Daniel J. Watts is a rising multidisciplinary performance artist (actor, dancer, writer, poet, and much more) by way of New York and he sat down to talk with us about how he got his start in acting, some of his most memorable experiences on Broadway, the differences between performing on stage versus a TV/film set, his role on Tracy Morgan’s new show, The Last OG, and gives advice to aspiring actors.
You can check out the in-depth transcription of the full interview down below.
I got my start in acting from my mom essentially. The story goes that I used to try on different hats at an aunt’s house. She would have this hat rack and I would go in and just put on a hat and pretend to be somebody, then put on another hat and pretend to be somebody else. She said this was when I was like 6 or 7, and she saw it. Then around 13 she suggested I go out for a play, I was like, “naww, I’m not trying to go out for this play,” then I got there and there were these other kids there, these other guys, and I felt this sense of competition. That’s what was fueling it at first then I got the part and then it was just like, “oh this is fun, this is, I like this.” ‘Cause I’m an only child, I was used to just making up stuff and running around, not being crazy but just running around and kind of like entertaining myself so then I could entertain other people, it kind of just felt right.
I have two. The first one is my debut on Broadway. I was in The Color Purple, that was my debut and I was a swing so there was no guarantee when or if I was gonna go on. I was only there for two weeks as a vacation swing because someone was on vacation. It was the last day of my two weeks, they decided they were gonna put me on for somebody. That morning somebody else got sick and called out, but I had my mind on this other person’s track the whole time then I had to go in for this other person who I hadn’t really thought about, so it was a little, not hiccup, but kind of like, “Oh! Let me switch it up.” So I went in for the matinee, then that person also called out that night. My mom was in North Carolina, she knew that I was gonna be on that night too, so she flew up, got a plane ticket, flew up and was like, “I assume you’re gonna be on tonight.” I was like, “I am.” She was like, “I’m here, can you get me a ticket?” My mom came, then LaChanze, was Celie at the time, she likes to acknowledge a person’s first time on Broadway and she couldn’t find me for the matinee, she didn’t know where I was, and then for the evening show she knew where I was. It was almost like the first show was a practice run then my real debut happened that night So, that was tight.
I would say that one, and then the second one was when Barack Obama came back to see Hamilton, because I missed him the first time. So that was one of those, “Oh I get to meet you, I didn’t know if I was gonna get to meet you and I did!” It was quick, it wasn’t like, we didn’t have one of those [complicated handshakes], meeting Barack wasn’t like, “Eyyy let’s talk a lot.” It was cool to just like to see him in person. It was almost like he was my William Wallace, the person who I never thought was going to exist in my lifetime to actually exist in this lifetime, it still felt very much like a fairy tale. So to actually meet him, shake his hand, look him in the eye, was kind of like, “Oh yeah, oh yeah, I needed you. I needed you to exist. Appreciate you.”
NY TO LA
I went to Cali because I kind of hit like a…I knew that I had hit a wall in New York so to speak, just as a person, in my career, with friends, in general, me as an entity hit kind of a wall and I knew things needed to change and I wasn’t positive that I could facilitate that change in the environment that I was hitting all the walls in. So I removed myself from it and went to LA. Which was also in conjunction with pilot season last year. And it was good to be in LA to be isolated and just with myself, like I could strip away all the…in New York I’m the actor and the dancer and the teacher at NYU and the friend and you know, I have all these different roles and in LA I didn’t have all of those things, I just had me to kind of deal with. Which was cool because I hadn’t dealt with myself in a while. I feel like I hadn’t experienced myself in a while because I have and had had so many distractions in New York. It’s easy to get zip, zip, zip in New York, versus LA you can’t really zip anywhere. Everything’s laid back, everything’s chill, you’ve got the mountains, you have the beach, you can go hiking, you can kind of just like isolate yourself. And it was one of those like let me go to LA and if things pop I’ll stay, if not, I can always come back to New York you know, and I ended up booking a TV show that brought me back to New York after 4 months. I booked the TV show, and then that was the first series where I was in a show for like a full 8 episodes, so now I was like, oh I’m here, and I’m just doing a TV show. I’m not doing theatre, I’m just here, and I shoot when I shoot. Alright it’s different. And I was doing a comedy, and I hadn’t done a comedy before, so everything seemed to be different in New York. So it was the other opportunity was like now I’m back in New York and I can just be me in a different way, and kind of like sit with myself and navigate that way. So yeah I didn’t necessarily come back, New York was like “Come back”, and then I stayed.
“The Jam” is, it’s me, but the best way to describe it is my great-Grandmother used to make jam, and you can’t make one jar at a time, you gotta make it in bulk. So she would make herself a jar and then give the rest away to her friends and her family. And I was in a show in Seattle, and my part got cut and I was just sitting in Seattle kind of like with nothing to do, and I started thinking about all of this material that I had, that was in notebooks, in laptops, in my phone, just that I had written for me. I’ve been writing since I was like 12/13, so I just got the material and started piling it together and was like, “I want to share this some kind of way.” And it was like, “Oh it’s like my great-Grandmother”, it’s not just for me anymore, it’s for other people. So that’s how “The Jam” got started, we got a band together, put some people together, some people sing some pieces, some people dance to some pieces, and it kind of just evolved over time like if I felt like I had to say something or want to talk about something, or get something off my chest, I would put it together in a certain kind of way and then this is “The Jam.”
