From enforcer to beat cop to military sergeant, Reggie Watkins has played his fair share of tough guys on the small screen. None of that prepared him for what must be one of the biggest roles of his career so far – and it isn’t for a police procedural or gangland drama. It’s for a video game: Call Of Duty: Black Ops Cold War.
Watkins plays Sgt. Lawrence Sims in the blockbuster title, a laid-back and sarcastic CIA operative who joined the agency after two years in the US Army. The character has a significant role in the campaign, forming a close bond with Russell Adler, the agent charged with putting a team together to pursue Soviet spy Perseus.
“I grew up wanting to be in video games my entire life and now I’m in one of the biggest games in the world – it’s a dream come true,” the actor tells NME.
That said, he’s less of a gamer himself these days. And when he’s not acting, he’s a podcast host for Brothas On Football, which covers American football from a Black man’s perspective, and he’s also involved in local community outreach and activism as co-founder of The Valley Of Change.
“My son, however, is addicted to Call Of Duty,” he explains. “I literally have to go in and tell him to go to bed at like three in the morning sometimes because he’s stuck playing that game!”
To be in the latest Black Ops campaign must surely be the ultimate cool dad brag. But as with the secrecy of video game development, much like a CIA agent, Watkins had to keep that information classified from the moment he landed the role.
Watkins was one of only two actors to have both their likeness and voice captured for the game. So while he has played soldiers on the screen, it was quite another matter playing one in a game. And it wasn’t just down to putting on a motion capture, or mocap, suit.
“When you’re doing the voiceover, that’s a different deal because now you’ve got to bring all that energy you had while moving around a stage while standing in front of a microphone,” he says. “You got to be like there’s somebody with a gun chasing you, or you just shot a rocket, or you just got shot – we’re doing like six-hour sessions of just being assaulted!”
Being smack in the middle of a pandemic also made it more challenging. Fortunately, any mocap the original cast weren’t able to finish was handled by a crack team of ‘quarantine mocap specialists’ who had their own home setups. The actors were then able to focus on voiceovers, which Activision supported by shipping them the equipment they needed so that they essentially had their own home studio setup.
But there are things that you can’t stay home for, things far bigger than video games and movies.
As huge as this Call Of Duty opportunity has been, another equally important role Watkins has played this year is in grassroots community activism, triggered by the Black Lives Matter protests that took place this summer across the world in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a police officer.
Watkins describes himself as being “the militant friend” of his circle, stressing the importance of being engaged in politics and holding people in power to account. He was compelled to take action after his son began asking him questions about racism and how to fight it: “He’s never really come out asking questions like this to me – he’s 16, they don’t talk to you about anything. So this sparked me into doing something that keeps this kind of curiosity going.”
At first, the father-son pair made signs and walked down to their local street corner where other protestors had congregated. But he noticed that they were scattered and not really engaging with one another.
“I’m a gregarious person, so even while socially distancing, I tried talking to everybody there, just saying hello and letting them know who I was. Then I showed up again the next day and then somebody gave me a bullhorn, and then the next day, people started giving donations.
“That’s how I started talking to a lady named Latora Green, who said that she was interested in starting a nonprofit and staying involved.”
Together, they co-founded The Valley Of Change as both a local protest organisation and community outreach that’s busying themselves with neighbourhood cleanups and drives to feed the homeless. When so much mainstream media coverage of Black Lives Matter protests has focused on violent unrest, it’s important not to overlook the importance of organisations like this and how they can affect change at a local level.
For Watkins, The Valley Of Change doesn’t just help “inspire uncomfortable conversations” with the community. It’s also a safe space for young people like his son to protest that sets a positive example for change.
“I don’t allow people to flip people off, we’re not cussing and yelling at people,” he says. “I hope for a day in the world where we don’t need cops, but you’ll never see me holding a sign saying ‘F the police’. My dad used to be a cop, so I understand it’s a hard job that people put their lives on the line for. We’re just people about change, and you can’t be the change if you’re being them.”
Watkins repeats the message when asked if he has concerns, as a parent, about being heavily involved in a game notorious for online toxicity that often bubbles over to outright racism. It’s a problem that even the game developers have pledged to crack down on.
“I’ve talked to my son about it, and he understands that people wouldn’t say certain things if they were in your face,” he says. “So I tell him, ‘You take it with a grain of salt, and you don’t be them – you be the change’.”
The gaming world is starting to see more meaningful examples of Black representation in games. Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales is one such title, and Sgt. Sims himself is all set to be a major player in the Call Of Duty universe. So what does Watkins think of this shift?
“What I strive for Black people and minorities is to be able to be average like everybody else,” he says. “I don’t need to be the shining example of Black people when I book a job, I need to be the shining example of Reggie Watkins doing this job. Because white actors don’t have to be the role model of all white people, I’m trying to fight for Black people not to have to do that either.
“We all have the right to just show up and do what we have to do. And that is how we fight racism – just stand up, be you, and be unapologetically you.”