Dulé Hill and Daniel J. Watts
In this Emmy-winning episode, actors Dulé Hill (Psych, The West Wing) and Daniel J. Watts (Hamilton) sit down with Michael Taylor at the Geffen Playhouse to discuss their roles in the new hit musical, “Lights Out: Nat ‘King’ Cole”.
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Michael Taylor: Hi, welcome to "Theatre Corner."
I'm your host, Michael Taylor.
As a lifelong theater enthusiastand a board member for one of
the top theaters in the country,I've seen firsthand the positive
effects that diversity and inclusion could have on the
stage and the theater seats.
This interview series was created as a way to share my
passion for theater and promotediverse voices throughout the
national theater scene.
We sit down with some of the top professionals in the
entertainment industry to discuss training, careers,
advice for young actors, and howto make theater matter
to more people.
Today I had the opportunity to talk with actors Dule Hill and
Daniel J. Watts,
who both play roles in the world premiere musical
"Lights Out: Nat 'King' Cole."
You may recognize Dule Hill fromhis television appearances in
the shows "Suits," "Psych," "The West Wing," and the film
We had a great conversation about his performance as Nat
"King" Cole, his background intap dance, and what it was like
to portray an American icon.
So silence your cell phones, folks.
You're entering "Theatre Corner."
male: Ready? male: Let's go.
[music & tap dancing]
male: Yeah, let's go.
Michael: Welcome to "Theatre Corner," brother.
Dule Hill: Oh, my pleasure. Glad to be here.
Michael: So very nice for you to be here.
This is a long time comin'.
Dule: That's right, you see?
Michael: So you're hereperforming as Nat "King" Cole in
"Lights Out: Nat 'King' Cole."
What does it mean to you to play this particular role?
Dule: Oh, man, let me tell you, the idea of stepping into
Mr. Cole's iconic suit is unfathomable in my mind.
I'm still pinching myself.
It's a daunting task, but it'salso a humbling task to be able
to bring his story to the stagethat is not only reflective on
his life, but also very perceptive of where
we are today.
Michael: And so I was here on opening night, and his twin
daughters were here.
Michael: Tell me about yourinteraction with them after they
saw this performance.
Dule: For myself, theirblessing was all that I needed.
I mean, yes, Nat "King" Cole is an icon, yes, he is a
trailblazer, yes, he is agroundbreaker, but he also is a
father, and he also is a brother, and when you start
telling someone's personal storyor a story connected to someone
personally, you wanna make sure you get it right.
And, for myself, I would not wanna be telling a story that
was not blessed by his lineage,his offspring, his children.
So the fact that they came to see the show on opening night,
and, afterwards, they came up tome and said, "Yes, this is the
show that needs to be told.
This is the story that needs to be out there.
We give you our complete blessing.
This night was 'unforgettable in every way.'"
And that really, really--it really moved me that
they gave that anointing on this project.
When we did the project at the People's Light a year
and a half ago, Freddy Cole came.
It was Mr.--you know, Nat "King"Cole's brother, and he did the
same thing, in fact, when he gave his blessing too.
Now that I have those three components, now it feels like
the wind is on our back, soit's time for us to run forward.
Michael: Talk a little bit about getting ready for a role
like this 'cause you truly, like, embodied this character
of Nat "King" Cole.
What are the special thingsthat you did, I mean, other than
Dule: You know, I tried
not to be too heady about approaches.
Really is what happens organically, what things am I
able to embrace within my beingto then be able to continuously
embody it when I hit the stage.
Yes, I mean, there's not a lotof stuff out there on Mr. Cole's
point of view of his own life because he died so young, so,
for me, it really was listeningto a lot of his music, listening
to a lot of his interviews.
I really would--I just submerged myself in
all things Nat "King" Cole.
If I was on the plane, I was listening to him.
If I was goin' to sleep, I was listening to him.
If I was driving in my car, I was listening to him.
If I was tap dancing, I was listening to him.
Any chance that I had to put something on related to him,
I was doing that.
So that alone, I would try to
take in what resonated inside of myself.
I didn't really try to pinpoint
exactly "How did he say this word?"
or "How does he say that word?"
It was more the essence of his energy that I tried to embrace
with my own to then put on myself to then have the Nat
"King" Cole on this stage
because I didn't want it to be a imitation.
I didn't wanna do a caricature of him.
And it's always evolving.
I'm still constantly trying to pull back the layers, to merge
more of my soul with Mr. Cole's
to bring the performance each night.
Now, from a technical standpoint, I did get together
with Liz Himelstein, who is ourvocal--a speech coach that I've
worked with for years ondifferent projects, and early on
in the process, I got together with her just to kind of fine
tune, you know, fine tune some things.
