Q+A with ‘Free State of Jones’ Donald Watkins

by Gretchen Erickson on July 27, 2016

by Nicole Cronley

photo by Vicki Miller photo by Vicki Miller

What made you want to become an actor?

When I was kid, I used to watch a ton of movies. It didn’t really matter if they were good or not, I just used to love the stories. We would also take trips in school to see shows or there would be a touring show that would come and perform. I was so interested in these characters and their journeys and the people behind them. I fell in love with it all before I ever knew it.

Who are your inspirations?
My parents are definitely my biggest inspiration. I was fifteen when my mom married my stepfather. Before then, I watched my mom make countless sacrifices and work so hard to take care of my sister and me. By the time my stepdad came, the foundation was set, but he really molded me and taught me what it means to be a young man. I always say, “I get my fire from my mom and my ice from my dad.” They’re both extremely dedicated, but my mom’s very passionate while my dad’s more calm and collected. If I possess half of what they have, then I’m going to be in good shape.

Where are you from? And what made you choose to start your career in Louisiana?
I am from Greensboro, North Carolina. I was in LSU’s MFA program from 2010-2013 — that’s what brought me to the state. One of the reasons I chose LSU because of its ties to the film industry. I remember thinking, “Man, they’re shooting everything down there.” I came for a visit, they fed me and I stayed! The culture is so strong here and it’s very different from L.A. and New York. That’s what I needed to grow — not only as an artist — but as an individual. To this day, I’ve never second guessed it. I’ve always felt like I made the right decision.

What was your formal education like?
My undergrad courses were vital. From Voice and Movement to Dance to Acting for the Camera and Acting Techniques, they really preached the essentials. Who are you? What do you want? Why are you saying what you’re saying? Then, you build. Also, theatre forces you to be prepared. There is no, “Cut. What’s my line?” If something goes wrong, you find a way to justify it and make it work. It also teaches you how to truly connect with your acting partner. It’s a give-and-take relationship. I always try and give as much as I can to my scene partners but at the end of the day, it’s all acting. The muscles may be different but it’s all a part of the same body, working towards a common goal: to live truthfully in imaginary circumstances.

How long have you performed professionally?
I’ve done film professionally for five years now. I signed with my agent Brenda Netzberger of Open Range Management in May of 2011, so we have an anniversary coming up. Theatre’s a little longer. I had my first professional contract with the Barter Theatre in 2007.

After starting in the theatre, why did you shift to film?
Yeah, theatre will always be my first love. That’s where I started. And there’s no substitution for a live audience going through a journey with you from start to finish. But I always knew I wanted to do both in a way to affect change. Film is so widespread and you could reach so many off of one project. I’ve never met Viola Davis or Dustin Hoffman or Denzel, but they’ve changed my life. These artists have made me laugh, cry, contemplate, question, they’ve given me hope. And I think that’s the power and beauty of film that attracted me. It still does.

When you decided to shift into the film market, how did you choose a local agent? How has your agent helped guide your career?
I knew I needed an agent if I wanted to do anything. My buddy Alex was a third year at LSU at the time. I just remember it seemed like he was always auditioning for something. I asked him who he was with and he said Brenda. He actually sent her an email that night about me and I immediately followed it with one of my own to set up a meeting. And it worked out! You know how they say God puts people in your life for a reason? Well that’s how I feel about Brenda. She’s always been there for me and had my best interest at heart. It doesn’t feel like actor-agent these days. It honestly feels like a family. We work so well together and I love it because she never tells me what she thinks I want to hear. She always gives me the facts. She is the one person who I’ve trusted with my career and she’s never let me down. Things are different these days but up until now, save my friends and family, no one knew I acted cinematically. Not like now. But since day one, she’s fought for me with vigor and passion and I completely respect that. I always told her the word I want synonymous with my career is longevity. I remember her telling me that if I were truly serious about this business, not the celebrity but the business, and if I were diligent, then I would go far and she’d always be there. Five years later, we’ve come a long way, but still have a lot to prove. All we ever need is the opportunity, and neither one of us will disappoint the other.

What have been the fruits of your education and hard work?
My first film was Pitch Perfect. I was in the Treble group, but I was an Opening Treble which meant that I was a senior when the movie started. That kicked everything off. I had no idea that it was going to take off the way it did. Then, 22 Jump Street was next, I was on the team and in the frat. 22 actually taught me to wait for the cut. It came out the day before my birthday, and my girlfriend at the time surprised me for my birthday and took me to see it in New Orleans. We’re having dinner and drinks in the theatre and, as an actor, you know where you might appear on screen. Those scenes came and went and she’s smiling and I’m like, “Oh no!” Haha. So I had to lean in and break the news. It’s funny now but I was bummed for a few days. I was an infantryman in Get On Up. I was Silverman in a Popeye’s commercial. But I think my most notable performance was the first thing I ever did. I was in the fourth grade and we performed a live commercial at our winter concert for a fictional toothpaste called Mud Mouth Be Gone. There was some grade A acting happening. That’s the performance I’m still trying to live up to! Haha.

What are some of the big names you have worked with?
Well with Mud Mouth Be Gone, it was the infamous Michelle Hardy. After that, Matthew McConaughey, Mahershala Ali, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Keri Russell, Erica Tazel, Anna Paquin, T.I. and many others.

