You may not recognize the name Cliff Curtis, but you’d recognize the man himself if you ever met him.
The New Zealand-born actor’s IMDB page is filled with evidence of his chameleon-like ability to utterly transform himself into whatever character he’s playing (including his current regular gig on Fear the Walking Dead) and become almost indistinguishable outside of it. So it’s not that surprising that when fans recognize him in the real world, they sometimes call him by the name of the role they know best.
“Some people call me 'Smiley,'” says Curtis, which was his scene-stealing gangster character in Training Day. “Other people call me 'Pablo Escobar,'” the infamous drug lord he played in Blow. “I had my first person call me 'Jesus' the other day.” He depicts the son of God in the recently released Risen. “I was just in the hotel and there was a whole family and they stopped and one of them is like ‘Are you Jesus?,” he says with a laugh. “It was hilarious.”
But Curtis didn’t land what he calls “the greatest challenge” of his acting career working on a Hollywood film or a hot cable property. He headed home to work on a project that has been called “one of the greatest New Zealand films ever made" and is just not now finally getting released in the United States.
Based on the story of Genesis Potini, The Dark Horse depicts how the late bipolar former chess champion of Māori descent found salvation in coaching the troubled kids of his community in competitive chess. It hits American theaters today.
Enstars chatted with Curtis about the movie and his award-winning transformation for the part.
Enstars: This movie came out in New Zealand back in 2014. Is it tough to talk about it and promote it for the stateside release after such a long time?
Cliff Curtis: Um, not for this film, because I love it so much and I'm really really proud of it. It's such an inspiring movie that I'm still inspired when I talk about it NOW, you know?...So I'm all good, man. I can talk for hours about this movie.
Did you know Genesis Potini’s story before this project?
No, I didn't know anything about him. The first introduction to him was the script. And then I talked to the director, the writer, and the producer. And then I watched a documentary about him. Then I met his wife and his friends and the other characters that are portrayed in this film...And I sort of went from there.
You’ve got this rep for successfully taking on roles of different ethnicities than your own. Did that skillset help in playing this role?
Well, I think the knack that I have in taking on different roles is really that I don't treat anybody differently. I really try to be respectful of who or what a character is and I try to treat them with humanity...And it really has helped me over the years and got me ready for the challenge of Genesis. He was probably the greatest challenge in my acting career to date and it certainly took years of me preparing to be ready take on a role of this scale.
Can you talk about your preparation to play Genesis?
You know it was a very complex...I wasn't convinced that I needed to be that big. But when I got to understand him, I realized he was a physically powerful man...but he was also very gentle and loving and compassionate. I'd wrap myself in the blanket that he used to wear and I became big and strong and powerful, but soft and warm. And then I had no teeth, so any smile was very non-threatening. And then as I built the character physically and learned chess, I had to figure out how he spoke, like when he was talking to himself, and what he's talking about and the poetry and psychology behind that. And then I got the haircut...I basically walked out in full wardrobe, costume, no teeth, shaved head, and I started playing chess and drinking beer and he just sort of came to life all of a sudden.
You have such an eclectic body of work. Is there anything specific that draws you to a project?
As a storyteller and a producer, I really do try to be conscious to choose projects that are going to be significant. And in my career as an actor, you know, you have your highs and your lows...But by and large, no matter what project I'm on or what genre I'm in (whether it's action movies or art house movies or television), I'm trying to look for roles that are going to be challenging...I love to transform myself.
Are you a better chess player after making this movie?
I've sort of risen up the ranks from a non-player to being absolutely average. But I'm kind of obsessed with the game. I play like an hour or two hours a day. It just really got in my blood...The writer and director of The Dark Horse, James Napier Robertson, he's a chess player and I really want to be able to crush him at the game of chess. That's kind of my goal in life right now.
Is there any point that you want to end our conversation on?
Yeah, okay. We just got another letter in from a kid who saw The Dark Horse...she'd seen the movie and she comes from a gang family and this helped her have the courage to leave that way of life. And that's amazing. That we can make a little film that travels all around the world and wins awards, that's all great...but that it continues the work that Genesis did when he was alive to help kids realize that they have more potential in their life than their immediate circumstances...that's really what the film is about. I was one of those kids that had no education, left school at 14, and was a ward of the state, was pretty much an orphan. And so there's people in our communities, every community has people that does this work—tirelessly, without getting paid, without being recognized, and really the film is a celebration of those people. That’s where I’ll leave it.
[This interview has been edited and condensed.]