It's not often New Zealand designs and names like Manawa make it on to primetime American television but, as he prepares to make his debut on one of the biggest new shows of the season, Cliff Curtis is proud to be bringing Kiwi touches to his latest role.

The Rotorua-born 47-year-old leads the cast of The Walking Dead's highly anticipated spin-off prequel, Fear the Walking Dead as Travis Manawa, a high school English teacher.

"I play a lot of Latino roles so they thought, 'Why don't we try you as an American Maori'?" he tells Living. "I'm wearing my [Maori-inspired design] character belt today. My sister made that and the costume designer saw it, so that's really cool.

"He's still an American character, but [US broadcaster] AMC was very generous in giving me the opportunity to bring aspects that reflect who I am and where I'm from."

The upcoming spinoff series, Fear the Walking Dead, premiered during Comic-Con after a panel that introduced the cast of the new zombie apocalypse drama to 6500 fans.

Set in the early stages of the zombie apocalypse of The Walking Dead, the series follows an East LA family led by Travis, as they come to terms with the world as they know it crumbling around them and deal with their own personal issues. For Travis, that includes juggling shared custody of junkie son Chris (Frank Dillane) with ex-wife Liza (Elizabeth Rodriguez), and being engaged to mother-of-two counsellor Madison (Kim Dickens).

Curtis believes what sets the series apart from its mega-popular predecessor is the underlying tension stemming from the audience knowing that the zombie apocalypse is coming, while the characters don't.

"It's a mystery to us; it's not a mystery to our audience. [It's like] pantomime, where the character is right there and the kids are like, 'Behind you! The monster's behind you!' But the characters are too busy going on with their day.

"Audiences love that. Some mechanism in our brain loves the entertainment of that tension. The audience knows what's behind the door and the characters don't.

"The fun is watching the characters struggle with what's out there and not knowing. You don't get that sort of fun from the other franchise - and that's the clear distinction between them."

While the Fear the Walking Dead's cast and producers point out the distinctions between the two series, they're also not banking on The Walking Dead's epic success as a guarantee that their show will also be a hit.

"Professionally, it's been a pleasure to be in the privileged position to have this mothership, the juggernaut of the original franchise and to say we don't have anything to prove," says Curtis. "But we're not competing with that franchise. We're not going to try to be The Walking Dead on steroids. We're starting afresh and we've got nothing to do with the other show in all practical senses.

Cliff Curtis plays Travis in Fear The Walking Dead. Photo / AMC
Cliff Curtis plays Travis in Fear The Walking Dead. Photo / AMC

"We will discover who our audience is and take the time to earn that audience.
I don't think anybody knew what was going to happen with the original show. If they had started out saying, 'We're going to be the biggest show in the world' they wouldn't have become the show that they were. We certainly aren't making that mistake.

"We'll see where we go with it. Maybe there will be some migration from The Walking Dead, which would be great, and maybe some audiences will remain with the other show and that's okay. We can't call it."


Either way, Curtis is enjoying the experience of one of his biggest American television roles. After working on film blockbusters such as Training Day, Blow and Collateral Damage he made his mark on the small screen with Trauma, Gang Related and alongside Ashley Judd in Missing. But his TV coup on cable giant AMC caps off a huge year for Curtis, who last year garnered critical acclaim for his award-winning role as Genesis Potini in Kiwi film The Dark Horse.

Fear the Walking Dead's executive producer Dave Erickson set his eyes on Curtis to lead the series after watching his portrayal in the gripping dramatic film.

"Cliff has done television but he hasn't done a tonne. I got lucky because I was trying to think of people I admired whose work I'd seen. I've seen Cliff in Three Kings and Training Day," says Erikson. "Then I got to watch The Dark Horse..

"It's like he's a chameleon - he can do anything. He has this deeply empathetic quality which is important for this character because he's the moral compass of the show. And he's so grounded and honest in his performances.

"We Skyped as he was finishing a film, but was incredibly gracious with what we put him through. He had to fly out on a day's notice to come and read, then fly out again on another day's notice to read with Kim [Dickens].

"The second we saw Kim and Cliff read opposite each other, it just felt right. It felt like we had a family and there was this chemistry, which is tricky to find.

"And we wanted to make sure we were letting him bring some of his own identity to the show, so [Travis] is of Maori descent.

"He was born and raised in the States but I think it's the first time, aside from shooting in New Zealand, where he's playing him.

"We talk a lot about his tats, his experience and his life and my hope is that he will continue to inform the character over the next few seasons."

Fear the Walking Dead premieres tomorrow on SoHo at 3.30pm and 8.30pm.