The titular character in Hedwig and the Angry Inch is not a role Taye Diggs thought he would ever get to play. The off-Broadway-turned Broadway hit musical by John Cameron Mitchell saw a slew of actors like Neil Patrick Harris, Andrew Rannells, and Michael C. Hall all portray the story of the glam and punk rock transgender woman as she travels from East Germany to America on tour. But for Diggs, taking on the iconic part, and donning those diva heels represented both a challenge and a breakthrough.
"It never occurred to me that that was a possibility [for me] or for any other black person with muscles [to be cast]," he told Ophira Eisenberg, host of NPR's Ask Me Another at the Bell House in Brooklyn, New York. "So that in itself, I was very honored and humbled." The show required that Diggs wear heels, makeup and take on a German accent, in addition to "...tucking your penis up places," he said. "It's the hardest thing I've ever had to do, but, as corny as it sounds, the most gratifying."
Diggs' body of work is extensive. His career in entertainment took off over 25 years ago with Broadway's revival of Carousel in 1994; he originated the role of Benny in RENT; and played the bandleader in the film version of Chicago. His 1998 role as actor Angela Bassett's love interest Winston Shakespeare in How Stella Got Her Groove Back still gets him recognition today. "I've been lucky enough to have been around for so long... now it's interesting because I have had people say, 'You're my grandma's favorite.'" Diggs said.
He may be making fans all over the age spectrum, as Diggs has written three different children's books over the last decade: the first was Chocolate Me!; followed by Mixed Me!; and then I Love You More Than.... Diggs said Chocolate Me was based off of his own childhood, growing up as a black child in an all-white neighborhood.
"All of the kids didn't understand why my skin was different than theirs. It was harmless, but they called it dirt. They asked me why I was dirty on one side of my body and clean on the other," Diggs recalled. "And that's when my mother kind of flipped the script and called me chocolate and made me feel better. She made that five-year-old mind able to understand self-esteem."
Diggs said he wrote Chocolate Me! because he wanted to instill his mother's wisdom in other kids that might encounter the same problems as he did. He wrote Mixed Me! for his own bi-racial son, and "[I Love You More Than...] was just for people that are away from their loved ones when they want to be closer to them more often."
Diggs' latest television project, All American -- on The CW and Netflix — is based on the life of retired NFL linebacker Spencer Paysinger. Diggs portrays Paysinger's high school football coach, Billy Baker. "I'm having a good time. It's great, this whole 'getting older' thing," Diggs said. "I'm the oldest cat on set and with all these really, really good looking young people. I'm playing all the practical jokes and I'm the silly adult." All American was just renewed for a second season.
For his Ask Me Another challenge, Diggs was joined on stage by actor DeWanda Wise for a special edition of "This, That or the Other." He and Wise had to guess whether a plot summary was describing an original series Twilight Zone episode, a romantic comedy or a picture book from the New York Public Library's list of 100 great children's books.
On being told he looked like the most muscular Hedwig ever:
"Yeah, I was. I'm happy they allowed that."
On pranking his fellow All American castmates on set:
"I like to scare people a lot. People don't like to be scared, but I think it's very funny."
OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:
You know our next guest from "How Stella Got Her Groove Back," the original cast of "Rent." And he currently stars in "All American" on The CW. Please welcome Taye Diggs.
EISENBERG: Well, hello.
TAYE DIGGS: Hello.
EISENBERG: Welcome to ASK ME ANOTHER.
DIGGS: Thank you.
EISENBERG: So, Taye, you've been in showbiz for 25 years. You've had incredibly prolific career from Broadway to film to television. So let's go back to the very beginning.
EISENBERG: You know, you landed your first Broadway gig in 1994 in the revival of "Carousel," which won the Tony Award.
DIGGS: Right. Right.
EISENBERG: And then you...
DIGGS: Audra Ann McDonald won as well.
EISENBERG: That's right.
EISENBERG: And then you originated the role of Benny the landlord in "Rent."
EISENBERG: You were in "Chicago." You were in "Hedwig And The Angry Inch."
DIGGS: Hedwig, yeah.
EISENBERG: I saw you.
DIGGS: Oh, you did.
EISENBERG: I did.
DIGGS: I feel close to you. That was a crazy time in my life, so...
EISENBERG: So I saw you in an interview - that you said it was an opportunity that kind of changed your life.
