Compelling and versatile, Cliff Curtis has spent more than 25 years in Hollywood — in films like Bringing Out The Dead, Blow, and Training Day. He’s getting his biggest shot at stardom with Fear The Walking Dead — this spin-off from the cable behemoth, The Walking Dead, bowed with the highest rated cable TV premiere ever. Opening up on issues of race, mental illness and hope, the New Zealand-born Maori actor looks back at a career spent pushing against being typecast or stereotyped and looks forward to showing the world just how a Maori-American high school teacher takes on the zombie apocalypse.
Your break in Hollywood came in 1999 with Michael Mann’s The Insider, David O Russell’s Three Kings and Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead. That’s a hell of a trifecta…
They’re not mucking around. [Those directors] study every frame. You could name the most random of films — and Nic Cage and Quentin Tarantino are the same — they’ll tell you everything, the frames, the shot lists. They’ve memorized whole sequences in movies, it’s intense. Tarantino says, look, if you’re gonna be great at one thing in your lifetime, then just give it. He’s not good at other things in his life, but he’s just so devoted to filmmaking.
I loved that unforgettable sense of dread in Bringing Out the Dead. There are some nice scenes of dread in Fear the Walking Dead, too.
It’s a good correlation you’re making there. It’s a little known Scorsese/Cage film; not many people really got to see that film. I loved it. It was a very poignant film, really it’s about post-traumatic stress and what it takes to deal with death on a daily basis. This show is very well crafted, too.
Addiction is another nice connection in both.
With Fear the Walking Dead’s central character Nick, my on screen girlfriend’s son, being an addict. He does a great job of playing this drug-addicted guy who sees something he just cannot understand: what appears to be a dead person eating somebody. In our world, our television show, we don’t know what zombies are, we don’t know about The Walking Dead, we don’t even have a name for it. So our first character in the episode, the first episode introduces our family, our onscreen family, and audience, into the world of the dead.
I think the challenges of a blended family will resonate for people.
We’re a blended family. We’ve got two broken families. My character is divorced, with a teenage son who’s a bit grumpy with me, and my new girlfriend is a widow with two teenagers, children who aren’t that interested in me. So I’m sort of stuck between these two broken families and we’re trying to make a go of blending our families and pulling them together. And again that’s the kind of thing that most families can relate to.
Last time we spoke you told me, “my kids can’t watch my work, it’s too terrifying, they won’t like me, they’ll be too scared.” How about with this one?
The monsters, the infectors, they’re pretty scary. They’re a little bit different from the other show, they’re not quite as monster-ish, but they do look frighteningly real, even in person. They look really scary. My younger kids may not be able to watch this one. The older kids can. I was really intrigued when I was reading the first episode, the pilot, to see what sort of character they had cooked up for me. I was really delighted that Travis Manawa is a high school teacher who teaches literature, and we have a scene in there where he is teaching a piece of literature as a teaching tool—
He teaches Jack London’s To Build A Fire. There’s a great line in that elemental book where he says, “You can’t wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club.”
[Laughs] Well done! That’s a great quote. I think the story is a great story, even that quote that “you have to go after it with a club,” it’s about ultimately he’s humbled by that egotistical view of man versus nature. And that he thinks he can club his way to success. He pretty much comes up second best.
And your character adds: “Nature always wins.”
That’s my contribution. Because we’re studying nature versus man, and nature always wins. I think if we’re more true to the short story by Jack London, it would basically be, that man in the face of nature, is somehow inconsequential. Nature doesn’t really care. Nature does what nature does.
It’s an interesting way into the television show for the audience, because he could have been an action-type character. He could have been like a cop, a soldier, or some kind of CIA or FBI agent, I’ve played those sort of characters. I was half expecting that, or some gangster type. But I love that he’s a high school teacher. I think a lot of people can relate. We all have teachers that we like or don’t like, so hopefully I’m portraying a teacher people like.
And Travis is Maori-American.
Originally the role was written as Hispanic, but when I got cast, the writer said, “How would it be if I made the guy Maori?” And I said, “A Maori-American? Absolutely.” There are not a lot of us over there, but I thought it was fun that he wanted to make that a part of my character. Which is only the second time that’s happened in my career of working in America. It’s the first time they’ve adapted an American character to being Maori.
I’m trying to bring this back to what makes characters, how we work in terms of humanity, how we have empathy for each other, despite all of our differences. Like I might be Maori, somebody from the other side of the world. How we connect with audiences all around the world is how we deal with the specific nature of who we are.
Your role as “blackdrop” in The Piano — New Zealand’s indigenous people were just the backdrop to a European love story — motivated you to bring more complexity to ethnic characters?