I mean, we kind of just to approached it from a technical
standpoint a little bit, andthen I got together with my man,
Wilkie Ferguson--he's a wonderful performing artist in
his own right but also a vocalcoach--to work on the songs and
spend time with the songs because I didn't feel that it
was--I didn't feel like this wasa role that I could just pick up
the week before and then step into and say, "Oh, I'm ready."
It takes a lot of homework beforehand, just leading up to
even the rehearsals.
So then, by the time you come to rehearsals,
you're ready to rehearse.
And then even through rehearsals,
that's a whole other process.
But, for me, it's just a matterof consistency, spending time
being intimate with his spirit,really, with his energy and
really asking for thatrevelation to touch things that
I cannot see or I cannot hear if that makes any sense.
It really--for me, it really hasbeen like a spiritual process
of "Father above, give me that insight that I don't have.
Give me that--just speak to
me about that thing that I'm missing.
There's certain things--like, let me have that essence."
"Mr. Cole, speak to me through it.
Let me know what I'm supposed tobe bringing to the stage right
now so that your story can be told in the right way."
Michael: And it definitely shows.
I mean, it's a phenomenal performance.
Dule: Thank you.
Michael: Seriously, it really is.
Dule: Thank you very much.
Michael: And talking to Coleman.
I mean, he talks about--thiswould be a completely different
show, I mean, the casting with you and Daniel, it's--it would
be something totally different
because you're bringing this tap ability.
Michael: You know, and Igotta say, that was a phenomenal
tap performance right in the middle of the show.
I mean, you had a standing ovation in the middle of the
show after that routine.
I mean, how does that hit you?
Dule: It blows you away, really.
It really--he's the--in the middle of the show, it doesn't
really hit me if I'm being honest--in the middle of the
show, because in the middle of the show, I'm so connected to
Sammy, Danny Watts, in whatwe're doing, and then, on to the
next moment because there's something that--like, with the
show, once the show starts, it goes.
There isn't really a lot of timefor, at least for myself, to
just take back and take it all in.
I take it all in once I take my final bow.
Yes, I mean, in the show, like,in the performance itself, I
didn't really have the time to really take that in, but
afterwards, it's like, "Wow, people really--they really
received and dig--or dug the whole journey that we've
portrayed here tonight."
Michael: I had an ideathat there was tap, but I didn't
realize it was something like that.
I mean, so, I mean, my--just my
natural reaction was get on my feet, really.
Dule: Dig it.
Michael: So it's amazing.
Dule: I mean, for myself,
I have to say, you know, this is a story about
Nat "King" Cole, and it's a story about icons like
Nat "King" Cole, and it's thestory about people in the world
today, but as a artist and as a performer,
there is me tippin' my hat to Mr. Cole,
but there's me tipping my hat, because of this piece, to
Gregory Hines, to HaroldNicholas, because, for myself as
the Dule Hill the artist,they are my direct-link heroes.
The reason why I am an actor isbecause I was a tap dancer,
and I saw that Gregory Hines could do it.
Dule: I saw that Harold Nicholas could do it, and not
only were they tap dancers andactors, they were also singers.
So to be in this show and to beable to use a wider breadth of
the gifts that God has blessed me with, all in one piece, it
really is for myself paying homage to and really bowin'
myself in prayer to, you know,my brothers who have gone on, my
elders who have gone on, my fathers who have gone on,
Gregory Hines and Harold Nicholas.
Michael: So you started tapping at the age of three.
Dule: At the age of three.
Michael: Yeah, so your mother ran a dance--
Dule: She was a ballet teacher at a dance school in
East Orange, New Jersey, named Marie Wildey School of Dance.
Michael: Wow, you have any early, vivid memories
of developing this talent?
Dule: I remember being afraid to perform even at the dance
school, and my mom and the danceschool owner--
I call her my Aunt Marie.
She's passed away now, Marie Wildey.
They had to bribe me with a BlowPop because I was in the back
room, hiding under a table, andI still vividly remember being
underneath there, not wanting toperform, and they said,
"Okay, well, if you go out thereand you do it,
then you get a Blow Pop."
Michael: Oh, jeez.
Dule: I said, "All right."And I was like, "Tap, tap, tap.
Tap, tap, tap" you know.
Michael: Oh, man, and so oneof your earliest breakout was--
Dule: The "Tap Dance Kid."
Michael: The "Tap Dance Kid."
Dule: That's what got me into this whole business.
The "Tap Dance Kid" came to myschool, the dance school, askin'
for kids, lookin' for kids who could sing and dance.
