Cliff Curtis: Mate in one

by Diana Wichtel / 19 July, 2014
There’s a buzz about his latest movie based on the life of a local chess legend. Cliff Curtis talks to Diana Wichtel.
Cliff Curtis
Man of many parts: rock ’n’ roll dancer, manual labourer and family man are among Cliff Curtis’s real-life roles. Photo/ Chris Skelton.

He’s weathered the storm. The power’s still off in my part of Auckland when Cliff Curtis calls from his birthplace and home base, Rotorua. “I’m looking at the lake and the cloudy sky and rain and birds and trees,” he reports. “There are leaves all over the deck so I gotta clean out the gutters.” A little different from his glamorous life as Hollywood star, then. “Completely. It’s good. A good thing.”

Well, good. But we need to talk about his film, The Dark Horse. I confess to nervousness about new local productions: you worry. “I know. There’s a sense of obligation to enjoy it. It’s horrible.”

As it turns out The Dark Horse is aptly named: it arrived with minimal hoopla and it delivers. “Oh! Thank goodness,” he says with what sounds, even from an actor of his stature, like real-life relief. His performance is very moving. “Amen!”

This is in danger of turning into a revivalist meeting. I’m expecting him to sing the usual anodyne promotional hymn of praise. But it seems that everyone weathered a different kind of storm on this project. “He’s a beauty, he’s a real gem,” he says now, of his character, based on Gisborne speed chess champion Genesis Potini. It wasn’t love at first sight. “I was like, ‘Yeah, nah. I don’t think so.’”

That doesn’t sound promising. “I didn’t know the film-makers and the script was very ambitious,” he explains. It needed developing, he thought. “And, of course, film-makers don’t ever want to hear that. They want to hear everything’s perfect, everything’s great and you want to give up your family life and not get paid. They want to hear all these amazing things about [being] blown away by what they’ve presented,” he says. “They were like, ‘Oh, we want somebody to put on all this weight’, and I was, like, ‘Nah. Go and find Robert De Niro.’”

The character, he says, seemed impossible. He does, a bit. Genesis Potini (Ngati Porou) lives a hardscrabble life shadowed by bipolar disorder. He helps establish the Eastern Knights, a chess club where local kids – or anyone – can learn what Potini sees as not just a board game but a way of being.

In the movie version, Gen hatches a wild plan to take a ragtag crew of Gisborne kids to an Auckland national chess tournament. Obstacles include his gang-leader brother. In this movie Curtis gets punched a lot. Think Once Were Warriors meets Shine. Bring a hankie.

Curtis delivers a performance that accelerates right up to, but never quite over, the top in a movie that’s about to open the New Zealand International Film Festival. “They didn’t give up,” he says. “They sent another draft and then they did a really clever thing. They sent me a link to a documentary by Jim Marbrook called Dark Horse.” That award-winning 2005 film on Potini did the trick. “I watched it and I was just so blown away by this human being. What a legend.”

Happy ending. Eventually. Director James Napier Robertson (I’m Not Harry Jenson) has spoken about getting Curtis to work in a different way. He duly packed on nearly 30kg. He stayed in character throughout the shoot. Just on set, surely. “No, he wanted me to not have contact with my family for a duration of up to six months.” What? “Yeah, it was ridiculous. It was like, ‘Sorry buddy, ain’t going to happen. The only way I’m going to make it through this production is if I have my family around me so you can kiss …” Right.

Still, he did his bit. “My family had to live with me for a matter of months where I dressed like the character every day. Saturday, Sunday I walked around like Genesis. I had my gummies in.” I think he’s referring to the character’s creative dentition. There was also the scary haircut. “It’s not scary. It’s fashionable.” Well, it might be after the movie. “Ha. When I was presenting the haircut to them they said, ‘Is that too extreme?’ I was going, ‘Not where I come from, bro.’” It’s practical, he insists. “You can’t see the back of your head so you just, like, shave what’s in front of you. You’re done.”

Cliff Curtis
Curtis in Fox drama Gang Related.

