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Entertainer and entrepreneur Sean Combs, who starred in the ABC telepic and Broadway revival of “A Raisin in the Sun,” now spends 15-20 days every month in Los Angeles pursuing his acting career.
This week, in a three-part video interview with THR.com editor Melissa Grego, he addressed the hubbub about his ever-changing aliases (nope, not going back to “Puff Daddy”), why recording music is on hold for now, the acting roles he is going after next and how he sees “Raisin’s” Emmy chances.
An edited transcript of the interview follows. Watch Part 1 of the video now. Stay tuned for Parts 2 and 3.
The Hollywood Reporter: Did you change your name?
Sean Combs: No, no, see the evolution of my name has really just been many sides of me. One of the things about being an artist is you have different personalities that you channel artistically, and my name changes have been just fun. It hasn’t been anything serious.
It’s just saying things growing up in the neighborhood, and different people call you nicknames. But then you’re famous and things get blown out of proportion.
It has been a description of how I’ve evolved. Right now my focus has been on myself as an actor, and I’ve preserved the right of using my birth name from my mother, my most vulnerable name, to go by as an actor. So when you go see my movies you won’t see P. Diddy. You’ll see Sean Combs. That would be the honest representation of who I am.
THR: Do you see the potential for another nickname?
Combs: Anything is possible. I wake up in the morning and I just go with the flow. I just make the best of it, and I’m just having fun. But at the same time it’s a very serious time for me because I’m evolving as an artist, I’m evolving as a person.
I don’t want to stop. I’ve had a great career and a huge amount of success and I want to keep on going; I want to do things that people don’t expect me to do. I want to surprise people, I want to keep on entertaining, and I think the best way to do that is through the art of storytelling and exploring different characters.
THR: What roles are you considering to follow “A Raisin in the Sun”?
Combs: I’m spending a lot of time on developing something really tailor-made for where I want to go, which is more of a modern action, almost a more realistic, black Bruce Willis/”Bourne Identity”/Quentin Tarantino. I want to do something where people take a ride with me. Like, if you were going to hang out with me for 48 hours, you have no idea what would happen. On a more serious note, I’ve always had a dream to play Miles Davis. There’s a script that’s out there that doesn’t have me playing him in the typical way.
THR: You said this spring you intended to go back to the studio and record. Are you recording?
Combs: I haven’t started recording yet. I need to be settled to record music. Right now my focus has been reading scripts and taking meetings and just introducing myself to people. There’s an obstacle that I have that people just believe what they see, maybe online or in a publication, and so it’s important for me to sit down with people so they can understand my motivation and how serious I am.
Whatever the process is, whatever the obstacles I have in front of me I have no problem tackling. I’m putting in the work. Really it may sound really crazy, but it’s just like any other aspiring actor.
THR: How and why did you decide to make “A Raisin in the Sun” your first leading role?
Combs: I didn’t really pick it. My acting coach informed me that it was being revived on Broadway and I should go in for the audition. I was like, “You’re crazy. I’ve never even done live theater, nor have I ever starred in a film.”
She said, “Come on, this is what you want to do — you can’t be scared.” I’m like, “Well I’m not scared, I just didn’t want to embarrass myself.” She said there’s always a chance of that. But I just ran a marathon, I was feeling adventurous.
To be honest, this role right here — after really reading it not as a student in school being forced to read it but reading it as an actor — I was like, this right here is a role of a lifetime. So I auditioned for it on Broadway and they gave me the role.
THR: You were in amazing company with great actors in that cast, in a role that Sidney Poitier played on film. How did you approach going toe-to-toe with those actors and that legacy?
Combs: From the outset everybody was like I was crazy for even considering following in Sidney Poitier’s footsteps. But I didn’t get into acting to just try to be OK. I got into to be great. And what better way to be great but to follow in the footsteps of greatness and stand on his shoulders.
I didn’t try to compete with Sidney Poitier, I tried to do it my way and do it the best way I could. So when I was on Broadway I was surrounded by great company, so every night it made me better. To be honest I was just starting out, so I was as good as I could be due to my experience, but every day I was focused on getting better and going deeper as an actor. And the only thing I could do was do my best and pray that I would make it offstage each night. And I did.
THR: That’s rigorous.
