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'Dark Horse' Cliff Curtis reps the Māori community, onscreen and off

Cliff Curtis stars as Genesis Potiní in the new film
Cliff Curtis stars as Genesis Potiní in the new film "The Dark Horse."
Broad Green Pictures

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The Dark Horse” tells the true story of New Zealand chess champ Genesis Potiní, a brilliant chess player who also suffered from bipolar disorder. Descended from the indigenous people of New Zealand, Potiní started a chess club for disadvantaged Māori kids and ended up teaching the game to thousands of kids before he died in 2011 at the age of 47.

The Dark Horse Trailer

Like Potiní, actor Cliff Curtis, who plays him, is Māori. He has had minor roles in “The Piano,” “Three Kings,” and “Training Day” and was featured in prominent New Zealand films “Once Were Warriors” and “Whale Rider.” Now he’s earning critical praise for his starring role in “The Dark Horse” but American TV fans will probably recognize him from “Fear The Walking Dead.”

The Frame's Oscar Garza spoke with Cliff Curtis about how he gained 60 pounds to play Genesis Potiní, his role in he popular zombie TV show and why he never thought he would be a professional actor.


Where were you in your career when this role came along? Did it feel like a leap for you from the roles that you've been playing up to then? 

Well, it was a very challenging role. It's like the role of a lifetime. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out, with the director, how to approach it. [James Napier Robertson] came up with the idea to engage in what they call method acting, and then you stay as much in character during the shooting of it. So I lived like that, I wore those clothes at home 24 hours a day. Everybody had to live with me as [Genesis] for about three months. 

So how did it affect you to be in this character for however long it took to shoot this film and what affect did it have you coming out of the film?

It was very strange because physically I changed, and I was doing everything I could to understand the game of chess, and the big difference between myself and Genesis was that Genesis was this incredibly big-hearted man. There wasn't any sector of society that he didn't feel comfortable being himself in, and it just came from this huge sense of self and heart. I had to focus a lot on that and getting closer to who he was and learning the game of chess. 

At a certain point, I actually felt my body chemistry change. It was very strange, and also, because we were focusing on the film on his mania, not his depression, I was spending a lot of time playing speed chess and I would get into these manic states. It got a little bit scary there for a minute. I could feel that I was thinking thoughts that were not my own thoughts. 

You are part of the cast of "Fear the Walking Dead" and you play Travis Manawa, an English teacher in Los Angeles... 

He's also Māori. It's the first time in an American lead that I've been cast as a Maori-American. 

And the part came already built that way?

No, I think they adapted the role to me, which I found very nice. 

Fear The Walking Dead

Let's talk about the diversity of roles you've played in your career. You've played a lot of different ethnicities: a Latino gangster in "Training Day," you've played Arabs, Columbians, even Jesus. Do you see it as a benefit that you've been able to play a lot of different types in an industry that actually suffers from typecasting people of ethnic background? 

Yeah, you know I've had my own challenges with typecasting. I've had to earn my stripes through playing gangsters, drug dealers, and bad guy roles. 

But not typecasted as a Māori for example. 

Well there are no roles for Māori in Hollywood. It's been helpful, actually, to be of indeterminate background -- brown. But I have noticed the landscape changed considerably. I mean they actually adapted my character in this T.V. show the role to being Māori, that doesn't seem to be an inhibitor at all anymore.

At what point did you think you wanted to be an actor and what could you see in New Zealand in the film, television and theater industry that could guide you in that respect? 

I never really saw myself as an actor for a very long time even when I was being an actor. It was an escape from where I came from, you know, being indigenous and being from a small town was like "ooh." We were poor, but then I sort of mixed with people that otherwise I had nothing to do with -- white people -- they liked me, they were kind to me. They encouraged my talents and my strengths. I was treated very differently from the manual laborer that was invisible in many ways.

 The color of my skin didn't really matter because I was an artist all of a sudden. I think there was something connected in there that really gave me a new possibility in life, and I didn't really take it seriously that I was gonna become an actor or even be an actor. It's not that I thought I was gonna be an actor, but I knew that I could not go back to laboring, I knew there was something else for me in life. I didn't know that it was gonna lead me to Hollywood and working in and movies and television, but I knew that I couldn't go back to digging holes for a living. 

The Dark Horse image

So now with the success of "Fear the Walking Dead" and "The Dark Horse," what kinds of roles are you being offered now? 


How could that be? 

That's how the business is, it's feast of famine. I got the T.V. show and I got "The Dark Horse," and then it's wide open. 

You have a production company though, Arama Pictures, what kinds of films do you want to make with your company? 

I was raised -- in some aspects -- with a traditional upbringing, and storytelling's a very big part of our heritage, and it's very important that we understand ourselves through the stories that we tell about ourselves. So I have some of those values where I looked to what stories could help us and our identity, our sense of self. 

For indigenous people, you know you have Native populations all around the world, which are the minorities of the world within the developed countries at least, and they don't have a voice. So I look for stories that can make a difference for my community and for my family and our national identity. There's something beautiful in those stories, because somehow they travel and they are accepted around the world. 

Is there any pressure for you for representing a culture? 

Yeah, there is somewhat. They call it "The Burden of Representation." We have debates and discussions on these types of things like, Is it a burden to be a minority and indigenous? and, How do you feel about that obligation? I tend to see it as quite a privilege and a wonderful opportunity. It's probably the most interesting thing about me that I can think of is my heritage and my culture. 

“The Dark Horse” opens in theaters on April 1st and the second season of “Fear The Walking Dead” debuts on April 10th.


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