Interview: The Dark Horse and Fear the Walking Dead’s Cliff Curtis

Interview: The Dark Horse and Fear the Walking Dead's Cliff Curtis’s interview with The Dark Horse and Fear the Walking Dead star Cliff Curtis

Although actor Cliff Curtis has been getting the most attention of his career playing English teacher Travis Manawa on AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead, (which returns for its second season on April 10), if you’ve seen any of the bigger New Zealand exports of the past 20-odd years (other than Peter Jackson’s films, for some odd reason), you’ll have seen his work whether it’s in The Piano, Whale Rider or others.

His new film The Dark Horse is based on the life of Genesis “Gen” Pontini, a former child chess prodigy suffering from bipolar disorder later in life who decides to help a local chess club made up of impoverished neighborhood kids get to a national chess tournament.

It’s one of the most moving and inspirational dramas you’re likely to see this year, but had a chance to sit down with Curtis for a chat while he was in New York last October, shortly after the end of Season 1 of Fear the Walking Dead and before he began filming Season 2. This film really is a hidden gem that I honestly hadn’t heard of before being invited to see it, but then I realized it played at the Toronto Film Festival in 2014.

Cliff Curtis: It’s kind of been out there, but what had happened was that we didn’t have a distributor at that point and we just switched sales agents, so they were still signing the sales agent deal at the festival, so there had been no time to get any awareness out there at the festival. You know, it’s so tough out there.

CS: I don’t know much about the film’s writer/director James Napier Robertson to be honest.

He’s a discovery. This is his second film. His first film was a tiny little no-budget thriller type thing, a genre piece, and there was no indication that he could pull off something of this sophistication as a filmmaker. He’s a real discovery.

CS: You’ve been on the New Zealand scene for a while and worked with many of the directors there, so did you know James beforehand?

Curtis: No, no. He and his producing buddy, they were actors, and they developed their own company and this was their second film. They just knocked it out of the park.

CS: What about Genesis? Were you familiar at all with his story?

Curtis: No, I discovered him through the documentary that I saw as their pitch to me to do the film, and then I met his whole family in the process of playing him. It’s a really small intimate story.

CS: It’s definitely more than just a chess movie, which I think is why it’s so special. It’s dealing with a lot of issues going on in New Zealand, family stuff. This wasn’t a biopic.

Curtis: How do you describe what the movie is, what’s it about? “Well, it’s about this chess guy. He’s got mental health issues and these gangs.” There’s three totally different worlds smashed together into this story.


CS: Did you watch the documentary first?

Curtis: I read their screenplay and I was like “I dunno.” I heard about the project floating around for a couple of years. I was aware of it, but what I heard about it, I thought, “Well, good luck with that. 350-pound homeless guy, toothless, chess champion who is bi-polar.” I don’t even know what that is or how to make sense of it. Then I read the script and I just couldn’t see me in that guy. How would I do that? Do I want to put on all that weight and do all that sort of stuff? Then I YouTubed the guy and learned a bit about the guy and I got sucked into his little universe and I just started to think, “Wow, I have no idea how I’m going to do it” and that’s what made it so tricky. The distance between me and him is so great—I don’t even play chess. “Wow, this is going to be something… if I can figure out a way to get there.” So the deal I made with the writer/director and producer, what I initially said to them was, “I think you should cast the type. I’m not the type. See if you can find the guy and if you can’t find the guy, let’s talk again. But go out there and go broad and try and find the guy ‘cause I don’t know how you’re going to make this work and I don’t think I’m right.”

They looked and they came back and we talked again, and I was like, “Look, I I have no idea how I would achieve this role, what the process would be, and even if I took it on, where I’d end up. I might end up being nothing like that guy. Maybe we just use that as an inspirational platform and I go off on whatever tangent that I end up on and create a totally different Genesis. I don’t know, and if you’re willing to accept that of me… and also, the adage of ‘Failure is not an option,’ you have to absolutely accept that we can fail miserably. Because there are too many unknowns and I honestly can’t say to you, ‘I know this guy, I know we have to do and how to get there.’” I couldn’t say any of that and I had no idea what the outcome was going to be so I said, “If you can embrace that failure is an absolute option” and it has to be because it’s so ambitious. “I have to embrace that with you because I don’t know you guys, I don’t know that you guys can do this.” There’s some talent and some intelligence there but there’s no way to know if they could make this film. That was the agreement.

However I did have one thing that I can pin it on, because I couldn’t decide whether the weight was important or the toothlessness or if any of that was important. It seemed superficial to me because who was the guy? It was his story we were telling and I thought that if we could get this one thing right about him and about the story then we would have honored him and our efforts would have been for something worthwhile. The one thing that I came across about him and the potential of the story was his untethered generosity and ability to exude love and love others, this gentle giant. As I spoke more and more to people, the impact he made on their lives was huge. He changed people’s lives and it was this love that he had, he had this huge heart. Forget the weight, forget the bipolar, the mental illness, the chess, forget everything else. If we can get that one thing right, then we would not have failed.

CS: Even though it’s meant to be Genesis’ story, it’s also about how he affected the lives of those around him. There are two or three story arcs and whatever you did to create that character, it really brought out something special in these young kids who never acted before.

Curtis: They were the secret sauce actually. We got a good solid storyteller, we have a good script, we had these amazing performances by non-actors like Wayne Hapi, who played my brother.


CS: He wasn’t an actor? Wow, he was pretty amazing.

