Although born in New Zealand and of Maori descent, actor Cliff Curtis has been one of filmdom’s most prolific character actors for more than 20 years, playing practically every ethnicity on the planet. But when he gets the chance, he makes a point to return and represent his Kiwi roots, with such films as THE PIANO, ONCE WERE WARRIORS, WHALE RIDER, BOY (which he produced), and his current film, THE DARK HORSE, the true story of Genesis Pontini, a Maori speed chess champ who is released from a mental hospital after being treated for bipolar disorder. To get his life back on track, he decides to help out a group of kids get their lives together by teaching them the discipline of chess. He also attempt to save his young nephew from joining the same gang the boy’s father belongs to.
It’s a fantastic film with moving (and rare) lead performance from Curtis, who gained a great deal of weight for the part (the real Genesis weighed more than 300 lbs.) and is barely recognizable in the role. In his years as an actor, Curtis has been in such films as DEEP RISING, BLOW, SUNSHINE, LIVE FREE AND DIE HARD, THE MAJESTIC, and BRINGING OUT THE DEAD. In the last year, he managed to fulfill a long-time goal of playing Jesus in RISEN, and he just began his second season as a lead on the AMC series “Fear the Walking Dead,” on which he plays Travis Manawa.
I spoke with Curtis recently about many of his recent roles, as well as the state of the New Zealand film industry (not including the works of Peter Jackson) and found him to be a wonderfully thoughtful and revealing person. Please enjoy my talk with the great Cliff Curtis…
Cliff Curtis: Hey, Steve.
Capone: Hello, sir. How are you?
Capone: So, for the benefit of us non-Kiwis, is this story about Genesis, a fairly well-known one throughout New Zealand? Is his rise to this level of helping out people a familiar one? Did you know about it before this film?
CC: No. He’s one of those unsung heroes, which is what makes it so precious, because without this movie, his accomplishments would have gone unsung. And there are so many people in our communities who do this tireless work on behalf of the elderly, the infirmed, the young, the dispossessed, the disadvantaged, and they don’t get paid. They just do this work every day trying to help others, and it’s a real privilege to bring these stories to light.
Capone: And you’ve essentially helped build this legacy to him now that his family probably appreciates a great deal.
CC: Yeah. We just got another letter in last night from a young girl who was in a gang family, watched the film as part of the curriculum at school, and she’s left gang life and she’s turning her life around. It just came in last night. Because of the film. So the work that he did on a very small community scale is now reaching nationwide in our country and it’s becoming a part of the school curriculum and helping kids that have these challenges.
Capone: When you first heard about him and his story, what do you remember responding to the most strongly? Why did you want to play this part?
CC: I think it was a combination of things. Firstly, he was such an extraordinary character that I was intimidated by the role. I didn’t think I could actually do it. I didn’t know how I was going to do it. The challenge seemed so insurmountable. It seemed impossible that I could become this guy, and that became very, very enticing and really attractive that I could have this impossible challenge as an artist, as a craftsman, and work together with the writer/director [James Napier Robertson] and the producer to create this effect and to tell the story. The challenge alone was so huge. It was like this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I’m not going to get this chance again. I just had to jump all in and wrestle it to the ground and try to figure out how to make it happen.
Also in the movie, there are these beautiful kids that are disadvantaged because of circumstances. I was one of those kids growing up. I was a ward of the state. For a period of my life, I was pretty much an orphan. I left school at 14 and had no clear sense of purpose or direction in life, and it was a tough time in my life. I met a man who taught me, and he had become my teacher, he had taught me, not chess, but about traditional Maori culture and martial arts, and that changed my life. It turned my life around. During that clear point of time in my life, he had that effect on me and he still is my hero to this day. So I recognized my story in this story, and I recognized the power of these stories and how Genesis changed lives through the game of chess, but more importantly, he was so inspiring in the way he had so many challenges of his own, but how he saved himself was by helping others and being so generous, so giving, so selfless in his desire to help others.
Capone: Since you’d been through something similar, did you consider taking on this role a way of honoring those people that you said would otherwise go unnoticed? Not just Genesis, but this gentleman that helped you too?
