Taye Diggs is caught between two love interests, and apparently, he's busted. Totally busted. In for some serious grief.
"Oh, you're just a stuttering bumpkin."
"You're so, 'I'm caught! I'm caught!' "
"That is just so wrong!"
In the scene they just ran through, being filmed, Diggs's character -- lawyer and single parent Kevin Hill of the UPN show by the same name -- has run into one woman he's dating while out walking with another. On the first take, Diggs hems and haws his way through his predicament, employing shrill laughter and some overnervous body language that, his co-stars insist, would be a dead giveaway to any real woman getting two-timed by her man.
"No woman would buy that," teases actress Leila Arcieri, who plays the lawyer girlfriend, Monroe McManus.
"You'd be so busted," chimes in Lisa Marcos, who plays the actress girlfriend, Evelyn Cruz. Both of them are laughing up a storm.
Cornered, Diggs starts to work the situation. Clearly, it's time for the charm. For the patented Diggs smile. For the big baby browns. For that little-boy innocence.
"What do you mean?" Diggs says, his eyes widening. Sure, he wants to know how women would read the situation. But he's going to have a little fun with them, too.
"You're saying you'd just assume? You'd just assume?" he continues. "It could have been a client. It could have been somebody I used to hook up with a long time ago. It could have been -- "
He goes on and on, until Arcieri is helpless.
"Okay, okay," she says, succumbing. "I would trust. I would trust."
Diggs smiles to himself, satisfied.
But on the next take, he plays it much more cool.
This is life for Diggs nowadays: marathon shooting days, endless rounds of promotional interviews, the constant pressure of headlining a new drama on a network that has banked on his box-office appeal to bring it some new buzz -- and a broader viewership.
"He's the bionic man," director Arlene Sanford says while shooting a scene of Episode 8 on the show's set, near the shores of Lake Ontario. "As in, he works 16 hours a day and he's in every scene and he doesn't complain about it, and he's prepared, and he takes direction.
"Oh, and he's handsome. In case you didn't notice."
So far, all that's working: The show, which airs at 9 p.m. on Wednesdays, debuted to an audience of 3.9 million, an overall increase of 51 percent from the same time slot the previous year. In the demographic representing women 18 to 34, viewership was up 210 percent.
"That's Taye Diggs!" laughs Christina Hendricks, who plays Diggs's colleague Nicolette Raye. "Who doesn't want to watch Taye Diggs for an hour? Every time I say I work with Taye Diggs, girls are like 'Oh my god! What's he like?' "
Her answer is standard: He's fabulous. As charming in person as he is on-screen. Sorry, she says, but no dirt to report here. The set of "Kevin Hill" has the best working atmosphere she's ever experienced.
"He gives it out good, and he takes it good, so there are a lot of jokes and laughter on the set," Hendricks says. "He sets the tone for how everyone is because he has such a good attitude."
Like that morning the crew filmed on Adelaide Street -- which is doubling for a New York boulevard -- and he, Arcieri and Marcos filled filming breaks with a whole lot of raucous back-and-forth, prompting Diggs to break them up with this one: "It's me, baby. I'm so chocolaty sweet. It's fun being around me, seeping into your bloodstream.''
"The thing about Taye is, if he were really my man and that happened, he just might be able to charm me out of it," Arcieri says later, recalling the earlier scene. "He flashes that smile and those big brown eyes and he just might get away with it."
Diggs's winning smile and big brown eyes -- and a few other features -- first became a sensation with his breakthrough role as the hot younger man who gave "Stella" her groove back in the 1998 film starring Angela Bassett as an over-40 divorced businesswoman who falls in love on vacation in Jamaica. Since then, Diggs, 33, has become a staple of black romantic comedies ("The Best Man," "Brown Sugar") while also mixing in cameo parts in the likes of the Oscar-winning film "Chicago" and the Emmy-winning show "The West Wing."
There are no serial killers on his resume. No action heroes. He generally doesn't like to play against type. "Kevin Hill" fits that mode.
"I wanted to do something that I thought could work, and be a hit, but would also allow me to be me and do the one thing that I think people like to see watching Taye Diggs," he says. "There's that brand 'Taye Diggs.' "
Which would be?
"Hmmm," he says, rubbing his chin. "A combination of humor. Of sophistication. Of charisma, I guess?"
