Thursday, June 14, 2012

In Character: Cliff Curtis

Pop quiz, hot shots: without looking it up, can you tell me where Cliff Curtis is from? I’ve always had a suspicion, but hell, based on his many excellent film performances, he appears to have lineage in a number of different cultures.

He’s played a freedom fighting Arab, a gang leading Latino, a drug dealing Columbian, a bitter southern American, a stoned-out New Yorker – you name it, all with equal conviction. It should also be noted that Curtis has made a name for himself in independent and blockbusters alike. Point in fact: he’s the sole reason I’ve seen (and enjoyed) a number of big budget movies that I normally wouldn’t have paid the time of day. He always manages to reel you in and captivate, even if you don’t know what his real voice sounds like.

Five Essential Roles
Three Kings (1999)
When we first meet Amir in David O. Russell’s flawless Three Kings, he’s coming off a marathon torture session; hands bound with wire, mouth split open with a small piece of wood. In his next scene, his wife is shot and killed directly in front of him and his daughter. Heavy shit. One that we assume will result in a supporting performance of convincing desperation, and nothing more.

But then something happens. Later in the film, after Amir and his fellow Arab uprisers have rescued George Clooney and his small crew, Curtis dives into a well-articulated, but never preachy, monologue about the unspoken merit (or lack thereof) of American occupation in Iraq. By the end of his speech, Amir has persuaded Clooney’s character to escort him and his people across the Iranian border.

I hadn’t seen Three Kings in a few years, and upon rewatching it for this post, I was very close to calling Curtis’ work in it the best he has done. His desperation, strength, and lasting gratitude are part of what makes Three Kings so great.

Bringing Out the Dead (1999)
Showing up briefly as a cool, calm and collected drug dealer in Martin Scorsese’s madass batshit crazy headtrip of a film, Curtis fits snuggly into the warp world Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader create. For the most part, Curtis’ performance here is limited to him trying to keep Nicolas Cage’s character out of a bedroom. But once Cy gets Cage good and high, the film unexpectedly jumps into an impromptu musical number, scored perfectly to The Cellos’ “Rang Tang Ding Dong (I Am the Japanese Sandman).”

Cage trips, Cy sings, smoke blows – it’s pretty goddamn awesome. The next time we see Cy, he’s, well, not in too good of shape. But the way he handles that situation, with stoner-friendly comic timing, is something I’ve only seen Curtis do once. Complete bliss.

Blow (2001)
Pablo Escobar
How do you introduce the most notorious drug dealer of all time? Easy. You shoot with an insanely long lens as he walks smoothly into frame. He shakes a man’s hand, and as he’s walking away, toward the camera, a goon blows the man’s brain’s out. But the drug dealer Keeps. On. Walking.

That’s Ted Demme’s introduction of El Padrino, señor Pablo Escobar, the Boss of it All, El Magico. To pull such a bold introduction like that off, you need an actor who is completely uninhibited – full of assured confidence, no shred of false bravado. And as Curtis, possessed with a faultless strut, a perfect mustache and a fitting flannel shirt, slowly walks toward a terrified Johnny Depp, we realize that’s exactly what this actor is: uninhibited.

When Demme was casting the film, he auditioned Curtis based on his work in Three Kings. When Curtis walked into his office, Demme thought Curtis’ native (and often hidden) accent would hinder his performance. But once Curtis turned on his full Columbian charm, Demme was convinced. Granted, Curtis isn’t in Blow for that long, but he’s partly responsible for the film’s best scene.

Training Day (2001)
Anyone who has seen Training Day knows that Curtis’ performance as a tatted Latino gang leader is capped by a circumstance of laughable coincidence. Now, I’m not saying I have a major issue with Smiley finding the wallet of his cousin in Ethan Hawke’s pocket, but it’s impossible to not watch that scene and be tempted to let out a, “Oh come on,” under your breath.  Know why I don’t? Cliff Curtis.

Much like Blow, Curtis is only in one scene of Training Day, and it’s the highlight of the film. When Denzel Washington and Hawke show up to Smiley’s house, we think everything’s on the up and up. But through several slow, exquisite reveals (in both script and acting form), we realize that things are definitely not what they seem. Smiley is calm, charming, but always at risk for popping off at a moment’s notice. An excellent, subtle performance of commanding intimidation.

Sunshine (2007)
In Danny Boyle’s criminally underrated Sunshine, Curtis plays a shrink on board a mission to reignite the sun. Problem is, the dude is so mesmerized (i.e. obsessed) with staring at the sun, that he can’t effectively do the job he’s supposed to. I’m simplifying Curtis’ work here, but make no mistake, he is one of the strongest parts of the ensemble Boyle put together for his sci-fi flick.

There’s something I love in movies that I don’t talk about enough, and that is an absence of denial. There’s nothing that infuriates me more than movie characters sitting around denying what we (as an audience) already know.  With that in mind, there is a scene toward the middle of this movie in which Searle processes a piece of information in milliseconds, and doesn’t waste his breath trying to deny a certain truth. It’s just so much more convincing that way.

The Best of the Best
Whale Rider (2003)
Now the big reveal. Cliff Curtis is in fact from New Zealand, and of Māori descent, so when Niki Caro asked him to play a young Māori man in her small, beautiful film, Whale Rider, Curtis was ecstatic.

