Cliff Curtis, the megastar with a mortgage

By Leah Haines

It is 3.30pm on a warm, West Auckland Wednesday and the pathetic breeze seeping in through the roller door of this giant cavernous warehouse is doing nothing to cool Cliff Curtis' nerves.

He shuffles forward on a small metal chair, trying to force his long limbs to comply with the photographer's instructions to pose this way and that. Several times he takes off his yellow NYC cap, runs stiff hands through short, thick black hair and puts the cap back on, only to leave his arms lost for something else to do.

"Just relax," orders the photographer, before adding, "sorry, mate."

"You'd think you'd get used to getting photos taken," Curtis says nervously. I say it's obvious he hasn't. "Well yeah, photography's not my thing," he probably means to say.

But instead he grimaces, just as the photographer clicks. Then the actor raises another eyebrow as if to plead, "surely, that must be it?"

He's right. You would think one of New Zealand's most famous actors would be pretty used to cameras. But the star of River Queen, Whale Rider and a dozen other Hollywood blockbusters, has come reluctantly to fame.

Here, where real stars are so scarce we pluck vapid nonentities from obscurity to populate Celebrity Treasure Island, Curtis is a megastar. But on the world's stage, he has managed to avoid the celebrity conundrum.

Not that he hasn't hit the big time. He has given critically acclaimed performances in films such as Once were Warriors, Desperate Remedies, Martin Scorsese's Bringing out the Dead and Blow, and he was the best thing in John Grisham's Runaway Jury.

Trips home from LA that last 24 hours, walking the red carpet with Johnny Depp - it's all what Curtis calls "normal", now. Just work.

But, he admits, he could have moved to Los Angeles years ago if he wanted to make it really, really big in Hollywood. Instead, he lives in Rotorua. Where he is still paying off a mortgage.

With leading-man good looks, and a string of drug dealer, terrorist and gangster roles under his belt, it might have been easy to brand himself one of film's quintessential bad guys. Instead, just when the time was ripe to be stamped, branded and marketed, he pulled the plug on those roles - and possibly the big bucks in the process.

So, I ask him, why?

"I don't know. I guess I've seen great actors get pigeon-holed into that. Like Gary Oldman, who is a great, great actor. And also other opportunities started to pop up at the same time. Whale Rider was in the wings. River Queen was there. There were other projects too, and I thought, 'there are other things I can do, so I'd rather do that than do what I've been doing for the last five years'."

What Curtis is doing today, in the converted warehouse, is rehearsing for the New Zealand Festival of the Arts and Insideout's co-production of The Holy Sinner. It is his first appearance on a New Zealand stage in six years.

Writhing

When we arrive, he is writhing on the floor with actress Mia Blake of Toa Fraser's No 2 fame, rehearsing the birth scene. They play twins who later become lovers.

He is so obviously comfortable with the physical aspect of performance that I ask him whether he has had much dance experience. Silly question. He's a two-time national rock 'n' roll dancing champion who seriously considered a career as a dancer before committing to acting 20 years ago.

It's ironic, Curtis explains, that it is The Holy Sinner that brought him back to the stage. He has been talking for years about wanting to tell New Zealand stories in theatre. Now he's performing in a play based on a 1950s German novel based on a 12th century German poem.

"So I give [directors Mike Mizrahi and Marie Adams] gip, saying, 'couldn't you find any decent stories here?' I give them a bit of a hard time," he laughs. "I find some of the themes potentially archaic but they will treat it in such an interesting way that it won't be."

He worked with the pair about 12 years ago on a show in a former waterfront fruit store called the Hungry City. He and Rena Owen (Once were Warriors) played two Maori gods who argued throughout in te reo about who was the best guitarist - Eric Clapton, or Jimi Hendrix. Until they had resolved the dispute, which most of the audience knew nothing about other than it involved Jimi and Eric, the city was starved of veges.

When the argument was settled, the veges arrived and the audience ate soup.

So when Mizrahi phoned in LA in December, asking if he wanted to be in a show, Curtis says he said yes without even knowing which show it was. A lot of theatre that had been happening here - which he describes as reworking of old classics and American theatre - did not appeal.

