If I were a director, I'd want actors like Muse Watson in my film and on my set. The veteran actor has a recurring role on the television hit NCIS (as Mike Franks) and a list of movie credits as long as my arm and as diverse as the United Nations. He's acted with Sylvester Stallone and Antonio Banderas, and had guest appearances on television shows from iCarly to Criminal Minds. But he until this year, he couldn't pick a favorite. All that changed with his role in A Christmas Snow, due out this December.
Collaboration Is Key A Spiritual Journey to Ridgecrest
The Last of the Mohicans His Favorite Character
Still to Come
"I'm telling you, that was the best experience of my career, working on A Christmas Snow," Watson said in a recent interview. "Without imposing personal dogma on anyone involved, Tracy establishes an environment where everyone is trying desperately not to hurt each other. They're trying desperately to be nice and to do their jobs to the best of their ability, get to the story, do it and do it real, and without any egos and without any of the nastiness you find sometimes in Hollywood productions. It was amazing. I was tickled to death."
Watson came to the role of Sam in A Christmas Snow in a roundabout way. It started with his daughter. "I have an eight-year-old daughter, and there's a lot of my work she can't watch. I'm thinking more and more about life lessons and how to teach them to a young lady. I'd like to see her get them a little more quickly than her dad did. I'm also wanting to be involved in stories that my daughter can watch," he said.
"I befriended HOSFU and Eric Highland, and we'd been talking for about a year. The story I'm told is that they'd been in touch with another actor to play Sam in A Christmas Snow and had pretty much come down to the final negotiations. There were some scheduling problems or something, so Tracy (Trost, director of A Christmas Snow and last year's Find Me) was coming up on the filming start date and wondered what he was going to do. He contacted Eric for suggestions and Eric suggested me.
"They sent me the script and as soon as I read it," Watson said, "I realized that one of the biggest mistakes in my life would be to act in this film. I thought, 'I know this guy. Just memorize the words, go down there and open your mouth, and let your spirit lead you.' We made a deal and I went to Tulsa to film."
Collaboration Is Key
Watson co-stars with Catherine Mary Stewart and Cameron Ten Napel in the family drama about the storm of the century that brings the gift of a lifetime. "It was also a great pleasure to work with Catherine Mary Stewart too. She gives so much to you."
Though he's worked with many child actors, Watson had the highest praise for Cameron Ten Napel. "Working with her was great. She's the most professional actress for her age that I've ever met in her life. I've worked with children whose parents were harder to deal with than the child, but Cami's mother is so grounded. She keeps Cami straight (not that she needs a lot), and she teaches her things. I'd hear her say things like, 'You're fixing to do scene so and so. Do you remember the direction Tracy gave you the other night when you were rehearsing?'
"It's incredible the way her mother works with her to guide her and guide her performance. She doesn't direct her, but works with her on the principles of the business and the principles of being a great actress. Because of that, and Cami's own innate talent, she's the most professional little girl I've worked with in my life. She's just unbelievable."
Watson has experience in many different roles on a film set, all of which combine to give him a great understanding of the filmmaking process. "I'm one of those guys that believes in collaboration, but if actors don't know what the people they're collaborating with do, it's insane for them to expect to collaborate.
"To me, if an actor doesn't understand the shot, and he doesn't understand what he has to do to get his performance right in that shot, he doesn't understand his job. I think that was a bit of a surprise for Tracy in my performance. I don't think he expected me to know as much about filmmaking as I did, and he seemed to be very thrilled with it," Watson recalled.
"Because of that, I'm able to save a lot of time. I get a lot of my stuff on the first take. One of the toughest scenes for Catherine Mary Stewart and I to do was 12 pages long. We did that scene in one take all the way through.
"Of course, there were other angles to take on the scene. My close-up, for example, was another take, and after it was done, Tracy came walking in from video village and looked at me with tears in his eyes. You know, if you can get your writer and director (Tracy was both) to tear up during your performance, then you got what they were writing.
"He looked at me and said, 'Muse, there's no reason to do that again.' That's the job."
A Spiritual Journey to Ridgecrest
Because of his experience on the set and respect for Trost, Watson agreed to do as much publicity for the film as his schedule would allow. The film is set for an East Coast premiere at the Gideon Media Conference and Film Festival in Asheville, NC, the first week of June. "When they first approached me about going to the Gideon," Watson said, "It was about going to promote A Christmas Snow.
"Because of my experience with Tracy and my respect for him as a businessman, I told him I'd do anything I could do to promote the film. So when he mentioned Gideon, I told him if there was any way in my schedule, I'd do it. Then it developed into me being a speaker there, then showing the film with a question and answer session afterward.
"I didn't know about the Gideon and when they told me it was Ridgecrest, NC, my heart started to beat faster because I had gone to Ridgecrest, NC, as a very young boy and hadn't been back yet. I was part of a church choir from Emmanuel Baptist Church in Alexandria, LA.
