How rapper Sean Combs evolved into a respectable actor

by Rick Bentley

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

24 February 2008


Record producer/rapper/clothes designer Sean Combs, back when he was P Diddy or Puff Daddy or one of the other configurations of his name, knew after his role in the 2001 film “Monster’s Ball” that he wanted to do more acting. He just needed to figure out the right avenue to take.

Combs took a route not traditionally followed by musicians making the leap to acting.

His journey took him through Broadway. Combs starred as Walter Lee Younger in the 2004 revival of “A Raisin in the Sun” on Broadway.

He reprises that role for the three-hour, made-for-television movie that airs at 8 p.m. EST Monday on ABC.

During an interview with television critics to discuss the TV movie, Combs credits his acting coach with giving him the unusual career direction.

“She knew I wanted to take another route besides the cliche roles you would expect a rap artist who is transitioning to an actor to take. She said if you really, really want to get serious about acting, she had a perfect role for me,” Combs says.

“A Raisin in the Sun” tells the story of a family living and struggling on Chicago’s south side in the 1950s. Written by Lorraine Hansberry, it was the first play by an African-American woman to be produced on Broadway.

Comb’s initial reaction was that there was no way he could tackle such a heralded role and production. Despite his many performances as a singer, he never had set foot onstage as an actor.

He knew, having read the book while growing up in New York, that this role was not to be taken lightly.

“It was the most challenging thing I have done as an artist, and it truly changed my life,” Combs says. “You don’t read scripts like this these days, especially for African-Americans.”

Combs became convinced he was destined to play this role because he grew up in a household with three strong women.

He credits the Broadway show and film cast with helping him handle the role. That help came from the strong women in the play: four-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald, Emmy and Tony Award winner Phylicia Rashad and Tony Award nominee Sanaa Lathan.

Rashad won the best-actress Tony Award for her role in “Raisin,” and was the first African-American actress to receive that honor.

McDonald won the best featured-actress Tony Award for her role in the play, while Lathan was nominated for a Tony Award for best featured actress for her performance.

Combs credits his co-stars with pushing him to be better.

“To work with three incredible actors that are so vulnerable and so real, you can’t but help tell the truth when looking into their eyes. They aren’t acting, but really living,” Combs says.

“To be able to really live in that reality, it comes easier with actors like that. You can’t help but get better because they are so believable. ... I was able to ask them questions. And if I ever needed help in a scene, even if the camera was off them, they would dig deep and give the same amount of emotion.”

That support helped Combs as he found Broadway to be a demanding taskmaster. Between rehearsals and performances, he says, he had no other life.

In the end, Combs found making the television movie a lot easier than being onstage. Part of that was because he had matured as an actor after performing the role on Broadway eight times a week.

Despite all of the time, energy and effort he had to put into the stage and then television performances, Combs says, “It was the greatest experience of my life.”

//Mixed media