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Cliff Curtis

Cliff Curtis’s Biography

Last Updated:
16/05/2019, 2:50 pm
Arts Foundation Laureate 2014
Ngāti Hauiti, Te Arawa
Cliff Curtis has appeared in or helped produce a string of New Zealand hit movies whilst carving a career as a chameleon character actor in Hollywood.

Cliff Curtis has appeared in and produced many of New Zealand's most celebrated movies - including The Piano, Once Were Warriors, Whale Rider, Boy and The Dark Horse - whilst carving a career as a chameleon character actor in Hollywood.

Curtis is of Maori (Te Arawa and Ngati Hauiti) descent and was born in Paraparaumu NZ (1968). Raised in Rotorua, his first performances were school kapa haka and mau taiaha. Leaving school at 14 years of age, he worked in a range of jobs as an unskilled manual labourer. Through his interest in dance and theatre he became a co-founding member of The Mantis Theatre Co-op in his teens. His first success in performance was winning NZ Rock n Roll Dance Championship titles in 1987 & 1988. Encouraged to pursue acting as a profession he attended Toi Whakaari: NZ Drama School, graduating at age 21, leading to further study at Teatro Dimitri Scoula in Switzerland (1991).

Starting his professional career in regional theatres across NZ included Downstage, Mercury and Centre Point Theatres. His feature film debut was a small role in The Piano (1993) which Curtis recalls involved "carrying the piano". He explored a wide range of genres in NZ films including Desperate Remedies, Jubilee and River Queen. But, it was Once Were Warriors (1994) and Whale Rider (2002) that brought him to a wider audience. To date he has received four New Zealand Film and Television awards.

Curtis won early attention in the US working with director David O. Russell on Three Kings in 1999 alongside actors George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg whilst simultaneously working with director Martin Scorsese and actor Nicolas Cage in Bringing Out the Dead. In this same year he worked with director Michael Mann and actors Al Pacino and Russell Crowe on The Insider. Since, Curtis has worked steadily internationally, taking a pragmatic approach to his Hollywood career to strengthen his craft and enhance his passion for producing.

In 2004 Curtis formed Maori film production company Whenua Films with cousin, Ainsley Gardiner. The pair produced Taika Waititi's WWII short film Tama Tū (2005), debut feature Eagle vs Shark (2007), and Boy, inspired by Waititi's Oscar-nominated short Two Cars, One Night. Accumulating a cache of local and international acclaim and awards for each project it was Boy that became the highest grossing local film in New Zealand's history in 2010. Whenua Films also ran a NZFC Short Film scheme executive producing a number of successful short films, including Hawaikii, Coffee & Allah and Taua.

Other independent producing opportunities came with UK feature Great Expectations (2012) and US feature Green Card Warriors (2013).

In 2013 Curtis created production company Arama Pictures to continue his commitment to indigenous storytelling inspired by the work of mentors Merata Mita, Don Selwyn & Barry Barclay. Arama Pictures has executive produced feature The Dark Horse and short Ahi Ka, a story about Curtis's grandmother as a child. In 2014 Arama Pictures is set to produce a documentary feature about filmmaker Merata Mita.

In 2014 Curtis took the starring role of Genesis Potini in The Dark Horse. Reviewer Micheal Rechtshaffen of The Hollywood Reporter says "The Dark Horse is an emotionally potent story of redemption anchored by a heart-piercing lead performance from Cliff Curtis that is certain to attract awards attention."

Curtis continues to alternate producing local stories with acting roles in Hollywood counting over 50 credits to date between producing and acting in TV, theatre and film.

In 2014 Curtis began filming in Malta on the set of feature film Clavius in the role of (Yeshua) Jesus Christ.