Film

How The Dark Horse’s Cliff Curtis Went From Villains to Jesus to Chess King

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New Zealand’s Cliff Curtis has been stealing scenes for years now, so it’s nice to see him playing a bona fide lead in the new chess drama The Dark Horse. Based on the life of Genesis Potini, a bipolar Maori chess champion, the film follows a coach and a group of poor kids from small-town New Zealand to the national championships in Auckland. The film was a labor of love for Curtis, and it also comes at a time when he’s in theaters playing Jesus Christ in the biblical drama Risen. He talked to us recently about his new films, chess, and Maori culture — and why he’s been cast as seemingly every ethnicity on the planet.

Had you heard of Genesis Potini before you came on to do this role?

Not at all. That’s why it’s such a privilege to tell stories like this — to find these really precious stories about people that would be forgotten otherwise. The producer and the director-writer were developing the project over a couple of years. I heard about it, got the script, had a conversation with the director, and then I watched the documentary [also called Dark Horse] that was made about his life. That’s really how I found out about him.

When you’re working with a real-life figure like that — someone who wasn’t necessarily all that well-known — how does that affect the kind of research and preparation that you do? How do you define authenticity in that situation?

He passed away before I came on to the project, but he’d become a mentor and friend of sorts to the writer-director and the producer and had developed a really strong relationship with them. I got to meet his wife and other characters portrayed in the movie. They took me to his grave, actually, to give me a sense of how loved he was. I spoke to many of his friends and to his students whose lives he affected. He had a very broad range of people that he knew — psychologists and mathematicians and doctors and lawyers. Anybody who played chess, really. The homeless, gangs, delinquents…a broad cross-section of society. I talked to as many of them as I could. I learned about his illness, about being bipolar, about his medications. But I’m from small-town New Zealand as well, so I recognized that world, and I know what it’s like to be from that rough background. I mean, I was essentially one of those kids.

Is that how you yourself discovered acting?

First I discovered martial arts — traditional Maori martial arts. Then I became a laborer, working with my hands and digging holes and stuff for a living when I was fourteen. My dad had this hobby, which was rock ’n’ roll dancing. From there I started winning some national dance competitions, and I also got into breakdancing and choreographing. But there was one defining moment, when I was seventeen: I saw an amateur production of Look Back in Anger in a school hall.

One of the characters’ names was Cliff. I got so involved in the play that I forgot it wasn’t real. This lead character was being so mean to his girlfriend, and I was ready to deck the guy. I was about to stand up and confront him…and then the lights came on! I went outside, discombobulated. I realized I couldn’t go back to digging holes for a living. I knew that my life had changed. From there I started doing amateur productions of musicals, like Man of La Mancha. Then I did some one-act plays, like Pinter. People started encouraging me to go to drama school.

In some ways, you’ve got more in common with Mana, Genesis’s troubled young nephew in the film.

Exactly. Very much like Mana. And I had a hero in my life who was very much like Genesis who changed my life. He was a martial-arts teacher named Mita Mohi. So in many ways, this film is a dedication to those people — angels in our communities who are unpaid, unrecognized, but devote themselves to helping others. They help the old, the invalid, the young, anyone less fortunate. And they expect nothing in return.

I was intrigued by how Genesis takes chess and brings all these elements of Maori mythology into it.

He was a fascinating guy with diverse interests. Apart from being good at chess, Genesis was a natural mathematician. He was interested in ping-pong and karate. I spoke to his wife, and she told me about how he deployed different techniques to bring chess to life for these kids, and to apply the lessons of chess to life. He wanted them to see that they could sit down opposite somebody who was successful and powerful…and beat them. A homeless kid — with no education or background or wealth — could sit down with a judge, a judge with the power to sentence them to parole or whatever, and beat them at chess. It makes them realize that they’ve got potential that they can’t see.

In terms of the Maori mythology and how he worked that in, I started to develop my own philosophy around it, actually. It’s Polynesian mythology, which marries with Hawaii and Samoa and Tahiti and other places. Maui is our demigod, and he’s not dissimilar to Hercules, sort of a character who had these great tasks. He tempted the gods and all that kind of stuff. In our mythology, Father Earth and Mother Sky had 63 or 64 children — each representing a different aspect of nature. There are 64 square pieces on the board. Or 65, depending on whether you count the larger square that contains the other 64. I could go on about this! [Laughs]

Go on!

These are beautiful stories when used to inspire children, and you can use them to help the kids see the pieces on the board come to life. A major focus is on collaboration and working together as a community as opposed to an individualist society, which is about competing and succeeding on your own. Our heritage and culture is all about us working together. And that’s a good game of chess — when you understand how to coordinate the pieces together. You might have one queen, but you have eight pawns. When those eight pawns are coordinated, they can become the most powerful piece on the board.

I’d never played chess before the film, but as I intensified my inquiry into the game, I started to relate it and the pieces to how I saw the world. So for me, the king became purpose — your purpose in life. You have all of these pieces on the board, and together with them you can be a leader, you can be fast, you can be clever, you can be well resourced. But if you don’t have a clear purpose you’ve got no game. Because the king is in many ways the most static piece on the board — there isn’t a whole lot he can do on his own. Meanwhile, the queen for me became like the soul of the game. She can move anywhere on the board, she’s powerful. And you can lose your soul…but you can be renewed, too. You can find your soul again, the same way you can get your queen back.

I’m sure you’ve been asked this before, but what is it about you, do you think, that prompts people to cast you as pretty much every ethnicity under the sun? Is it your looks?

I think it’s my looks. I mean, what do I look like? Many different things. Very few people ever really guess that I’m Polynesian. Except in New Zealand, obviously. People will often think I’m Latino or Iranian or Arab. And you’d be amazed at how many roles I’ve had to turn down over the years to bend the tendency of typecasting — drug dealers and terrorists and all that. To be fair, I think I’m often cast in those kinds of “bad guy” parts because I have this ability as an actor to understand the darkness of life. I treat “bad guys” as human beings. And I try to bring humanity to every role that I play. But yeah, I’ve yet to pass for a WASP.

But you got to play Jesus in Risen, which is close. Especially in an ostensibly “faith based” film, to see a 47-year-old Maori actor get cast as Jesus. That felt downright revolutionary when you appeared onscreen.

It really did feel that way for me, too. It was revolutionary for me to not be asked to bring all this rage and darkness to a role. It’s been a running joke of mine: Many people have asked me over the years what I’ve wanted to do as a role, and I’d always say, “Jesus.” I never thought it would actually happen. So when it came, especially in my late forties, I thought they’d made a mistake. Which does happen in this business; sometimes they’ll call the wrong actor. It happened to me — I think they’re talking to me about one role and they’re actually talking to me about another.

So I had to double- and triple-check that they knew my background, knew my age. I wanted to make sure before I went down the garden path with this offer. Yeah, it was a revelation of sorts. Especially after playing Genesis. Genesis happened to be a devout Christian. I feel like maybe it was this little gift that he gave me. Because both Genesis and Jesus for me represent love and hope and peace and a desire to uplift the human spirit and build connections between humans. Those two parts, for me as an actor, were a blessing, after years of having to play the nemesis role.