What else do you have coming up that hasn’t been released yet?
Roots just premiered on Memorial Day, Free State of Jones, which hits theaters on June 24,  and a film called Bolden, with the release date currently TBD.

photo by Steve Dietel photo by Steve Dietel

Let’s talk more about Roots, where you booked a lead role. What was it like working on such a high profile project?
It was amazing. Still such an honor. I often look back at the projects I’ve been able to do and I realize how fortunate and downright blessed I am. I saw the original Roots a few times when I was younger, but as kid, you just don’t grasp the magnitude of what you’re watching. You just can’t. The first time I saw it fully as an adult was after I was cast and I watched them all the way through. I couldn’t stop. The cast navigated the story beautifully and I’m hoping our reboot has a similar effect for our generation.
I play Virgil. Chicken George and Matilda’s oldest son, and great grandson to Kunta Kinte and Belle. The thing I enjoyed the most was that it actually felt like a family from the top down. Rege and Erica did a fantastic job as the pillars of our family. They set the precedent from day one and I believe that was key to our vibe and success. Every day, the level was raised, for myself, Sam, Frankie, Carlacia, Sedale, Brittany, Kesha. And no-one needed any extra motivation. This is Roots. That’s motivation enough. But everyday, every take, there was new energy from all of us that no one could explain. We came to the conclusion that our job was to get out of our own ways and let these characters tell their stories. I’m excited to see it all come together. Though the time period is different, I believe the themes are still very much relevant to today. There are things we still struggle with as a community and society as a whole, but the ability to fight and love and persevere is central to the human spirit. I’m honored to be a part of it.

You booked a supporting lead role as Wilson in The Free State of Jones. What was it like working on that set and with the cast?
It’s funny because the first thing people say when they ask about Free State is, “How was it working with Matthew McConaughey?” Then they’re like “I’m sorry I know you probably get that a lot.” And I don’t mind it at all because I know he’s probably getting the same questions: “How was it working with Donald Watkins? Were you nervous? Did you shake his hand or play it cool?” Haha!
But Free State was another blessing. I booked Free while I was still shooting Bolden so I had about a week between the two to shift gears and focus. I’m always nervous the first day, no matter the project. I may not look it but I’m like a little duck. It looks like I’m just gliding on the water but I’m actually kicking for my life underneath. Two things you can count on the first day is that I’m prepared and nervous. But the cast was phenomenal. It was like being in a master class for three months. Many times I would just catch myself watching and being in awe of my peers: Matthew, Mahershala, Gugu, Chris, Sean, Troy, everyone. The mark of a great actor is to make it look easy, and they all made it look so easy.
I play Wilson, who I like to describe as second in command in the Maroon camp. Maroons were runaways who lived off the land and survived as free men by any means necessary. Wilson’s a strong young man and he really looks up to Moses (Mahershala Ali) for guidance, survival and how to conduct himself as a man in their circumstances. From day one, Ali took me under his wing and I can’t thank him enough for that. He really was like my big brother on set. It got to the point where if Hersh wasn’t in my scene, I didn’t feel right. I think that speaks to the dynamic and I hope it comes across on screen. He’s very genuine. The Maroons in general were all pretty tight: myself, Artrial, Charlie and Greg. I think my favorite part about the process would be our mini-rehearsals before we started filming. Gary Ross is definitely an actor’s director. He has such an appreciation for the process and really works with your choices and what you bring to the character. Before our calls, he’d have the Maroons and Rachel get together and discuss and build the world and our reality, and it opened up so much more for me and character choices that I hadn’t even thought of until that point. He was very collaborative and I loved that. I would be very excited to work with him again.

Bolden was a big project for you! I hear you had to learn to play the guitar. Tell me about that experience. Who did you study with? How long did it take to learn? Tell me about your role and who you worked with?
It was. That was actually my first big one. First time cracking top ten on the call sheet. I played Brock Mumford who was the guitarist in the Buddy Bolden band. I never played the guitar before so I was literally starting from scratch: this is the neck, these are frets, etc. We rehearsed for a month in New Orleans and I’m telling you, it felt like musical boot camp with cool instructors. When I tell you my fingers were killing me, oh man. Right after I was cast, I took a quick lesson with Brian Breen and he told me what to expect. But it’s difficult once you’re trying to apply it to the actual instrument. I would tell my fingers to do one thing and they’d completely do their own thing! But I had absolutely the best instructor, Mr. Anthony Brown. He’s really a solid dude and a family man and a beast musician. I got a chance to go to a few of his performances and, my God, effortless. I was thinking to myself, “I have to do that!?” He was so patient and giving. We worked out this sheet music system that really stuck and just started plowing through music. He’s a fantastic teacher. And if Brown couldn’t be there then Carl LeBlanc, another absolute beast on guitar, was right there with me. They had a lot of faith in me and I put a lot pressure on myself to get it right because I didn’t want to let Mr. Brown down, let Carl down, or my cast mates. I made it my mission to really be able to play all of the songs and I did it. Now that only pertains to Buddy Bolden songs. If you ask me for “Free Bird” it’s not happening. That’s another project I’m looking forward to. Another project where I grew immensely as a person. We had a solid cast and there’s a lot of good performances. Those band scenes are what I’m looking forward to the most. We all worked so hard on the music: myself, Breon, Korey, Justin, Ser’Darius, Calvin and Gary, so I’m excited to see how it translates. Plus, just to see Dan Pritzker’s work come alive. You read the script over and over but you’re not present when they shoot everything. To know how hard the cast and crew worked just makes it that much more special.

Free State of Jones is in theaters everywhere now.