By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Sep 29, 2016 at 3:01 PM

Tim Gunn. Clay Matthews. Magic Johnson. Bette Midler. Over the years, AIDS Walk Wisconsin has brought some big names from across the pop culture landscape to Milwaukee as honorary chairs in order to continue the fight against HIV and AIDS. 

This year, actor Taye Diggs will take up the charge as honorary chair for Saturday’s walk and 5k run at the Summerfest Grounds – not an unfamiliar role for the TV, film and Broadway performer. After all, he helped originate the role of Benny in the Broadway run of "Rent," the hit musical that helped further push HIV and AIDS awareness into the public eye.

Before Saturday’s event, Diggs talked to OnMilwaukee about his involvement in the struggle over the years, starring in a cultural phenomenon, and his career on stage and screen – including a new stint on the TV series "Empire."

OnMilwaukee: How did you get involved with AIDS Walk Wisconsin?

Taye Diggs: I’ve been keyed in with the struggle as long as I can remember, just because I’m obviously a member of the music theater community and Broadway and what not, and my connection with "Rent." So I’ve always had my ear to the ground.

So when this opportunity presented itself, it was something I definitely wanted to be a part of. And doing some of the research, I had no idea how many people are still struggling with HIV and the prospect of getting AIDS – especially in the Milwaukee area. I wanted to become a part of the fight and encourage people to register for this walk. Because we’re still struggling with people being able to afford medicine and what not. I’m amazed at the idea that a lot of people will be able to benefit from a walk such as this who don’t have the insurance to be able to afford the medicine. That, to me, was something that was really, really huge.

Why is this such an important issue to you on a personal level?

So many of us have been affected by this disease: African-Americans are one of the groups that are still suffering, minorities, young people. The older I’m getting, the more aware I am of the help that people need and just how some things can fall by the wayside. There’s so much going on today that it can be easy to lose sight of issues that people are still dealing with. And this is a huge one. So I wanted to make sure that we know what’s going on and that we can fight this.

Have you had people in your life close to you that have contracted HIV?

I have, yes. It’s kind of a blessing and a curse, where I was exposed at a very, very early age because my mother was very involved in community theater, so a couple of her friends were taken. So I knew the damage that something like this was capable of, so I’ve been aware. Even though we’ve come a long way, we still have a long way to go. I can’t encourage people enough to come out, get some exercise and get those pledges.

Obviously you starred in "Rent," both on stage and on screen. How have you seen attitudes toward AIDS and HIV change – or not change – since its debut?

I can only speak from my situation and what I’m exposed to – and obviously being an actor, unless I go looking, I have a limited view. But I think the general perspective is that, because of people like Magic Johnson and other folks that do have the means – and we know that we’ve made such strides – we’re not hearing about people dying as often. People think it’s a situation that’s over or past, and unfortunately it isn’t. It’s almost like it’s not trendy anymore; it’s not cool.

So we need to make people aware and say, "People need help." It’s not about what’s trendy or what’s in or what’s fashionable or what charities are fashionable. This is still an epidemic right here in our own country, and we need to change that.

What was it like starring in a show focused on a topic that was still so controversial, fresh and topical?

At the time, because it was so controversial, that kind of played into its popularity. So, again only speaking for myself, we only benefited. I don’t remember being aware – I’m sure there was – of much pushback. As you can imagine, people seemed to be ready for what we had to say.

That’s why I’m such a strong supporter of the arts. We’re blessed in that we can get serious messages across through the arts, through music and dance and just a great story. We were able to enjoy ourselves. We were lucky that we got a hit and, at the same time, spread the word. Not to sound corny, but it was truly a magical time.

As someone who’s worked in both TV and movies, do you think TV has sort of overtaken movies in terms of artistic creativity? There was a lot of talk after this summer movie season that film was dead, while TV seems to be in a stride – both artistically and pop culturally.

For me, I look at the situation on two levels – as an artist and as a human – so I’m looking for interesting roles, and at the same time, I’m looking for what is being said. And TV is doing both. There are these programs pushing the envelope and changing the perspectives. You have more messages getting portrayed on television. There are more interesting stories.

In film, it’s been mostly superhero franchises and big children’s movies. It’s much more limited in all those respects. So I’m excited to be a part of the television family, and I don’t think it’s going anywhere anytime soon.

What’s it like to be on set on a monster show like "Empire," and anything you can tell us about your newly introduced character or plotlines?

Aw man, it’s one of the biggest shows I’ve ever been on. The cast is really, really great. We had a really late night last night, but we were laughing the entire time. It’s much more of what people have been seeing: a lot of drama, a lot of really good acting and just plain fun.

Visit AIDS Walk Wisconsin's website to learn more about Saturday's event, registering and/or pledging your support.

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.