Oh yeah. I was pretty sure that if I was to have a career as an actor, I could not remain in the backdrop of someone else’s story. And that got me into producing, ultimately. I setting up a production company producing films with Jemaine Clement from Flight of the Conchords and Taika Waititi. We’ve had some success. And so here I am now, many years later, and I am in the foreground as a Maori in an American television show, and I’m no longer the blackdrop. I’m very brown, and I’m very much in the forefront. And it’s great because the color of my skin is irrelevant in this show. It’s something that I’m quite proud of. I was cast because of my work.
I’ve really tried to stay away from repetitive stereotypes of people of color. I have played FBI agents, CIA agents, detectives. I have played gang members and gangsters, Mafia bosses. In The Dark Horse, which I produced, I play a homeless bipolar chess champion. When I play those roles, I try to imbue them with humanity, and I try to bring as much empathy as I can. Sometimes they’re good guys, sometimes they’re bad guys. I try to empathize with those characters. They might be people that don’t understand what they’re doing, they’re trying to do the best they can with what they’ve got.
They might not be the best of people, but they’re doing things with the best of intentions. I think there are lessons to be learned in that. I think that storytelling’s purpose is, at its core, is a way for us to learn from our mistakes, or to be inspired by our potential. So an actor is really one cog in the works, in the fabric of this storytelling. The greatest value we can do as storytellers is to bring value to peoples’ lives by helping them explore narratives and stories that they can relate to, and draw some kind of understanding of themselves from.
You suffered from depression when you were younger — how did you navigate that terrain?
I would read books. Usually books from philosophy, some poetry. Having conversations with great minds is one of the most wonderful things about books. You can get inside the heads of the greatest minds humanity has had on the planet. From anywhere in the world, from thousands of years ago. One of my favorite books is Plato’s Last Days of Socrates.
Why The Last Days of Socrates?
The level of integrity of the man was profound. Because he was faced with the ultimate question. He was given the opportunity to escape death by leaving the country that he knew and loved. He decided to stand for what he believed was right. They took his life as a result. He drank hemlock. So it was a really profound question that he answered with deep integrity. It made a huge impact on me.
The other thing he formulated — either he did, or Plato did through studying him — was formulate a method of enquiry, of questioning. In order to evolve as people, and as families, societies, as communities or as nations, we need to enquire deeply into ourselves.
If we are to have integrity as human beings, we firstly need to be able to stand up to the rigor of robust questioning.
How do you think America is going in terms of answering questions about race?
I think America is going the same way as everybody else in terms of race issues, to be honest. They’re all on the same playing field, out there.
Progress is a slow process.
Yeah, I think there is progress. It’s just so complex. Race issues are so complex. You feel like you’re making a step forward. You make one step forward, two steps back. Three steps forward, ten steps back. It’s very complex set of issues, and I’m not that good at soundbites about something so complex. I think that we all have to take responsibility in our day-to-day lives, and we work it from there. In terms of a nation, and singling out America in terms of race relations? As opposed to any other nation in the world? And giving an assessment on that? I’m not confident that I’m qualified to do that… It’s great that people engage with questions of race, and are questioning it.
What makes your Fear the Walking Dead costar Kim Dickens so special to work with?
She’s very interesting to me as an actor. Firstly, she’s highly intelligent. She’s mastered the craft. She’s got some serious experience behind her so she’s got a level of confidence and ease in the way she approaches her work, and professionalism. But what intrigues me the most about her as an actor is this level of warmth that she conveys. I asked her, “Where did that come from?” She credits her mother and her grandmother.
Actors or artists, they have to have a center that they work from. And hers, she has this really deep warmth that you really empathize with her as a person through her characters. Plus she’s really fun.
Given that Fear the Walking Dead’s about the zombie apocalypse, it begs the question: Are you a hopeful person?
Me? Yeah! I love that about my character in the show. He’s an optimist, he’s very hopeful, it’s like he’s convinced that everything’s going to be fine, everything’s going to return to normal, and we just have to keep our family safe in the meantime. I’m like that. I try to focus on my preferred outcome. Sometimes beyond the probable outcome. I’m an optimist. I believe in goodness. I like to focus on those things. It helps me keep a positive frame of mind when challenged by life.
And here you are on the brink of a big American breakthrough.
Yeah. I’ve been in the game for a few years now, aye. I’m clocking up the decades now, I think I’m into my third decade. It’s a juggernaut, The Walking Dead, so it’s exciting and it’s a real privilege to be invited into that level of the game, in terms of numbers. But also Fear the Walking Dead feels like a quality show. They’re giving it a real shot to make something that we can all be proud of.
A film critic for Radio New Zealand, *Alexander Bisley is a Kiwi cultural writer contributing to varied publications, including The Guardian, The Independent, The AV Club, and The BBC. He tweets at @alexanderbisley.