Cliff Curtis #1
Actor Cliff Curtis had one of the most memorable supporting roles in 2001 in director Ted Demme’s film Blow as famed druglord, Pablo Escobar. I talked to Curtis in December of 2001 to get the skinny on this part that …
Actor Cliff Curtis had one of the most memorable supporting roles in 2001 in director Ted Demme’s film Blow as famed druglord, Pablo Escobar. I talked to Curtis in December of 2001 to get the skinny on this part that he just couldn’t pass up.
I spoke with Cliff Curtis while he was in the mountains over in New Zealand shooting some project. With the satellites the way they were, and the huge time difference, there was only a brief window of opportunity each day to speak with Curtis. After several failed attempts to talk to him in a conference call through his publicist, I ended up calling New Zealand to get a better connection. The result was something like you would experience on a cell-phone circa 1992. It was positively lovely transcribing this interview in an accurate fashion.
CHRIS NEUMER: Hi, is this Cliff?
CLIFF CURTIS: Yes, Chris.
CHRIS NEUMER: Ah, good. How are you?
CLIFF CURTIS: I’m good. And you?
CHRIS NEUMER: Doing well. I’m hearing you a lot better now, still it’s a little garbled, but hopefully I’ll be able to hear everything you have to say.
CLIFF CURTIS: Yeah, my phone’s a bit–I’m out in a little house on the east coast of New Zealand.
CHRIS NEUMER: I can imagine that the satellites etc. over there aren’t necessarily of the same quality as they are over here in the states.
CLIFF CURTIS: [laughs] You have no idea.
CHRIS NEUMER: What are you doing over there currently?
CLIFF CURTIS: Whale Watching. It’s a film, a New Zealand film based on the novel, about a mythical story about the battle of the–do you know what Maori are?
CHRIS NEUMER: Is that–
CLIFF CURTIS: Maori are the native, indigenous, people of New Zealand.
CHRIS NEUMER: Okay.
CLIFF CURTIS: That’s what I am. It’s about a mythical figure of a guy who came to this land and rode on a whale.
CHRIS NEUMER: That’s right. [Your publicist] was telling me a little bit about that.
CLIFF CURTIS: It’s a contemporary story about this little girl who is a descendant of this guy who can talk to whales and all those kinds of things. It’s great story. It’s really great. Lots of heart.
CHRIS NEUMER: When is this expected to hit theatres or the festival circuit?
CLIFF CURTIS: I think we’re going to put it into Venice in the Venice Film Festival.
CHRIS NEUMER: That’s a good festival to open with.
CLIFF CURTIS: Yes. Where are you from?
CHRIS NEUMER: I’m in Chicago. I figure, if you have to go somewhere to get involved in film criticism, this is the place.
CLIFF CURTIS: How’s that?
CHRIS NEUMER: Chicago is home to Roger Ebert, Richard Roeper, Jonathon Rosenbaum, Michael Wilmington and the late Gene Siskel. And us. I don’t know if Steven had mentioned this to you or you had seen the e-mail I sent, the reason I was interested in speaking to you because we are compiling our year end best of issue and we wanted call out your role in Blow as Pablo Escobar as one of the most memorable supporting roles of the year.
CLIFF CURTIS: That’s great. Yes.
CHRIS NEUMER: I think it helped that the first thing we saw you doing was shaking hands with some guy and then having him killed. It was just such a bang to enter the film.
CLIFF CURTIS: Great. Where would you like to start?
CHRIS NEUMER: Was it at all intimidating preparing to play the role of Pablo Escobar, given the ruthless and powerful life he lead?
CLIFF CURTIS: Yes, there’s an element of that. I talked to George [Jung], the character that Johnny Depp played, over the phone, and I talked to the woman who Penelope Cruz played and I talked to another guy, an ex-patriot Colombian, who used to work for the cartel and then I also talked to someone who had contact with his family.
CHRIS NEUMER: Ecobar’s family?
CLIFF CURTIS: Yeah. I talked to someone who had contact with his family. From Columbia. To just sort of check things out. It’s a bit of a serious issue when you’re playing someone’s real life depending on how things are going to be handled.
CHRIS NEUMER: True.
