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November 2005
Rent: An Interview with Taye Diggs and Anthony Rapp

Rent: Taye Diggs and Anthony Rapp

By Wilson Morales

After so much back and forth over the years, the Tony award Broadway musical, Rent, is finally coming to the big screen. Interestingly enough, when the show first came to off-Broadway, and then Broadway, no one knew what to make out of it. Also interesting is the fact that original cast Anthony Rapp was the only member to have a film career having acted in "School Ties" and a few others, while Taye Diggs had none. Close to ten years, he still looks the same, but Diggs has starred in more commercial films, more so than Rapp. In speaking to blackfilm.com, both Rapp and Diggs talk about coming to the place where their careers and when Jonathan Larson passed away.

What's the key difference for you between the play and the film?

Anthony Rapp: The key difference is that you can get close in on the characters in a way that you simply can't on stage. The use of close-ups, reaction shots, there's an incredible new level of intimacy into the actual lives of the characters. The play, I think that's partly why so many people see it over and over again. As you get more and more familiar with it keeps revealing itself, but in film it's right there. There's no question in anyone's mind about the nature of the relationships or the plot points, which sometimes when people saw the play they were a little confused by things or didn't quite get everything, but they were still so shaken or moved by it because it was so intense.

How about filming outside the theater?

Rapp: It's really not that different. What's different are the technical aspects of it. On stage technically you have to project out to an audience. On film you just have to allow the camera to record. Technically, there are differences. Other than that, in both mediums you're telling a story or in a scene with another person you're expressing something from your core to another human being. All of the rest of that is more or less the same, and then it just becomes a matter of levels of expression of it, degrees of intensity.

What about the tango scene?

Rapp: In the script I thought it was really smart and interesting and fun, and I was curious about how it was all going to turn out. It required a lot of rigorous rehearsal with Tracy, and I couldn't have had a better partner. We both are not great dancers, and we both needed a lot of rehearsal. Taye's a real dancer, he's like a gorgeous dancer. He wouldn't have needed nearly the rehearsal that we did.

How did it feel to sing in a film?

Rapp: We prerecorded everything because logistically it's almost impossible to do, especially with rock 'n' roll music. They could do it in "Hedwig" because John Cameron Mitchell is in a band so all the instruments are feeding live and it's not the same kind of ambiance going on in the rest of the room, whereas we're on the street. It would be nearly impossible to record our vocals live and hear and feel the music. We had an incredible experience in the studio where we could take time in a way that we couldn't with the original Broadway cast for budgetary reasons. And there's this thing called comping, which I never learned before, where you do six takes of a song and they literally take a word or a line. That's kind of cool to sit in the studio with Chris (Columbus) and our producer and in a way you're crafting your performance, the performance that's going to be on film, you're really choosing with them what it's going to be.

Taye Diggs: The same way they do with scenes, where they take the editing and cuts and what not, so it's very interesting.

When they said they wanted the original cast, did you think that was just lip service?

Diggs: There had been talk about a film ever since we began doing the play. Personally, I never thought that they would go - because at the time none of us had any film experience so none of us had any draw.

Rapp: Speak for yourself.

Diggs: You're actually right. I thought it was all lip service. The closest we came was Spike Lee, and I remember he had a meeting and he made a whole big deal because he met with all the original cast members, but it was made known to us that he didn't have any real intentions of casting.

Rapp: And then literally on the cusp of it happening they couldn't agree on a budget and then the rug got pulled out.

Diggs: We heard through the grapevine that there were names like Justin Timberlake.

Rapp: I didn't feel it was lip service at all. The meeting I had with them, right away within 10 seconds, I mean I was knocking on wood and crossing my fingers, but I felt like it was going to happen.

Do you feel like your villain is humanized in the film?

Diggs: That's one of the positives of being able to use film. One of the main differences is that it's much more intimate so you're just able to see all these characters far more closely than you did on stage. I think you're just able to zone in and hone in on specific characters at specific times, and it allows you to see more of them and the different aspects that they possess, the subtleties.

Can you talk about Jonathan Larson's passing away?

Rapp: We had a dress rehearsal, and it was an incredible dress rehearsal, which isn't always the case, sometimes they're disastrous, but this was literally like screaming, standing ovation, and Jonathan was crowded around by scores of people after the show wanting to talk to him. That already was something very unusual and special. There was a New York Times reporter there that night who was just going to be reporting on "La Boheme," but he wound up being so taken by the piece that he wound up then having an interview with Jonathan. So all of these, you had a sense in the air that this was going to turn out well. For me, having known him for over a year, I was like very proud of him. I kind of wanted to talk to him after the show but I couldn't because of all that going on, so I was like, oh, I'll see him tomorrow. And then the next morning I woke up and there was a message on my voicemail from the artistic director that sounded very grave. I was like, did somebody get fired?

Diggs: That's what we all thought. We all thought that the show was going to be canceled or that we all were getting fired, because they told us to all come to the theater.

Rapp: Before I had a chance to call anyone else my agent called me and told me that she knew the news that Jonathan had died because they were in the same office. I mean, it was incredibly shocking. Weirdly, it all made some sort of cosmic sense, that he had poured his whole being into the show and there it was, that that was the point of his life. That's what we said as a way to comfort ourselves. And then we gathered at the theater, and I don't know if Taye remembers this but there was a moment when we were sitting on stage and we didn't know what to do, we were sitting silently, and Tim Wild, the original music director, suddenly starting sobbing, like galvanized sobs, and Taye just put his hand on his shoulder. Those were the kind of moments, just being there for each other. And then the question became what do we do tonight? That night was our first preview. It became pretty clear, Michael Grief and I, Jen Nicola were all talking. We couldn't keep the theater silent, that became pretty clear. We didn't want to do nothing. We wanted to do a sing-through of the show at least so it would be filled with his songs and his music. We invited his friends and family and they came and it was a packed house. Of course, everybody was in shock. We were sitting at tables like this and sort of singing the show, and lo and behold, we did this huge rocking number and it got a huge ovation, and the laughs got laughs. All the joy that's in the piece was just as present as it had ever been.

Diggs: I'll never forget. We all started singing at a long table just like this, and then slowly, it started with Daphne singing "Out Tonight." Ah geez.....can you finish? Because it always gets me really emotional.

Rapp: We were singing but we couldn't sing anymore, so she got up and just started dancing on the top of the table. And the Tango Maureen, we kind of got up and did a little short version of it. By La Vie Boheme we were all up on the table just doing the number. There was just no denying that that joy and passion was just as present that night in the face of this incredible sorrow as it had ever been. And then in Act II, because it's much simpler, we decided to get up and do it. We came out and did the lines from Seasons of Love, and that was when ... you know, when you sing your throat has to be open and when you cry your throat closes up. So that was the first occasion we had to really learn how to sing when your throat is closing up.

Diggs: We lost our voices.

Rapp: But then Gwen Stewart who was playing the soloist somehow sang through that whole thing, and then Jesse Martin in the I'll Cover You reprise. When we all couldn't make a sound, he sang through it. Having that experience of no matter what getting through it for their sake, for our sake, and then at the end of the night when we were done singing the show there was the most absolute silence I've ever experienced, to have hundreds of people singing in total, complete silence, not moving a muscle, and then finally someone said, "Thank you, Jonathan Larson," and that was kind of like the release, and then people moved. It was an unforgettable night, and it was the beginning of the rest of it. And then it became a task of figuring out to finish the piece that was unfinished. We did the best we could under the circumstances, and then with the film we've gotten to refine it even more and clarify things.

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