Cliff Curtis on his new movie The Dark Horse

CLIFF Curtis burst onto the scene with Once Were Warriors, then trod water in Hollywood playing terrorists and bad guys. Now he’s back in New Zealand as a bipolar former chess prodigy, says Alistair Harkness

Cliff Curtis in The Dark Horse. Picture: Contributed

Cliff Curtis is telling me about the time he watched George Clooney get in a fight with director David O. Russell on the set of Three Kings. “I was with Ice Cube, and he was telling me about his latest rap record and giving me some beats,” says the New Zealand actor, launching into an impromptu version of Cube’s You Ain’t Gotta Lie to Kick It (“I’m the kinda face that you see on the poster/I’m the kinda brother that you wanna get close ta…”). “He was bustin’ out some rhymes for me and the next minute, George Clooney and David O. Russell are butting each other like a couple of goats.”

Sitting in Glasgow’s Citizen M hotel ahead of the Glasgow Film Festival premiere of his new film The Dark Horse, Curtis has slew of entertaining Hollywood tales like this. There was the time, for instance, he pumped iron with Arnold Schwarzenegger while filming action flop Collateral Damage. That, of course, was when the future governor of California wasn’t taking him to see Dwayne ‘the Rock’ Johnson wrestle – or strategizing his move into politics while watching the Bush/Gore 2000 election race with Curtis after long filming days. “Artistically, creatively, I can’t pretend that movie is not what it is,” smiles Curtis of the film, in which he played a Colombian terrorist killed off with an axe to the chest. “But for stories around the fire with my mates, it’s good fun.”

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Curtis has had plenty of creatively satisfying experiences as well, though. If you’ve seen Michael Mann’s tobacco industry whistleblower saga The Insider you’ve seen Curtis going head-to-head with Al Pacino. “That was like stepping into the ring with the heavyweight champion of the world,” he marvels.

Then there was Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead, which allowed Curtis to geek out on set about Mean Streets with America’s most revered director. (For Christmas that year, Scorsese gave Curtis an original poster of Raging Bull, signed by him and Robert De Niro.)

“You really feel like you’re part of something life changing and great,” says Curtis now of his time working with Scorsese. “It lights a fire under you and you feel as if anything is possible.”

Indeed, having first come to prominence as Bully, the child rapist in hard-hitting Maori drama Once Were Warriors (“the best film I’ve ever been involved in”), Curtis was on the verge of packing up and moving back home when the triple whammy of The Insider, Bringing out the Dead and Three Kings convinced him he had a shot at a sustainable international career.

Which isn’t to say he abandoned New Zealand. Far from it: he subsequently played Keisha Castle-Hughes’s father in Whale Rider and, having set up his own independent production company (Whenua Films), made What We Do in the Shadows director Taika Waititi’s first two movies: the Jemaine Clement-starring Eagle vs. Shark and the New Zealand box-office sensation Boy.

His new film, The Dark Horse, which he also executive-produced, is another New Zealand story. Based on the little known tale of Genesis Potini (Curtis), a homeless bi-polar former-chess-prodigy who ended up helping at-risk youth avoid gang life, it’s an inspirational, but very raw and uncompromising drama about contemporary Maori culture, with chess becoming the perfect metaphor for their struggle to negotiate the battlefield of life. “He was a great community worker,” says Curtis, who put on four stone (“I drank a lot of beer”) to play Genesis. “And the extraordinary thing about him is that he also suffered from bipolar disorder. He’d get these huge states of mania when things didn’t seem rational.”

The film was a critical and box-office success in New Zealand, drawing favourable comparisons with Once Were Warriors. “It touches on some hard-hitting realities in some of these communities,” nods Curtis of the parallels. Indeed, Once Were Warriors, which explored alcoholism, poverty and domestic violence in an urban Maori community, remains a touchstone for the entire New Zealand film industry. “It’s an iconic film in our country. It just had its 20th Anniversary, and with Boy, and with this film as well, we are still exploring themes that were established in that film. It’s had a huge impact on how we perceive ourselves.”

Making socially conscious films about his own culture is something Curtis was inspired to do after making his debut in Jane Campion’s multi-Oscar-winning The Piano. Though he loved that film, loved working with Campion, and couldn’t believe he was on set with Harvey Keitel, he had mixed-feelings about being cast as an “exotic native” who carried the titular piano. “I called us ‘the blackground.’ We were the exotic natives carrying the piano for these Scottish people, so it was this weird, surreal experience. We were only there to sort of exoticize this romance and that sort of remained with me. It was one of the drivers for me setting up my own company to produce our own stories. Where we don’t have to be carrying other people’s furniture,” he deadpans.

That didn’t stop him suffering generic ethnic typecasting after breaking through in Hollywood. “I played a drug dealer; an Islamic extremist, a Columbian terrorist; I played a Latino gangbanger opposite Denzel Washington in Training Day – there was a bit of a pattern there.”

In fact, he soon felt completely blockaded, especially in the wake of 9/11. “For a number of years I had to turn down terrorist jobs; I just couldn’t go there otherwise that was all I was going to be.”

He credits Danny Boyle with helping him break out of that situation by casting him as a doctor in his under-rated sci-fi drama Sunshine. Die Hard 4.0 was another important film, simply because his character’s job description was Deputy Director of the FBI. “As soon as I did that I started playing FBI guys, CIA guys… I played a detective opposite Ryan Gosling and Anthony Hopkins [in Fracture] – so I now have a body of work that’s essentially guys-with-ties, which gives me other possibilities.”

Up next, though, is a potential game-changer for Curtis. He’s been cast as the lead in the new spin-off series of zombie hit The Walking Dead, currently the biggest TV show in the world. “I’ve been given a long list of things I’m not allowed to talk about,” he says, refusing to confirm his character name, the show’s title, where they shot the pilot, where they’ll shoot the next episode, or when it will air. He will say that he’s never seen The Walking Dead and has no plans to watch it. “If I approach it as a show, I will have problems, perhaps, approaching it as reality. So I just go on and do the scenes as if they’re real.”

Time’s almost up, so I ask Curtis if he has any plans to direct. He reckons he might have to write something first, then tells me he once snuck onto the set of Ron Howard’s 1996 thriller Ransom to pitch Mel Gibson on a script about Robert Burns, written by the Scottish actor John Cairney.

How did that go down with the Braveheart star? Curtis laughs. “He smiled at me and said, ‘I can’t touch this.’”

The Dark Horse is released on 3 April.