Somehow, the way he says it, it doesn't sound conceited. Maybe it's because he has just taped a scene in which he dances a client through the courtroom -- hips swiveling to a few salsa steps, hands sliding over the small of her back, his eyes locked on hers . . . all other eyes locked on him.
"Is that too sexy for UPN?" Sanford wonders aloud after one particular take.
Humor? Sophistication? Charisma? Guilty on all counts. Talk to the women on "Kevin Hill" and they'll say he's got all of that -- on- and off-screen. The premise of "Kevin Hill" -- and one of the key reasons the script appealed to Diggs -- is what happens to the life of a hip, single urban lawyer when he inherits the infant child of a beloved cousin who has died. The answer: He gets a nanny, downsizes to a family-friendly law firm and has a much, much harder time with the logistics of his life.
It also means lots of "daddy" time, so Diggs has many scenes with his "daughter" -- who has a way of reaching up and pulling on his lips.
"Ohhhh, she loves him," gushes Kate Levering, a friend of Diggs who plays opposite him as attorney Veronica Carter. "And he's dying to have a baby."
Yes, the love affair is mutual. Diggs has baby lust. Bad. Bring up the subject of little "Sarah" and he all but swoons.
"This baby we have, she's just so cute," he says, closing his eyes as if he needs to remember the look and feel of her. "This baby makes it seem like it would be great to have her around constantly. It's supposed to be hard work, but this baby makes me feel like it would be easy."
He opens his eyes again.
"But maybe I'm just being ignorant."
Either way, he's ready. At the moment, though, that's not all that realistic. Diggs's wife of nearly two years (and girlfriend of six before that) is actress Idina Menzel, who won a Tony this year for her starring role as Elphaba the witch in the Broadway musical "Wicked." So he's hinted, but he's well aware the timing isn't great.
"She knows it, and she definitely wants to have children, but right now she's focusing on her own career," he says. "So I'm trying to be patient and respectful. But she knows whenever she's ready, I'm there."
The couple -- who met while working on the Broadway production of "Rent" -- currently operate on a complicated schedule. He tapes Monday through Friday. She performs Tuesday night through the Sunday matinee. So every Saturday morning, Diggs flies from Toronto to New York to spend two days with Menzel, who then flies back with him to Toronto on Sunday night and stays until Tuesday morning.
"In some ways, it's good," Diggs says. "When we see each other, we want to be there. And I always feel good when I see her."
Still, he says, this commuting thing can't go on forever. He smacks his palm on the table for emphasis. His dressing room is done mainly in red, with a bed for midday napping, and multiple photographs, many of Menzel. There she is kissing Diggs, there she is at their wedding in Jamaica, there she is winning her Tony earlier this year. Diggs calls that night the best moment of his life.
"That will probably change when I have children," he says, "but it surpassed the wedding day even."
His wife, Diggs says, would say that his best quality is that he's still a kid, and his worst quality . . . is that he's still a kid. Which, obviously, would have to change -- at least a little -- if he had one of his own.
"Absolutely," he says. "But the truth is, in life what matters is how you relate to people, and I'm really good at that. With my child, I'll be at the soccer games, and I'll be there to explain how life is. And when it comes to opening a bank account, he can ask someone else."
There's a knock on the door. Break's over. The bionic man is needed again.
Back on the set, Diggs's character is about to get thrown in jail for contempt of court, and Sanford is laughing as he makes an exaggerated gesture to the bailiff before getting hauled away. "Kevin Hill" is an hour-long drama, but it's suffused with humor -- sort of like "Ally McBeal," on which Diggs had a recurring role -- and that strongly appealed to the actor. That, and the fact that his character plays against the stereotype of the absent black father.
"That was a big part of it," he says during another break, the crew re-lighting the set. "That is just so great. Every time people turn on the show and see a black man taking care of a child -- not that it's easy -- and he's also a cat who has an urban feel, but still can carry himself in the world of law. He can code-change, which is what a lot of people have to do. It's something people need to see."
Diggs grew up in a traditional two-parent family, the oldest of five children raised in Rochester, N.Y. Because both of his parents worked at various times, he helped care for his younger siblings, hence his immediate comfort level with the baby on set -- he has, after all, handled a few diapers in his lifetime.
"I was a dweeb," he says. "I had glasses, and because I always played sports, the glasses were always broken. I was kind of insecure. Not romantically inclined. I saw that there was a definite difference between me and the cool people."
