You’ve seen actor Cliff Curtis slip into the skin of countless characters before, taking on numerous ethnicities as a true chameleon of the big screen. The New Zealander is one of the most prolific and accomplished character actors of his generation, having racked up a list of filmmaker collaborators that would make any colleague jealous.
The list is impressive, probably because great directors know what they’re going to get out of the actor: David O. Russell (“Three Kings”), Martin Scorsese (“Bringing Out the Dead”), Michael Mann (“The Insider”), Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”), Frank Darabont (“The Majestic”), Darren Aronofsky (“The Fountain”), Danny Boyle (“Sunshine”) — each presenting a unique opportunity to stand out in an ensemble cast.
With James Napier Robertson’s “The Dark Horse,” however, Curtis took a turn into method actor territory for the first time in his career, at the director’s request. “He asked for it and he got it,” Curtis says, calling from New Zealand. “It was a new thing for me and trying to negotiate what that means, to inhabit a character, to live in his clothes and take on that physicality to transform myself — I lived like that for a number of months. My whole family had to live with me in this role. It was a bizarre exercise.”
Curtis stars in the film as Genesis Potini, a speed chess genius who suffered from bipolar disorder and worked with underprivileged children in New Zealand. He passed away in 2011, but the 2003 Jim Marbrook documentary “Dark Horse” was crucial in Curtis’ understanding of the man and how to tackle the performance. Eerily, even as he discusses Genesis now, Curtis notes, he slips into a stammer similar to Genesis’ own speech impediment, residue from the actor’s intense immersion experience.
“When I start thinking about Gen and talking about him, I start taking on mannerisms. It’s very strange,” he says. “My body chemistry, my physicality changed, my emotional range shifted, my vulnerability, all types of things started to change that weren’t me [when I made the film]. It was very effective.”
An American Cinematheque tribute has been planned for the actor on Oct. 11 at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica. “The Dark Horse” will receive its first public screening in the U.S. since the Los Angeles Film Festival along with Lee Tamahori’s 1994 film “Once Were Warriors.” Curtis will be on hand to discuss his work in the films and throughout his career.
“It’s a wonderful privilege and I’m grateful that this work that we all did is bringing all that attention,” he says. “I’ve been in the game for a while now so you get kind of worn, you know? I’m well-worn.”
Indeed. And respected. With so many flashy names in the mix for best actor awards consideration this year, a vote for Curtis would be a vote for the in-the-trenches breed, the character actor who takes the whole of a film on his shoulders and knocks it out of the park. I think of Oscar nominees like Bruce Dern (“Nebraska”), Demián Bichir (“A Better Life”), Richard Jenkins (“The Visitor”), David Strathairn (“Good Night, and Good Luck.”) and Tom Wilkinson (“In the Bedroom”), who got that opportunity in recent years and were rewarded for their work.
Here’s hoping this “dark horse” can find room in the discussion as well.