“Hey, man, look. It’s you,” one of the producers says, handing Taye Diggs a copy of the National Enquirer.
Inside is a full-page ad for “Day Break,” featuring the actor, buffed and stoic. Diggs’ eyes light up. “I’m simply too excited,” he says. But right now, just days before the show’s premiere, the 34-year-old isn’t imbibing the hype.
“I just don’t want to get my hopes up too high for fear of them being smashed to the pavement,” he says in a momentary respite on a sound stage in this Los Angeles suburb. “I have a good feeling about it. I have a good feeling.”
ABC’s also optimistic about “Day Break.” The high-concept thriller is replacing “Lost” for 12 weeks beginning Nov. 15 at 9 p.m. EST with a two-hour premiere. Diggs stars as Brett Hopper, a cop who must relive the same day over and over in order to clear himself of murder. Think “Groundhog Day” meets “24.”
It’s Diggs’ latest TV turn since his short-lived run as a lothario lawyer in “Kevin Hill,” which aired in 2004-2005 on the now-defunct UPN network. “We were considered a black show, and (UPN) wanted to go in a different direction,” he says.
Diggs, too, has been trying to go in a different direction and break out of the black box.
“After college, I realized I could be successful at this because Spike Lee was coming out,” says Diggs, a native of Rochester, N.Y., where he lived with his four siblings and his mom, a student of theater who inspired his acting aspirations.
“On TV, there was always the black friend and I thought, ‘OK, I can be that guy.”’
Then came his breakout role as Angela Bassett’s young Jamaican lover in 1998’s “How Stella Got Her Groove Back.”
From there, he appeared in the urban romantic comedies “The Wood,” “The Best Man” and “Brown Sugar.” He also landed mainstream parts in the Oscar-winning “Chicago” and the big-screen rendition of “Rent,” reprising his role from the 1996 Broadway hit where he met his wife, actress Idina Menzel.
“Day Break” is his first role as an action lead. “It’s the kind of thing where you want to do something different and stretch your muscles,” he says, “and at the same time, it’s good for the cats in the industry, and the public, to see you in a different light.”
But Diggs also acknowledges that it’s not all about him, that there could be a down side for black actors if the series is successful.
“African American folks, we’re not yet in the position of power,” he explains. “If this show were to succeed, white folks could just sit back on their laurels and say, ‘Oh well, he’s the one. We don’t need to work with anybody else.’
“If every black dramatic actor were to fall off the face of the Earth, people would mourn Denzel and Morgan Freeman. But they would still have the Tom Cruises. Until we get to a point where we can control things in Hollywood, and I’m confident we’ll get there, we’re still in a position where we kind of have our hands out.”
Yet another serial drama?
Still, Diggs was the actor the “Day Break” producers came to first. “I approached him long before the script was done. I just felt he was an action star in waiting,” says executive producer Matthew Gross.
“Certainly he’s got the physique and the fortitude to be an action star,” Gross continued. “But there’s a sensitivity to him. You really feel for his predicament. People are going to see a broad range of Taye as an actor.”
But even casting some of the biggest marquee names hasn’t been enough to bring audiences to this season’s plethora of complex, serialized shows.
“The bottom line is it’s not about Taye Diggs. It’s about ‘Day Break,”’ says MediaWeek columnist Marc Berman. “He certainly is an asset, but I think ABC made a mistake in scheduling. They would have been better starting the fall with ‘Day Break’ and (returning) ‘Lost’ in midseason.
“To take an established hit, put it on for six weeks, and take it off until January may cause some bad feelings,” Berman continues. “And the audience may go check out CBS’ ‘Criminal Minds’ because that show is really heating up now.”
Says executive producer Jeffrey Bell: “If the ‘Lost’ audience gives us an opportunity, they’ll enjoy our show. We’re different from ‘Lost,’ but if you like puzzles, there’s a lot to love. You’re going to get a satisfying conclusion, we believe, to this day.”