BILLINGS — Noah Watts, a child of the ’80s, grew up playing video games such as Pong and Mario Brothers.
Watts, a member of the Crow Tribe, also in his youth attended Crow Fair every summer, gathering with family to dance at the powwow, ride in the parade and take in the rodeo.
The two interests came together in his late 20s, when Watts snagged the role of the lead character in one of this fall’s best-selling video games, “Assassin’s Creed III.”
Watts portrays Connor, a half-British, half-Mohawk Indian assassin (Indian name Ratonhnhaké:ton) in the time of the Revolutionary War. As with past versions of the games, the crux of the plot is Assassins vs. Templars.
The Ubisoft-produced game is a rarity in giving a Native American character the lead role. It was released Oct. 30 and, on one software chart, already is listed at No. 5 globally for sales.
Watts, an actor and musician who lives in Los Angeles, was born in Livingston and grew up in Bozeman. Like the protagonist in “Assassin’s Creed III,” Watts comes from a blended background. His mother is Crow and a descendant of the Blackfeet Tribe, while his father’s side of the family is Scottish and English.
“I believe that’s one of the main reasons I was appealing to (the game’s creators) because my heritage was very similar,” he said in a telephone interview.
He remembers his trips to Crow Agency every year, visiting family, taking part in the events at Crow Fair. A traditional Crow war dancer, he competed in the powwow and rode horseback in the morning parades.
He loved it all.
“Just seeing all the tepees, seeing my relatives riding around on horses, all the food,” he said. “Just being around it was special for me.”
Watts’ interest in acting also goes back to his childhood. He took part in plays all through school.
In high school, he participated in speech and debate, rotating between serious and humorous pieces. In his senior year, in 2001, he took fourth place at the National Forensic League’s national meet for a dramatic solo piece.
The next year, he worked on two films, “The Slaughter Rule,” which starred Ryan Gosling, and “Skins.” He knew then that acting was his passion.
“All signs pointed to Los Angeles and being an actor and a musician,” he said.
Watts attended the American Academy for the Dramatic Arts in Los Angeles for a semester, but when he got the chance to act in another movie, a mystery titled “Skinwalkers,” he jumped at it.
He has learned a lot on movie sets, he said, and he has worked with an acting coach to refine his craft.
He did film, TV and theater and had just completed work in five shows of the TV series “Ringer” late summer 2011 when he got a call from his manager.
Watts had an audition for a part in an unnamed film.
“It was a period piece set in the American Revolution,” he said. “I had no idea it was a video game until I got offered the part.”
Not only was Watts familiar with “Assassin’s Creed,” he was a fan of the games, having beaten each one in the series.
He began work on “Assassin’s Creed III” in January, traveling to Montreal for a couple of weeks at a time. He’d return to Los Angeles and then go back to Quebec, as needed, until he finished this fall.
On the set, Watts would don a sort of skin-tight wet suit. Reflective motion tracking sensors attached at his hips, knees, feet, hands, shoulders and back captured his motions.
Watts also wore a helmet cam, with custom-made motion sensors on the top and a camera hooked to the helmet and placed 4 to 6 inches in front of his face, to film his facial expressions.
He strove to make his movements convey Connor’s character.
“Shoulders hunched and head down is different than head up, shoulders back,” Watts said. “It gives a different attitude to the person. I tried to bring that to the role, that type of aura.”
He also had to speak Mohawk, which he did with a consultant sitting next to him in the studio. He’d speak the lines “over and over till I got it right.”
He didn’t do his own stunts. As in most movies, that work was left to a stuntman.
In the past, Watts said, one actor would do the voice and another the motion capture. As a game player, Watts found that jarring.
“It looked kind of weird,” he said. “With the voice of somebody on somebody else’s body. Subconsciously, your brain notices it.”
This way, the game makers captured “a more complete version of the character instead of a hybrid of a bunch of different people,” he said.
He’s played the completed “Assassin’s Creed III” with a different point of view from the earlier “Assassin’s Creed” games.
“It’s very interesting to hear myself throughout the game,” he said. “The story is rich, and the interaction with the other characters reminds me of certain times on the set.”
Watts wouldn’t mind doing more voiceover motion capture. He’s also working on other TV and film projects.
As for portraying a Native American in such a public platform, Watts is glad for the opportunity.
“For the first time, we’re allowed to step into the shoes of a Native and look at it from his viewpoint,” he said. “I’m excited. I love it. It’s something we’ve needed to do for a long time.”