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Cliff Curtis: Rock-n-Roll Roots
by Betty Jo Tucker

"I get concerned about people who want to be actors," says New Zealand actor Cliff Curtis. "I don't think they know what's involved." Even so, Curtis admits to leading "a blessed life" as an actor. "I stumbled into it," he declares. "My father did Rock-n-Roll revival productions, and I competed in these shows; I even won national competitions."

Which means this guy can dance as well as act. Movie musicals, here he comes! He's ready. However, no matter how hard I try, it's not easy for me to imagine Curtis as a dancer. That's probably because I first saw him as "El Lobo," the dangerous terrorist in Collateral Damage, then as the Mexican gangster who spared Ethan Hawke's life in Training Day, and most recently as the troubled father of the young Maori heroine in Whale Rider.    

In the latter film, Curtis must reflect the many conflicts -- gender, generational, cultural, and familial -- in today's Maori society. "Every culture struggles to forge a future while keeping some sense of heritage and deciding what to retain and what to let go," he points out. "In America, you have the same thing with immigrants coming to this country and with Native Americans who have their own cultural traditions."    

Did he draw from his own personal life to play this difficult role? "Ordinarily, that's not the way I work," he states. "My personal experience is too limiting in terms of the characters I've played. I try to determine the character from the script and use my imagination. The main thing is to bring to the story, no matter what character I'm playing, a sense of humanity. But, in this case, I did bring a comfortable feeling from my past. You see, for a time I was raised in a small community with its traditional songs and lots of old people around. Well, mostly old women, not so many grumpy old guys. So that's quite the opposite of my Whale Rider character who was not at ease with his heritage and didn't know how to bridge the two cultures in the way his daughter was able to do."

Curtis, winner of New Zealand Film Awards for his performances in Desperate Remedies and Jubilee, believes Whale Rider is an important movie not only because it introduces a "phenomenal" young actress (Keisha Castle-Hughes) but also because it emphasizes a sense of the spiritual life. "Not in an orthodox way," he adds. "But it connects humanity and nature. It's great to be a part of a film that touches on that connection."

Discovered by New Zealand filmmakers Jane Campion and Lee Tamahori, Curtis is drawn to projects which offer what he calls "a strong story arc and character resolution." In addition to the movies already mentioned, he has played memorable roles in such films as Once Were Warriors, Three Kings, Traffic, Blow, and The Majestic. "Even if it's only one scene, if the character is worthwile and memorable, and essential to the plot, it's a great role," he insists.

Although happy with his life as an actor, Curtis already harbors thoughts about his second career. "Maybe when I'm in my 70s, I'll get a Ph.D. and become an economist philosopher," he says. Is he kidding? Not really. He mentions Sir John Gielgud's contributions as an inspiration. (Gielgud wrote novels during his later years.)

Appearing next with John Cusack in the film version of John Grisham's The Runaway Jury, Curtis reports he will be playing an ex-Marine who takes a hard line during jury deliberations. Unfortunately, I don't think we'll see him dance in this one either. Drat!

(Cliff Curtis is pictured in the center of the Whale Rider movie poster above. The film opens at the Chez Artiste in Denver on June 27.) 

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