Cliff Curtis: From a small island to global characters

The list of famous Maori actors is relatively short. There's Keisha Castle-Hughes (no relation to me, or to Cinderella's Castle), an Oscar-nominee in the immensely charming "Whale Rider." And there's Cliff Curtis, who played her father in that one ... then played just about everyone, everywhere. Curtis has become a fascinating actor, spanning the globe. Currently, he's in Fox's "Gang Related"; here's the story I sent to papers:


Cliff Curtis has spent much of his career inside other
people’s worlds.

He’s been Italian and Greek, Russian and Arabian and
Hispanic. He’s ranged from a doctor and a prince to a Colombian drug lord and
(currently, on Fox’s “Gang Related”) a Mexican-American crime boss.

And yes, he said, that range is necessary. “If … my strategy
(was) to wait for roles that were cast around my (Maori) ethnicity, … that
would be slim pickings.”

The Maori, the native people of New Zealand, don’t usually
show up on movie screens. A key exception was “Whale Rider” (2003), about a
headstrong Maori girl. Curtis, who played her dad, wasn’t expecting it to be
noticed. “I just thought, ‘It’s nice to come home and play a character who’s
like me.’”

Then the film soared. It won awards in six countries,
including American ones from the Sundance festival, the Independent Spirit
Awards and the National Board or Review.  Soon, Curtis was up for top roles, including
Javier Acosta. “We needed a force of nature to play that role,” said Scott
Rosenbaum, a “Gang Related” producer.

At first, Curtis imagined a back story, with Javier emerging
from a troubled childhood. The writers apparently agreed; this week’s fifth
episode has a quietly moving monolog about his troubled past.

And in some ways, Curtis said, that’s similar to his real roots.
“When I was 12, I wound up as a ward of the state …. I left school at 14. I
could have easily gone into” a rough life.

Instead, he found performing. As a boy, he had done traditional
Maori dancing, his father’s specialty; as a teen, he did break-dancing, rock
‘n’ roll dancing and theater. “I just fell in love with the idea of telling
stories,” he said.

Shows ranged from musicals to Shakespeare, preparing Curtis
for complexities that would follow: “I had to get a voice coach,” he said.
“I’ve had to re-train (my) mouth. At first, I couldn’t roll my ‘r’s.”

More important are the complexities of character. Chris
Morgan created “Gang Related” with an earnest young cop secretly working for
Javier, a man of warmth and brutality. “Every hero has a dark side,” Morgan
said, “and every villain has something heroic.”

Curtis is used to such complexities. This role also requires
him to deal with:

Age. He’s 45; Jay Hernandez, playing his younger
son, is 36.

Language. Most scenes are in English, his native
tongue, but there are “entire scenes in Spanish. And then they do those changes
….You’re walking on set; you’ve learned three pages of Spanish and they start
tweaking it.”

Life is tricky that way, when you span the globe and step
into alternate lives.

“Gang Related,” 9 p.m. Thursdays, Fox.

The June 19 episode is also set to rerun at 9
p.m. Friday, June 20.