I auditioned, and then, next thing I know, I was
understudying Savion Glover on Broadway.
And then, right after that, I did the lead role on the
national tour with Harold Nicholas from the Nicholas
Brothers, and that's whatstarted to open my eyes of this
greater thing of show business because I remember being on
tour, and one time while we wereon tour we--the whole cast got
together, and we just watched all of Harold's old movies,
you know, all of his dancingmovies with he and his brother,
and to be there next to Harold,at ten years old,
and he's telling me
different things about it and watching it on film and
realizing like, "Oh, wow, this is, like--this--well, he's a
kid, and he's a kid in that one,and he's a kid like me, and he's
on film, and here he is now."
He started to really make a connection to me.
Michael: There's anotherthing I notice is, watching you
on stage, is your stage presence, and you're extremely
comfortable, and so, but you'vedone, like, tons of television.
What is it about theater?
I mean, it's like you're at home up there on that stage.
Dule: It's funny that you just said that because I was
goin' to say, "Stage is my home,"
being that I started on stage.
Even if it's just going to danceschool and performing at the
recital, my first professional job is being on stage at the
Minskoff Theatre in New York, and then the national tour,
and most of the things that I did when I was younger was
theater at the Goodspeed Opera House,
at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey.
My first affinity is for the stage.
It brings me back to a base.
It brings me back to a foundation.
It always challenges me to dig deeper.
I feel like, when you do the stage, it really sharpens you,
for myself, anyway, just havingto be here every day and do it
every day and find a way tomake it work and having to do it
without any filter.
Michael: Feel a safety net.
Dule: Yeah, there's somethingabout, like, I feel like I'm in
training when I'm on the stage.
I just love--I love the connection to the audience.
I love the energy inside of thehouse when things are going well
and when things are not going well.
I love when they're effected.
You know, I love when you'redancing and your legs are tired,
but you gotta figure out a way to make it work.
It's like, "Come on, legs.
We gotta do somethin', you know."
So, I mean, for me, the stage ishome, and I think being that I
started doing that as a kid,it's always going to be my first
love and probably always gonna be the place that I love being
at the most.
Michael: Alongside Dule is his costar
Daniel J. Watts.
In this performance, Daniel is playing the unforgettable role
of Sammy Davis, Jr. Daniel is best known for his performance
in the hit musical "Hamilton,"as well as his portrayal of Ike
Turner in "Tina: The Tina Turner Musical."
We had a chance to talk abouthis upbringing in tap dance, his
childhood heroes, and at the endof the interview, I gifted him a
special present as a show of myappreciation for bringing such
an iconic character back to life.
Michael: How're you doin', brother?
Daniel J. Watts: Great.
How're you doin'?
Michael: You're currently performing in
"Lights Out: Nat 'King' Cole."
Michael: And you're playin' thephenomenal role
of Sammy Davis, Jr.
My goodness, brother.
Daniel: What was I thinking?
Michael: And it's an amazingperformance, and I was here for
opening nights, and I'm sittin'there, wondering, "What could
possibly have gone intopreparing for a role like that?"
Daniel: Oh, man, on one hand, I like to say I've been
preparing for it my whole life and just didn't know it.
Sammy's been a huge of inspiration of mine.
I like to say, "idol of mine,"
at least since I was six years old.
He was the caterpillar in "Alice in Wonderland."
I was like, "This is kind of awesome."
So I started tap dancin' and singin'.
That's pretty cool.
And then I think I got revisitedto him in fourth grade when a
substitute teacher came, and the first day, we gave him the
substitute business, you know.
And then, the second day hecame, he brought a cassette tape
of Sammy Davis, Jr., and he waslike, "I think you would like
this," and he gave it to me.
And I don't know what I did thatfirst day that made him bring in
that tape the next day, but then it stuck with me.
After that, I was prettymuch just always kind of paying
attention to him, and he's--just
always influenced me in some form or fashion.
Michael: There's some amazing tap dancing that you guys pull
off in this play.
Where did you start with the tap dancing?
Daniel: I started tapping in, say, I was in tenth grade,
15 years old.
I ended up in a musical called"Gypsy," and I had to tap dance,
and I didn't know how to tapdance, so we kind of--I faked it
through that show, and I was like,
"Mom, I think I wanna keep doin' this."
And she let me take, and it wasthis thing that I was finding
that there was more in it than just this dance.
It was something, like, connected, like, deep within,
like, this idea of making rhythms and percussion, and it
also ended up being anoutlet for me at the same time.
I found that I would just godownstairs and tap dance in the
basement at, like, 4 in the morning.