An actor given a chance to play a character that mirrors his own heritage doesn’t necessarily produce expert results, but just watching Curtis’ work here, we’re aware that his comfort with the role is a big part of his effectiveness. Essentially, Curtis is nothing short of mesmerizing as Porourangi, the gentle, kind son of a Māori tribe leader. 

After Porourangi’s wife dies in childbirth, Porourangi flees the village, leaving his infant daughter, Pai, to be raised by his strict father. Years later, Porourangi, much to the dismay of his old man, returns to the village to be a part of his Pai’s life.

Porourangi was the rightful heir to the tribe’s throne, so when he left, his father wanted nothing to do with him. And now that she’s growing up, Pai want’s nothing more than to be the heir, but because she’s a female, her grandfather won’t consider it. So, basically, you have a father and a daughter both longing for the respect and attention of the same man. There’s a scene in this film in which Porourangi, through tears, confesses to Pai why his father is the way he is. It is a remarkable scene of mutual comfort and appreciation, arguably the highlight of Curtis’ career. It’s the scene that helped Keisha Castle-Hughes earn an Oscar nomination, an honor I certainly hope Curtis receives in the near future.

Other Notable Roles
In Live Free or Die Hard
The Piano (1993)
The Insider (1999)
Jubilee (2000)
The Majestic (2001)
Runaway Jury (2003)
The Fountain (2006)
Fracture (2007)
Live Free or Die Hard (2007)

Previous installments of In Character include:
John Cazale
Patricia Clarkson
Jeff Daniels
Viola Davis
William Fichtner
Brendan Gleeson
John Hawkes
Richard Jenkins
Erland Josephson
Elias Koteas
Heath Ledger
William H. Macy
David Morse
Emily Mortimer
Gary Oldman
Guy Pearce
Kevin Pollak
Sam Rockwell
Campbell Scott
Michael Shannon
David Strathairn
Danny Trejo
Shea Whigham
Ray Winstone
Jeffrey Wright


  1. Curtis is definitely one of the most diverse actors I've seen hover right above character acting, yet haven't had the deserved opportunity to break out in a big movie. I fucking love this guy. He's just so authentic in every role I've ever seen him in, which is 13 movies (though I can't recall his acting In Collateral Damage, but we won't go there).

    1. haha yeah when I saw that Collateral Damage credit I couldn't remember him in that for the life of me. Anyway, I'm really glad to hear that you like Curtis so much. A damn diverse man indeed.

  2. Despite this dude's Kiwi descent, I haven't seen a heck of a lot from him (though you can be sure I was aware of him). One film you haven't listed here that I thought he was good in was River Queen (2005). Not a great film in itself, but Curtis' presence made it better.

    1. Haven't seen River Queen... sounds kind of interesting. Thanks for the recommendation!

  3. Love that you have showcased a Kiwi actor. I think the guy is really cool. Despite the fact that I kinda loathe Whale Rider because we 'learnt' it at school last year and our teacher was so awful at teaching movies that we all kinda failed our exam, he was really good in that movie - and I'm glad that you saw it.

    1. Oh god, that SUCKS that you had a teacher butcher a movie for you. Damn shame indeed. So glad to hear that you like Curtis. I had a feeling the Kiwi's would come out and support him. It's funny, I listened to all of the director's commentaries from the movies listed above, and more than half of them had no idea he was a Kiwi when they met him. Such a skilled actor.

  4. I like him although there's very few movies of his that I've seen and some of them aren't very good like those few minutes of The Last Airbender that I saw. Was he in that movie? God, those are 5 minutes I can never get back.

    1. Oh god, The Last Airbender is bar none one of the very worst films I've ever seen. Fucking atrocious. Shame he was in that one.

  5. incredible actor. i wish he'd get more roles like this.

    1. Ah me too. He deserves THAT one role, you know?

  6. I've been a fan of Cliff Curtis after seeing him play a small role as a truly despicable guy in Once Were Warriors. It's been great to see him get larger roles like Whale Rider and Sunshine recently. Like others have said, the diversity of his acting is very impressive.

    1. Hmmm, the word despicable has me intrigued. Adding Once Were Warriors to my list of films to see. Thanks for reading and offer such a good recco!

  7. I LOVE Whale Rider. Castle-Hughes blew me away. If you have the DVD, watch the casting scene between her and Curtis. She actually gets him to cry, even though it's just a practice scene for them.

    By the way, I highly recommend Dan's suggestion of Once Were Warriors, too. It's a powerful drama and one of the best films of 1994, which is itself one of the best movie years ever.

    1. I know the exact casting special feature you're talking about... it's just incredible. Now I must check out Once Were Warriors, thanks for hyping it!

  8. Totally didn't realise he was in FRACTURE. I'd also never heard of BRINGING OUT THE DEAD before now - wow.

    1. Yeah Fracture is one of his cop-in-the-background kind of roles, but his work in Bringing out the Dead is awesome. Brief, but hilarious.

  9. I don't know his,nationality but he has East Indian and/or Arab blood. He difinately does NOT look Latino though he plays one sometime. Hey, I wouldn't turn down,a check either but who ever is casting him as Latino is nuts.

    1. According to Wikipedia, he's Māori, which is probably why he fit so well into his Whale Rider character. And hey, if he can pull off different races/ethnicities, I say by all means.

  10. once were warriors. that is all