In the new Fox drama Gang Related, which premieres on Thursday, May 22, Cliff Curtis plays Javier Acosta, the leader of Los Angelicos, a Chicano gang that’s heavily involved in the drug trade. Over the course of his career, Curtis, a Maori from New Zealand, has played just about every non-white ethnicity: African-American, Arab, Latino, Indian, even a lord of the Fire Nation in The Last Airbender.
June Thomas talked to him about playing bad guys, his habit of inventing a complicated back story for his characters, and his dream role in Lord of the Rings.
Slate: You really bulked up for this role.
Cliff Curtis: Actually, I put on close to 60 pounds for Genesis, an independent movie from New Zealand. I play a homeless, alcoholic, bipolar chess champion.
Slate: In Gang Related your character is Chicano. You’ve played so many different ethnicities, it’s almost as if there’s a chameleon aspect to the way people cast you. I wonder how you reflect on that.
Curtis: Well, I call it paying the bills. People say, "Wow, you’re good at doing those accents!" And I say, "Well, if I wasn’t, I don’t think I would get any work." On this show, I thought I was up for the role of Chapel. [The role of police taskforce leader Sam Chapel went to Caucasian actor Terry O’Quinn.] When I read the contract, and it wasn't Chapel, I just laughed.
Slate: When you were on the ABC procedural Body of Proof, we never really learned what your character’s ethnicity was.
Curtis: Yeah, the last two TV shows I did, one for ABC and one for NBC, those were leading-type roles that were not ethnically specific. The problem is that you can't dig too deeply into those characters, because what's fascinating about human beings is what's culturally specific that is culturally universal. If you can't get specific about who they are, you're going to be in this ambiguous universe where you can't quite pin anything down.
I’m still waiting for that WASP role. I’m still waiting for Peter Jackson to let me play an elf. I want to play Orlando Bloom’s father. No, Orlando Bloom’s younger, hotter brother. I don’t think it’s going to happen.
Slate: Do you prepare differently if you’re playing an Arab or a Latino or all the different ethnicities you’ve played?
Curtis: I take the responsibility of playing another ethnicity very, very seriously, and I promise myself and those people that I will represent them with as much dignity and integrity as I can muster. I’m not fooling around. I don’t want to make a fool of that cultural heritage. I represent them as I would represent my own.
Slate: In Gang Related, you play Javier Acosta. He’s a gang leader, but he's also very much a family guy. When you’re preparing for a role like that, do you feel like you have to know whether he’s an entirely bad guy?
Curtis: I know he’s a good guy who does very bad things. And how I know he’s a good guy is that he knows that he’s done bad things, and he’s trying to make amends to his family, to his community, to himself, and to his god. He’s highly motivated and wracked with guilt for the bad things he’s done in his life. And that’s the difference. Truly bad people don’t actually know they’ve done anything wrong. And he knows. He’s a Catholic.
I don’t play bad guys. I think that’s why I keep getting cast as bad guys: because I don’t want to play bad guys. I want to play human beings that struggle with life. They struggle with these eternal questions: How do I create a better life for my family when all around me is corruption and greed and sloth and people willing to smudge their integrity. And me, my community, we’re always getting the back end of the deal. So what, fight fire with fire, is that the way? I play characters from that point of view. And this character is no different from any other bad guy I’ve played.
The Los Angelicos in my mind—I don’t know about the creators—but in my mind, the Los Angelicos gang stems from a specific incident in my character’s history where he became an orphan. The gang is made up of orphans, Mexican orphans who lost their parents in a big fire. This is something that I’ve cooked up in my head, you know. So they were on their own, they were illegal children, living on the streets of Los Angeles. What are you going to do? You're going to survive—and the gang formed out of that.
Slate: Do you always fill in the background on your characters? Things that the writers haven’t put down on paper?
Curtis: We co-create. Sometimes they say, "Get this arsehole out of here. Who does he think he is? Does he think he’s the writer? Just say the lines, hit he mark, and be nice to catering.” That’s why I got into producing. But that’s the kind of actor I am. They hand me these things, and my job is to make sense out of them, to breathe life into them, and to feel that these are things that the character would actually say and do.
Slate: You have a lot of dialogue in Spanish in Gang Related. You have to get the intonation right and act just as effectively in Spanish ...
Curtis: Very East L.A. Spanish, not just any old Spanish ...
Slate: So how you do it?
Curtis: Blood, sweat, and tears, mate. There’s no way around it. We have a dialect coach, but I spend time talking to people, other characters, and I listen. It’s my livelihood. You’ve got to work your arse off to get that right. And if I don’t, I won’t be back for Season 2. That’s just the way it goes.
This interview has been edited and condensed.