By Michael Aushenker
There were two people surprised by the revelation that actress Daniele Watts is a descendant of the Confederate Army rebel Newton Knight, a controversial John Brown-esque Caucasian who fought to keep Mississippi’s Jones County free of grey uniforms during the Civil War: One was Watts. The other was actor Leonardo DiCaprio.
“He deserted the Confederate Army and started a militia,” Venice resident Watts said of her great-grandfather, rebel among Rebels Capt. Knight. “He openly had a black wife even though it was illegal.”
It was researching her character in last winter’s hit film “Django Unchained” that led her to make the genealogical discovery, and it was while on the New Orleans set of Quentin Tarantino’s movie that the book Watts was reading about Knight caught the eye of DiCaprio, who received an Oscar nomination for his turn as sadistic plantation-owner villain Calvin Candie.
By coincidence, DiCaprio and their “Django” co-star Kerry Washington, had years ago done a table read for a project which would star DiCaprio as Knight –the basis of the movie “Tap Roots” and soon to be the subject of “The Free State of Jones,” an upcoming film by “The Hunger Games” filmmaker Gary Ross.
On Saturday, July 27, serendipity also had a hand in Watts becoming the artist-in-residence at Venice’s Source Spiritual Center, where she helped create its Victory Love Garden, a corner of tranquility, retreat and contemplation.
“I never pictured myself living in Venice,” said Watts, who has only lived in Dogtown for a couple of weeks. “I’m a Silverlake/downtown girl. I went to USC.”
Born in Riverside, Watts – who portrayed Candie’s slavish maid Coco in “Django,” alongside Jamie Foxx, DiCaprio, Washington and Christoph Waltz – is the daughter of a military man and grew up moving around northern California before spending her high school years at the same performing arts academy in Atlanta that nurtured singer Usher and actress Raven-Symone.
Studying acting in college brought the aspiring actress to California, and it was at USC’s theater school where she became part of the “guinea pig” class of actor Andy Robinson, who portrayed the twisted Scorpio serial killer in the original “Dirty Harry” opposite Clint Eastwood. Post-graduation, she continued her training with acting coach Choice Skinner.
Even while in high school, Watts married her personal career aspirations with altruistic goals, taking part in ARCH (Artists Raising the Consciousness of Humanity) Productions. She always saw her yearn to perform as something more than a self-serving, ego-placating profession.
“It wasn’t just this frivolous thing,” she said, “but a gift I had to share for the betterment of my community to reflect things and provoke thought.”
She chalked some of it up to good-ol’ fashion Christian guilt: “I felt I should be feeding people in Africa or something. (I decided) my art could do something that was justifiable.”
“Our system of democracy comes from the Greeks,” she continued. “The Greeks really revered the actors. It’s no coincidence they gave us the theater. You don’t get to be an actor by not working on it.”
Watts’ inauguration of the artist-in-residence spot at the Source Spiritual Center has its roots in her friendship with famed raw food movement leader Chef Be Live, who had embarked on opening a start-up café at the center – what Watts described as a “nondenominational [site] of happiness and joy.” Soon, Watts got into Wednesday night meditations at the Hare Krishna site and began clicking with their philosophy.
“The way we all connected to each other was awesome,” she said. “I said, ‘I would love to be involved with this community, what can we do to help?’”
As it turned out, Source Café sought to create a community garden not unlike the one at Café Gratitude on Rose Avenue just a couple blocks away. Before Watts could head over to Gratitude to inquire about their parcel of tranquility, a café representative inadvertently approached her. Finian Makepeace came to Source with a petition to keep Gratitude’s garden alive. Evidently, it had violated a city building code and they were ordered dismantle it.
“A week later [on July 27],” recalled Watts, “their garden got shut down,” on the very Saturday that Source “happened to be having a Green Fair.”
Gratitude was about to dump its last three boxes when Watts intervened and asked if they could transplant the plants to cultivate their own “Victory Love Garden.” They agreed.
Watts expressed much gratitude toward the café’s generous spirit.
“I was like, ‘Aren’t we kind of in direct competition with you?’” Watts said. “It impressed me how people could cooperate and work together.”
Like Café Gratitude, the Victory Love Garden will also yield vegetables and fruits (squash, tomatoes, broccoli, corn, carrots, apple, peach, lemons) to inform the fresh ingredients within Source Café’s menu items.
“As the artist-in-residence, I envisioned it as being more of a community space in a meditative space,” Watts said of the spot, just a couple blocks east of the Pacific Ocean. “I’m so excited by the space.” And she sees herself improving on the Victory Love Garden. “I want to do arts and crafts days where kids can make ornaments for the trees. A magical part of the garden where only kids can get through.
“It’s something we’re creating together moment by moment,” she continued. “We’re open to other people in the community getting involved.”
As an actress, Watts is no stranger to forming families out of friends and creating that sense of a creative community, as she did on the “Django” set.
“We were all very conscious that we were making a movie that was commenting on society,” Watts said.
Watts, who had a pair of scenes discarded on the cutting room floor, only uttered one word in the final cut – “Bonjour.” And yet, she would not trade her month-long experience in New Orleans for anything. In addition to acting opposite DiCaprio, she’ll never forget the small moments: overhearing Foxx singing to himself; engaging in passionate discussions about art, race and the Trayvon Martin case with Foxx, Tarantino and producer Reginald Hudlin; or the meticulousness of a Tarantino set, on which the filmmaker, who enjoys leading his cast in the chant “We love making movies,” insists that all cast and crew check their cell phones at the door.
“That’s the kind of focus that makes great art,” Watts said.
After Tarantino’s screenplay for “Django” found its way online, a controversy erupted over what detractors saw as the Caucasian Tarantino’s flip interpretation of a painful chapter of African-American history as fodder for his genre film backdrop (not unlike the criticisms which arose from a sector of the Jewish community in 2009 following the release of his World War II pastiche, “Inglourious Basterds”).
Recalled Watts, “He released the (“Django”) script and all that backlash came out in the industry that was the catalyst (for me) to write an essay for Indywire,” debunking the fallacy of viewing blacks as a monolithic group. The actress confirmed the “Django” cast and crew braced itself for such a critical lashing.
That said, “Django Unchained” grossed $424 million worldwide and earned five Academy Award nominations, including wins for Tarantino’s script and Waltz.
Acting-wise, Watts just auditioned for the TV show “Glee.” As she awaits her next big role, she still has warm memories of her recurring role on season eight of the popular cable show “Weeds,” and of working on “Django.”
“I have a lot of energy,” she said, “and (Tarantino’s) the first person I ever met that has that much energy. He has a reputation for being crazy, but I just think of it as passion.”
Meanwhile, Venice’s energy and passions suit Watts, who says she does not miss her downtown loft.
Moving to Venice, for her, was moving forward.
“It was the right time.”
The Source Spiritual Center’s Victory Love Garden is at 305 Rose Ave., Venice. Information, sourcespiritualcenter.com; (310) 450-5437. To volunteer at the center, Sourcespiritualcenter@gmail.com.