He’s a practical kind of guy these days. His co-producer credits feature on such movies as Taika Waititi’s Eagle vs Shark and Boy. In earlier days, he didn’t want to know about that side of the game. “It’s like ‘La-la-la I can’t hear you. Budget? Boring. Schedule? Boring,’” he says. “Then you cross the line to the dark side. The creative mind loves it. All of those logistics are really fun and exciting for me, being somebody who’s told to just turn up, put this on, say this, stand over there,” he says. “All of those little synapses in my brain are getting fired up. They’ve been lying there dormant from all my years of being a creative.”

Nothing much about Curtis, you imagine, ever lies dormant. But he loved the business of hawking Boy. “You get to sell it before anybody believes in it. You sell it to yourself before you believe in it. You get to drive this silly notion that this film is going to be a huge box office hit and it’s going to be a classic hit. And you look like a mad person,” he says happily.

So he likes to be in control. “Good producing is not about getting your way,” he insists. “It’s not about having control. It’s about creating an environment for the creatives to develop their best possible work.”

Well, maybe he likes to be in control, a bit. “It’s tricky, when you come back to Genesis. I’m back to being contracted as an actor. It’s a bit weird because I carry all of that experience with me and I can back myself. I can point to stuff.” So he had opinions. “And they weren’t necessarily the points of view of an actor but the points of view of a producer.” Was he happy with it in the end? “Well, I had to get happy with it in the beginning.” Things got hammered out. He has an executive producer credit on the film. You imagine, especially on home turf, he feels he’s earned the right to have his say. Did people tell him to shut up a lot? “I had to tell myself to shut up.”

Good luck getting Curtis to put a lid on it. He’s intense, entertaining and as unable to be hurried as the lake vista before his eyes. Dive in with a question where you dare.

The Dark Horse is about succeeding against the odds. That’s in Curtis’s backstory, too. He compares film-making to thrashing your way through the bush. He’s done a fair amount of that sort of thing. “I’m a manual labourer, that’s my background.” He was a builder and glazier. “I’ve done digging holes. I laid concrete; did kitset garages.” Did he ever think that would be it for him? “Absolutely. I thought I was doing well at that point. I had certain influences in my life that my life could have gone a very different path. I was a ward of the state when I was 12.” It wasn’t so much going off the rails. “It was a family circumstance. I was imploding. I wasn’t acting out, I was turning inwards on myself and it was starting to show.”

For the kids at Potini’s club, salvation came via chess. For Curtis (Te Arawa, Ngati Hauiti) there was a programme learning taiaha with Mita Mohi and the Mohi whanau on Mokoia Island. “It was a kind of youth-at-risk course in traditional Maori culture. That was the first juncture that changed the course of my life. I don’t know where I would have ended up, where life was going at that point.”

He’d always had a performance bent. Curtis was a rock ’n’ roll dancer, like his dad. There was amateur dramatics – Fiddler on the Roof! He ended up attending the New Zealand Drama School, now Toi Whakaari. “I turned up in my work boots,” he has said, “because I was going to work.” He studied at Switzerland’s Scuola Teatro Dimitri. Against the odds. So he related to the redemptive themes in The Dark Horse. “Yeah, I’ve got a well of stuff to draw on and some of the scenes connect with that. I get it.”

He has famously gone on to play a range of exotic Hollywood roles, from a Colombian drug lord in Blow with Johnny Depp to an Iraqi rebel in Three Kings with George Clooney. He was an Indian guru in the extravagantly panned A Thousand Words (0% on Rotten Tomatoes) with Eddie Murphy. At home there’s been in The Piano, Once Were Warriors, River Queen, Whale Rider

In The Dark Horse, James Rolleston, the boy from Boy, plays Potini’s nephew. He’s called Mana, the name of the character Curtis played in The Piano. Everyone these days is only a few degrees of separation from Cliff. I mention the recent small fracas when director Geoff Murphy declared that Sir Peter Jackson has overshadowed the local film industry. Curtis worked with Murphy on the 2004 movie Spooked. “I love Geoff and Peter Jackson in equal parts,” he says unhesitatingly. “I think we need them both.”