CC: Yeah, it is. In my mind, I dedicated this movie partly to Genesis, but partly to my hero in life. I think for many people, there’s many, many people around the world and many communities around the world where they will recognize people in their own lives that helped them in times of need and trouble, and have made those sacrifices for others. I think it’s a real privilege to dedicate my work to something that’s so meaningful to me.
Capone: Something you said made me wonder, is fear of a role like this, does that make you say as an actor, “If I’m scared to do it, then I have to do it.”
CC: That’s exactly what happened. Firstly, it was like, “I think this could be a really bad idea. Me? What am I going to do? Wear a fat suit? How is this going to work?” I was like I don’t want to put on all of that weight. I don’t want the health problems associated with that rapid weight gain and rapid weight loss. It’s not a healthy thing to do. I don’t wanna put myself through that or my family. I didn’t understand the game of chess. There’s so much about it. I don’t understand mental illness. I didn’t really understand what that was all about.
At first, it was like “I don’t know. I don’t think I’d do a good job.” But what crossed the line for me was when I watched the documentary of the guy and started to talk to more and more people about him and the affect he had on these lives, and I made the connection between my life and his life and how I was affected by this kind of thing. All of a sudden, it just became so challenging, so impossible, I just knew I had to do it. I knew, the director knew, that we were going to succeed or fail spectacularly. There was no middle ground in this game. It was all in or nothing.
Capone: In different hands this story could have been overly sentimental, but that is not what’s going on here. The edges of this story are rough and jagged. Was that something that you insisted upon, that this isn’t just some story of a good guy? That the film play up his surroundings and what he came out of?
CC: If I’m being really honest with you, I’ve produced movies in the past, and as a producer, I’m really aware of the commercial realities of trying to market and sell a film, and I would have probably taken the edges off, if it were left to me [laughs]. So I’m so glad, and I had discussions about that. I really discussed that stuff, because there’s so much that we could have done, different chapters of his life, and made a very different movie. But to the credit of the writer/director and producer, they wanted to keep those jagged edges, and were very aware of not making this sugary sweet and sentimental, which is probably the direction I would have gone if I’d been fully in charge of it. Thankfully, their talents and abilities saved the story and Genesis from that prospect. So all credit to them, really. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to take credit for that, but it would be dishonest [laughs].
Capone: The films that have made it out of New Zealand and broke internationally, like WHALE RIDER, THE PIANO, ONCE WERE WARRIORS, all of which you have been a part of, or something like BOY [written and directed by Taika Waititi], which your co-star [James Rolleston] was in…
CC: And I actually produced BOY.
Capone: Which I completely forgot, so there you go. I know a lot of films shoot in New Zealand that aren’t supposed to be in New Zealand, but you’re shooting these films that are set in New Zealand. How important is that to you that you come back home and help get something like this off the ground?
CC: It’s not so much a part of my career. It feels much more like a vocation. My career as an actor is in Hollywood, and it’s as much about survival as anything else in this town—trying to get gigs, trying to get meaningful roles, trying to get things that challenge you and help you along your way in your career. But the work that I do back home is much more vocational and soulful for me. It’s hugely important to me. There’s almost a spiritual aspect to my work as an artist that elevates what I do, in my own mind anyway. And it gives me a clear sense of purpose.
Traditionally from my heritage and culture, storytelling is really, really important, so telling stories through film and cinema is a way of evolving our traditional culture around storytelling. If you look at WHALE RIDER, if you look at even THE DARK HORSE, we’ve interwoven our little narratives around our mythologies, which to me is very enriching and very affirming for me and for people back home. Otherwise we remain an invisible minority, some quaint afterthought. But by making movies about who we are, in the eyes of the world, we become real, we become visceral.
Even if you travel to New Zealand, you’re not going to go to the Eastern Knights Chess Club. You’re probably going to go skiing, or you’re going to go see Hobbiton, or you’re going to go bungie jumping. You’re not going to go hang out with the local gang and see if you can help some underprivileged kids. That’s generally not what you’re going to fly thousands of miles to experience. Through films, we can connect people, we can connect stories, we can enhance humanity’s ability to relate to people from different backgrounds and experiences, and we make things that otherwise might seem scary and otherworldly somehow more human.
