Getting into Character with Cliff Curtis
Cliff Curtis wasn’t the first choice to play Genesis Potini, admits Dark Horse director James Napier Robertson, who was in Washington recently to promote the film to US audiences.
Robertson says he never even considered auditioning Curtis, 47, arguably New Zealand’s biggest movie star.
The actor, who first came to the attention of Hollywood in such acclaimed New Zealand films as Once Were Warriors and Whale Rider, is now chiefly known for playing the “ethnically ambiguous tough guy,” as he puts it. (Curtis spoke by phone from Mexico, where he is shooting the zombie TV spinoff Fear the Walking Dead.)
Curtis says that when he got hold of the script, which he had received from a friend auditioning for another role, he was immediately drawn to Potini’s inspirational tale and asked to read for the part. But the director made what seemed like two deal-breaking stipulations before he would even contemplate casting Curtis: Put on 50 pounds and remain in character for the duration of the six-week shoot.
“I said, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t do it,’ ” the actor says. “I couldn’t sign on those lines, with that insistence. It wasn’t going to work for me.”
Thus began a delicate process of negotiation between Curtis and his 34-year-old director, a fellow New Zealander and former actor himself (Power Rangers: Dino Thunder) whose only previous film, I’m Not Harry Jenson, also featured a troubled outsider. Robertson, a chess aficionado, likens their back-and-forth to a chess game: “He kind of made the first move. I countered. He got a sense that it was so important to me that he agreed. We had to capture Genesis. Cliff eventually bought into it.”
Robertson recalls showing up at 5:30 am to shoot the film’s opening scene, which features a manic, unmedicated Genesis wandering in the rain, mumbling incoherently and playing chess with himself, before he is taken into custody and involuntarily committed. When he got to the set, Robertson says, Curtis was already there, ready to go. “I had stayed up the entire night before,” Curtis recalls, “drinking beers and working on perfecting that game of chess – and that manic state. I slept, briefly, on the side of the road on the way to work.”
In life, as in acting, he says, “it’s good to be a little crazy.”
Rotorua-born Curtis played Yeshua (Jesus Christ) of Nazareth in the 2016 film Risen.
Original article by Michael O’Sullivan, The Washington Post, April 15, 2016.
Photo by Kirsty Griffin/Broad Green Pictures.