Interview with Tina: The Tina Turner Musical star Daniel J. Watts
Daniel J. Watts previously worked with his current leading lady Adrienne Warren during New York City Center's 2009 production of The Wiz. Fast forward a decade later and these longtime friends now find each other face-to-face at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre as rock 'n' roll's infamous pairing of Ike & Tina Turner, tearing the house down as well as tearing at each other to portray the iconic former couple's trailblazing career onstage, as well as their well-documented, abusive relationship offstage.
The role of Ike Turner in Tina: The Tina Turner Musical has provided Daniel with his first big break on the Great White Way, although he has certainly been no stranger to the Broadway stage. He made his debut joining the cast of the 2005 Broadway premiere of The Color Purple and went on to be part of the ensemble for several Broadway productions, including Disney's The Little Mermaid, Memphis, In the Heights, Ghost The Musical, Motown The Musical, After Midnight, and a certain musical phenomenon by the name of Hamilton. He has also appeared Off-Broadway in Suzan-Lori Parks' The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World (for Signature Theatre) and Sherie Rene Scott & Dick Scanlan's Whorl Inside a Loop (for Second Stage Theater). And if that wasn't enough, he has even found time to squeeze in television roles in the likes of “The Last O.G.” on TBS, Amazon’s “Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” “Blindspot” on NBC, and “Vinyl” and “The Deuce,” both on HBO.
We caught up with Daniel to see how he's enjoying his new status as a leading man on Broadway...
- You’ve been a part of the Broadway rodeo many times before, with a wealth of credits ranging from The Color Purple to Hamilton. But how did it feel to be taking on a leading male role this time around in Tina?
Equal parts exhilaration and nervousness. Historically, on Broadway, I’ve had the luxury of being a part of the development process; readings, workshops, etc. Or I’ve been in a position to meld into the background and perhaps pop out for a feature. This process was five weeks of rehearsal and then BOOM, I was a leading man, essentially, figuring a lot of it out in front of 1,500 people every night.
- How familiar were you with Ike & Tina Turner growing up?
Growing up, I knew about Tina Turner, the woman with “the lion’s mane and the legs.” I didn’t hear about Ike until “What’s Love Got to Do with It” and even then, I was still too young to wrap my brain around their time together in the 60’s and 70’s.
- Are you a fan of the 1993 biopic “What’s Love Got to Do with It” and Laurence Fishburne’s Oscar-nominated performance as Ike?
I probably started to get into “What’s Love Got to Do with It” around the mid-late 90’s when I could fully understand it better. Mr. Fishburne was so iconic in that role, it was hard to imagine Ike as any other way or even as any other person.
- In what ways is the narrative of Tina different to that biopic?
I think Katori gives more dimension to the people in Tina’s life; Ike, her mother, her sister, in order to help us to better understand Tina, herself. This heroine has a voice and a presence like no other, but ultimately, she’s a woman just as human as the rest of us; another person terrified to live in their truth. Our play shows how when Tina finally started living in that truth, she was catapulted into the happiest and most successful years of her life.
- Is Ike a difficult character to play? Do you personally feel that he has any redeeming qualities?
Ike is both easy and difficult to play. Playing the catalyst that Tina has to overcome in order to become the world icon she is today makes it easy. The symbiotic trauma Ike and I share as black men raised in America is what makes it difficult. Ike Turner is the product of a system that didn’t allow him the opportunity for much growth. He was “allowed” to take those frustrations out on Anna Mae Bullock and/or turn it into music. As far as redemption, whatever you like about Elvis’ music and The Beatles’ music and The Rolling Stones’ music is probably influenced by Ike Turner. Terrible husband, incredible musician.
- How did you and co-star Adrienne Warren deal with the notion of exploring the musical’s darker theme of domestic abuse?
Adrienne and I have known each other for over 10 years so we can get closer and make things look a lot more dangerous knowing full well each other’s safety is of the utmost importance at all times. It can be triggering, of course, so we offset it with plenty of laughing offstage.
- What is your favorite memory of meeting the living legend, Tina Turner herself?
Ha! It was very short lived so it has to be the moment itself. She came onstage during the bows, gave me a pretend smacking around followed by a huge hug. She asked me how I liked playing the villain and I responded, “I’m happy if you’re happy.” She laughed and we all took a final bow. The curtain fell, they whisked her away and she exited my life as quickly as she’d entered it. End of moment.
- Finally, your West End counterpart, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, actually took home the Olivier Award for his portrayal of Ike, so I guess it can’t be described as “a thankless role”? ;-)
Ha! You have to talk to Kobs about that. Thankless? No. But channeling your inner demons eight times a week and hearing “I hate you!” as soon as you exit the stage door can play with your mind. Thankfully, I have therapy every Friday at 10:15am to help keep me in a place of gratitude.
Tina: The Tina Turner Musical Tickets are available now.
(Photos by Manuel Harlan)