The Dark Horse a daunting task for actors

22:13, Jul 23 2014

Kiwi actors Cliff Curtis and James Rolleston admit they developed a love for the game of chess while making their new film.

The pair are the stars of The Dark Horse, the film that launched this year's New Zealand International Film Festival, which tells the true story of the late Gisborne speed chess champion Genesis Potini.

Though battling bipolar disorder himself, Potini managed to turn around the lives of a group of rebellious local youth, coaching them in chess and leading them to a national championship.

Curtis takes on the lead role of Potini, while Rolleston plays his nephew Mana, who has been brought up surrounded by gangs, drugs and violence.

It was something of a reunion for the pair, who worked together on Boy in 2010. Rolleston was the fresh-faced young hero of the hit film, while Curtis was behind the camera as producer.

"I loved working next to him, eh - it was mean," says Rolleston of Curtis.


"I learned heaps from him, having him beside me really helped in my performance."

Curtis says he also learned from his younger counterpart. "He's just so awesome."

For Rolleston - who was 12-years-old when he shot to stardom in Boy, and later graced the nation's TV screens as the face of the Vodafone ads - the role of Mana was a stark contrast to his previous happy-go-lucky character.

"It's been a good experience for me. I got through a lot of challenges playing this role, a few heavy scenes in there which I thought that I would struggle with hard out and wouldn't be able to do.

"It will be interesting to see what the public call me when this one comes out - see if I'm still Boy or 'Vodafone Guy'."

As Potini, Curtis embarked on the daunting task of portraying a real life character through method acting - remaining in character for the entire shoot, and undergoing a physical transformation.

"I put on a lot of weight. I had to eat a lot of food, drink a lot of beer, and play a lot of chess."

Both Curtis and Rolleston underwent chess training for the film, from the real Potini's friends and fellow chess coaches, Noble Keelan and Shane "Jedi" Fitzgerald.

"I'm just obsessed with the game," says Curtis. "I go online and play speed chess. I love chess now."

Says Rolleston, "Before this film I knew where the pieces went, but I had no gameplan. I had no structure. I just thought of it as another board game,

"The game's way funner when you know what you're doing."

While Rolleston says he is focusing on school at the moment - "I've got Kapa Haka [Nationals] next week" - he hopes to pursue his acting career. He is already starring in another local film, The Dead Lands, which will premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival later this year.

As for Curtis, a sought-after actor in Hollywood as well as at home, he says he remains committed to supporting New Zealand's film industry.

"I'm really privileged to be a part of it. I'm very, very passionate about doing what I can to grow our industry, to help grow our talent and help tell our stories."

* The Dark Horse shows in cinemas from July 31.