"But I knew, being them, that it would be something weird and something . . " - he pauses to find the right word - "exceptional."

The Holy Sinner earned Mizrahi and Adams rave reviews when it debuted in Auckland in 1990. Since then, Curtis found his way to Holly-wood, the directors went on to stage huge events like the 150-year celebration for Louis Vuitton and extravaganzas in Tokyo, New York and Hong Kong featuring casts of thousands. One of 16 in the cast, Curtis also plays the son of the incestuous twins, who redeems himself despite carrying the burden of his parents' sin and goes on to become the Pope.

Yes, it's pretty heavy, and sin doesn't particularly impress Curtis as a theme. But he reckons something as epic as sin is needed to hang a production as big as The Holy Sinner on.

It's the massive theatricality that the production calls on - four-storey sets, huge music scores, "people running around and jumping and screaming and carrying on" - that lured him back to the stage.

Unlike film, in which everything he does is very naturalistic and subtle, "this is anything but subtle".

But film has been Curtis' bread and butter. His career was jump-started by his role as creepy Uncle Bully, the rapist in Once Were Warriors and he won awards for work on Desperate Remedies and Jubilee. Then came The Piano, Rapanui and Kahu and Maia. And soon, Hollywood beckoned. Next up is Fracture, with Anthony Hopkins, with rehearsals starting next month.

Curtis grew up in Rotorua, on the Kapiti Coast and in the East Cape. As one of nine children, he learned how to be a performer from his father, an amateur dancer.

He still fiercely protects his ability to blend into his Rotorua environment.

Boring

Life outside work is boring, Curtis says. Really. But that's the only thing he says today that I don't believe.

He talks about a project he is working on with the education ministry involving children and storytelling.

"If you have kids who are telling stories in school, it's really interesting if you ask them to do a skit these days. Chances are they'll start copying something that's done on TV and they'll start talking with American accents. I suppose I'm interested in encouraging us to value the stories that we have here."

Interesting. So does he have any children of his own?

"Yeah, yeah," he squirms. But not in the affirmative. More like, "don't go there". Shall we say you have a vested interest in children then? "A vested interest, yes."

He's funny. He's kind. He makes me nervous. But that's mutual. He doesn't swear during our interview and he doesn't criticise anyone or anything. Doing Whale Rider has been one of his best experiences. As for River Queen, he wants to say only: "I'm glad it's over".

Nicknamed Drama Queen by crew, the film was nearly derailed by a standoff between Curtis' co-star Samantha Morton and director Vincent Ward. You might have heard rumours about Morton's refusal to use the portable toilets and her alleged histrionics on set.

These culminated in a candid radio interview with the film's director of photography Alun Bollinger last week, who finally went public and blasted Morton for acting like a spoilt child.

But Curtis, who played her love interest Wiremu, is more circumspect. When pressed about his feelings about the film, he says, "I'm glad that some people like it", then he claps his hands together as if to say, "that's the end of that, thank you very much".

Does he like the film? "I like some things about it." Clap. "And yeah, I think that's good enough." Clap.

What about those like Bollinger who say Morton was a liability? "I have huge respect for her as an actress and I actually really enjoyed working with her.

And I have immense respect for Alun Bollinger. He's a great part of our film community so I don't want to get into that conversation in public. It's not what I do." Clap clap clap.

Later, I ask how old he is. "37, I'll be 38 this year." We talk about growing old and I suggest being 95 wouldn't bother me if my collection of experiences made me feel the years had been worth something.

He disagrees. "I don't know. I did a weird thing when I was about 24. For four years I had written quite a lot of poetry and I started reading through it and thought some of it was really good. So I burnt it all.

"I burnt it because I didn't want to be 95 and looking at my accumulated life experience because I figured I would rather be doing something at 95 than looking back. You know what I mean?

"But I was a lot more intense in my 20s." He laughs. "I'm a lot more relaxed now."

* The Holy Sinner, March 10-13, Westpac St James Theatre Wellington.

- HERALD ON SUNDAY

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