Taking on the role of a mentally disturbed but highly gifted chess player in The Dark Horse was another astute decision by Kiwi Cliff Curtis
You might not recognise his name, or even necessarily his face, but Cliff Curtis has appeared opposite some of the biggest names in the movie industry – Johnny Depp ( Blow), Bruce Willis ( Live Free Or Die Hard), Arnold Schwarzenegger ( Collateral Damage) and Denzel Washington ( Training Day) among them.
While most actors feel constricted by Hollywood’s tendency towards racial stereotyping, the Kiwi chameleon has turned it to his advantage – shifting seamlessly between Latino, Arab, African American and even Indian characters (in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender).
“I have found a little niche,’’ Curtis says of the strategy, which has seen him play CIA agents, Mob bosses, and even Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar.
“You have to be a little bit picky about the roles and who you work with. I had to turn down lots and lots of work.
“But I have found a way to turn (racial stereotyping) into a positive.”
Curtis takes centre stage in The Dark Horse, the most recent hit from across the Tasman – a box office sensation in New Zealand and a strong performer on the international circuit.
The actor is again barely recognisable as real-life character Genesis Potini, a gifted chess player who struggled with bipolar disorder for most of his life.
Curtis, who gained 30kg for the role, was initially reluctant to take on the job, fearing relatively inexperienced writer-director James Napier Robertson might succumb to the Mighty Ducks style possibilities of Potini’s story – the film focuses on his mentorship of a bunch of lost and disenfranchised youngsters that he knocks into shape for an important chess competition.
A powerful TV documentary changed the actor’s mind.
“When you see the real guy, he is so extraordinary, and such a mass of contradictions. He didn’t fit inside any box.
“In particular, I was fascinated by his mental illness and how he coped with it and how he never gave up. And how he had this ability to engage people.
“He would just draw people into his world and convince them to come along.
“He believed chess should be played on park benches and in pubs and public places. He played chess with judges and lawyers and philosophers and mathematicians as well as gang members and homeless people.
“He loved the idea that on the board (it) was a level playing field where a 12-yearold kid could wipe the floor with a master of commerce.”
Curtis was initially resistant to Roberston’s suggestion that he go method with the role, but in the end, it seemed like the right thing to do.
“At a certain point I just thought there is no other way to play the role except to commit to being (Potini). I wasn’t trying to imitate the guy, just trying to understand. It became my way of life for six months,” he says.
“I looked like a homeless guy a lot of the time. “It was a bit odd. “I had to maintain the other aspects of my life while I was negotiating it, because I have got children, and they have to live with me as that character.”
During the 2½ months of filming, Curtis wore a dental appliance that made it look as though he had lost his front teeth.
“My wife wasn’t impressed – she got up in the morning to this mountainous guy with a very gummy grin.”
Cliff Curtis plays Genesis Potini in
The Dark Horse.