"As I was working out my spiritual journey, I thought, 'What a wonderful opportunity it would be to go back to Ridgecrest.' I've passed that place a million times because I have a hideout in East Tennessee, and my good friend and chair maker Max Woody is in Old Fork, NC, and I visited him often."
The Last of the Mohicans
The countryside is familiar to Watson because he spent a year there working on the film The Last of the Mohicans in the 80s. "I was logistics coordinator on that show. I was in charge of all the planes and big boats and trucks. Of course, people tell me there weren't any on that show, but there were. You didn't see them on the screen, but there were a bunch of them there. I was coordinating the movement of all of them," Watson said.
"It was a huge picture and logistically it was a nightmare. We had so many hundreds of extras and each one had to be body-painted because they played Native Americans. Then they had to be showered when it was over. We had to build these little cities for food and makeup and hair and places for them to stay. We had to have hot running water and all this stuff.
"I bought circus tents to do it with. We had two sets, and while they'd film at one location, we were tearing down at the last location. We had to take out all the tents, plumbing, electricity, tables, etc. We leapfrogged locations, setting up at the next location so when the cast and crew were ready to move, their next location was ready. It was quite a job. That's when I learned to love Asheville. I was in Asheville over a year on that project."
His Favorite Character
With the variety of roles he's had, Watson still names Mike Franks, his character on NCIS, one of his favorites. "He's kind of a no-nonsense guy and I think he knows that life is about facing fears and learning lessons. He's learned quite a few himself, and he's helping his 'probies,' including Mark Harmon's character Gibbs, to understand and learn what he's been through and what he's learned from it."
Franks appears to be a complicated character involved with complex storylines, but to Watson, he's fairly straightforward and easy to understand. "Mike Franks has not done anything else that any of the other leads haven't done. [He] was one of the people who tried to warn our government about terrorism, and when the attack on the Twin Towers happened, it frustrated him that the politics of our government wouldn't allow us to take care of the things we knew were a threat. He was so despondent that he ended his career and retired," Watson said.
Like his role in A Christmas Snow, Watson came to NCIS in an indirect way. "I was told that Don Bellisario (NCIS creator and executive producer) saw the episode of Prison Break in which my character Charles Westmoreland didn't make the escape and died. I was told that he said right then, 'There's the guy we want on NCIS.'
"It was shortly thereafter that I came in to audition for Mike Franks. I walked into the audition with that gruff voice that I use for Mike. When I read his lines, I thought, 'Here's a man who's been kicked in the throat a couple of times.' Mike's one of those guys that has always preferred laying on the ground bloody to running. He's not a man to leave a scene. When I went in for the audition, I felt like I knew this fellow."
When asked about the type of cowboy sensibility he brings to the role, Watson admits it was his idea. "I don't think Don envisioned it originally. I brought a little bit of that to him because I felt it in between the lines.
"As the wardrobe people were trying their best to see who Mike Franks was, they got that western suit. For the first couple of seasons I wore my own Noconas (boots) on my feet until Mark Harmon told them they needed to buy me a new pair of boots.
"I wouldn't tell you that Mike would be a fellow that would know how to do a roping competition, but in my mind, he does follow the principles of a cowboy. In that way he's different from me, because I'm pretty much the real deal. I like my horses."
Still to Come
Cowboy he might be, but Watson still has plenty of films to go before he hangs up his scripts and retires to his horses. "In theater, I did three different productions of Cervantes' Man of La Mancha, and I have a dream of doing a modern-day version of Man of La Mancha in film. I've got some ideas for it, but I can't even really say it's in development, but it's on my bucket list."
While Man of La Mancha is still in the dream stage, Watson has another film, Cleansing, in development. "I play a preacher in the film. The director Josh Harrel wrote the story and then he and I collaborated on the screenplay. It's based on a true story that was part of Josh's life. His brother committed suicide and it's the story of a brother who has lost his brother to suicide.
"He's questioning his faith and he's been a long, long time friend of the local minister, who used to take the boys fishing all the time in Louisiana. It's his quest to write himself a next situation with the preacher's help. I'm the preacher, and I'm trying to talk to him and help him work through his grief.
"Josh approached me about The Cleansing about five years ago," Watson said, "and I told him he had some soul searching to do before he could do the story. I told him it was too raw for him right then. About two years later he came back to me, and in a meeting we had, I offered some changes to the story. Some of them I was offering a little tongue in cheek just to see how successfully he had dealt with the situation. He had dealt with it and was ready to go. That's when we started preparation to do a short.
"I'm actually executive producer of the film, and we filmed a short that's about 29 minutes long. I entered that short in the Gideon Short Film contest and it's been announced as a finalist for best short and best actor for Chad Allen, who plays the brother.
"So there will be two films at Gideon that I'm in: The Cleansing and A Christmas Snow."
Watson is scheduled to be the keynote speaker at the annual Gideon Media Conference and Film Festival banquet on Sunday, June 6. A Christmas Snow will be shown after the meal, with a question/answer session with Watson, director Tracy Trost, and other cast members Catherine Mary Stewart and Cameron Ten Napel.