CLIFF CURTIS: But the story wasn’t about him. I thought that the scenes were relatively well written–there are other scenes that are missing from the film that were there and I thought they showed him in kind of a [interesting light]. Escobar was really interesting guy, very contradictory. In Columbia, well, Medellin where he was from, he was like–he was a conservationist, he had a magazine about conservation, he funded schools and school trips, he built homes for the poor, he built a hospital. He was kind of viewed as a Robin Hood in his hometown. You know, take from the rich, give to the poor. So I just tried to take it from that angle. And from that angle it wasn’t so intimidating. However, if you just saw him as this ‘thug’, it could be scary. There was also the idea that perhaps he’s still alive [laughs]. That his death was just a setup.
CHRIS NEUMER: Oh really? He had plastic surgery and went elsewhere?
CLIFF CURTIS: Yeah. [The theory is that] he joined the guerilla forces in Columbia. Because you know that the guerilla forces negotiated half of Columbia.
CHRIS NEUMER: I didn’t.
CLIFF CURTIS: So, really, it was just doing a bit of research, talking to a few people and getting a feeling for the guy. And making sure that I kind of tried to–within the couple of scenes I had and the one that was lifted from the film, I tried to approach it along the lines of somebody who had a vision for his nation, for his country. Somebody who saw himself as a businessman and someone who saw himself as somebody who was working within a corrupt system and thought that he could do better. So he was fighting fire with fire, almost. Does that make sense?
CHRIS NEUMER: Yes. I’ve done some cursory reading on both the Medellin and Cali cartels and have a fairly rudimentary understanding of his background, but it has been a while.
CLIFF CURTIS: For example, he looked at the idea of prohibition in America [in the teens] as being very similar to the prohibition of cocaine now. So possession of alcohol he thought was a bit of a joke, especially with Joseph Kennedy, John Kennedy’s dad.
CHRIS NEUMER: How are you connecting this together?
CLIFF CURTIS: [Escobar] used Joseph Kennedy as one of his role models. Because Joseph Kennedy used to run liquor during prohibition.
CHRIS NEUMER: Okay. That makes sense.
CLIFF CURTIS: And then his sons went on [to experience success]. One of his sons went on to become the president of the United States! So [Kennedy] was one of his roles models. He saw himself as running cocaine, it’s just like the prohibition of the late teens.
CHRIS NEUMER: And he never used alcohol or cocaine, right?
CLIFF CURTIS: I don’t think he had a lot of respect for addicts, no.
CHRIS NEUMER: Did anyone ever contact you who was familiar with him, and said, “I wish you had done this or that”?
CLIFF CURTIS: No, no, no. I had some feedback from some Colombians, who were kind of surprised how much I looked like him, but nothing negative.
CHRIS NEUMER: That’s definitely a positive, no matter what role you take.
CLIFF CURTIS: I’m not too worried. I don’t think the film was trying to demonize him at all and I certainly wasn’t trying to demonize him, so that kind of leads us to pretty safe territory. And with the other two scenes cut up, it kind of got reduced to a walk on, walk off role.
CHRIS NEUMER: It’s interesting that you look at it like that. When I finished watching the film and several other of the people here at the magazine finished watching the film, we all felt that the film would have been far more interesting had Ted Demme included more scenes and interchanges with Escobar.
CLIFF CURTIS: The other exchanges were interesting, the only problem was that the film got too long. And I think that Ted had to make a creative decision about sticking to the direction he was taking the film, which was the relationship with George and his family and how at the end of the day with all the exciting stuff he did, he was a very lonely man today.
CHRIS NEUMER: And in jail no less.
CLIFF CURTIS: Ted took a really interesting take on it. He wanted to do a story about family values, kind of about love and the loss of love, instead of the intriguing world of drugs and cocaine in that era.
CHRIS NEUMER: It’s interesting that you say that too, because New Line’s marketing department certainly didn’t look at this film like that. I know that every trailer contained Johnny and Jordi sitting on mountains of hundreds and Penelope Cruz in that white bikini and then you see the movie and realize that that makes up about a fifteenth of the film as a whole. I mean, that white bikini that she’s wearing on the poster, you don’t see her in that in the movie for more than a second. Literally.
CLIFF CURTIS: Yeah, she was kind of upset, there were a lot of scenes missing from her stuff too, I think.
CHRIS NEUMER: I guess the film is begging for a longer director’s cut in the future on DVD or something.
CLIFF CURTIS: Well, no, this was the director’s cut. I don’t think he’d want to do another. I think what may happen is that–there’s word that they’re trying to make a Pablo Escobar film.
