PARK CITY, Utah — Sean “Diddy” Combs refers to himself as a “young actor,” hypes up his flick as “the first television film to be seen here at Sundance,” and refers to the performance as his “debut.” Far be it from us to argue these points with the 38-year-old co-star of such films as “Monster’s Ball” and “Made,” whose film follows in the footsteps of last year’s Queen Latifah made-for-TV Sundance flick “Life Support.”
No matter how you see things, this much is clear: Diddy has poured every ounce of his considerable passion into “A Raisin in the Sun,” the soul-stirring story by Lorraine Hansberry that has been shattering preconceived notions for five decades. First, he starred in the tale of a Chicago family grappling with poverty, God and goodness for hundreds of Broadway performances , even going so far as to construct a replica of the set at home so he could practice. Now, he executive-produces the version that debuts on TV next month and once again steps into the shoes of big-dreaming driver Walter Lee.
This week at Sundance, we caught up with the most driven man in show business to discuss his dreams, his dark days and why “Raisin” is such a big deal.
MTV: You feel very passionately about this project. Tell us about how it’s evolved over the years.
Diddy: “A Raisin in the Sun,” a lot of people out there have probably heard of it as a great American classic. Probably it’s been required reading in your school, or you’ve seen the movie with Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee, and if you’ve seen that version, it’s the historical version. We brought it back for Broadway, we did a Broadway revival with Kenny Leon as director, and we made history on Broadway. It was a Tony Award-winning Broadway play, and also historically the second-highest grossing non-musical in Broadway history.
MTV: And now, you’ve captured it on film.
Diddy: Yeah, the producers from “Chicago” and “The Bucket List” and “Hairspray,” Neil [Meron] and Craig [Zadan], they called Kenny and myself and said, “We need to take this and make it a feature film.” So Sony Pictures and ABC, they bought into it, we made the film, and it’s the first television film to be seen here at Sundance. So, it just has history written all over it. But the beauty of it is it’s nothing like you’ve ever seen of “A Raisin in the Sun,” from the play or even the movie that you may have seen. This is a whole different take.
MTV: How many times have you played this character now? Two-hundred? Three-hundred times?
Diddy: Oh, so many on Broadway I can’t even count. You have eight shows a week; I did that for six months.
MTV: What did you think of this character at the beginning, and what have you learned about him over all these performances?
Diddy: Every time, every show on Broadway, I learned something new about Walter Lee. I think you learn about his desires and his dreams, then you learn about his love for his family. You learn about his relationship with his father, how he’s always been living in his father’s shadow. The relationship with his wife — it has so many colors and dimensions.
MTV: In your opinion, is the version you caught on film your very best performance?
Diddy: When I was doing the play, I was still in search of Walter Lee. By the time Kenny yelled, “Action!” on the movie, I felt I had found him and was ready to play him. The play built me up to the moment, to be here right now showing this movie at Sundance. I’ve got the greatest cast in the world around me: Sanaa Lathan, Audra McDonald, Phylicia Rashad and all of them surrounding me. I learned so much.
MTV: There are so many difficult moments in here for an actor. Tell us about the scene you look at and say, “Yeah, I nailed that one.”
Diddy: The scene in “Raisin in the Sun” I feel I nailed was at the end, when I’m telling Mr. Lindner that we’re going to move into our house and that we are very proud people. It’s probably one of the last scenes that we did. I think you’ll see the evolution of my character and also me as an actor.
MTV: This movie has a lot of messages about the importance of seizing the day and the dangers of complacency. You’re someone known for your drive and determination. Did your personality make your job more difficult?
Diddy: No. I think, ironically, my life has so many parallels to this character. I had to come from somewhere, I had to start from some humble beginnings, somewhere, dreaming about what I wanted to do in the music industry. Everybody thought I was crazy. I left Howard University, and I’m from Harlem, and I was living in a house with three women, just like Walter Lee, and I was trying to find my own voice. I had so many things in common with the character, it really bugged me out.
MTV: Like Walter, you had your struggles.
Diddy: I’ve been blessed to be successful, but we all come from that time when we’re just striving. We weren’t always successful, and we were falling down in search of our dreams. That’s something we can all relate to — not giving up hope on your dreams. All those times I fell in my life, all those times on MTV when [you've heard bad news] and there’s been some sort of not positive thing I’ve been in, [those times] when I’ve almost lost it all, my family was there. And that’s what I have in common [with Walter]. I’ve lost it all a couple times throughout my life, so I have more in common with Walter Lee than maybe a lot of people do.
MTV: Speaking of seizing the day, part of being up here at Sundance is celebrating your hard work with a few parties, and nobody parties like you. What kind of plans do you have?
Diddy: People wanted me to throw parties here, but I think that this movie is so important. A lot of times, the celebrity part of the things we do overshadows the things that are important to us as artists. So I’m abstaining from partying and devoting all my energies to this movie. I think it’s important to do that. I don’t want anything to get clouded. I want everybody to stay focused. This is my debut as an actor starring in a film, and I want to make sure people take it seriously. I’m a young actor. I have a lot of growing to do. But when you see this, I think you’ll be surprised about my performance, in a good way. But I still have a long way to come.
MTV: What do you look at and say, “I still need to work on that”? Is it an emotion? Rage? Sadness?
Diddy: No. I think the way I played the character was spot-on the way I wanted to play him. But you always have something to learn. God puts those things in front of you at different times, and he teaches you things. I just want to keep learning and keep evolving. You always have things to learn. I’m still learning new things in music.
MTV: Any music news we should know about?
Diddy: Music news? No, not yet. But I’ll have some for you in the future.
MTV: When does the movie run on TV?
Diddy: Make sure, everybody out there in MTV-land, y’all check it out. It’s Monday, February 25th, the day after the Oscars are on — or supposed to be on — so make sure you check it out on ABC. It’s on another network, but since I’m all over MTV, I give you permission to turn to ABC, just on that Monday.
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