Just, there was the urge to puton my shoes and just go shuffle
around and make noise, sounds, somethin'.
It's--always feel like I'm resurrecting something, so to
speak, so tap dancing is a love.
Michael: And just how much footage
you think you've watched?
Because I've noticed that therewas--I mean, you had down just
even the mannerisms.
Daniel: Oh, man, I've definitely watched hours and
hours and hours of footagebetween his Colgate performance,
when him and his father andhis uncle, the Will Mastin Trio,
came back to "The Colgate Hour"for the first time, and he's
drumming on there, and he's doing impressions, and I found
some footage of him doin' some impressions back in the early
'50s, "Sweet Charity," like, I could just think of, just,
all--anything Sammy, I've probably ingested in some way,
so definitely hours and hoursof footage, just to, like, just
'cause I love him so much, just to, like, check him out.
I never realized it would be for this.
No, I never, I never in a million years did I think,
"I'm gonna play Sammy Davis, Jr."
Michael: How important wasthe energy between you and Dule,
who plays Nat "King" Cole?
Because you guys--I mean,this is--that's a partnership up
there on the stage.
Michael: How important doyou think that's played into the
energy of it?
Daniel: Oh, total--a huge part of it.
When we both found out aboutthe project, both of us started
texting each other, "Hey, you doin' the speech?
You gonna do the speech?"
And in similar where Sammy wasto Nat, Dule has been for me in
a way that, you know, Nat was there before Sammy was.
When Nat--sorry--when Dule and I did "After Midnight," I was
auditioning for TV for the firsttime, and I was askin' him for
advice, like, "Hey, I went in for this audition.
It felt this way."
And he was like, "Nah, you should just go in there with a
bold choice," you know?
He kind of knocked down doors in a way, you know.
He started TV and film when I was still in, like,
middle school, high school.
Like, he had done this thing inNew York--
no, he's not that much older.
But he had--you know, he came.
He did the Broadway thing in NewYork, and then he moved to L.A.
to start becoming morebicoastal, and, you know, that's
something that I've always wanted to do, and I realized
that "Oh, I can actually talkto this guy about that process."
And both being men of color, there are similar trials and
tribulations that we've gonethrough and can still go through
today, so it's like we have thatsimilar dynamic, just like Nat,
Dule is the epitome of grace.
Dule is known around Hollywood to being a nice guy, so
it's--he's a nice guy, butyou don't hear anything, rumors
about Dule Hill.
No negative press about Dule Hill because he approaches
things with grace.
You might hear some things about Daniel J. Watts
bein' a firecracker, you know, in the same way of Sam,
so there's a little bit of typecasting goin' on.
I would say, a lot of bit oftypecasting, but it's been great
to just--you know, he's like a big brother to me.
Michael: You brought up Broadway.
Well, you spent a significant
chunk of your life performing on Broadway.
In particular, you performed in "Hamilton."
Michael: What was that experience like?
Daniel: That was-- "Hamilton" was crazy in a great way.
It was--musical theater in the latter--I would say latter 40
years--has been trying to
find its way back into popular culture.
Sometimes every once in a while,something sneaks in--
versus, like, years ago, it was popular culture.
It pushed culture.
As television and film got bigger, Broadway is kind of,
you know, a novelty, so to speak.
"Hamilton" and Lin,specifically, figured out a way
to crack that code, that it became this thing that nobody
was ready for.
Like, it's a global phenomenon,and, you know, it's all these
different things that are happening, but it's also three
hours of a job.
It's fun, but it's work.
So--but also being a part of, like, theatrical history and
American history is somethingyou can't really--you can't put
a price tag on that.
Like, you can't value that, yeah.
Michael: And so you'vemade yourself--made your way to
television as well, "The Last O.G."
Michael: "She's Gotta Have It," that TV series.
But there's somethin' that callsyou back to the stage though.
And so since you've done both now, what is it with the stage
that speaks to you?
Daniel: The thing about stageis that there's this immediate,
automatic partnership that you have with the audience.
There's an agreement, you know?
There's an agreement that we'llhave to this moment, to this
time, and you alsounderstand this is live theater.
Somethin' might go wrong here.
You know, we don't have the option to say, "You know what?
Let's do that again and,like, splice it together and put
together this perfect polished thing."
There's this element of like, "Oh, wow, this is happening
before my very eyes," you know,and there's a lot of work that
goes into that, not to say
that work doesn't go into TV and film.
You know, it's just there's this--it's precarious.
There's a risk involved that Ithink, you know, when it's done
right, it can be really, really exhilarating.
Michael: Could you think of a moment where you kind of had
close call or maybe you had to work and play through it?
