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THE PERFORMANCE

Cliff Curtis

The New Zealand actor plays an Iranian American in a fix in 'Crossing Over.' There are tough issues, and he welcomes a debate.

February 26, 2009|Michael Ordona

Cliff Curtis is a cool customer.

He's a superstar in New Zealand, has the second of two back-to-back American movies releasing this week and is in the midst of reshoots on the Eddie Murphy comedy "A Thousand Words." On this early February day, he spends the morning doing press for the immigration drama "Crossing Over," which opens Friday, then immediately afterward will have a conference call with the New Zealand Film Commission about his second outing as a feature producer, followed by the premiere of "Push," the paranormal thriller he costarred in.

He has come straight from the airport, having flown across the Atlantic for this night's event -- yet the former New Zealand national rock 'n' roll dance champion looks polished and ready for an evening out in a carmine-colored suit with a sharkskin-like sheen. And not a drop of sweat in sight.

He also has the savvy to ask how many words this particular story will be. On hearing the estimate, he seems to calculate -- perhaps formulating the density of his no-nonsense answers to fit the given space? One thing is sure about Curtis: He's not on message.

"I hope if they're upset about something, they protest," he says of any negative reactions to writer-director Wayne Kramer's "Crossing Over," a film with intersecting stories about the sensitive topic of immigration into the United States.

The 40-year-old Curtis, who is of Maori descent, has played a range of ethnicities in Hollywood. In "Crossing Over," he is an Iranian-born American citizen, a dedicated immigration enforcement agent. He eventually comes to the bridge that so many newcomers do, where they have to decide how much of their cultural past they can carry across with them -- but with dire consequences in his case.

There is one plotline, Curtis acknowledges, that could be seen as perpetuating negative stereotypes within the Iranian American community.

But, he says, he would welcome any such outcry.

"They should voice their discontent; that's a good thing," he says. "I think that, ultimately, the story and the role I was playing have integrity. If there was no integrity, I would not have done the film. I don't need the job, you know? But I felt after long and heated discussions with the producers and Wayne -- I think that's how better storytelling happens -- I think it has got some value."

"It's a very, very complex thing," the actor says. "To what extent do we need to go to be accepted as Americans, [at the risk of] forgetting who we are and what we came from? It's good to discuss this. There's a line, and when do you cross that line?

"It doesn't matter where you're from in the world; any immigrant family that's left everything behind, they come here in the hopes of a better life. There's a huge pressure on their children to uphold the values of what they left behind, especially the oldest son and oldest daughter. They have to be the best Americans in the world, and they have to be the best representatives of what they came from as well."

In "Push," Curtis, with his lopsidedly handsome face and dancer's grace, is a roguish mutant. He's a charismatic spiritual leader in "A Thousand Words." But in "Crossing Over," he takes on a certain solid, weighty physicality as a good man at a moral crossroads, conveying integrity despite a terrific internal struggle.

"It's an excellent role. He's also conflicted because he takes great pride in upholding the law. He's an honorable guy; he's really compromised there," he says.

Despite the actor's convictions, he neither doubts that some will dislike the film nor discourages that reaction.

The film, he says, is "trying to honor what people go through when they become immigrants in America. We may not have fulfilled all that those communities may want or hoped [to see] that deserves to be challenged . . . and more stories will come out of that. Out of that dissatisfaction, other films will be made," he says.

"And I think there's only so much you can do with multiple story lines where you've got so many different communities and voices. I think that's the strength and ultimately maybe the weakness of the piece; it's the thing people will most easily criticize. It's not always a bad thing to fail. I'm not saying we failed. But it's always good to be ambitious."

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Where you've seen him

Among films related to his homeland that have gained international prominence, Cliff Curtis has appeared in "The Piano" (1993), "Once Were Warriors" (1994) and "Whale Rider" (2002). He has also played character parts in a slew of major Hollywood films, including "Three Kings" (1999), "The Insider" (1999), "Blow" (2001), "Training Day" (2001), "Live Free or Die Hard" (2007) and "10,000 BC" (2008). "Crossing Over" marks his second collaboration with Harrison Ford, after "Six Days Seven Nights" (1998).

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