DIGGS: Yeah. Yeah. It was crazy. I'd just gotten divorced. Everything felt topsy-turvy. I had been a huge fan of that show but never thought that I'd get the opportunity to be in it. And then all of a sudden, I got a call. And as I was listening to the offer, I was petrified. I mean, there's the accent. There's the heels. There's the makeup. There's - I mean, it's just so dense...
EISENBERG: Right. You're wearing drag.
EISENBERG: You're in high heels...
DIGGS: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
EISENBERG: ...A tight denim skirt.
DIGGS: Sure - tucking your penis up places and...
DIGGS: It's the hardest thing I've ever had to do and - but, you know, as corny as it sounds, the most gratifying. Yeah.
EISENBERG: I thought that you were definitely the most muscular...
EISENBERG: ...Hedwig of all of the Hedwigs (laughter).
DIGGS: Yeah, I was.
DIGGS: I was. I was. I'm happy that they allowed that. But I really was just tripped out that they even had the foresight to think in that way because I never - it never occurred to me that that was a possibility...
EISENBERG: For you to be cast.
DIGGS: Or any other black person with muscles - you know what I mean?
EISENBERG: (Laughter) Right. Right.
DIGGS: So that was - that in itself, I felt - I was very honored and humbled.
EISENBERG: Very cool. So we cannot not talk about "How Stella Got Her Groove Back."
EISENBERG: The movie, hard to believe...
DIGGS: So old.
EISENBERG: Yes - 21 years old. Hard to believe.
EISENBERG: You play in the movie a 20-year-old recent college grad named Winston Shakespeare and the love interest to a much older Stella, played by Angela Bassett.
DIGGS: Angela Bassett. Woohoo.
DIGGS: Not too shabby.
EISENBERG: Not too shabby.
EISENBERG: I'm sure over the years and still, you've had a lot of aggressive women throw themselves at your feet.
DIGGS: Well, not my feet but this...
DIGGS: I mean, it's not that dramatic. Taye, oh, my goodness. But, you know, now that, you know, I've been lucky enough to been around so long, now it's interesting because I get - I have had people say, you are my grandma's favorite.
DIGGS: You are my grandma's favorite.
DIGGS: You are my grandma's favorite.
EISENBERG: You have a son, and you've written three children's books.
DIGGS: Right, right.
EISENBERG: Three children's books...
DIGGS: Yeah, yeah.
EISENBERG: ...Called "Mixed Me!", "Chocolate Me!" and "I Love You More Than..."
EISENBERG: What did you want to communicate to young readers through these books?
DIGGS: "Chocolate Me!" was the first book. And it's based on a time in my life where I was very young and black and in an all-white neighborhood. And all of the kids didn't understand why my skin was different than theirs. It was harmless, but they called it dirt. They asked me why I was dirty on one side of my body and clean on the other. And that's when my mother kind of flipped the script and called me chocolate and made me feel better. You know, she made that 5-year-old mind able to understand self-esteem right.
So that's just had to do more with me in wanting to make sure that there was something out there for young people going through the same thing. And then the second one was more focused on my son's experience as a biracial young man. And the third was just for people that are away from their loved ones when they want to be closer to them more often.
EISENBERG: Yeah. I know I travel a lot. I should probably get that book.
DIGGS: Yeah, it's great.
DIGGS: It's great.
EISENBERG: So your new show, "All American," on The CW...
DIGGS: Yeah, yeah.
EISENBERG: ...Also on Netflix.
EISENBERG: It's based on the life of the retired NFL linebacker Spencer Paysinger. You play the coach, Billy Baker, at Beverly High School. You recruit Spencer, who was formerly the star at South Crenshaw High in Compton. And, therefore, this is a big life change for him.
DIGGS: Yes. Yes.
EISENBERG: You know, this is all true story or based on Spencer's true life. And your character is a combination of a few people from Spencer's life?
EISENBERG: Did you meet these people?
DIGGS: I did. I met with Spencer, the main character. He's on set. And, you know, he created it. And then I've met his father. His father was an actual high school coach - is an actual high school coach, I believe. So I was able to meet all these people and have them all accessible to me all the while, you know, bringing my own kind of flavor to it.
DIGGS: So I'm having a good time. We just got our renewal - the second season. We just heard about that.
