The Curtis method

Kiwi actor Cliff Curtis is returning to New Zealand screens.
Kiwi actor Cliff Curtis is returning to New Zealand screens.

Missing from our screens for some time, Kiwi actor Cliff Curtis is back with a vengeance this month - not only starring in a new prime-time TV series in the US, but also his first New Zealand feature in almost a decade. James Croot catches up with him. 

Cliff Curtis didn't expect to find himself on the wrong side of the law. The 45-year-old Rotorua-born actor thought he'd auditioned to play the police chief on the new Fox drama Gang Related, but found he was actually being lined up to play crime boss Javier Acosta.

"I went through the entire process of negotiations believing or understanding I was going to play Sam Chapel [a role that eventually went to Lost's Terry O'Quinn] and it wasn't until they sent the contract through that I discovered I was actually signing up to play a completely different character," a relaxed and affable Curtis says down the phoneline from his home in Rotorua.

Cliff Curtis in Dark Horse, his first New Zealand feature in almost a decade.
Cliff Curtis in Dark Horse, his first New Zealand feature in almost a decade.

"I just sort of laughed about it and signed up anyway."

Describing himself as a contractor - similar to a plumber or a builder (a career he actually undertook before studying acting at Toi Whakaari) - the former star of Whale Rider, Once Were Warriors and Training Day says he looks at the people involved and the basic concept to help him decide whether he'd like to "tender" his services. Gang Related (scheduled to debut here on TV3 later this year) fitted that bill nicely.

"Yeah, I did have a confident feeling about it. It's based on The Departed/Infernal Affairs films. That's a solid concept for a series and, if treated right, there's some good material there. Plus, I know and like the director Allen Hughes [Broken City, From Hell] and the creators of the show had a very successful little film franchise - The Fast and the Furious."

Buoyed by the knowledge that the Acosta character was inspired by Jack Nicholson's Bafta and Golden Globe-nominated role in The Departed, Curtis threw himself into researching the character.

"I always feel responsible for establishing my own take on a character - I don't have anything else to bring to the table. I saw the potential that he is a family guy and I wrote this whole back story for him - that he'd gotten deeper and deeper into this organisation to the point he couldn't get out. To me, he's like the CEO of a corporation."

Curtis sees Acosta's relationship with gang member turned cop Ryan Lopez (Ramon Rodriguez) as central to the series and was also fascinated by how Acosta could "keep that guy on the hook working for me, doing things that are bad".

He says the trickiest part of this role was playing the father of guys who were actually his own age. "He's a middle-aged man trying to look sharp in tan suits. Fortunately I'd put on a whole lot of weight for another role and that actually helped create this gravitas. They also used very subtle makeup that actually aged me quite well, I thought, and greyed up all my hair. I was growing it out for that other role, so I had lots of hair to play with and created an '80s throwback hairstyle and goatee."

Ah, yes, that "other" role. Despite being a veteran of the US pilot season (where prospective new shows battle for network funding to get one episode made in the hope that they'll picked up for a full series), Curtis says this one was a particular challenge because he was in pre-production for the New Zealand film The Dark Horse - which has its world premiere in Auckland on Thursday as the opening night film for this year's New Zealand International Film Festival. He plays Genesis Potini, the late Gisborne speed chess champion who was widely admired for promoting the educational benefits of chess in poor communities.

"I had to negotiate a window of time of 10 days to go over and shoot the [Gang Related] pilot. I wasn't able to do rehearsals, but fortunately, because I'd done other films like Blow and Training Day I knew the world of cartels and gangs in LA. I would have liked a bit more time - but then you always want more."

And he admits that while he's usually pretty good at "not taking his characters home", Acosta was hard to shake because of also working on

Potini at the same time. "When I look at films, I don't normally look at the work, but rather what was going on at the time I was doing the work. But this pilot became enmeshed with what I was doing on the film and the [The Dark Horse] director [James Napier Robertson] had asked me to do the whole . . . what do you call it? What Daniel Day Lewis does . . . Method! So I tried my best to apply myself to that and I found it a bit of a weird experience."

Then there was the violence inherent in playing Acosta. "It's pretty heavy stuff and not anything I'd ever want in my personal life. Going to work and playing this maniac, a sociopath with a heart, bit of a prick - that was a stretch. By the end of the season things got more and more intense and my situation became more dark. Things kind of implode for the character - actually I'm not sure if I'm allowed to say that sort of stuff."

Another thing that came out of his stint on The Dark Horse was an addiction to chess. "I've dropped back to being an average chess player now - I think I plateaued somewhere around the end of filming. I had so many people to play chess with then and I haven't now," he laments.

