked off your residency by hosting a talk in the fall. While you were on stage, you said you were unsure about the idea of being a teacher. How have you grown into it?

DIGGS: You know what’s been really great about this experience is it’s helped me reevaluate putting titles on things and resisting what seems new. The idea of giving a lecture—I saw that one way and it didn’t fit with who I thought I was. So now, it’s me kind of making my own definition. Like, the other day, me and my friend Shane (Evans) performed (at de Saisset). Now, we’re storytell- ers. I was just telling stories up there. If someone had said we want you to come to this school and be a storyteller, I would have been like, oh, that sounds interesting. But the idea of a stodgy professor behind a lectern, people yawning in the audience? That wouldn’t feel right. So having a residency at a college, I thought I was going to be teaching specific classes, specific things I’ve studied and where I found a certain level of success. But I’ve been in classes at Santa Clara, classes I’ve never even heard of, and just learning so much about myself and this world. That wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t let go of my own interpretations of what I thought I needed to be doing.

SCM: Tell me about the people you’ve worked with.

DIGGS: People here are passionate. Whether it’s the arts,theatre, dance, or acting—everywhere. I was having some really great discussions with the kids in African-American studies and some of the playwrights—children’s advocacy, too. There was a really nice back-and-forth. It’s been cool tapping into these students and teachers that are so passionate and knowledgeable. It sounds silly but, there’s so much other shit going on in this world. Shit I’m interested in, you know what I mean? I’m the type of cat, I try to be happy where I am and appreciate it. But these days I wish I had more time to go back to school.

SCM: You led discussions in a handful of different classes—not just dance or theatre but English, child studies, narrative. What was it like stepping out of your comfort zone?

DIGGS: At first I literally was like, why am I in this class? (Laughs.) Like, are you trying to make me look stupid? I don’t know what’s happening. I wasn’t seeing the bigger picture. Then I was like, these are smart people here. Trust what they got going on. Sit in, see what happens. Once I did, it was cool. I feel empowered. I don’t mean like, oh, I can talk about anything. But this experience allowed me to better locate the things we all have in common. I never would’ve thought I could have the type of conversations I had in those classes.

“I’m old enough now where I realize, I don’t need to be Will Smith. And for a minute I thought I wouldn’t be happy unless I was.”

SCM: How often do you get to spend time around young people?

DIGGS: Right now, all the time because on All American I’m playing a high school coach. But (the residency) allows me to look at even that experience differently. I’m one of those cats that—the universe is playing a part. Everything happens for a reason. I don’t think it’s an accident I was exposed to all these earnest, excited, passionate young people. I’m going to make sure I figure out what that link is. As literal and obvious as having the cats from set come visit and speak here, or if it’s something like taking the projects the kids are doing here and bringing it to the attention of the actors so they can be better, who knows?

SCM: You mentioned the earnestness. These Santa Clara kids are different.

DIGGS: I want it to rub off on me. I feel a little bit like a vampire. I just want to suck the blood out of them. Because we don’t have enough of that in Los Angeles. I’m in a spot in my life where I benefit from it. I just got to find a way to either come back here or to be around this energy more often.

SCM: You starred in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, as a genderqueer East German rock singer. It’s a role that was originated on Broadway by Neil Patrick Harris. He won a Tony for it. It’s hard to make that role your own. Before you signed on, what did you think your version of Hedwig would look like?

DIGGS: Oh man, I had no idea. That role had a major effect on this whole “woo woo” perspective on life I have now. It went against everything I was taught. I’d never thought I’d play that role. Never thought I would be prepared enough. Never thought I would act a role with that technique and improv. Never thought there was a show I could sing all the way through. All of it. I was just like, let’s see what happens. I’ve been away from that long enough, I can tell I need to go back to that place. It’s like a muscle. I can feel myself slowly starting to get back in that too- comfortable zone.

SCM: And you made it your own. That role, it’s almost like a sports car. It’s high-powered. Neil Patrick Harris drove it his way, you drove it yours.

DIGGS: And for a bunch of people that have only seen people like Neil Patrick Harris drive that Lamborghini, they’re not going to really think of me in that way. But they saw me in the Lamborghini. Now I look at myself differently and I look at that Lamborghini differently.

SCM: You’ve taken some chances professionally. Have your goals changed?