DIGGS: So it's great, you know? This whole getting older thing, it's - I feel like I've just crossed over where it's more fun. You know, I'm the oldest cat on set. And I'm with all these really, really good-looking young people.
DIGGS: And I'm playing all the practical jokes. And I'm silly. I'm the silly adult.
EISENBERG: Wait a second. You're playing practical jokes on them?
DIGGS: Oh, yeah.
EISENBERG: Like what?
DIGGS: Yeah. I like to scare people.
DIGGS: OK, great. People don't like to be scared, but I think it's very funny.
EISENBERG: You mean, like, popping out of...
EISENBERG: OK. All right.
DIGGS: Like, that made me so happy. She's annoyed right now - laughing but annoyed.
EISENBERG: All right, Taye. Are you ready for your ASK ME ANOTHER challenge?
EISENBERG: Taye Diggs, please welcome your opponent, DeWanda Wise.
DIGGS: Welcome, DeWanda.
EISENBERG: DeWanda, you're in an episode of the new "Twilight Zone." Taye, you've written three children's books. And you both have recently appeared in romantic comedies. So we're going to play a special edition of a game we love on this show called This, That or The Other. I'm going to give you a short plot summary. And you're just going to tell me if I'm describing a "Twilight Zone" episode from the original series, a romantic comedy or a picture book from the New York Public Library's list of 100 Great Children's Books.
DEWANDA WISE: Oh, gosh.
EISENBERG: We're going to go back and forth.
DIGGS: Ah, yes.
EISENBERG: We're going to start with you, DeWanda.
EISENBERG: Thank God this isn't complicated. OK, so "Twilight Zone," romantic comedy, children's book. Here we go.
WISE: All right. Ready, ready, ready.
WISE: All right.
EISENBERG: Someone named Alexander suffers an inexplicably high number of indignities over a 24-hour period.
WISE: Children's book. (Unintelligible).
EISENBERG: That is a children's book. Yes, it is.
DIGGS: That was easy. That was easy.
WISE: Yes, indignities.
EISENBERG: That's called "Alexander The Terrible, Horrible, No Good..."
EISENBERG: I'm sorry. "Alexander And the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day."
WISE: Very bad day.
EISENBERG: OK, Taye.
EISENBERG: A sentient house becomes depressed when the countryside is overtaken by urban sprawl.
DIGGS: Romantic comedy.
EISENBERG: I love that. It's a meet-cute between a country and a city.
EISENBERG: That is a children's book. That is a children's book.
DIGGS: What one?
WISE: What children's book?
EISENBERG: It's called "The Little House."
WISE: Oh, OK.
EISENBERG: This book is told from the perspective of the house. And at the end, its new owner literally moves the house out of the city and back to the countryside.
DIGGS: Brilliant. I got to get that one.
EISENBERG: OK, DeWanda - a boy with magic powers becomes the center of attention in a small Ohio town.
WISE: "Twilight Zone."
EISENBERG: It's sure a "Twilight Zone," yeah.
DIGGS: Ooo (ph), OK, that could've been a kid's book. Well done.
EISENBERG: Called "It's A Good Life." Yeah, that's when a 6-year-old boy with godlike powers...
WISE: Yeah. I remember that one.
EISENBERG: ...Rules everything, yeah.
EISENBERG: A duke from the 1800s finds himself in modern-day New York.
DIGGS: OK, that's a romantic comedy, yeah.
EISENBERG: Sure is - it's a romantic comedy. That's right.
DIGGS: Leo - what is it?
DIGGS: I just saw that. It was just on TV.
EISENBERG: "Kate & Leopold." That's right.
EISENBERG: Starring Hugh Jackman as Leopold.
DIGGS: Hugh Jackman.
EISENBERG: And Meg Ryan as Kate.
WISE: Hugh Jackman did rom-coms - yes, he did.
DIGGS: Yes, he did, early on.
WISE: He did.
EISENBERG: OK. Congratulations DeWanda, you won that.
WISE: I never thought I'd hear those words.
EISENBERG: But clearly, you're both amazing. Thanks again to DeWanda Wise and Taye Diggs, who currently stars in "All American," streaming now on Netflix, with new episodes airing on The CW. Give it up for DeWanda Wise and Taye Diggs.
(APPLAUSE) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.