ORLANDO, Fla. — Cliff Curtis always thought of himself as a funny guy. He did comedies in his native New Zealand. But once Hollywood saw this Maori actor in the breakout drama "Once Were Warriors," it was hard to find the man funny.
"I did a couple of movies, straight off, where I had to learn to be a tough guy," he says. "And that stuck."
He played shady Arabs — some of them sheiks ("Three Kings," "The Insider," "The Majestic") and cops ("Fracture,""Live Free or Die Hard."). His ethnicity got him plenty of offers in movies set around the drug trade ("Blow," "Colombiana").
"That's the opposite of who I am," Curtis says. "But it got me more and more work. I tend to get cast because they think I can bring some weight, sufficient presence and weight, to scenes with guys like Denzel or Eddie Murphy or Johnny Depp. I get cast in a lot of roles where there's a power play going on and they need some presence to keep the star from overwhelming the scene."
But the 43 year-old Curtis has longed to land a laugh. He's a producer, a behind-the-scenes force in the New Zealand comedies of Taika Waititi ("Eagle vs. Shark" and the new Maori coming-of-age comedy "Boy"). And he's the comic straight-man to Eddie Murphy in the guru comedy "A Thousand Words," which opens Friday.
Murphy plays a literary agent given to stretching the truth when it suits him. But a deal with a New Age guru (Curtis) leads to a Bodhi tree mysteriously appearing in his yard, and with it, a curse — every time he utters a word, a leaf falls from the tree. When the tree is bare, the agent will be done, too. So words become something to use sparingly, if at all.
"We didn't want this guy to be some Eastern mystic stereotype," Curtis says of his character, Dr. Sinja. "Didn't want to do Deepak Chopra. The guy I'm playing shouldn't be aware that he's being funny. Ever heard of a guy called Eckhart Tolle (the TV guru and "Power of Now" author)? He's got the weirdest German / South African / Canadian accent, and this sort of unsettling calm that keeps you unnerved. You think, 'NO one should be that calm.' So that's who I wanted to sound like."
Curtis was amused by the concept — "This idea that you've got to be silent and choose your words seems intriguing. Monks in many cultures do this — take a vow of silence and not speak for days, months or decades. It's a beautiful and poetic premise to build a broad comedy around. Personally, I've said MANY things I wish I could take back in an instant. 'Not happening, mate. It's already out there!'"
Ironically, both "A Thousand Words" and "Boy" are opening in American theaters on the same day. Curtis has high hopes for "Boy," which is about a Maori teen whose life is changed by Michael Jackson's "Thriller" in 1980s New Zealand ("quirky," and "a valid effort to explore the difficulties in coming of age during tough times," The New York Daily News called it). And he hopes that holding his own with one of the screen's legendary funnymen in "A Thousand Words" will mean he gets a break from playing cops, drug dealers and the like.
"There's been a huge transformation, with Hollywood changing its ideas of what this sort of person or that one could look like, and that opens some doors" for actors with a distinct ethnicity, he says. Curtis has had to turn down work where "I thought the stereotype was too strong. I knew it would label me for life." He avoided playing an Indian stereotype in "A Thousand Words," and he's not averse to playing more versions of this fellow — a character he finds funny almost by job description.
"Gurus. What's UP with that? Especially in America. It doesn't matter what they're selling, but they find buyers. Spiritualism as a product — now that's funny."