That was in junior high. Under pressure from his mother, he attended a high school for the performing arts, where all that mattered was talent, and he immediately felt more at home. He went on to Syracuse University to study theater, graduated, and did what most aspiring actors do: He moved to New York.
"I was kind of naive," he says. "I just went where people told me to go. Go to the city, get an agent, find a place to live, get a survival job, and audition."
His survival job was host at a Pizzeria Uno. His first real role was in the musical "Carousel."
The offer to play Winston Shakespeare in "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" -- the role was written for someone much taller (Diggs is 5 feet 10) -- came as a total shock.
"I was unbelievably ecstatic and there was no one I could share it with," he says. "My girlfriend at the time [Menzel] was recording an album. A lot of my friends were out of town and my mother wasn't home. I left a bunch of messages. I remember jumping on my bed."
That film, which included a much-discussed shower scene, made Diggs a familiar face and an immediate sex symbol.
"That part was fine," he says, the smile spreading across his face. "It never got to the point where I was Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt, so that part was kind of fun. Yeah. That part was okay."
After "Stella," Diggs signed up with the powerful Creative Artists Agency and waited to become the next Matt Damon -- which is what he was told would happen by an agent at the time. It didn't materialize exactly that way.
"I rose to the top of the list, but I rose to the top of the black people list, which is always going to be below the white people's list," he says. "And I didn't think that existed, because of the way I was raised. My high school was integrated. I always dated all different types of girls; the parts [at school] were not black or white."
He didn't mind, though, being typecast as the romantic-comedy guy, as opposed to being looked at for tough-guy roles or action hero movies. When "Kevin Hill" goes into hiatus, he'd love nothing more than to do a big, sappy date movie.
Unless, of course, someone in Hollywood gambles on another big-picture musical like "Chicago."
"Don't get me started!" he says, professing his love for musicals. "I want to dance and sing and act. There aren't that many actors out there who can do all of that, straight up."
He could, of course, go back into theater. But although theater is his first love in terms of performing, he likes the celebrity -- and the paychecks -- that come with being in television and film. And so sometimes there have been lulls as he has carefully tried to diversify his career. During one of those times, Menzel was working and so was his good friend Steven Pasquale (now on FX's "Rescue Me"), so he started hanging out with Pasquale's girlfriend -- who at the time happened to be Levering.
"We had our routine," Levering says. "Taye is a health nut, so he'd come over with his chicken breast and protein shakes. And I was like the boy -- I'd order all this food. We'd watch reality television and just laugh."
Apparently even endless hours watching Diggs pick at his food while dressed in sweats does not make one immune to his charms.
There is a hole in Diggs's head. A crater, really. This is problematic, seeing as how the day before, when several of the other scenes for this episode were shot, his head was its normal, smooth, well-rounded self. It also messed with the start of Diggs's day.
"I was shaving and I was trying to be expedient," he says, sighing. "It was such an awful feeling. It wasn't a nick; it was a piece. It made me feel anxious. I didn't feel cool, and for this role, that didn't feel good."
But it's late afternoon now, and he's getting over it. The magic makeup woman has made the red crater disappear -- at least from camera distance. And it was a good morning, filming on location with Arcieri and Marcos. Nothing like a little on-set teasing to get the day really rolling.
"That's me," he says, when asked about giving the actresses grief. "And it's all women, for the most part. I'm just surrounded by unbelievably attractive women all day on this show."
So how does Menzel feel about that?
"She's the anti-girlfriend," he says. "Always very cool about me hanging out with the guys, having boys' time. She's unbelievably respectful of privacy, being friends with ex-girlfriends, having female friends."
And he reciprocates. At least he tries to. There was, after all, that stint when she was filming "Ask the Dust" on location with one of Hollywood's bad boys.
"Ohhh, that movie with Colin Farrell," he says. "I was worrying, staying up late, got [ticked] at her. I assume it's just all work. But people get jealous. Of course. You just don't know."
He laughs then, as if none of it is all that serious. His mantra, he says, is innocent until proven guilty. Did you see anything? Nope? Then you've got nothing. Hey, it could have been a client, it could have been somebody he used to hook up with, it could have been . . .
"I'm pretty good, I have to say," Diggs says, smiling slyly. "I haven't often found myself in a position where I've had to charm the pants off people, but I can. I'm an actor, I should be able to charm the pants off people."
That's how he plays it.