Publicity work be damned—tonight, actor Cliff Curtis wants to see The Hulk. Curtis is in the lobby of Hotel Monaco doing interviews to help promote his latest film, Whale Rider, which won the World Cinema Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and opens in Salt Lake City on June 27. He’s appearing the same evening at a special screening of the film, but when he learns that the press preview of The Hulk is taking place at the same time, his face lights up.
“Can I go to The Hulk?” he asks, turning to his publicist. “What time am I introducing [Whale Rider]?”
An actor from a small independent film might not seem the likeliest candidate to get giddy over a summer blockbuster—though he’s careful to clarify, “This isn’t a comic book movie, this is an Ang Lee movie”—but Hollywood has actually been fairly good to Cliff Curtis. Though you may not recognize the name, chances are good you’ve seen his face—as the bitter Iraqi who tortures Mark Wahlberg in Three Kings, as the Mexican gangster who spares Ethan Hawke’s life in Training Day, or as drug lord Pablo Escobar opposite Johnny Depp in Blow. He knows from fast-paced cinema, and he’s happy about being part of it. “I love those movies,” he says of action films. “But I need something else in my diet.”
The “something else” of the moment is Whale Rider, set in a Maori community on the East Coast of New Zealand. Curtis plays the son of a tribal leader, and the father of the film’s central character, a young girl struggling with traditional gender-based expectations. For the first time in almost a decade, the Maori actor is actually playing a Maori character in a film.
“Relief,” is how he describes the experience. “It was really good to actually hear my own voice, just to hear my own accent a little bit.”
Curtis has tried on plenty of other accents in the intervening decade, and plenty of nationalities and ethnicities. The opportunity for that kind of versatility has been great for his career, but he also recognizes that there’s a down side to being cast frequently as a character with dark skin.
“It’s great that I don’t just have to play a Maori guy,” Curtis says. “It’s given me an opportunity to work in America. But then the balance is that ethnic minorities are still really limited ... they’re not seen as able to carry a film.
“Plus,” he adds with a smile, “maybe I’m just not good-looking enough, who the hell knows. Maybe if I was Brad Pitt with a tan, I’d have a shot at it.”
Cultural adaptability may have helped extend the range of roles available to Curtis, but it’s also a significant element of Whale Rider’s story. In the film, the Maori elder tries to instruct his people in ancient traditions when he believes they have lost a sense of their historical identity.
“As a Maori people,” Curtis says, “we were very keen to assimilate, to integrate into the New World. However, there wasn’t a level playing field, as we thought there might be, and it failed us.
“Aside from the First Nation people ... every American at one point in their family history had to consider, ‘What part of my heritage can I still sustain? What part of it is going to be a hindrance to me?’ And I think the key to answering that question, in the film at least, is to use [culture and heritage] as a spiritual resource that connects you with who you are.”
Curtis himself remains very connected with who he is, and with trying to promote the small stories of his own culture—even in a business environment where The Hulks of cinema suck up most of the dollars. “It’s sort of a tricky area, because it’s basic capitalist theory,” he acknowledges. “But people are getting tired of seeing things getting blown up. That machine in itself creates an audience, because people want to see something different ... something that has a story, God forbid.”