Jackson supports the industry in ways that don’t always get talked about, says Curtis. When Curtis set up his own Whenua Films 10 years ago, the company’s first offices were at Jackson’s Park Road Post Production. “Just about every independent short film is asking for favours from those guys. They resource us in many, many ways. So it’s all one big family.”

Cliff Curtis
Curtis in The Dark Horse.

There’s something of a small Te Arawa family film industry emerging, too. “My cuzzies here – four short films have been made in the past 12 months.” He executive-produced one with his cousin Richard Curtis. “A short film called Ahi Ka, which is based on a story given to us about our grandmother.” She would light fires to stop land being confiscated as under­­used. “A beautiful story handed down by my grandmother to my aunt, who I lived with. It’s a family story that we’ve made into our first film from our little iwi.”

Whanau. Curtis, 45, is intensely private, but since he raised the subject, you have to try. There were reports of a wedding in Rotorua in 2009; of two children, a boy and a girl. So he’s married with children? “Very, very married with very real children, yes,” he says, with feeling. “And every morning and every night I could not be more grateful for how my life has worked out in that regard. Every day.” That’s as much as he’ll say but you get the picture.

The morning we speak he’s also juggling media calling from LA about his role as Javier Acosta, head of the Acosta crime family in Fox drama Gang Related.

How’s that looking? “I don’t know.” He doesn’t have a TV. What? “Imagine this,” he instructs patiently. “Imagine looking at your passport photo and listening to your voice message. You don’t look like you want to look and you don’t sound like you want to sound. Looking at yourself as an actor is like that. It’s just unnatural. There are rare beings that love looking at themselves but I’m not one of them. I don’t enjoy the process of looking at me.”

It’s not part of the job description. “As an actor, my job is leading up to the set. I throw the scene down, I walk away,” he says. “I’ve learnt to really disassociate from the product that they’re making. I just try to bring my best work on the day.”

Perhaps it’s his way of surviving the angst, artifice and ups and downs – that Eddie Murphy movie – of an international acting career. He’s relaxed, too, about having been pigeonholed for years as “ethnic guy with credible accent”. As he told Slate magazine, it pays the bills.

And things have begun to change. “If you look at the last couple of TV shows I’ve done, I’ve played leading role-type men.” He was an FBI agent in Body of Proof and a CIA agent in ABC drama Missing. “These were pan-American characters.”

There’s hope yet. Take Morgan Freeman. “He’s no longer a black actor, he’s Morgan Freeman and he can play anything. Anyone of profound authority and wisdom is Morgan Freeman. That’s his brand. It’s not based on ethnicity whatsoever. He can play the President. He can play God.”

God. That’s a role, in any accent, Curtis hasn’t played yet. “Oh, I like to think I have. When I’m throwing out rubbish, I am the God of throwing out the rubbish,” he declaims grandly. “I put it out on a Thursday morning and, man, I’m in complete control of my universe.”

The uncomplicated pleasures of a man living a very complicated life. He likes to laugh things off. There have been low points. “There was a time when I went to Hollywood and I thought, ‘What am I doing? I’m getting extra roles in these stupid movies. I think I’ll just go home and, I don’t know, do something else,” he says. “Then I thought I’ll do that thing where you write down your wish list. I wrote down the directors I wanted to work with – Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann, David O Russell … They were in my top five, 10 directors. And within a year I’d worked with all three. I thought, ‘Okay maybe I’ve got a shot at a career here.’”

Success: even back in Aotearoa it has its aggravations. “For many New Zealanders, I will never be seen as anything other than Uncle Bully,” he sighs, of his child rapist in Once Were Warriors. “They call me Uncle Bully.” That will teach him to be so memorable. But again, there’s hope. “For other New Zealanders, I’ve moved beyond that. They call me Cliff.”

And he’s not complaining. He’s taken his shot and composed a career out of what was to hand: Hollywood and Rotorua; Martin Scorsese and Peter Jackson; red carpets and putting out the rubbish. “I love it,” he says, as he contemplates the lake and awaits the next call from LA. Call him Cliff.

The Dark Horse has its world premiere at the New Zealand International Film Festival on July 17 and opens in New Zealand cinemas on July 31.

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