Capone: The last thing I saw you in before THE DARK HORSE was playing Jesus in RISEN, which I think you shot after THE DARK HORSE.
CC: Yeah, man! Well done. You got that right.
Capone: I see a connection between these two characters. They’re both these beings of love. They just want to help people. Maybe I’m reading into things, but did playing Genesis mentally prepare you to take the ultimate acting plunge? A lot of actors don’t have the guts to play Jesus. I don’t know if that was one of your goals. Was there that direct link for you?
CC: It is uncanny that you’ve actually hit it right on the head. That’s exactly what it was. As a kid, I was raised a Catholic. When you become an actor, everybody always says “What role do you want to play?” I always wanted to be Jesus. It became a running joke, because I never thought that was even possible. So it just became like a joke for me, and many people who asked me that question would know that I wanted to play Jesus.
Now one of the things when I was considering the role of Genesis was I watched the documentary, and it showed him describing one of his serious bouts of mania, where he actually believed he was Christ come back to earth to save all humanity, and that so stuck me, it was so powerful, and he was so lucid in his ability to articulate his mania, he truly believed he was Christ. I was sold. I was fascinated by this man.
And then also, in terms of the difference between my art and my craft and the commerce of my career, a lot of my living in Hollywood has come from playing bad guys. So when Genesis came along, sure the physicality and putting on all the weight was a big challenge, but being a person of love, being a person who was so compassionate and selfless and giving and generous, that was the real challenge, trying to open up my heart and convey hope just in the presence of Genesis. He just conveyed hope, he was like an emblem of hope for many, many people. He signified hope and possibility for people that had lost hope.
And then Jesus, exactly. I think that Genesis to Jesus—which in bible terms is Old Testament to New Testament.—playing Jesus was this little wink from Genesis in my mind that I did good, and my reward was I got to be Jesus [laughs]. He’s one of the ultimate good-guy figures in all of humanity’s history. He’s the nicest guy in the world. Can you get nicer than Jesus? That was just a blessing. It was amazing. You absolutely hit it. That’s amazing you picked up on that.
Capone: Before I let you go:“Fear the Walking Dead” is starting up very soon. It’s a lot more episodes than the first season. Was that slightly terrifying that you have more than twice as many episodes this time around?
CC: No, no. I was excited and a bit shocked the the first season was so successful in terms of garnering a new audience that hadn’t even watched the original series. Something ike 50-60 percent of the viewers were new viewers to this franchise. But here’s a fun little tidbit: Since you made the connection between Genesis and Jesus, right when I finished filming my role as Jesus, I was in Malta and Spain, I got the inquiry about taking the role in “Fear the Walking Dead,” which was fascinating to me because Jesus was about the resurrection, coming back from the dead. I thought it was hilarious that I was going to be in this pop-culture franchise where the whole planet is coming back from the dead in a totally different way. So I thought that was really funny.
But to connect those three characters, because that’s how I see it in my mind, my character in “Fear the Walking Dead” is Maori, and his name is actually Travis Manawa, and “Manawa" means “heart.” In my career, like I said, I’ve played a lot of bad guys and exotic roles, and these roles came together in a bundle. You know how things happen in threes? Like many years ago, I wrote a list of the directors I wanted to work with—there was Michael Mann, Martin Scorsese, and David O’Russell, and in one year, the very same year I wrote that list out, I worked with all three. There’s a trilogy here that goes from Genesis to Jesus to Travis Manawa. In many instances, Travis Manawa in “Fear the Walking Dead,” he’s a really good guy. He wants to help everybody. All he’s concerned about are the people he loves. He’s the most compassionate character in the show.
Capone: I’ve been a great admirer of yours for many, many years, and best of luck with the film and the show.
CC: Thank you, man. Thanks so much, especially for your astute observations.
Capone: You’ve made me feel smart today.
CC: You made yourself smart. That was good stuff. Well done. Thank you.