Besides being recently seen on television on shows such as “The Last OG” as well as Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” Daniel J. Watts can now been seen on Broadway as Ike Turner in Tina: the Musical. Watts who is no stranger to the stage chatted with The Knockturnal about stepping into Turner’s controversial shoes.
The Knockturnal: What about Ike Turner drew you to playing him in this production?
Daniel J. Watts: Ike Turner is a very controversial figure in our culture, and our history. I was interested in seeing if it was possible to deconstruct him in a way to reveal other colors, other sides [to him]. Is there was any humanity in there at all? And it turns out there isn’t.
The Knockturnal: How difficult is it to connect with a character who is so violent and destructive?
Daniel J. Watts: It’s relatively easy to connect with him. He’s a human being. He grew up with lots of childhood trauma, just like most people, like myself. I went to therapy. I think everyone has the potential depending on your circumstances and your environment and your upbringing to become an Ike Turner. I thankfully did not. I have a loving family, I have great friends, I have outlets and I had therapy.
The Knockturnal: Did you have any hesitation at all in playing Ike Turner? If so why or why not?
Daniel J. Watts: Absolutely. The last role that I played was Sammy Davis Jr. in a show called Lights Out Nat King Cole, and Sammy is one of the most beloved entertainers of all time. Ike Turner is arguably one of the most hated. The other side of connecting with him meant me learning about myself, things I may not like about myself in order to connect to this guy. Then there’s also just the sentiment that people might have about him as an individual. When you get to that curtain call people are conflicted about whether they should clap or not. Sometimes I get boos which just lets me know I did the job. But yeah lots of trepidation.
The Knockturnal: How were you able to channel Ike’s mannerisms especially his smooth and manipulative ways.
Daniel J. Watts: I watched a lot of footage which I have. There’s a documentary. Somebody went on the road with him in 1971-1972. Watching him interact with other people, hearing him talk. I went to Clarksdale, Mississippi just to see where he came from, smell it, see the country, feel the vibes, listening to a lot of blues music, a lot of Louis Jordan (that’s one of his biggest fans). Kind of taking in what he took in and watching their performances,just viewing a lot of footage, a lot of research.
The Knockturnal: What is it like working with Adrienne Warren especially since she performed in the show in London?
Daniel J. Watts: Adrienne is so far ahead of the curve just because she’s been with the project for so long. But she’s just one of my best friends. I’ve known her for 10 years, so it’s a very safe space. It’s one of the safest spaces I’ve ever been in. I trust her, she trusts me and to just be able to watch her unfold as Tina every night is probably one of the biggest joys of my professional career.
The Knockturnal: On opening night earlier this month Tina Turner herself was in the audience watching you guys perform her story. Can you describe what that feeling was like having her in the audience?
Daniel J. Watts: It was terrifying, absolutely terrifying. You want to do such a good job that you feel like Ike Turner is in the room. My initial thought was like is that a trigger, could I set her off, could I send her back in time, but also wanting to get it right. She lived it, she experienced it, this was her life so it’s something you want to be very careful with and precious with you want to take care of these people. These are real people that lived this life. Really just wanted to make sure I did her justice, did Ike justice. It was also thrilling but definitely terrifying.
The Knockturnal: Did Tina say anything specific to you that you remember?
Daniel J. Watts: There was very brief meeting. Opening night she was on stage and had to make a speech. She was very sweet, very kind she gave me a big hug, she pretended to smack me around a little bit. But she said thank you, that I did a great job. Then she asked me how I felt playing the bad guy. I told her I’m happy as long as you’re happy.
The Knockturnal: What is your favorite song to perform in the show to perform?
Daniel J. Watts: That’s tricky one. Between “She Made My Blood Run Cold” and “Proud Mary.” “Proud Mary” is just so iconic, it’s a full number with the dancing and singing, and the jamming with the band. But “She Made My Blood Run Cold” is kind of like Ike’s number to woo the crowd, woo the girls onstage and show how he and Tina kind of first got together, like what was first captivating about him that made Tina want to be a part of his crew. I would have to choose “She Made My Blood Run Cold” for this interview.
The Knockturnal: When watching this show, what do you think people who are already familiar with Tina Turner’s story will find surprising?
Daniel J. Watts: Probably the fact that no one in America (if they catch it) was really there for Tina. Tina had to leave this country in order to come back up. She wasn’t supported here by anybody neither the black community nor white community supported her after she left Ike. She had to go all the way to Europe to find herself and be supported and love herself in order to become this star that she always was but never got the recognition of being. But I think people really cue into that and realize the politics in America were not kind to Tina.
The Knockturnal: What do you think the audience will learn about Ike Turner that they didn’t know before?
Daniel J. Watts: I don’t think a lot of people know that Ike is the father of rock n roll. Rocket 88 started a whole new sub-genre of music. His guitar licks, his rhythm his music inspired everybody, inspired The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Prince all the greats they love Ike Turner. Inspired Elvis he got his stuff from Ike too. Ike never got his flowers while he was alive. So I think they’ll be surprised that all the stuff they like are thanks to him.
The Knockturnal: What are some of your pre-show rituals you do to get into character?
Daniel J. Watts: I play guitar for a little while just to get my fingers warmed up. I have a full body warm up. I have a salt lamp that I turn on … kind of letting Ike into the room. It’s interesting because it’s kind of a rift on this play Riff Raff that Laurence Fishburne wrote and he has a note that you have to light a candle to like let the spirits into the room before the play starts. Then you blow the candle out when the play is over. So I have a salt lamp I turn the light on. Laurence Fishburne played Ike Turner in the film most people know, so it’s kind of like an homage to Laurence Fishburne and Ike and the work that they did before me. I turn the salt lamp on, I do the show I have a couple of crystals that I rub then I turn the lamp off when the show is over so I could just leave it all at the theater.
The Knockturnal: There’s an extremely insightful scene towards the end of the show with Zelma, Ike and Tina. What’s it like performing that scene every night as we get to understand Zelma’s perspective?
Daniel J. Watts: That’s probably one of the most [profound] scenes in the show. You get to see everyone’s true colors really come out. You see Ike for what he really is, he’s a shell of a man, he’s a very insecure person, you realize how much he was leaning on Tina to keep everything going and now he doesn’t have her, now he has nothing. He never really invested in himself, he only invested in the Ike and Tina brand, he didn’t really invest in Ike Turner. So he’s reduced to less than nothing once Tina leaves. And you also see you find that Zelma didn’t really know how to take care of Tina, she didn’t know how to love Tina because she felt that Tina illuminated her insecurities, her fears, which helps Tina understand that she didn’t become this powerful woman, she had been this powerful woman all along. Everyone’s belief in her and her power from the beginning, so it was time for her to really do it.
The show is now playing!