Combs: It was six months on Broadway, eight shows a week. After that I got my actor’s diploma. People respected me in the Broadway community as an actor, because I went through this. I was proud to show people I was serious. It wasn’t about me being a mogul or a rap artist. That I could do something most actors haven’t accomplished, starring on Broadway, selling out on Broadway.
THR: Your draw was credited with bringing that play to a broader audience.
Combs: That was one of the things that was so successful about it. I was able to bring a new audience and also African-Americans to Broadway in huge numbers, record numbers that weren’t seen before, and I was able to successfully tell them a story.
That’s what you do as an actor: Make sure after people finish watching it they got the message, saw the story and they don’t see P. Diddy up there. They saw Walter Lee Younger. That was the beginning. I was in search of Walter. I can’t say I found him on Broadway, but I was committed to making sure when I went up to Toronto to shoot the movie that I would find him. And I did.
I wanted to make sure I wasn’t being held up by the other actors, I was holding my own so I moved deeper, moved into a two-bedroom apartment up there, focused, just turned off everything and was able to help the other actors by being good. My confidence was at another level, and I felt like I was doing the role justice finally.
THR: How did you know you found the character?
Combs: It was just the anxiety to a whole other level and the pain I was feeling inside, the way you feel when you finally connect with a character, that for the time period you really become the character. I wasn’t second-guessing myself. With acting you need more time to do it. I need more roles. The more I do it, the better I’m gonna get. The time I spent on Broadway prepared me for the film role. And also it was just the preparation and really just letting go.
I was scared a lot of times on Broadway. I honestly was in a place I never was. I was scared and needed time to get over that fear and to just jump. There were times I just let go and that feeling was something I loved and I was happy that I was able to do it.
THR: How do you like “Raisin’s” Emmy chances?
Combs: You have the super heavyweights, the big machine of HBO, and every year they crush everybody. They outspend, and they make great films. But then also there are times in our lives where there are those little movies that could, those little movies that made a difference, those little movies that no matter how much money you spend they touch people in another way.
This movie to me was one of the best movies of the year. Hopefully when people see it that art will outweigh the commerce. I think that we’re the underdogs. And sometimes it’s good to be the underdogs, sometimes people like the underdog.
As far as me, to even be talked about is a huge achievement and is humbling. This whole thing for me, this whole thing is overwhelming in a good way. It’s good for me to be overwhelmed. I’m enjoying every minute of it. I can’t even believe I’m sitting down doing this interview with you. But I am, and it feels good.
THR: You put aside responsibility for much of your business to prepare for the role. What’s been the impact?
Combs: When I made the decision to one day be considered a great actor I knew I was going to make some sacrifices. I knew that had to be a priority. I could not have one foot in, one foot out. So I just restructured my businesses; I was no longer CEO of any of my businesses. I hired experienced CEOs to run my companies. So if I had to go someplace for six months, if I had go to Africa to shoot a film, I could do that and focus.
Sometimes maybe a company wouldn’t have that personal touch that it would have from me, but it was worth the sacrifice for something that I am in love with and something I really want. Running a company, I like doing that, but this is what I love to do, and this is my dream.
THR: Did you buy a place in Los Angeles?
Combs: No. I stay in a hotel that I call home. I thought I was going to spend seven days (per month), but I am finding myself spending 15-20 days. It’s just the patience and the time of developing things, searching for the right things, the right roles. That’s the journey I’m on.
I’m a real strong New Yorker, like everybody knows me as that. If you come to New York you see my posters up everywhere, you’re going to hear my music, you may see me. Like, I’m New York. So when I said I was serious about pursuing my acting career, I knew I would have to move out here. That was really hard. New York, they didn’t want me to move. I’m only bicoastal, but they’re not really happy with that. New York is not really happy with me being at Lakers games or being out here spending a lot of time with you guys.
In the streets they’re like, “What are you doing? Don’t do it.” I’m definitely a hometown boy.
THR: What can you tell us about “Notorious”? Derek Luke is playing you. What’s he getting right, what’s he getting wrong?
Combs: It’s hard to play me. But somehow he did it. He took the time to sit down and ask the questions and go to see deeper what was behind what was on television or the media. He was able to capture that and capture my heart.
The crazy thing is still being young and having somebody play you in a movie and still active. I’m probably going to have a movie open or be shooting down the block when this movie opens.
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