CHRIS NEUMER: That was one of the questions that I had wanted to ask.
CLIFF CURTIS: I hear that there’s a book called Killing Pablo. And there’s word out that they’re trying to make that into a film.
CHRIS NEUMER: It that book fiction or non-fiction?
CLIFF CURTIS: Non-fiction.
CHRIS NEUMER: Would you be interested in playing the role of Pablo in that? Not that they’re offering, but in a perfect world.
CLIFF CURTIS: I’m not sure. [laughs] That’s a little more tricky. It was easier to play Pablo Escobar when the story was about someone else.
CHRIS NEUMER: That’s a good point.
CLIFF CURTIS: Playing Pablo Escobar that’s… [pauses] Well, I don’t know if I’d be allowed anyway since I’m not Spanish.
CHRIS NEUMER: It worked so well this time, regardless of where you’re originally from, I don’t know why that would be a sticking point, but who knows.
CLIFF CURTIS: Yeah. I almost played Fidel Castro at one point for Showtime. A TV film. I got axed at the last minute because I’m not Spanish. That’s happened a couple of times. I don’t know whether I’d–they let me play little bit parts in the studio system. But there seems to be quite a strong presence to block me from roles that are too prominent.
CHRIS NEUMER: Wow. What is your background exactly?
CLIFF CURTIS: I’m a native New Zealander, I’m Maori. Maori is sort of related to Samoans and Hawaiians and Polynesians. I went to school in New Zealand and did a bit of theater after that. My first film was The Piano and I still live here and when I can get a job over there, I come over and do that.
CHRIS NEUMER: Do you have anything lined up after Whale Watching?
CLIFF CURTIS: A film to do next?
CHRIS NEUMER: Yes.
CLIFF CURTIS: I’ve got another couple of films lined up here. So I’ll probably be here. I do have one film lined up in the states, but that film keeps getting pushed. So at this stage, the next few projects are here.
CHRIS NEUMER: That’s got to be good for you. New Zealand’s really experience a film renaissance lately with Lord of the Rings and Xena and filmed there. And that really bad Chris O’Donnell movie… what was that called. Oh, Vertical Limit.
CLIFF CURTIS: [laughs] Yeah. Vertical Limit.
CHRIS NEUMER: It seems like Vancouver and New Zealand have been picking up a bit of work because of the variety of terrain and the cheap production costs.
CLIFF CURTIS: Yeah, we have good crews and all that. It’s fun down here too.
CHRIS NEUMER: let me ask you this: was it interesting coming off fictional films like The Piano, was it a change of pace to play a real life character?
CLIFF CURTIS: Yeah, it was great. What was really fantastic about playing a real life character like that is the amount of resources you have and resource material. As I said, I talked to the actual people, aside from Pablo Escobar, you know I talked to CIA Agents and people who had contact with his family and people who knew him and had relationships with him. You get to kind of —it feels like real acting, you know, you’re not being yourself. And I really love to take on who this person is and represent who he is.
CHRIS NEUMER: It sort of brings an added depth to the performance.
CLIFF CURTIS: Yeah! Like one of the notes from this woman was that he was charismatic with women. He had a real way with women.
CHRIS NEUMER: He also had two billion dollars.
CLIFF CURTIS: And a big house. And another guy said he was a real philosopher. He loved the movies. He loved watching movies, he had his own theater, and he loved his children. The night he was supposedly killed he was on the phone with his son. Every night, he would phone his children, even when he was on the run for two years! I was also given a poem that he used to say–the poem was Spanish. All of those things are great, but Johnny is a fantastic actor. He is completely at home on a film set. He’s been there so long it’s like he’s at home. He knows how that works. It was great doing scenes with him, we had great fun. I think on the DVD there’s one scene where he and I are on a mountain top talking and philosophizing. It got cut out of the film because it didn’t really advance the plot, it was just two guys philosophizing. And that was fun because Johnny and I were improvising in that scene. He’d done enough research and I’d done enough research that we kind of felt that we had enough to go on to improvise and that was great fun. But it got cut out though, so it didn’t really matter.
CHRIS NEUMER: Was there a lot of improvisation in your role? Or was is mostly scripted?
CLIFF CURTIS: Ted was very open to improvisation and really open to new ideas. A lot of it was scripted, and a lot of the film was shot as scripted. But, for example, when I come out in that scene, I shook the guy’s hand and he gets shot?
