When acting coach-producer Susan Batson first heard that hip-hop mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs was interested in her services, which have been bestowed on stars such as Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, her reaction was absolute.
“Of course I’m not interested in working with Puff Daddy,” she recalls thinking, using one of the various stage names Combs has assumed over the years. “He’s not on my radar at all.”
But after her son assured her that Combs was “very important,” Batson consented and met with the mogul, whose acting credits at that point were small parts in “Monster’s Ball” and Jon Favreau’s “Made.”
Expecting a supremely confident dilettante, Batson was surprised when Combs’ first words to her were: “Don’t stay if I can’t do this. If I don’t do well, I can take it, just tell me. Because it’s my intention to try to make history, to really, really contribute.”
Batson ended up staying, convinced that Combs was one of the rare actors who have what she calls an “internal honesty.” Her overall reaction was, “Whoa.”
More recently, there have been louder “whoas” in response to Combs’ performances — namely, in the Broadway and TV film versions of “A Raisin in the Sun” — as the rap impresario is turning his attention away from his multimillion-dollar music empire, fashion line and reality TV shows, and focusing, he says, “100%” on acting.
Combs, who lives in New York City, recently signed with the William Morris Agency for acting and is scouting the L.A. real-estate market in an effort to become bicoastal.
He’s also talking to several producers about his next Hollywood acting gig, though he wants to be selective and hasn’t yet committed to a project (at least one he can talk about).
“I understand that nothing hard comes easy,” he says. “I’m not coming to Hollywood expecting anybody to give me any handouts.
“I don’t want to just be in movies,” he adds. “I want to do what I have to do to be considered a great actor one day.”
He lists Will Smith, Jamie Foxx and Denzel Washington as his greatest inspirations.
Combs’ first major performance after working with Batson was in 2004 when he reprised Sidney Poitier’s role as Walter Lee Younger Jr. in the Broadway revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s Tony Award-winning play about racism and the American dream, “A Raisin in the Sun.”
Combs inspired rave reviews and sold-out auds, which, thanks to him, represented a younger, more urban demo than typically shows up on the Rialto. The play recouped its investment in its nine-week run and had one of the highest weeks ever for a nonmusical.
Combs was further praised when the entire cast of “Raisin” — including Phylicia Rashad and Audra McDonald — reconvened to make an ABC movie based on the play; it aired in February and was a ratings coup for the net, drawing 12.7 million viewers. It’s now getting an Emmy push.
Beyond just demonstrating bravura acting chops, Combs was an executive producer on the film and an active participant in the business side of moviemaking, a skill that translated naturally from running his music and fashion companies.
He posted personal videos promoting the film on YouTube and organized tastemaker screenings for friends and associates in his sphere of influence.
“One of Sean’s gifts is that he is the most brilliant marketing man you could ever meet,” says Craig Zadan, an executive producer of “Raisin” with his partner Neil Meron. “That’s what makes him a great producing partner. You’d sit in meetings where the network and the studio reveal their marketing campaign on the movie … and he’ll sit there and go, ‘Ever thought of this? Ever thought of that?’ Everything he comes up with is new.”
So why acting? And why now, considering that Combs’ phalanx of business ventures — including his Sean Jean fashion line, his signature colognes, his Bad Boy Worldwide Entertainment Group and his reality TV series “Making the Band” — are worth an estimated $525 million annually, and that last year Forbes ranked him as the third-richest entertainer in hip-hop?
“I was pulled into acting the first time I saw ‘Cooley High’ or ‘The Godfather,'” Combs says. “Everybody is called in a different way, and I always had a dream inside of me that I wanted to be considered a great actor.”
He says being on Broadway was when he “caught the acting bug” in a big way, and ever since he’s been working to transition his life so he can focus more singularly on his new calling.
This has meant stepping down as CEO of his companies and delegating responsibility to others.
Diddy fans, rest assured — Combs says he’s hardly retired from music and that, “You’ll still get an album outta me,” but that it will not be getting the same attention as film. Ditto for his other industries.
Combs’ new passion is so intense that, while in the run-up to “Raisin” on Broadway, he rebuilt the set in his living room in order to rehearse at night.
He also off-loaded many of his day-to-day mogul chores.
“I turned off my BlackBerry, stopped all calls,” Combs says. “I handed everything off and told everyone I’d see them in a couple months. The only call I took was when I had my twins.”
This full-time focus hindered Combs’ nontheatrical businesses during his Broadway stint, but by the time he made the ABC movie, he’d worked out the rough spots and is now able to juggle his myriad responsibilities.
“It hurt the business a little bit, but it was worth it,” he says. “I had just left so suddenly that I don’t know if I had everything set up in the right way for me to leave.”
Combs is hardly the first person to make the leap from hip-hop stardom to the screen.
Queen Latifah, Beyonce, Mos Def and, of course, Smith have all been blazing the trail.
Still, there’s a risk for someone like Combs, considering his very lucrative empire is built entirely on the identity of Puff Daddy, P. Diddy — whichever mantle Combs happens to be wearing.
One big box office flop could conceivably reverberate across the Sean Combs continent.
In response to this, Combs says: “That’s why I work hard. I’m not afraid to fail, as long as I’m giving it my all. There’s a risk, but I’m the type of person to take risks.
“I take pride in always surprising people,” he adds. “I have a long way to go. My journey’s just begun.”