Cliff Curtis has featured in a string of local classics — Once Were Warriors, Whale Rider, The Dark Horse — while simultaneously carving a career as a sought-after Hollywood character actor, on everything from Three Kings to Fear the Walking Dead. Along the way he has worked with acclaimed directors like Martin Scorsese and Danny Boyle, and started producing films (Boy, Eagle vs Shark) back home in New Zealand.
Born in Rotorua in 1968, Curtis grew up there and on the Kapiti Coast. Growing up, he took part in kapa haka, rock'n'roll dancing contests and amateur theatre. But the drama wasn't only onstage. His mother died early; later, he dropped out of school and spent time as a ward of the state, before working in various labouring jobs. As he told Listener writer Diana Wichtel, "I've done digging holes. I laid concrete; did kitset garages." After deciding to try out for acting school, his workmates were encouraging. At Toi Whakaari Curtis felt simultaneously nurtured and challenged by his own perceptions of being an artist from a working class background. As he told the Sunday Star-Times in 2000. "I was a builder, a bloke. I didn't know what to wear to drama school. I turned up in my work boots because I was going to work".
After graduating from Toi Whakaari, Curtis acted in a number of theatre productions, and played a singer in TV movie Undercover (1991), before making his feature debut as part of the "blackdrop" to the main action, playing one of the Māori helping carry The Piano (1993). Amongst the talented cast of period melodrama Desperate Remedies, Curtis stretched himself to play Fraser, an addictive personality who Curtis said "may be a bastard, but he's honest about it and he has absolute confidence in himself". He also co-starred in 50-minute drama Kahu and Maia, as a carver haunted by visions of a woman he does not know.
But the role that brought him to a wide local audience was Uncle Bully in blockbuster Once Were Warriors (1994). He had originally auditioned for the part of Nig (played by Julian Arahanga), and only accepted the new role after one of his kuia reminded him there are always jobs people don't want to do. Curtis still gets New Zealanders calling out 'Uncle Bully' when they see him.
In 1994, he spent time studying at Teatro Dimitri Scoula in the Swiss town of Verscio. Desperate Remedies netted Curtis his first NZ Film and TV award the same year, for Best Supporting Actor. In 1995 he acted in telemovie Overnight, playing another musician. After starring in short film Mananui and playing a crazed animal rights activist in comedy Chicken, he won another award for 1998 mini-series The Chosen, in which he was a priest caught up in a love triangle.
The same year, his many auditions in Hollywood began to pay dividends. After joining Temuera Morrison for the chase scenes of Harrison Ford romp Six Days Seven Nights, he started winning industry attention in 1999, after getting cameo roles for three directors on his personal wishlist: David O Russell's acclaimed Three Kings (as an Iraqi rebel), Martin Scorsese's Bringing out the Dead (as a drug lord) and Michael Mann's The Insider (as a Hezbollah terrorist). Three Kings demonstrated how seriously Curtis took the responsibility of playing another ethnicity. Having overcome resistance from on high to playing the role when he wasn't of Middle Eastern extraction, Curtis did extensive work on research and dialect, including talking with many Iraqi extras in the cast.
Curtis has gone on to appear in Johnny Depp drug tale Blow (as drug lord Pablo Escobar), Oscar-winning cop drama Training Day (as a gang member), Danny Boyle's cerebral sci-fi film Sunshine (as the ship's doctor), Die Hard flick Live Free or Die Hard (as an FBI boss) and Colombiana (as uncle to the central assassin).
Curtis wasn't ignoring his homeland. His first starring role on the big screen was in 2000's Jubilee, the first film directed by local actor Michael Hurst. Cliff played a well-meaning but somewhat hopeless family man, lumped with organising a small town school jubilee. Far more widely seen was Whale Rider (2002), which travelled further than most Kiwi films that decade. Curtis played Porourangi, well-meaning but troubled father to the central character of Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes). He won a local Best Supporting Actor award for his efforts. Curtis was pleased to be in a film which showed a Māori heritage that is "alive and well in our hearts, our bodies and our minds". In the same period he directed an episode of anthology series Mataku ('The Rocks - Ngā Kõhatu') and co-starred in Geoff Murphy thriller Spooked, investigating the case of a missing computer dealer.
2004 was also the year that Curtis began a new side to his career, after forming Kiwi production company Whenua Films with cousin Ainsley Gardiner. Whenua's mandate is to foster the telling of indigenous stories. The duo produced Taika Waititi's acclaimed short Tama Tū (2005), about a group of Māori soldiers taking breath during the tension of WWll. The follow-up to Waititi's Oscar-nominated Two Cars, One Night, it screened at the Berlin and Sundance film festivals.
Compared to acting gigs where he had sometimes felt powerless, Curtis was excited to be in a job which involved creating an environment for "creatives to develop their best possible work". He credits his move into producing to Lord of the Rings producer Barrie Osbourne, who first met Curtis on the set of Rapa Nui, and suggested they work together.
