Cliff Curtis is a Maori actor from New Zealand who has become Hollywood’s go-to guy for a variety of ethnic portrayals. He’s played Arabs, Latinos, Jews and a number of Caucasian types in such films as “Three Kings,” “The Last Airbender,” “The Insider” and “Training Day.” The 47-year-old first attracted attention playing a rapist in the 1994 film “Once Were Warriors,” and has been working steadily ever since. He’s currently starring as Travis Manawa, a schoolteacher dealing with a zombie outbreak in the “Walking Dead” spinoff, “Fear The Walking Dead,” which returns for its second season April 10 at 9 p.m. on AMC. Lewis Beale spoke with the actor during a break in production.
Starring in a spinoff of the biggest hit on TV must have been a little scary. There must have been a lot of pressure. What were you thinking?
I was like I don’t know how this is going to go down. It’s very different, it’s a slow burn, this is going to be a tough sell. I liked the scripts, I just liked the scripts, the director had a clear vision for the show, and they wanted to focus on characters and relationships.
“The Walking Dead” is about a post-apocalyptic world. “Fear The Walking Dead” is about civilization collapsing. Other than that, what key differences do you see between the two shows?
Our show is still discovering itself. The other show had a Bible, all the comic books, it knew what it was doing right from the start. I think psychologically we don’t have such clear-cut lines. The big difference between this and the other show is everyone’s in agreement on “The Walking Dead,” they know what world they’re living in, and in this show they don’t. This is about being broken down, and stripped to their essential elements, and who can survive and won’t. It really comes down to survivalism, and even if you do, something is being killed off.
Your character Travis is a Maori, just like you are in real life. Will Maori culture be part of the show?
Not really. There are some minor references in the show. They couldn’t make me a Latino, because I’ve kind of done it. That game is done. Why not just cast a Latino? It was a rock and a hard place, what do you do with me? It’s difficult to write to the character if you don’t have knowledge of that culture.
Your big break came in the downbeat 1994 film about a violent Maori family, “Once Were Warriors.” How did that affect your career?
It was really the start, in a lot of ways. It was a very respected film, kind of a cult hit, and most filmmakers in Hollywood have seen that movie, and it was a foot in the door. It got me meetings, the chance to audition.
What was it like moving from a small country like New Zealand to the U.S.?
I haven’t moved, I still live in New Zealand. At first I did a few movies with forgettable roles, and then I did “Three Kings,” with David O. Russell, then “Bringing out the Dead” with Martin Scorsese, then “The Insider” with Michael Mann, and that was all within a 12-month period, and I was working with these directors with pedigree, and that sustained me for awhile.
When did you realize that casting directors saw you as some sort of all-purpose ethnic?
That didn’t really click until after I did “The Insider,” then I got a rash of terrorist offers, which I turned down. Then I did an action movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger, then I did Pablo Escobar in “Blow,” then I did “Training Day,” and it was then I realized, ‘Oh, I’m that guy.’ Until then, I thought I was white. It’s been a real advantage, I love being ethnic, I love the color of my skin. There are limitations in the business, that’s a reality, but I’ve been given such wonderful opportunities.
What are the differences between filmmaking here and in New Zealand?
The size of the crews, the sense of community. Back home there’s more sense of community, we’re not doing it for the money and glory. But that can have its downside; it’s a small pond. It’s such a big machine in Hollywood; there is so much more to offer.
You’re also showing your versatility in the critically acclaimed New Zealand film “The Dark Horse,” in which you play an overweight, bipolar chess champ mentoring a group of at-risk kids. What attracted you to the part?
It’s such a heartfelt, inspiring story. Those movies are so rare. Maybe twice in a lifetime I’ll get to play a character like that. It’s a role I didn’t know I was capable of playing. It’s so uplifting, and so much material I see is nihilistic, and this is about giving and sacrifice.