Cliff Curtis: A Dark Horse
He’s played terrorists, FBI agents and drug barons, but for all his macho posturing onscreen, there is a giddy enthusiasm about Cliff Curtis when he talks about his latest project, The Dark Horse. The term passion project seems fitting. Based and shot in his native New Zealand, Curtis plays Genesis Potini, a national folk hero who struggled with bipolar disorder while mentoring countless youngsters in his community using the game of chess. “It’s a really exceptional story” Curtis says as we sit down to discuss the film, and it’s hard to argue.
Taking a passing look at the plot – a brilliant yet troubled genius mentors a group of rag-tag youngsters to unlikely success – you would be forgiven for thinking you’ve heard the story many times before. Throw in the fact it’s a biopic, as formulaic a genre as you can get, and you would think you’re in very safe territory. Curtis is quick to point out that there is nothing safe about The Dark Horse; “what’s unique about the story and the film is the circumstances [surrounding Genesis]. That he suffered from bipolar, he was at times homeless, and he had many many personal struggles he had to overcome in order to make this happen.”
Tackling big life issues such as mental illness, homelessness, gang culture and estranged families, there was always a risk of diluting the message. Curtis credits writer/director James Napier Robertson for making it all work, “[he] is incredibly talented to weave those things together, and sort of avoid all the traps of that genre and create something really unique and authentic.” He speaks fondly of his time working with Robertson and clearly had a huge amount of faith in his director, something that was needed when Robertson asked him to take a method approach to his performance. It was a new experience for Curtis; “I’ve played with aspects of [method acting] but I’ve never really done it. Because you can’t. It’s logistically, it’s a nightmare. Because you need everybody to be in on it…everyones got to support this whole thing.”
And while the role no doubt put a physical toll on him, he gained over 60lbs, the biggest struggle came in mastering the game that Genesis was best known for. “I played obsessively at chess, I’d never played chess before. I don’t like board games. So, I played like 24 hours pretty much.” Overcoming a dislike for strategy games aside, meeting the people who were most important to Genesis (who passed away in 2011) was another key factor in bringing the character to life; “I lived with his family and friends, they became, sort of, my surrogate family, they were on set every day… they were a part of the filmmaking process, and that’s really how we made it.”
This last comment is testament to the responsibility Curtis felt to make sure they did justice to Genesis, a man he speaks of almost in awe. “He had a stroke of genius really, not just with chess, but his ability to empathise and sort of connect with human beings, people fell in love with him.” It’s a quality Curtis brings to the role; his interpretation is fraught with neurosis and his struggles with bipolar are in no way sugar coated but there’s a quiet charm to his Genesis. “He had this massive heart, he completely adored people. He made you a part of his world and a part of his family. It seemed – I spoke to a lot of people who knew him – and he changed peoples lives, he was just that kind of person.”
As likeable a character as Genesis is inhabiting the role was unsurprisingly exhausting; “to be living on the edge of mania everyday. [It was] very very tough.” Yet Curtis’ dedication pays off in spades. From the opening scene, in which a distraught Genesis has a breakdown in an antiques shop, it’s clear that the actor has immersed himself in the role and he portrays his inner turmoil with total commitment. Despite this respect for the character however, it was a project he was happy to leave behind; “It was a relief. I had to sort of, let that guy go. It was a relief to do it because it was a lot of hard work to be in that mental state for that long.”
Curtis isn’t the only one who shines in The Dark Horse, and he is more than willing to acknowledge the stellar performances of his fellow cast members. His enthusiasm for the talent of co-star James Rolleston, who plays Genesis’ nephew Mana, is almost as strong as for the film itself; “he’s a heartbreaker. Just naturally. Just as a human being, you just fall in love with the kid.” Despite Genesis being the main focus, he is keen to stress the importance of Mana’s character; “he is very much the heart of the story.” Wayne Hapi is another standout, as Genesis’ gang member brother Ariki. “He’s a scene stealer. Like you know when you’re watching this guy, this isn’t acting, this is someone re-living their life on-screen for you.” From a journeyman actor such as Curtis, it is high praise indeed for the newcomer. A former real life gang member, he brings real menace to the role. As Curtis points out, having that real life experience was essential to the naturalistic feel of the film; “It authenticates those relationships. So, you know, all of those elements made it real.”
It’s this naturalistic approach that separates The Dark Horse from other, softer titles in the inspirational mentor genre. While the film no doubt benefits from having former gangsters bring their experience to the film, the success of the project hinges on the young performers and the relationship Genesis forms with the Eastern Knights Chess Club. Thankfully these interactions are remarkable, the group are so comfortable with each other you would be forgiven for thinking you were watching a fly-on-the-wall documentary about life in a youth club. In reality they had to work hard to make it seem so effortless; “they spent a lot of time together you know? So lots of games, and getting them used to being together, so that when they’re on screen it was like this continuous natural role. So when the camera was on or off they were just, you know, behaving naturally.” The star clearly relished the energy his co-stars brought to the project; “They really steal your heart those kids.”
While chess was the main tool Genesis used to reached these kids, he also formed a bond through telling stories of the Maori heritage he shared with the youngsters. It was through these stories that Curtis felt his strongest connection with the character; “I mixed up some of that stuff with my experiences in life, and I sort of brought that to the film as well, things that are part of our heritage and our stories, our mythology…[Genesis] mixed it up…and I do that as well…I found these bridges between him and me where I could relate.”
The telling of these heritage stories is clearly a passion of Curtis. In 2004 he started Whenua Films in New Zealand, a production company committed to the telling of indigenous stories. There is a sense of duty behind his work; “if we don’t tell them no-one else will basically. Or if they do tell them they’ll be distortions of who we are… we need to learn to tell our own stories to ourselves and for ourselves.” It’s a point that he feels strongly about. Just as Genesis told the stories of his people to inspire the at-risk youth in The Dark Horse, Curtis, who served as executive producer on the film, is setting an example for filmmakers to embrace their national identity in their work. It is essential for nationalities and cultures to as Curtis puts it, “understand themselves and for us to understand [them] better. You need to develop your own voice in cinema”. It is a message that motivates Curtis in his work. He’s been to Hollywood, worked with some of the biggest names in cinema, but is still driven to return to his homeland to tell a story that honours an icon of his culture.