DIGGS: The goals are similar, it’s just how I go about them. I still want to go as far as I can as an actor, but I’m opening them up. I never thought I’d want to be a producer. I never thought I’d be directing theatre. I never thought I’d be turning a children’s book into a film. But I’m very aware of trusting the process, having faith, and staying positive as opposed to OK, in order to do this, it has to be done a certain way.

SCM: When you talk about goals, legacy goes hand in hand. But legacy doesn’t necessarily make you happy. How do you balance that?

DIGGS: I remember when I was on this television program, making a good wage, laughing at work, I was happy. But it wasn’t where I thought I was going to be at that time. And instead of having my stomach get tight and hop back on that treadmill, I was just like, this is cool. I’m fine. I’m old enough now where I realize, I don’t need to be Will Smith. And for a minute I thought I wouldn’t be happy unless I was. But then, in realizing that in a relaxed way, now I’m like, OK, well now if I am going to be Will Smith, it’ll be on my terms. So it was a blessing, twofold. It ended up giving me a new type of ambition.

SCM: You mentioned you want to create. Do you have a story you need to tell?

DIGGS: I don’t know yet. See, that’s what prevented me from moving forward before. I was like, I don’t have anything I want to say. Or I don’t want to talk about my childhood. But for me, that wasn’t working. It kept me kind of paralyzed. I know I want to create. Let me put myself in places where people know I want to create. Like I ended up telling more of my own story through a character like Hedwig. That was my story. I didn’t know it at the time, but there were so many parallels. I was literally working through my own personal life in that role.

SCM: Where do you want to be?

DIGGS: It’s so corny, but now I get why everybody repeatsthese mantras. I want to be as great as I can be. Shane has allowed me to see that. I’ve got a lot more I want to say and

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Diggs participated in a variety of activities during his year on campus—he worked with students and held a children’s book reading and conversation with professor emeritus Francisco Jiménez and senior lecturer Tim Myers. / Image by Charles Barry

do. I want to create. This final performance I’m doing tomorrow, I have no idea what it’s going to be, but I’m using it as an exercise to put some shit out there. Let’s figure something out. I’m looking at this as an opportunity. I got a stage. I got a bunch of performers that want to do shit. So let’s get it. Once you do that, other opportunities start to present themselves. I want to do that and see how far I can take it.

SCM: Are you at a point where you look at hard work differently?

DIGGS: When you say hard work, I think more about life as opposed to career. When I was coming up, the hard work, I enjoyed it. So it wasn’t really work. I mean, I was tired. I’m tired right now. But it doesn’t feel like work. There’s something to be said for that. Life is work—or was for a bit. Trying to figure out who I was after the divorce, getting into another relationship too early then having to work at that relationship. Breaking up. Then having to put work into dating. That’s where the work is. I was telling the students today, I’m trying to get to a spot where nothing is hard work and I’m doing what I love. Every once in a while, things can get a little difficult, but then I can adjust and keep moving. I’m really not interested in hard work anymore.

SCM: So what’s with the Mickey Mouse shirt? It’s been a staple for you here.

DIGGS: Man, I don’t know. I just really dig Mickey Mouse. I don’t know what it is.

SCM: He’s always happy.

DIGGS: Maybe. Somebody was like, he’s black—he’s black in white face. It also has to do with as a kid, Disneyland represented so much of what I didn’t have. I’m sure there’s some sort of transference there. Now I want to collect a bunch of different sweatshirts and vintage-y type things. You know what else it was? My first movie, the movie that put me on the map—me and my then-girlfriend, later wife (Idina Menzel, Frozen), auditioned. The callback was at Disneyland. It was everything wrapped up in one—like oh, I’m here at Disneyland. I only thought rich white people went here, and I’m here. I’m with the girl I love. This is like the beginning.

SCM: In six months, someone calls and says, this Santa Clara thing. I’m interested in doing it. What do you say?

DIGGS: Oh my God. I would say 100 percent. I was going to say it’ll change your life. But I didn’t want to be corny. You have to be in the right place. But if they’re anything like me, it’s just a great energy. I would tell them: It’s going to be inspiring. And from what I’m hearing, it’s a completely different experience for every person. So keep yourself open. It’s going to be a great experience and you’re probably going to want to go back. I’m so grateful. I want to figure out a way to come back. Maybe in a different capacity, but I really like this space. Education is on everybody’s mind here. That’s foreign to me in LA. Just what people are prioritizing here, fits. I dig it.

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