Chris Schulz is the deputy head of entertainment for the New Zealand Herald.

Cliff Curtis reveals his Hollywood horror story

He's busy chasing zombies in a top-rating TV show now, but things weren't always so good for Cliff Curtis. He talks to Chris Schulz.

Cliff Curtis has been through the wringer - and he's finally ready to reveal his Hollywood horror story.

"It can be really tough," sighs Curtis. "People don't realise ... "

His voice peters out as he prepares to explain exactly what's it's like stuck sweating on the Hollywood treadmill.

Curtis, a film veteran at home known for a career that spans 1993's The Piano to 2014's acclaimed The Dark Horse, has spent the past eight years chasing his TV dreams in Los Angeles.

James Rolleston and Cliff Curtis star in The Dark Horse.
James Rolleston and Cliff Curtis star in The Dark Horse.

Although he's easily recognisable now as the lead actor in zombie spin-off Fear the Walking Dead, things weren't always this good.

Despite working on several high-profile shows, Curtis spent much of those eight years in limbo, signed to projects that were going nowhere.

"It's a long time between drinks when you're on the TV circuit," he explains.

"Every two years you get a shot at something. If it doesn't work out, you're down from work for a whole year before you can get back into another show."

Curtis knows exactly what that feels like. It happened to him "three times over six years".

He doesn't name names, but take a quick look at his IMDb page and it's easy to join the dots.

In 2009's medical drama Trauma, he lasted 18 episodes as a wisecracking paramedic nicknamed Rabbit before NBC cancelled it a year later.

SBC's Missing stars Cliff Curtis as Dax. Photo / Getty Images
SBC's Missing stars Cliff Curtis as Dax. Photo / Getty Images

In 2012, Curtis signed up for ABC's Missing, playing a CIA boss alongside Ashley Judd and Sean Bean. It lasted 10 episodes before it was axed.

Then there was 2014's Gang Related, a Fox show in which Curtis played a gang boss with an impressive goatee.

It lasted 13 episodes before being - you guessed it - thrown into a shallow grave.

Curtis, 48, says each cancellation was a tough blow for a Kiwi actor trying to prove his worth overseas.

"They sign you on for a five-year contract. They hold the rights for a year ... and they don't let you go ... even if the show's been cancelled," he says.

In 2009's medical drama Trauma, Cliff Curtis lasted 18 episodes as a wisecracking paramedic nicknamed Rabbit. Photo / Getty Images
In 2009's medical drama Trauma, Cliff Curtis lasted 18 episodes as a wisecracking paramedic nicknamed Rabbit. Photo / Getty Images

"You do the pilot and wait three months to find out if they want to make a show out of it, and they might make six episodes. Then they might make another three.

"It's very piecemeal ... then they cancel it and you're out of work for a year. It's a tough gig."

If he sounds angry or exasperated about his experiences, he's not.

That's because Curtis' story has a moral, one that shows patience and perseverance can pay off.

And it's all thanks to a zombie apocalypse.

With the second season of Fear the Walking Dead resuming here on Monday, Curtis' Hollywood TV struggles are behind him.

Although the first season was just six episodes, the second was extended to 13, and the third season will last for 16.

Cliff Curtis in a scene from Fear the Walking Dead's second season. Photo / AMC
Cliff Curtis in a scene from Fear the Walking Dead's second season. Photo / AMC

Curtis is already in "pre-season training" for season three, which will start shooting in December and takes him through to July.

That's the exact opposite of his previous TV experiences, and Curtis admits he's still learning how to relax into being part of a long-running, successful series.

"Until this show, I've never had a show picked up for more than one season. The genre is new for me. I'm still discovering [things]. There's a lot of rules you have to learn, and I'm still learning them to be honest. It's not like anything I've ever worked on. I'm still finding my way."

With Andrew Lincoln's Rick Grimes lasting six seasons on The Walking Dead, Curtis has the perfect role model to look up to.

But he says he's yet to sit down with Lincoln, aside from occasional catch-ups at fan conventions.

"We haven't gotten to hang out much yet. It's these big functions, just, 'How you going, bro?'," he says.

Besides, Curtis' character, quiet high school teacher Travis Manawa, has a long way to go before catching up to ex-cop Grimes, who is now a grizzly, hardened survivor.

Gang Related is a Fox show in which Curtis played a gang boss with an impressive goatee. Photo / Getty Images
Gang Related is a Fox show in which Curtis played a gang boss with an impressive goatee. Photo / Getty Images

But change, says Curtis, is on its way for Manawa, who kicks off the rest of season two with his family separated and struggling to comprehend the growing apocalypse.

"My guy's got quite a lot to learn and he doesn't like guns. You survive, or go crazy, or get eaten. The characters can change and [they need to] figure out who they're going to be."

So you won't hear Curtis complaining about spending seven months away from home, the 16-hour days filming in the thick heat of Baja California, or having to explain to Walking Dead fans why he has an accent and is "not from America, or anywhere near America".

As he puts it, in his humble Kiwi way: "I've got a steady block of work, and it suits me just fine."

Low down

Who: Cliff Curtis
What: Fear the Walking Dead's second season
Where and when: Season two resumes on SoHo, Monday, 9.30pm

- TimeOut

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