From 2005 to 2006 Whenua Films ran an NZ Film Commission scheme which saw Whenua overseeing a series of short films. The results travelled impressive distances, including The Speaker (Berlin Film Festival), Coffee & Allah (Venice), Hawaikii (Berlin) and Taua (Clermont-Ferrand). In the same period Curtis witnessed another angle on filmmaking, after playing warrior Wiremu during the "tortuous" shoot for Vincent Ward's River Queen.
In 2007, Curtis and Ainsley Gardiner produced Taika Waititi's debut feature, geek comedy Eagle vs Shark, which was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. Later the two joined with American Emanuel Michael to produce Waititi's hit follow-up Boy, which became one of the biggest local hits to date on its home soil. It also won the Grand Prize in its section at the 2010 Berlin Film Festival. Curtis was also one of the producers of Merata Mita's final film, child abuse documentary Saving Grace - Te Whakarauora Tangata.
In 2014 Curtis starred in Kiwi feature The Dark Horse, putting on 60 pounds to play a bipolar chess champ fallen on hard times. Curtis was won over to the role after being won over by Jim Marbrook's documentary on Genesis Potini, the real-life character whose love of chess helped troubled kids find hope. The Dark Horse won rave reviews after being chosen to launch the 2014 NZ International Film Festival in Auckland and Wellington. RNZ movie reviewer Simon Morris rated it Curtis' best role to date. In England, Observer critic Mark Kermode called it "a breathtaking performance, note perfect in every gesture, mesmerising in its conviction". The Dark Horse's multiple Moa Awards included gongs for Curtis and his on-screen protégé, Boy star James Rolleston.
In taking on the role, Curtis was focused on the challenge of defining — and capturing — the qualities in Genesis that had the power to change so many lives. He concluded it was down to "how much love this man managed to exude wherever he went". Curtis has long felt it a privilege to be able to work on stories that might inspire audiences, and bring hope in particular to disadvantaged youth — a reoccuring theme, in the projects he returns to New Zealand to produce.
In the same period Curtis spent a month living alone, preparing for the plum part of Jesus — another character who "represents love and compassion"— in Kevin Reynolds (Rapa Nui) movie Risen. The 2016 release reframes the resurrection as an investigative mystery.
Curtis continues to alternate Aotearoa stories with roles in Hollywood. Wary of being typecast in roles as gangsters, drug dealers and terrorists, he has successfully made efforts to broaden his CV, most noticeably with a series of leading roles on the small screen. After playing a rebellious paramedic pilot in short-lived series Trauma (2009) and a CIA agent in Missing, he went on to one of his most high profile parts to date, in Walking Dead prequel Fear the Walking Dead. Curtis plays Travis Manawa, a teacher facing zombie apocalypse. He has described the role as that of an idealist, optimist and pacifist finding himself in "the worst possible situation". The show marks the first time Curtis has been able to play a character with Māori descent in an American production since 1999 horror movie Virus.
Curtis has also executive produced a short film shot in his hometown of Rotorua; 2014's Ahi Kaha - The Long Burning Fires of Occupation, which was chosen for the NZ International Film Festival.
Profile written by Ian Pryor
'Cliff Curtis: On his classic NZ movie roles' (Video Interview) Director Andrew Whiteside. NZ On Screen website. Loaded 1 December 2014. Accessed 29 April 2016
Russell Baillie, 'Cliff Curtis shining in new role' (Interview) - The NZ Herald, 8 April 2007
Dylan Cleaver, 'On Hollywood Bully-vard' (Interview) - The Sunday Star-Times, 2 January 2000, page D9
Don Kaye, 'Cliff Curtis on Playing Jesus Christ in Risen' (Interview) Screenrant website. Loaded 19 February 2016. Accessed 29 April 2016
Mark Kermode, 'The Dark Horse review - gripping New Zealand drama' - The Observer, 5 April 2015
Dana Kinita, 'Once Were Warriors: Rotorua's connections' (Interview) - The Rotorua Daily Post, 16 August 2014
Simon Morris, 'At the Movies for 7 August 2014' (Review of The Dark Horse) Radio New Zealand website. Loaded 7 August 2014. Accessed 29 April 2016
Kimberley Rothwell, 'Curtis relishes his macho man role' (Interview) - The Dominion Post (TV Week pullout), 2 February 2010, page 4
Leena Tailor, 'Fear The Walking Dead' Star Cliff Curtis' on His Next Challenge: Oscar Buzz' (Interview) Observer website. Loaded 2 May 2016. Accessed 5 May 2016
June Thomas, 'What It's Like To Play Every Ethnicity Hollywood Throws Your Way' (Interview) Slate website. Loaded 20 May 2014. Accessed 29 April 2016
Diana Wichtel, 'Cliff Curtis: Mate in one' (Interview) - The Listener, 19 July 2014
Kevin Yeoman, 'Fear the Walking Dead: Cliff Curtis on Relatable Characters & Travis' Season 2 Journey' (Interview) Screenrant website. Loaded 8 April 2016. Accessed 29 April 2016
Desperate Remedies press kit
Whale Rider press kit