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Actor Taye Diggs has always been a prankster. Sometimes it landed him in hot water. "I went through plate glass windows just horsing around," he says, seated in the busy hallway of a hotel here.
"One girl slapped me in the face for joking too hard. I was hyper - something going on with ADD and anxiety before I even knew about it. I used to be awful. I haven't thought about this for a long time - in elementary school I'd tell these long, elaborate stories and would get the kids to believe these stories and at the end of the day I would say, 'Just kidding,'" he chuckles.
"I'd make up stories about my mother having one arm - crazy stuff - or I'd tell somebody else, 'Get the new kid to ask me how my father washes his hair.' So I'd say, 'Why didn't you tell him? My father has no arms, man.' It was almost demonic. They'd say, 'Oh, my goodness, I'm so sorry.' But that's why I loved music theater and dance, I could focus it."
Most people who know his work wouldn't associate Diggs with music and dance. He co-starred in "Private Practice," "Ally McBeal," "How Stella Got her Groove Back," "Equilibrium."
And on Monday fans will discover a new Diggs when he stars in Steven Bochco's "Murder in the First" on TNT. Diggs plays a San Francisco homicide detective who's investigating a junkie's murder in the Tenderloin while he's suffering a personal crisis of his own.
"It all started in high school with modern dance but I wasn't exposed to ballet," he continues. "It wasn't until college that I realized I needed ballet so I took ballet in college, that was my introduction and then for me - I'm very proud of myself for this - most people graduate college, go to New York and it's all about the auditions. But I was very confident so I said, 'The auditions are going to come. I'm going to do what I want to do in the daytime.' So I got a scholarship at Steps (on Broadway) and that's when I focused on my dance."
Actually Diggs, 43, carefully devised a plan.
"I figured I'd probably get a job quickest in New York doing music theater, being in the ensemble because every ensemble had the happy black guy. I was very logical about it. So I made sure I had enough dance training so I would move well enough to be in the dance ensemble, and my first gig was in the ensemble of 'Carousel,'" he says.
The bravado that he felt then has dissipated since, he says. "The older I get, that sense of confidence weakens. I was not cocky in any way, but I was very confident, and I had a plan and it worked out. Of course, I wanted it quicker than it happened. It was perfectly fine. Now when I look back, I'm very intrigued with that young man.
"The older you get, the less confident you get because you know more. I didn't know how many people I was auditioning against; it was all about me and the room. I never paid any attention to the people in the waiting room. It didn't matter. But the older you get and you understand the politics, and I know a lot of casting directors now that are my friends and I see the thousands of head shots and agents and the deals that are made with agencies and the 'fame game,' the thousands of auditions ..."
Diggs, who's wearing a blue striped dress shirt with French cuffs, a navy blazer and khaki pants with a jaunty straw hat, is separated from his wife of 10 years, performer Idina Menzel. He says he's been advised not to talk about the split. But he's loquacious when it comes to their 4-year-old son, Walker.
"When my son was born, I had no idea. I was in my 40s and I thought I'd experienced every feeling I could experience. I knew there'd be bigger and smaller, until my son was born. I didn't know what I was feeling, which was kind of petrifying and exciting. I've never felt more vulnerable and to this day, it never goes away. And that's disconcerting," he says.
He says that turning 40 brought about other changes.
"I've always been very lucky, driven, but 40s was when I said, 'OK, I've done really well kind of coasting. Now I'm going to start to apply myself and really make some stuff happen.' It was perfect timing for me. I wrote a children's book and, because people knew me, I was able to get a book deal," he says.
Things usually came easily because he loved doing them, he says. "It was like academics - I did what came easily. I had no problem taking dance classes because I loved doing it. When I wanted to get better at basketball I had no trouble applying myself. It's the other stuff (that's difficult)."
One of those projects is his new company called Chocolate Me. "We're creating a program for children that focuses on self-esteem and anti-bullying," he says.
He chose the company name from an incident in his childhood.
"When I was much younger, I lived in an all-white neighborhood. I was the only black kid and I got made fun of. And my mother brought me in and said, 'You should think of yourself as chocolate because chocolate is sweet and delicious and smooth - all these good things.' From that point on I was proud to be different," he says.