Noah Watts strolled into a Los Angeles casting office earlier this year to audition for what he thought was a feature film. He was handed a script for a leading role, delivered his lines and left. The office called him back in for a second audition, then a third. The context of the film was kept secret until, having landed the role, Watts signed a non-disclosure agreement.
As it turned out, Watts hadn't auditioned for a film at all. He'd just been cast as the main protagonist in "Assassin's Creed 3," the latest installment in Ubisoft's hit video game series. Ubisoft intended to keep the public in the dark about the game, but Watts learned two key elements: The setting would be America's Revolutionary War, and his character would be a member of the Mohawk tribe.
Watts was born in Livingston. His family relocated to Bozeman when he was 3 years old, and he spent much of his childhood playing sports and acting in school productions like The Wizard of Oz.
More to the point, however, Watts grew up Crow. He traveled to the Crow Reservation every August from a very young age, gathering with his mother's family and participating in traditional dances and ceremonies at the annual Crow Fair Celebration. "It was always there," Watts says of his Native heritage. "I never questioned it." The trip taught Watts the value of having pride in his roots.
Watts never really considered acting as a career. As a teenager, he was much more interested in sports. But during his junior year at Bozeman High School, Watts joined the speech and debate teams. He traveled the state wowing judges with dramatic monologues, winning 13th place at a national tournament his first year. As a senior in fall 2000, Watts also landed his first feature film role as Waylon Walks Alone in Alex and Andrew Smith's The Slaughter Rule, alongside renowned actors David Morse and Ryan Gosling. It was Watts' first professional audition, too. He was 17.
"The stuff happening on the set, getting a trailer, signing the contracts, working in front of a 35 mm camerait was all new and exciting," Watts says. "My first role I ever tried out for and I got it. That doesn't happen to too many people."
Months after wrapping his scenes for The Slaughter Rule, Watts traveled to Nebraska to begin principal photography for Chris Eyre's feature film Skins. Taking on the role of Herbie Yellow Lodgealso a Native American characterrequired that Watts take three weeks off from high school. He graduated that May and promptly won a scholarship to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Los Angeles.
Watts has racked up quite a resume in the intervening decade. He guest starred on a series of hit TV shows including "CSI: Miami," "Ringer" and "Sons of Anarchy." He played Native American characters in a number of independent films. The stage has even called him back; he played the lead role in the Southwest Repertory Theatre's rendition of The Indolent Boys, and traveled to London's inaugural Origins festival in 2009 to reprise a role from a 2008 "Native Voices at the Autry" production.
For Watts, work has a way of bringing him back to his roots. His latest film is yet to be released, an independent film titled The Last Beyond shot entirely in Watts' hometown of Livingston. The movie is set during the Depression and Watts portrays the Native protagonist Joe Running Elk. The last project Watts worked on in Montana was his first, The Slaughter Rule, meaning The Last Beyond has brought him full circle. Watts considers himself a part of a cadre of Native American writers, directors and actors who, over the past 12 years or so, have exercised increasing control over how their people are represented in popular entertainment.
"It's a huge honor to be part of the group that's breaking these boundaries, stepping forward and saying, 'We have a right to tell our stories, and we have a right to direct our stories, and we want to act in our own [stories],'" Watts says. "We need to control our image in the media and not let some other third party control it for us, tell us who we are, tell everyone else who we are."
Watts spent much of the past summer at Ubisoft's headquarters in Montreal, voicing the role of Mohawk protagonist Connor Kenway and conducting facial- and motion-capture work for in-game cinematics. Watts says he relied on memories of his Crow upbringing to inform how he carried himself as Kenway.
"I just tried to think about certain people in my life who were on that side of my family, the Native side," Watts says. "How they carried themselves, how they talked, how they moved. I was so happy that a game of this caliber, this size, would even consider using a Native American as the main protagonist."
The "Assassin's Creed" series has long been hailed for the depth of its historic detail. The plot itself is pure fiction, following a millennia-old war between a guild of assassins and the Knights Templar. The parkour stylings of game movement, from shimmying up walls and perching on steeples to vaulting over enemies, stem from a similar stretch of the imagination. But the settings are a different story. In constructing the original "Assassin's Creed" world, designers created largely accurate depictions of three cities from the Third Crusade, circa 1191: Jerusalem, Damascus and Acre. Those same developers researched maps and writings from Renaissance Italy in building "Assassin's Creed 2."
And for "Assassin's Creed 3," Watts found himself working with cultural consultants from the Mohawk Nation. Those consultants guided development of not just Watts' character, but the villages and Native people with whom players interact. Watts even had to learn to speak the Mohawk language to deliver many of his lines.
"It's a beautiful language," Watts says, "but trying to learn a whole new language and speak it like you've spoken it your entire life is quite a challenge."
Watts jokes that playing "Assassin's Creed 3," which was released on Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 late last month, feels a bit surreal. He's an avid gamer and longtime fan of the first installments of the "Assassin's Creed" saga. But he's used to other voices guiding him through the game. Now it just feels like he's talking to himself.
"I never would have thought they'd do this," Watts says, "put an Indian in therelet alone me."
"Assassin's Creed 3" comes out on PC and Mac on Nov. 20.