Curtis: Never acted before. He was the real deal. He was the stamp of authenticity. He brought authenticity to our world in a way that only a true ex-gang member/prisoner could. The gravity that he brought to that role and our relationship is phenomenal. And then the beautiful performance from the young actor James Rolleston, which was only his second film. He did another film when he was 12 that I produced called “Boy.” He was a discovery on that, a phenomenal talent. But to generate that ever-important element that I thought was essential—if we had not achieved that, we would have failed and if we only achieved that, we would have succeeded—was that love and the secret sauce was those kids. Because they generated that sense of love and need for love and the experience of love, because you fall in love with those kids when you see them. 

CS: They were well cast since they all have interesting characteristics. In American movies, there are always stereotypes of what you expect from a movie with kids in them, and maybe because this is set in New Zealand and these are poorer kids, it seems very different. You mentioned not knowing how to play chess before doing this, so was it important to learn how to play chess for real?

Curtis: It was essential. I played hundreds, thousands of games over the six months preparing for the role. I just played a lot of speed chess, like one-minute games. I trained very, very hard. My great accomplishment is that I’ve beaten one great master in a game of one-minute chess. Once. You could say that it was some kind of a fluke. We had a mini-chess tournament and a grandmaster came and I beat him on one game. He beat me the first game. In the second game, I beat him and I didn’t want to do a fourth match. I just walked away.

CS: I think all actors—even though it’s nice to just go in and do a job—there’s always something about challenging yourself.

Curtis: It’s a gift. There’s always a risk but if you fail in a movie like that, nobody’s ever going to see it, so it was only going to get seen if we had succeeded.

CS: What’s James’ background? I was really fascinated how he incorporated the Maori community and traditions into the story.

Curtis: What happened was that they had seen the documentary and then they approached Genesis, and when they approached him—and a number of people were approaching him after seeing the documentary—but James plays chess, so I think that was his in. They developed a very close bond and they became friends essentially, and when he passed away, both Tom the producer and James became pallbearers. They were totally impressed by the family to tell his story and it became a very important thing for Genesis and this film is his legacy. It was his parting gift to his wife and son. 

CS: I wasn’t sure if he ever got married or had kids.

Curtis: He’d been married three times. That was a whole storyline that we just didn’t have time for. He was married at the time of this period of his life and once before that, but it was a condition he made. “There is only one condition I make. You can make me gay, you can make me a green Martian, you can do anything to me you want, I don’t care how you portray me in the film.” There’s only one request he made that “if there’s going to be a love story that there should be no other love story than the one with my wife.” Then she made one stipulation: “I don’t want to be in the film.”

CS: So you’ve met his wife and son.

Curtis: Oh, yeah. They were on set almost every single day, and the real Jedi and the real Noble were there. Another one of the core experiences that James had was when Gen passed away and they were still developing the script, a lot of kids turned up, young people and adults, and one after the other told stories about the impact Genesis had on them and how he changed their lives. That sold them on what the story was, and they had to wrestle with how to fiddle all those stories into the one narrative so that’s what created the character Mana. There was a real son of his brother, Ed (that was his real name), but they had to focus all that energy around that character to include all of those amazing stories that they heard at his funeral. 


CS: Whatever artistic license they took, the story really connected with me even though I have no real connection to New Zealand or chess. You’ve been a part of a lot of really pivotal New Zealand films from “The Piano” to “Whale Rider,” “Once Were Warriors” and “Boy” and I feel like this belongs with them.

Curtis: Yeah, it belongs in there. For me, it’s every five or ten years or so, I get to participate in something significant back home and as a producer, I do that as well. And then in between that, I work in Hollywood.

CS: I was curious about keeping that balance doing shows like “Fear the Walking Dead” but also keeping in touch with the film community there.

Curtis: I still live there. I tried to figure out how to live in L.A. but I found most of the projects don’t film there. I take meetings and stuff there and maybe do some publicity there and occasionally will shoot some pick-ups there, but the large majority of stuff is not shot in L.A. What happens when I’m not working, it’s tough for me to be in L.A. and not be working, so I just never left home really.

CS: I haven’t seen “Fear the Walking Dead” yet, but from what I understand the first season is intense. Having read the comics and seen the original show, it’s interesting that they’d do a completely new thing. What was the appeal for you to do episodic television?

Curtis: There was no immediate appeal. Who wants to stand second in line to a franchise really because it’s a huge risk. The show doesn’t belong to you, it belongs to the audience, and it’s been really difficult for them to view whatever we do without the lens of the other show, so we’re not going to get a clean run of it. There was a lot of reasons not to, but I read the script and the script was nothing like I imagined. It was a very low-key, low-fi family drama. I was like, “What are you guys thinking? There’s no zombies in it!” We have whole episodes with no zombies and if we do, they’re somewhere over there. It’s very disorienting, but I think to an extent, one of the biggest requests was that we skipped a lot of that period about what happened. Rather than doing a prequel, they decided to set it up with a totally new show.

CS: I’ve read the comics and even the main show is pretty different. It’s interesting to have a completely fresh thing that doesn’t rely on the comics at all.

Curtis: It’s very different from the other show. These guys have got cojones because it’s a big risk to take on such a huge franchise, but I really liked the quality of the script and everything that was done, but I knew that it was going to be difficult for people to adjust to going backwards in time and understanding that the characters don’t know anything that you guys know. It’s a real challenge and that’s been the biggest challenge for the first six episodes, to be going over ground that audiences five years into it already know that. They’re waiting for characters to catch up with people, but I think people who haven’t seen the original show, we can possibly build a new audience from them, but the numbers are ridiculous. Our total accumulated live each week is close to 7 million tuning in on Sundays and our total (including DVR) each week is 11 million average. We have a good solid audience.

The Dark Horse can be seen in select cities on Friday, April 1.


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