“Love Terrorist” spun out of a poem that I wrote, not for “The Jam”, but it ended up being in “The Jam.” But “Love Terrorist” started after…I want to say it was Haiti, Haiti had that earthquake, which earthquake right. Haiti had another earthquake and it was the year that Japan had an earthquake, Chile had an earthquake, and Haiti had an earthquake, all in the same year. And it was something about the idea of Mother Earth is kind of like retaliating against all the anger and the hatred that’s happening in the world, and all the terrorism that’s going on. It’s like what if we could flip it, if we could terrorize with love? What would that look like? What would that sound like? What would that then do to the Earth? And that’s what “Love Terrorist” is, and now it’s kind of like a moniker I use, the “Love Terrorist”, and I’m trying to terrify people with love.
FILM VS. THEATRE
What TV and film allows you to do is kind of like keep doing it until you kind of get it right. You know and then you’ll take ‘the take’ that is the best. You’ll be, “Oh let me try it again, oh let me do it again.” It’s not limited to, “Ok, I’m gonna hit it this one time in front of all these thousands of people and hopefully I get it right.” You know it’s kind of like…doing theatre you can kind of like, “I’ll do it again…tomorrow.” There’s a lot of prep and a lot of rehearsal, and it’s like “I’ll do it again tomorrow.” Versus like TV and film there’s not so much prep and not so much rehearsal but then you’ll do it and do it and do it and do it and do it, trying to find the right take. But then you’re done with it, you leave it alone. So it’s like one of those things [where] it’s monetarily it’s better, TV and film is a lot better monetarily. But yeah there’s a different…making films and making TV is just a different art in and of itself. It’s like smaller, it’s more compact, a lot of it’s about thoughts, revealing your thoughts in your face and in your action as opposed to like full body movement. It’s an interesting thing to go back and forth between, navigating the two. It’s fun, it can be challenging, but it’s fun.
FOR THE KIDS
I would say dream as big as possible, because my biggest lesson was that I didn’t dream big enough. I dreamt only up to a certain point and then I hit that point and I was like, “Now what?” I think a lot of us do that, especially if you’re ambitious it’s like I have a dream, I want to do this, and then you do it and it’s like “Huh!? Wait!” So yeah, dream as big as possible but I also say work on yourself as much as possible. Know who you are, know your type, but also create your own stuff. Have your own thing, don’t always rely on someone else giving you a job. Have your own, whether it’s writing, whether it’s music, just have your own thing going on because that will sustain you in those moments when things aren’t popping the way you want them to be popping because it will happen. Things will not pop the way you want them to pop at some point and you kind of need something to sustain that spirit of why you want to do it in the first place.
You definitely have to be fearless as a creative just because the idea of sharing your thoughts and ideas with other people whether it’s to gain money, whether it’s to gain notoriety, fame, interests, any of those things, like you’re putting yourself out there and you kind of have to not care. Especially in the social media day and age, there was a time when you could just put it out and only a certain amount of people would see it, but now it’s like I put this out and it could be across the world. And you kind of have to be ok with…you’re agreeing with the consequence of putting it out there, as putting it out there, and everyone has an opinion nowadays, everyone has a Twitter account. So yeah I think it’s one thing to just put yourself out there and it’s another thing to pursue that as a career, and both of those things takes a tremendous amount of courage I would say.
I’m focusing more on writing a lot more and trying to develop projects. It’s like I know the phone’s going to ring for an audition, there was a time when I wasn’t sure like “Is the phone gonna ring?”, and then it always rang. It’s like when I look back and it’s like, “Oh yeah it rang”, it rang all those times. The phone’s definitely going to ring, so it’s like ok when someone calls and they want something and I don’t have it, that’s when I feel like I’m not prepared. So it’s like going back to the drawing board, learning more about myself, how I want to create, collaborating with people more. Like there’s little things here and there, little irons in the fire but I don’t know what exactly is going to pop first. “Only Child” and “The Jam” are what I’m working on the most right now. “The Jam” and my one man show, “Only Child”, are the two things that I’m kind of like focused on developing.
Most recently my face popped up for like 3 seconds on “She’s Gotta Have It”, I was on there talking junk. But “The Last OG” which premieres April 3rd with Tracy Morgan on TBS is coming out. Oh it’s going to be so lit, I’m so excited about it! It’s gonna be fun. It’s cool because it’s a show about redemption and trying to not necessarily get back what you lost but when you’ve lost a lot, how do you go forward. So Tracy Morgan’s character went to jail for 15 years, came back to a gentrified Brooklyn, his ex-girlfriend is now dating some white dude living on the Upper West Side, and she has a set of twins that look exactly like Tracy Morgan. So it’s like what do you do? What is your path when you come back after everything’s been taken away from you…through comedy. It has some tragic moments to it but also like it’s Tracy Morgan, Tiffany Haddish, Cedric the Entertainer, like, it’s foolish, they’re foolish. Yeah I’m excited about that.