In his almost two decades in the spotlight, Sean Combs has been many things — rapper, producer, clothing designer, magazine publisher, reality-television star and business executive. On Friday, he’ll add another line to his résumé with his new role in “Get Him to the Greek” — funnyman.
“I think this role will definitely be a revelation to people,” said Combs, known to most as Diddy, as he leaned into a couch backstage at the Greek Theatre last month. “People have this perception of me — which is my fault — of maybe a rapper or Champagne-sipping and Hamptons and white fur and just cliché type of things that are just kind of old and dated and corny, which isn’t how I am today, you know? That was just part of my image for a second. It wasn’t who Sean is. You evolve — like, I need to retire my diamond necklace and fur jacket now. Things change. Times change.”
If nothing else, his part in “Greek” is sure to surprise people. As an actor, the 40-year-old has had a mixed track record and has struggled to translate his charisma and music-video swagger into other parts. An early role as a death row inmate in 2001’s “Monster’s Ball” was widely perceived as stiff and smacked of stunt casting, but the ever-energetic Combs gradually improved his acting technique, and his part in the 2004 Broadway production of “A Raisin the Sun” earned him far better reviews.
Still, he’s yet to show the world that he’s funny. In “Greek,” he plays Sergio Roma, the maniacal record executive who lords over an employee ( Jonah Hill) who’s in charge of chaperoning an unruly rock star ( Russell Brand) from London to the L.A. concert venue. On the surface, the role doesn’t seem like a stretch for the hard-edged music mogul. But even opposite comedic heavyweights Brand and Hill, Combs manages to stand out, revealing his character’s relentless ambition and moral insanity through a series of gonzo monologues — made even more hilarious via their delivery with just the right amount of vein-popping menace — that simultaneously reinforce and subvert his already established persona.
It’s not the most nuanced role, but it’s certainly entertaining. Never before has Combs seemed so comfortable playing a character on screen, and part of that may have to do with the production process. According to producer Judd Apatow and director Nicholas Stoller (who previously collaborated on " Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” which first introduced Brand’s rock-star character), Combs quickly became adept at the Apatow-ian style of improvisation.
“He’s done a lot of reality TV, and that’s actually not that dissimilar to what we do — thinking on your feet and trying to be amusing,” said Apatow during a telephone interview. “It’s always fun to see people satirizing their public persona, and he was very open and willing to goof on anything. He never said, ‘Oh, I don’t want to do that because it makes me uncomfortable.’”
“Our shoots are demanding, and he was on set every day, exactly on time and super-prepared,” added Stoller in a separate interview. “And that’s why he’s a mogul. You can’t be where he’s at in his career and show up to things late. He treated it like a real learning experience — like, ‘You guys understand comedy; I want to learn that.’”
For Combs, the challenge wasn’t in improvisation but rather in finding a way to distance the character’s personality from his own. “I didn’t want to take the easy way out and just have it be a cameo,” he said. So he decided to prepare for the role by writing out a back story for his character’s life: at age 6, Sergio was an assistant road manager to Pink Floyd; at 12, he was in charge of the women and organization of drugs for Rick James; by 14, he had started his own record company.
It’s the kind of dedicated thought about a seemingly silly part that he hopes will make people take him seriously as a comedian.
“To be honest, as an actor, I had a dream — and everybody had laughed at me — but I was just like, there’s nobody to ever fill the void of the way Eddie Murphy was in ’48 Hrs.’ Or, you know, even Chris Tucker. And as a comedic actor, I think I could one day fill that role,” he said. “And people are like, ‘Are you crazy? You’re not even funny.’ And I’m like, ‘No, you’ll see. I’m funnier than you think.’ And that’s my mission.”
Though Combs is primarily known as a rapper — his new album, “Last Train to Paris,” will be released at the end of the month — he’s long held an interest in acting. But he really became determined about the craft six years ago, when he decided to call up famous acting coach Susan Batson. The teacher, who has worked with A-listers including Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, said she immediately “rejected” the idea of working with the rapper.
“I didn’t think that a rapper was serious,” Batson recalled. “But when I walked into his office, he immediately cleared everybody out and turned off all phones and said ‘I’m very serious. If I cannot really contribute to this industry as a black actor, you tell me, and I won’t do it.’ I found in him some element of truth in him that will always exist. He said, ‘You know, I may be drinking Cristal Champagne, but I know about a can of baked beans.’”
Impressed, she decided to take Combs on as a client. Soon, she was helping him to prepare for “A Raisin in the Sun.”
“The producers looked at me like I was crazy. They said ‘Are you serious? Do you think he can act?’” Batson said. “And I remember when he got the part, at one show I was out in the lobby at intermission and I’d hear people say, ‘No kidding, he can act. He can talk.’ He’s had to prove himself every time.”
Combs hopes his part in “Greek” will show studio executives — who he says often fear his appearance in a movie will take audiences “out of the movie” — that he’s not what they think he is: a big shot who “comes with an entourage and isn’t focused on set.”
“I think people have this very comfortable, small perception of what they think of Puffy or P. Diddy or whatever he wants to call himself today is,” said Combs. “What I really like is something that’s just as simple as going home and going through the DVR and watching a good episode of [ “The Real Housewives of Atlanta”] and eating a turkey sandwich.” (Coincidentally, in the film, one of his character’s favorite pastimes is nibbling on cheese and watching “The Biggest Loser” with his family.)
Combs said that he hopes that he’ll pass by moviegoers this weekend and overhear them chattering about how much they enjoyed his performance in the film. After that, he’ll continue seeking a balance between his personal and professional lives — one of the few things he says he’s yet to accomplish.
“A lot of the time when you have these opportunities, you don’t focus on your personal side. I have all of this going on, but at the same time, I have to make time for my kids and have friends and do regular things like go to the movies,” he said. “What’s next is me trying to conquer that, and find that balance in my life. That’s something I haven’t been able to achieve. I haven’t been able to achieve having a successful relationship with a woman. I think it’s been immaturity and selfishness and flaws, things like that. But I’m on my way.”