Cliff Curtis won’t talk about his new movie. He’ll write notes about it. Type on his laptop. Make elaborate, affirmative gestures in response to a question. But talking? No. Not right now.
The New Zealand native, who gives a career-making performance in Kiwi director James Napier Robertson’s “The Dark Horse” (now playing the Toronto International Film Festival), is serious about his craft. So serious, in fact, that for the role of Robertson’s real-life Genesis Potini – chess savant, teacher and bi-polar Maori – he put on 30 kg, or about 66 pounds. How? “Beer. Carbs. Carbs. Carbs,” Curtis wrote.
Why the silence? Because Curtis, who played the bad guy in an earlier Maori-themed hit (“Once Were Warriors”) and has appeared in such disparate features as “Runaway Jury,” “The Fountain” and “Live Free or Die Hard,” is currently shooting Kevin Reynold’s new film “Clavius,” which takes place in the days following Christ’s crucifixion. According to Curtis, he plays “a man of God … who speaks only of God.” Word has it that man is Jesus Himself.
But Curtis is more than happy to discuss, in his way, “The Dark Horse,” for which he “dressed like Genesis every day, played chess every waking moment and drank beer as much as I could stomach…” The film takes a sometimes violent, sometimes inspirational approach to the life of Potini, who taught and inspired at-risk Maori youth via chess, while battling the demons that come with bi-polar disorder.
Producer Tom Hern had seen a doc about Potini on New Zealand TV back in 2003 and said he was blown away by the story.
“I think most of us are affected by mental illness in one way or another, or through our families,” Hern said. “My family’s no different than any other. It felt straight away like a story we needed to tell and I reached out to James.”
Robertson concurred. “Tom called me and said, ‘I think we have the next project.’’’
Curtis, too, was moved by Jim Marbrook’s 2001 doc (titled simply “Dark Horse”). Potini died in 2011.
“When I watched the doc of Genesis,” Curtis dashed out on his laptop, “he was such a rare and complex person, like I had never seen. And a rare and complex role, which is why I had to take it. He was a small-town hero who overcame huge personal struggles and found a way to give to others the inspiration to change their own lives using the game of chess almost as a religion.”
What Curtis says the film is really about, though, is “two brothers who are trying to care for each other.” Played by New Zealander Wayne Hapi, Genesis’ brother Ariki is a member of a quasi-criminal gang called the Vagrants, and wants his son, Mana (James Rolleston), to become a member, too. So he hands the boy over to another Vagrant for a brutalizing, demeaning process of initiation, while Genesis tries to lead the boy in another direction — maybe to chess, but certainly to a better life.
To say that “The Dark Horse’ offer an unflattering portrait of a certain stratum of Maori life would be understating the case, but Robertson defended it as essential to telling the Genesis story. “It’s about Gen saving the nephew, and we have to know what he’s saving him from,” Robertson said.
Curtis, who is of Maori descent himself, said, “What makes the story universal is a father who has decided a path for his son against the son’s will. He might just as well be a banker or a miner.”
“In a way,” said Hern, “Genesis is like a kid himself, a brilliant child. There’s a warmth and openness to the point where the world is a little too harsh a place.”
“He carried demons who he had to keep for dragging him into the depths of depression,” Curtis wrote, “which was something I was fascinated with, his bi-polar struggles, constantly having to manage his emotions and keep his mind engaged in a positive purpose. But ultimately what I decided was to be the real key to the role, and the movie, was love. He had a huge massive heart.” Audiences will get that, thanks to Curtis, who is off to Malta to finish Reynold’s movie, and will be very happy, at least for a while, not to look at another beer.