P. Diddy: Slow Daddy
Continuing its music theme, the July/August 2002 issue of Movieline magazine included a profile on Sean Combs following his appearance in the Oscar-winning drama, Monster’s Ball. Combs come across as a genuine movie fan who really took his side job as an actor seriously.
This is how most people know him: P. Diddy or Puff Daddy, man-about-town/restaurateur/clothing designer/rap mogul, chewing scenery in a million and one music videos that feature him powering a speedboat through the Pacific, floating through a wind tunnel in a shiny blue jumpsuit, wooing a clubful of gorgeous young thangs or standing with hands outstretched under a slow-motion rain of gold confetti. This is how most people don’t know him: Sean Combs, actor, deftly negotiating a difficult scene in which he’s called upon to sob quietly against the bars of a prison cell while a guard tries to console him. As the death-row husband of Halle Berry in last winter’s indie hit Monster’s Ball, Combs had a small but pivotal role. Plenty of people were surprised at the depth of Halle Berry’s performance, which went on to win her an Oscar, but everybody was amazed at the quiet, understated performance Combs delivered.
Let’s face it, Sean “P. Diddy” Combs isn’t exactly the portrait of the patient, self-analytical artist who really struggles to produce authentic, emotionally resonant work. Having created the impression of a live-it-up, high-maintenance, scene-loving party boy with the phalanx of bodyguards and wads of disposable income, Combs has been called arrogant quite a few times and talent-free many others. But with Combs, things have just never been entirely as they seem. Born in Harlem but raised in Mt. Vernon, New York, by his mother after his cabdriver father was shot dead, he graduated from the prestigious Mount St. Michael Academy in the Bronx and went on to Howard University. Leaving college after a year to pursue a career in music, he made a name for himself at 19 when he became the youngest executive in the music business as vice president of A&R for Uptown Records. In the ’90s, Combs started his own label, Bad Boy Entertainment, managed such talents as Mary J. Blige and the Notorious B.I.G. to staggering success, generated multi-platinum sales of his own as a solo artist (his debut CD, No Way Out, spent 28 weeks on the charts), opened soul food restaurants in New York and Atlanta, and launched an eponymous clothing line that generates nearly $100 million in sales every year.
Combs speaks with the somewhat tense, slightly scattered inflection of a man whose mind is going in a million directions at once, all day, every day, which it probably is. But he’s friendly enough, and on the subject of his movie career he’s about as self-effacing as you’re likely to hear him.
“It’s not an ‘accomplishment’ thing,” he says right out front. “I mean, I love movies. I’m a movie fan. You know, whether I’m watching something from De Niro or Pacino or Scorsese or Spielberg, I’m looking at them–you know what I’m saying? Like a Meryl Streep. It’s just like–I mean, it’s just something I’ve been in love with. Something that I said, Well, if I could, I would try it.”
In fact, Combs spent six years preparing to try it. He studied with acting coaches, but–more important–he watched and waited, “trying to strive and be patient”–and he took his time.
“I turned down all those roles you see the rap artists and the musical people and the famous people taking,” he says. “I turned down the stereotypical ‘black people’ roles. I tried to pick real actors’ roles, instead of just trying to be in any movie, in any big commercial flick.”
Combs’s first foray into moviemaking fell apart when, having been cast by Oliver Stone to star as a hot-headed quarterback in 1999’s Any Given Sunday, he ended up being replaced by Jamie Foxx (both Stone and Combs cited scheduling conflicts). Then he took on a small role in writer/director/actor Jon Favreau’s follow-up to Swingers, Made. “I chased down that role,” says Combs. “I went to Jon and had lunch with him. I don’t have no fear of chasin’ down my roles. Or of going in for auditions and not getting roles. Whatever I have to do. I’m cool.”
Combs made a minor splash in Made as a caustic, increasingly irritated New York gangster who barks orders at clueless Mafia wannabes Favreau and Vince Vaughn when he’s not downing mimosas in a patio cafe. Combs wasn’t completely satisfied with his work (“I’m a perfectionist. I noticed that my timing was off in a couple of places”), but was pleased with the experience.
“Made was a great situation for me,” he says, “because even though I was playing somebody close to my personality, it was still a way for me to get my feet wet and work with quality actors and directors. I really love independent film.”
The gritty, raw-to-the-bone Monster’s Ball was another step forward. He won that part in an open audition. “I had to chase down that role, too,” he says. “I followed the director [Marc Forster] around, and basically just begged him, and Lee Daniels, the producer, for a screen test. Lee was kinda pushin’ for me. Then I had to get the director and the cast to let them know I was serious, that I would be there to act, not just be a celebrity. That I really had respect for the art form. I was doing research about death row inmates. I was committed. I think they saw that.”
The critical accolades Monster’s Ball ended up winning didn’t surprise Combs in the least. “I felt it that way, man,” he says. “The energy on the set. I knew it was gonna be an emotional piece.” He also felt “privileged” to have worked with his costars. “Billy Bob [Thornton] taught me a lot,” he says. “A lot about different subtleties, taking your time. And Halle…Halle was so focused–as focused as I’ve ever seen her. I actually knew her from Strictly Business. I was doing the soundtrack and I saw her do work in that, and she’s like a totally different person now, much more focused.”
Having shown his seriousness and been praised for his screen work, Combs might understandably look to cash in a bit by taking the kinds of films that’s paid millions to other hip-hop musicians like DMX (Exit Wounds) and Ja Rule (The Fast and the Furious), but that’s not what he’s after. “I’m definitely trying to be indie heavy,” he says. “I really don’t have any plans to go make a lot of money in the game. I feel like a lot of those big, commercial films are short-lived. I’m in it for the chance to entertain people in a timeless fashion.”
Combs reels off phrases like “respect for the art form” without the slightest hint of irony, which actually seems in keeping with his gut-level, fan’s love of the movies. He grows markedly animated when discussing the actor he’d like to work with most (“Denzel Washington–as a movie fan, he’s never let me down”), the last DVD he bought (Moulin Rouge), the last movie that made him cry (“The Rookie. I saw it with my son. I was tryin’ to fight back the tears, and I couldn’t”) or the actress he thinks he’d have the best chemistry with (get ready: “I’d have to say Jennifer Lopez. What was her first movie? Selena? I liked her in that”). The bottom line is that he’s determined not to be just another musical face signing up for a major motion picture and then simply phoning it in.
“Just because you can sing doesn’t mean you can act, and just because you can act doesn’t mean you can sing,” he says. “That’s a given, but at the same time, that means you have more pressure to prove yourself, because you have had success, and you are known for something in another industry. I don’t really mind that obstacle, but that’s why I’ve been taking my time.”
Combs is determined to keep the two genres separate. “I will never let my movie career and my music career be cross-marketed,” he vows. “One has nothing to do with the other.” Surely, though, there are similarities between the two industries. “Yeah, whole lotta bullshit,” Combs laughs, then adds, “Naw! Naw. I’m just joking.”