Like the light glinting off his hundred-carat smile, Taye Diggs’ career has bounced all over the place: the loathsome yuppie landlord in “Rent,” his Broadway breakthrough; the pulse-quickening young Jamaican in “How Stella Got Her Groove Back,” his film debut; and a succession of charismatic television professionals — most recently his Obama-esque mayoral candidate in “Empire,” who was killed off last season.
“I go between wanting to put on a nice suit and talk a lot of words and then roll around and shoot guns and scream,” Diggs said.
These days he’s taking on a national pastime, one with the power to both unite and divide.
In “All American,” airing Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on CW, Diggs plays Billy Baker, a varsity football coach who lures Spencer James (Daniel Ezra), a star athlete and ace student from South Central Los Angeles, onto his flailing Beverly Hills high school team. (The series is inspired by the life of the former NFL linebacker Spencer Paysinger.)
It’s a risky trade-off: In exchange for a gun-free zone and superior education, Spencer must jostle for position on a roster filled with resentment — including Billy’s son, Jordan (Michael Evans Behling). “All American” won’t duck the admiration and fury spurred by Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, and his protesting of police brutality and social injustice by kneeling during the national anthem, Diggs surmised.
“The writers haven’t been shying away from that type of fodder when it comes to telling these stories,” he said. “Sports is something that usually brings people together, being the catalyst for thought and conversation. The fact that we’re dealing with all that, I think, bodes well for the show.”
During a call from Los Angeles as he was driving Walker, his 9-year-old son with his former wife, his “Rent” co-star Idina Menzel, to basketball practice, Diggs, 47, talked about struggles with identity and lessons he might pass on to his child. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
QUESTION: Why “All American”?
ANSWER: This one was very specifically poignant to what is happening today in this country, in society and also in my life. It deals with socioeconomics and race, sexuality and identities. Spencer moves in with my family, and I’m married to a white woman and have two biracial children.
So everybody’s challenged when it comes to how they identify themselves and how other people identify them. And that’s something I’ve had to deal with being an African-American young man with an education, and people stereotyping me.
There’s one line where in the show my son asks me if I think he’s black enough. And that really hit me hard because there were times in my life when I’ve asked myself and my mother that.
Q: Is football in your background?
A: Just lightly, but I’ve always wanted the excuse to get a role that forced me to train. And for a cat at my age, coaching fits perfectly.
Q: What do you think about the player protests?
A: At the end of the day, everything that’s happening is healthy for our United States of America, because it forces us to look at how united, if at all, we really are. And I think these are growing pains.
I have my own opinions, but at the same time, I want to make sure that I try really, really hard to listen to the other side and kind of empathize.
So I think that’s going to be the lesson, that’s going to be the pill that we have to swallow, because that seems to be the thing that we need the most work on as a country regardless of who believes what.
Q: And Kaepernick’s Nike ad?
A: It didn’t even hit me at first. I mean, I thought it was cool because I’ve been a fan of his from before all this, so I was like, “Great, I guess he’s not hurting for dough.”
And then at the gym something was on TV where there was a controversy, and it forced me to actually think, “Oh wait, I’m forgetting what this cat represents to a lot of people.”
I have no idea if Nike (executives) knew that it would be controversial.
Q: You’ve said that you wondered as a young man whether you were black enough. Is that a discussion you’ll have with your own son?
A: I don’t know. He’s growing up in a different time. Everything that I got made fun of, he gets rewarded for. I was watching “2 Dope Queens,” two beautiful black women standing up for all things female and black, and they both had no issue talking about their white boyfriends.
And in the time that I grew up, they would have gotten booed off the stage. But we’re in a day and age where it rolls off their tongues, and the audience laughs at the jokes, and that’s awesome.
That’s the climate Walker is being raised in, and it’s all right with me. He’s in a classroom where a lot of the kids look like him; everybody is mixed with a little something.
He’s going to have to deal with other issues — but he’s not going to deal with a lot of what I had to deal with.