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NZ Film Festival Special: The Dark Horse

NZ Film Festival Special: The Dark Horse

Jul 10, 2014 Film & TV

Cliff Curtis went method and drank a dozen beers a day to play the chess-playing, bipolar hero of the festival’s opening night film, The Dark Horse.

Above: James Rolleston and Cliff Curtis in The Dark Horse.

He clasps his hands over an ample cardiganed belly and shuffles about in crocs and socks. He jabbers to himself agitatedly, hauling in Maori myths, chess strategies, snippets of dialogue, as if trying to crack a code to find a coherent meaning. There are no physical shows of power, but the emotion he conveys with a few soft-spoken words, or a look, is skin-prickling and profound.

This is Cliff Curtis in his first lead role in a film, playing the troubled chess ace Genesis Potini, from Gisborne. Potini, who died in 2011, had bipolar disorder, was confined at times to psychiatric wards and also had periods living rough, and took it upon himself to set up a chess club for troubled kids. And to enter them in competitions.

His story was first told in Jim Marbrook’s documentary Dark Horse, and has now been recreated in the feature film The Dark Horse, directed by James Napier Robertson, which has been chosen as the prestigious opening night film in the festival.

Physically and psychically, Potini is a long way from the roles we know Curtis for best in New Zealand films — the incestuous creep Uncle Bully in Once Were Warriors and Pai’s dad in Whale Rider.

He’s even further from Curtis’ usual Hollywood persona: the all-purpose ethnic sexy evil dude, all dirt-streaked muscles, waxed hair and menacing foreignness, playing off the shoulder of the big stars — Clooney, Washington, Gosling. And yet, for a mark of his ability, those roles are worth another look. Curtis takes the stereotypes off the page with credibility and subtlety (for a montage of his multi-ethnic roles, see here).

The film follows the life-changing teacher arc — you know the ending, but happily take the emotional ride. It also calls to mind other screen depictions of people with mental health issues — Carrie in Homeland, John Nash in A Beautiful Mind. And there are echoes of Once Were Warriors: Potini goes to live with his gang-member brother, Ariki (an impressive turn by Wayne Hapi). Ariki wants his 14-year-old son, Mana (James Rolleston from Boy and the Vodafone ads), to join the gang; Genesis wants him to play chess.

Napier Robertson tells me he didn’t initially see Curtis in the part because he lacked the Father Christmassy heft of Potini. But Curtis (Ngati Hauiti, Te Arawa) had contacted the filmmakers after someone passed him a screenplay, prompting him to watch Marbrook’s acclaimed documentary. In phone chats, the actor and director checked each other out.

Two things clinched it for the director: “Cliff told me he felt the place he’d anchor the character in was aroha… that felt bang on to me. The other thing was because he had his reservations and I had mine, he said he’d be taking a leap of faith with me, so he asked me to take a leap of faith with him, and out of that something special might come.”

Napier Robertson wanted Curtis to go method — to live as Potini in the lead-up to, and during, the shoot, even spending a few nights in a psych ward. And he wanted Curtis to put the weight on. Curtis resisted, worried about his health and the toll on his family (he lives in Rotorua with his wife, daughter and two sons). Then he had to negotiate time off to film a TV pilot in the US.

As Napier Robertson tells it, he agreed, but that gave him the lever to insist that Curtis chowed down.

Then it was all on. Napier Robertson: “Someone said about director Elia Kazan that he had the devil’s energy. I think Cliff has the devil’s energy as well. He’s got this intense vitality and passion in him — when he commits to something, boy does he really commit. He’ll just be full throttle.” Curtis-as-Potini decked Napier Robertson once during the production, when the director was playing another character during an improvisation exercise.

Of the weight gain, Curtis says: “It was nauseating — I just ate a lot of junk, especially late at night, and I drank a lot of beer — at least a dozen to two dozen a day. I drank more beers in those three months than I had in my whole life! There was no beer at the wrap party.”

He’d never done method before. “It’s completely weird, but I thought why not, if Daniel Day-Lewis does it, I’ll give it a crack.” He didn’t stay in a psych ward — no time — but “I dressed like him and walked like him and spoke like him and ate like him. I spent time with his wife and closest friends and played chess — I played chess incessantly and I still have a chess problem. When you get into a game like that, it’s a whole universe.”

He also drew on personal experience. “I’ve never been on meds but there have been times, when I was younger, when I suffered from severe depression and it was cyclical, and if I analyse it there were other times I had mania. I was a ward of the state when I was 12; I’ve lived homeless, in my car, I’ve slept under a bridge, on doorsteps, backyards of factories. When you live like that the world can seem like a very dark place.”

He adds: “Nowadays my life is much more boring and settled and healthy.”

Curtis continues to divide his career between the US and Aotearoa. He’s branched into TV, as a drug kingpin in Fox’s Gang Related and as a flight medic in NBC’s Trauma. Back here, he’s been running a production company, Whenua Films, with his cousin Ainsley Gardiner for a decade: they produced Taika Waititi’s Tama Tu and Eagle vs Shark, and co-produced Boy.

“It’s always good to come home,” he says. “My character in Whale Rider and this character are much closer to who I am than all the stuff I did in Hollywood. It’s nice to come home and speak like a Maori and be a Maori and tell Maori stories.”

This originally appeared in the July 2014 issue of Metro.

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