I know that I've seen somemistakes happen but you're--the
actors are like, you know, pick it back up and--
Daniel: Oh, yeah, that happens all the time.
You know, the beauty is whenyou don't know and the audience
doesn't know, but, you know, there's--I've had times where,
like, I've been in the middleof a tap solo, and then the legs
up, you know, because I--somethin' happened.
My legs are in the air, and youjust have to figure out how to
get your legs back--your feet back underneath you.
You know, words will leave you.
Just somethin' about therepetition, or you just get off.
If you let somethin' distract you for a second, those words
will leave you, and you have to find your way back, and
sometimes that's fun or not fun,depending on the story you're
tryin' to tell, but, yeah, it's always that.
There's always this--thing.
Michael: So being on a stage with others is one thing, but
you've done a one-man show.
Daniel: Ah, yeah.
Michael: Storytelling, you know.
Talk about that 'cause that's a little different.
You're on the spot, and there's no supporting
actors or anything.
Daniel: There's no help.
Yeah, I have a show called "The Jam."
It's called "The Jam" 'cause mygreat-grandmother used to make
jam from scratch, and what shecouldn't eat herself, you know,
you can't make it a jar at a time.
You have to make it in bulk,six to eight jars, so she'd make
herself a jar, and then she'd give the rest away.
So, for me, I've been writing stuff, raps, poems, and stream
of consciousness since I was,like, 13, just as an outlet for
myself, and over time, I just accumulated all this material,
and I was like, "I gotta do somethin' with it.
This is rotting," so to speak, and there's a line from a show
called "Jelly's Last Jam,"
which is really weird how all this is connected.
Gregory Hines played Jelly RollMorton in this show on Broadway,
and there's a line in that says,
"We're jamming with Jelly tonight."
And that line was in the--wedanced to that song in the very
first recital that I tap dancedin, and that line has always
stuck with me, and it was like,"Oh, that's an interesting play
on words, "Jammin' with Jelly."
What's the difference between jam and jelly?
I looked it up.
I looked it up, and jelly is essentially the runoff of jam.
Jam is the fruit and the seedsand the pulp and the flesh of it
all, you know, that you cankind of just make it of itself.
Jelly is without all that good stuff.
So I felt like I had this jam ofmy own, this flesh, this soul,
this thing that where I share bits and pieces of myself with
others, and I hope that they cansee themselves and, kind of, we
can focus on our social
similarities opposed to our differences.
That's what "The Jam" is so, get on stage, and I go.
Michael: And so with all yourexperience and especially stage,
we have a lot of young actorsand theater students that watch
What piece of advice would you impart to those persons?
Daniel: I would tell you to dream as big as possible.
Dreaming is free.
A really good friend of mine told me that.
Alton Fitzgerald White is anincredible actor and told me to
dream big, and it's free.
You could do it as much as you want, and, you know, I think
there's a difference between dreams and visions.
Dreams are these things that we feel are impossible and
unattainable versus visions arethese things that we know that
we can do.
They might be terrifying, butjust grab ahold of your visions,
your dreams, and turn them intovisions, and just go for 'em.
There's nothin' stoppin' you, but you.
Go get 'em.
Michael: Very good.
And before I let you go, I toldyou on opening night I had a
special gift for you.
Daniel: You did, yes.
Michael: -- Crystal, would you--here we go.
I'm a real huge Sammy Davis, Jr.fan, and I'm serious about that,
and so, when I was watchin' youdo this thing, actually bring
this guy back to life, and I wasjust completely blown away, so
I've had this "Ebony Magazine" since 1990.
This is like the special edition where--
Daniel: Yeah, I know, I know.
Michael: And so I figured, you know, as a show of my
appreciation and to honor your talents and your efforts,
I wanna give that to you.
Daniel: Oh, my, oh, come on.
I was literally looking at purchasing this on eBay--
Michael: Oh, really?
Daniel: Days ago, and I said, "No, I'm not gonna do that."
Michael: No, so, please, please accept that
and just keep doin'--
Daniel: Oh, this is--I--oh.
Michael: I really appreciateyou and appreciate your talents,
and so what you're doing up
there is for old heads like myself.
Daniel: Oh, you got me. You got me with this one.
Oh, that's--oh, I don't even wanna touch it.
I wanna put it back in the plastic.
Thank you very--thank you, thank you.
Michael: As the great AugustWilson once said, "All you need
in the world is love and laughter.
That's all anybody needs, to have love in one hand and
laughter in the other."
Thank you for tunin' in.
I'm Michael Taylor, and we'll see you on the next episode
of "Theatre Corner."
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