CHRIS NEUMER: Yes.
CLIFF CURTIS: It was scripted that I come out, I get handed a gun and shoot him in the head, I hand back the gun, I get handed a towel, I wipe my hands on the towel and then I go and shake Johnny and Jorge’s hand. That’s how it was scripted. But I didn’t think it was quite right that I come out and shoot the guy, I wanted to do it differently, I wanted someone else to shoot him. And Ted was really attached to the idea that I had the blood on my hands. I wanted to do it the way it was filmed. Ted said, “we’ll do it once your way and then we’ll do it my way.” And then we did it my way and it worked so well we didn’t bother shooting it the other way. So there were those kinds of things. Little things in the scenes, like playing with Johnny’s sunglasses. That wasn’t scripted, that was definitely improvised. Just little things like that. But they work.
CHRIS NEUMER:I think that’s was what made the character come alive so much. You really did embody the role fully.
CLIFF CURTIS: And also when I talked to George, the real George in prison, he gave me a transcript of a real conversation he had with Pablo Escobar, the first time he met him.
CHRIS NEUMER: was that pretty close to what you used in the film?
CLIFF CURTIS: Kind of. It had the same feeling, but [the real thing] went on quite a bit longer. And there was much more philosophy… which we put into the next scene which got taken out. In the film there were three scenes. There was that scene, there was one more filmed and a scene years later at the ranch. In real life, the first time he met him was on a ranch, but they wanted to portray how much more money Pablo Escobar made because of his American connection. At the beginning of the scene where I shake that guy’s hand, I’ve been trying to learn Spanish and I knew enough Spanish to improvise a conversation with the guy. But what I was doing was talking to the guy and telling him to look at me and asking him if he understood that everything was going to be fine, asking him if he understood what he did and if he was happy with the deal. And he shook his head, he didn’t say anything, but he knew he had done something wrong, he looked at me and he seemed happy with the outcome. Those kinds of things were improvised. But I felt like Pablo Escobar felt like he was an honorable businessman. And when he killed people, I think he felt he did it because they were honorable. That they were liars and were trying to cheat him. I don’t think he had a lot of respect for the politicians in Columbia at the time, so he had quite a lot of fun killing them.
CHRIS NEUMER: How many days were you on set filming?
CLIFF CURTIS: Three.
CHRIS NEUMER: That’s it?
CLIFF CURTIS: Yup. Each scene took one day to film.
CHRIS NEUMER: the last thing I have for you is if you know of any pictures of you as Escobar.
CLIFF CURTIS: Get a hold of Ted Demme’s production company. He’d have those without a doubt.. It’s interesting, for a lot of the publicity and trailer they used lots of shots of Pablo Escobar.
CHRIS NEUMER: They seemed to market it like a rap video, you know, lots of drugs, lots of sex, lots of hot women, lots of money. And you get into the theater and it’s a film about George and his parents.
CLIFF CURTIS: I liked the film like that.
CHRIS NEUMER: I thought the film was rather rambling at points, but it wasn’t bad. What about you?
CLIFF CURTIS: As a whole I liked what Ted was working towards, in terms of not being [a typical] drug film. George’s character is basically a very smart guy who just didn’t learn his lesson well, did he?
CHRIS NEUMER: Not at all.
CLIFF CURTIS: [Which makes] it kind of hard to have sympathy for that guy, I think.
CHRIS NEUMER: I don’t know. Johnny did a very good job because you do feel sorry for him, even though he’s this huge screw-up.
CLIFF CURTIS: I think it’s interesting that the people who betrayed him were his mother and his wife.
CHRIS NEUMER: And his old friend.
CLIFF CURTIS: His two best friends. He just got done. And of course there’s Stephen Allen. The first woman he loved–
CHRIS NEUMER: Franka Potente.
CLIFF CURTIS: Yes, Franka. She died of cancer. That was a major tragedy for the guy. He was really in love with the woman. In the script it had a much deeper effect on him.
CHRIS NEUMER: She did well, considering this was her English language debut.
CLIFF CURTIS: Really?
CHRIS NEUMER: She’s done a lot of stuff in Germany, but this was her English debut. That’s all the questions I have for you, unless there’s something you think I should know.
CLIFF CURTIS: I think we’ve done a thorough job.
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