"It was a steep learning curve and I've become really addicted to it. If you get past a certain level of understanding about the board, then it becomes really problematic. I don't know what goes through your brain, but I've got to wean myself off because it has been over a year. I play a lot of ‘trash chess' and games against the computer a lot now, which is kind of weird, but better than nothing in terms of a fix. I get the sense that if I don't study and continue to play the game I won't get any better."

Challenging himself is something that appeals to Curtis, that's why he's also been involved for the past decade in producing films. In 2004, he formed Whenua Films with his cousin Ainsley Gardiner. Its ethos was to foster the telling of indigenous stories, bringing short films like Taika Waititi's Tama Tu and the Oscar-nominated Two Cars, One Night to the screen, as well as Waititi's feature debut Eagle vs Shark, with Curtis bowing out once they got Waititi's follow-up Boy up and running.

"I got married around about this time and thought I better focus on marriage at that moment," says Curtis in a rare discussion of the private life he jealously guards. The public knows he got married at Tapuaekura a Hatupatu Marae, his home marae, on New Years' Eve on 2009 - just not who to - and that he has two children.

However, in more recent times he has been lured back to producing, getting involved with an eclectic bunch of films, including US action-drama Greencard Warriors and Mike Leigh's adaptation of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations.

"The good thing about producing for me is that there's a whole bunch of grey matter that doesn't get used as an actor that I like to apply and it's around the financing, distribution and marketing - learning the business aspects of the game. I love running the spreadsheets and looking at what the markets are doing. I've started my own company now and I'm looking at some collaborations, including a pretty exciting project with David Seidler who did The King's Speech. It's going really well, but it's a bit early to speak about."

You can forgive Curtis for being a wee bit cautious. Among his many successes there have also been projects that, despite the best will in the world, didn't quite turn out as planned.

Curtis expresses particular sadness about Trauma, a 2009 drama set in the world of paramedics that US network NBC cancelled after just 18 episodes.

"I had so much fun on that show, but it was under-developed. It was caught creatively between what the studio wanted, what the network wanted, what the executive producers wanted and what the creator wanted. Then there was all the politics involved when NBC got sold to Comcast."

NBC's programmers didn't help either, placing the show up against Monday night football and Jay Leno and then taking it off air during the Vancouver Winter Olympics.

He says seeing the show get caught up "in that maelstrom" was really stressful, particularly because he'd enjoyed playing Reuben "Rabbit" Palchuck so much.

"That character was something I don't get cast in often - your all-American leading guy. I'm used to playing bad guys who have got a good guy trapped inside of them, a human being caught in a bad world doing bad things and being conflicted about it. Here was someone who was doing good things, but knows he's internally got to get himself together.

"Look, it was preposterous and easy to poke holes at the show's shortcomings, but I thought that with time and development we could have really spun that show and character out into something worthwhile."

Another show whose demise he laments was the 2012 Prague-shot thriller Missing. "I think it had the potential to go on, but I did feel a bit far away from home for that one."

Which leads Curtis to try to correct a common misconception about him - that he's never here. "I love being home and I'm probably here 50 per cent of the time. If I'm not working, anyway."

He says he prefers to keep things low-key while in New Zealand, using the time to decompress after a tough or lengthy shoot. "Here, you're so far away from all the politics and hype. Right now they'll all be watching the TV ratings and all that kind of stuff and I'm here baking bread, raking up leaves or emptying out the gutter. It's so nice to come back to those things."

Curtis admits though that returning to Rotorua does have one drawback - a change in diet. "I've been an off and on vegetarian for about 20 years. The off part is usually when I get home. I'm so hungry and there's not much vegetarian food around.

"If there's a big boil up I get spotted just digging into the watercress and stuff. People think that's a bit odd, not eating the meat. I guess, to them, that would seem be the point of having a boil up."

He's also a proud All Blacks supporter, especially whenever the World Cup is on. "Every four years you'll find me somewhere in the world at a pub doing the haka around semi-final time."

Although, he recalls that last time he suffered personal embarrassment for his own, rather than the team's, performance. "I jumped up to do the haka and nobody else came with me. It was at that point I realised the pub was chokka full of Australians. Then I discovered they [the All Blacks] weren't doing Ka Mate, Ka Mate they were doing Kapa o Pango. I gotta learn that one now."

The Dark Horse (M) will open both the Auckland (July 17) and Wellington (July 25) legs of the New Zealand International Film festival before opening in cinemas nationwide on July 31.

The Dominion Post