New Zealand star Cliff Curtis is having a pretty solid 2022. The actor’s most recent feature, Muru, the acclaimed Māori-language action drama, became New Zealand’s highest-grossing film this year after its release in September. Later, it was selected as the country’s official contender for the Oscars in the best international film category. If Muru ends up getting beaten at the New Zealand box office before year’s end, though, it will undoubtedly be by James Cameron’s long-awaited juggernaut Avatar: The Way of Water, opening Dec. 16 — and also co-starring Curtis.
Curtis made his screen debut in a small supporting role in Jane Campion’s Palme d’Or winning period drama The Piano back in 1993, and he has been a pillar of the New Zealand film community nearly ever since. His filmography includes a running list of landmarks in recent Kiwi cinema, such as Once Were Warriors (1994), Niki Caro’s Whale Rider (2002) and acclaimed drama The Dark Horse (2014). Meanwhile, he’s also enjoyed a long-running career in Hollywood as a versatile character actor, making memorable appearances in movies like Three Kings (1999), Blow (2001, playing Pablo Escobar), Training Day (2001), and action tentpoles such as Live Free or Die Hard (2007), The Meg (2018) and Hobbs & Shaw (2019).
Born to a family of Māori descent, with affiliations to the Te Arawa and Ngāti Hauiti tribes, Curtis co-founded production company Whenua Films in 2004 with the goal of supporting indigenous filmmakers. Among the first group of talent backed by the company were a young Taika Waititi, now Hollywood’s busiest man, and Tearepa Kahi, director of Muru.
Muru is inspired by controversial raids conducted by New Zealand police in 2007 on a Māori community in the remote Rūātoki region of the country. Government authorities came to believe that local Māori activists had become a domestic terrorist cell, precipitating a massive raid involving over 300 militarized police officers. All roads in and out of the community were locked down, and even a school bus full of local children was seized and searched. Eighteen people were arrested, including the popular Māori artist and activist Tāme Iti, but only four hunting guns were found. The New Zealand government eventually offered a formal apology to the people of Rūātoki, saying the whole episode was a mistake.
Inspired by the 2007 events, Muru stars Curtis as ‘Taffy’ Tāwharau, a local Maori police sergeant who must choose between duty to his badge or his people when the government blindsides him by invoking anti-terrorism powers to stage an armed invasion of his community. Muru is the word for a Māori concept of forgiveness. Activist Tāme Iti co-stars in the film as himself.
Although Avatar: The Way of Water is set many worlds away from the events of Muru, Curtis says he is inspired by some of the thematic commonalities the two films share in dealing with indigenous experience. Appearing alongside Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldaña, Sigourney Weaver and Kate Winslet, Curtis co-stars in Avatar 2 as Tonowari, a leader of the reef people, or Metkayina clan, who inhabit the underwater region where much of the big-budget sequel’s action is set. He is set to reprise his role in Avatar 3.
Ahead of The Way of Water‘s global launch on Dec. 16, as well as a public screening of Muru that James Cameron is personally hosting in Wellington, New Zealand on Dec. 5, connected with Curtis to discuss the making of Muru and his experiences filming with Cameron on Pandora.
Congrats on both of these new films. This must be a pretty exciting moment in your career — a passion project from your home turf, submitted to the Oscars, plus Avatar 2.
Well, yeah, it’s really exciting. I started acting like 30 years ago and I never could have imagined that the landscape of my career might look like this someday. But here I am in the middle of it! I’m really happy about Muru, which is so grounded in who I am and where I come from. You know, the events in that film took place like an hour from where I live now and where I grew up. And then I’ve got Avatar: The Way of Water, which is like a whole other galaxy away, in both its story and the way it’s made. But what’s interesting is that the two films are kind of connected by exploring things around the indigenous experience. So, for me, being able to do that from these two very different points of view — it’s a dream.
So, can we jump into Avatar 2?
Yeah, happy to. So, I’m in Auckland now, but I was in Wellington with James Cameron just yesterday and he was showing me some new footage. I was stunned beyond belief — by how beautiful and emotional it is, and the genius of the sensations it gives you. I can’t even describe what I experienced, just watching a few clips and sequences. I can’t wait to see the whole movie. I genuinely think it’s going to be one of the most amazing cinematic experiences I’ve ever had. I don’t think the world’s really ready for what’s going to happen. It’s beyond exciting.
Can you share a little about your character and how he fits into the saga?
So, my character’s name is Tonowari and he’s sort of like a tribal leader of the what they call the reef people, or the Metkayina clan. But in the Naʼvi way, the female and masculine are balanced, where the female takes on the shamanistic and spiritual aspects of the well being of the people, and the male figures, like my character, take on the logistics and practical aspects. So they have equal roles and tribal leadership responsibilities.
The basic setup for the next part of Avatar, The Way of Water, is that the Sully family is leaving the forrest to try to protect their people, and they come and find refuge with the Metkayina clan, our people, who live in the ocean. So we discover that the planet of Pandora is home to many tribes of indigenous peoples — and it’s all so beautifully realized and incredibly inspiring.
What was it like stepping into this world from a production point of view and how did you find the experience?
Yeah, you know, for such a massive, technical wonderland, it actually starts in a really pragmatic way, with a gray room they call “the volume.” There are all of these different sensors and cameras up in the grid of the ceiling, and something like 16 different camera operators with different focus pullers, and then James Cameron is operating the main camera, which is connected to a lower-resolution pre-visualization of the actual movie world, to see where we fit into it all as we perform. And then there’s a mission station with all of these computer geek guys running everything and making sure that it all somehow comes together.
What it really comes down to, though, in its purest form, is actors behaving like children and pretending that all of this imaginary stuff is real. The experience is very innocent and very pure. You have to fully commit, the way little kids fully commit when they’re pretending to be in an imaginary land. You need that level of purity for it to work. That was surprising to me. I really didn’t know what it was going to be like, because you have very few props, and there’s only little bits of suggestion of costume and no makeup. Instead, there’s dots on your face and a camera right in front of you. It’s pretty bizarre. But the writing was so rich and brilliant that if you just surrender into it and commit, it becomes a very pure form of storytelling. There’s a beautiful innocence to it, which you generally don’t get on a film set. I was really surprised by the whole experience. I just loved going to work every single day. I loved working with the other actors, because we really got to go to work and literally play act.
And then Jim Camron just does the rest — with all of these brilliant artists and VFX teams in New Zealand. When you see it, the mind almost can’t keep up with it. It feels miraculous. It’s unlike any other movie experience.
Let’s turn to Muru, an important movie in a different way. So, there’s a message shown during the title cards, which says something like: “This film is not a recreation. It’s a response.” What did that mean for everyone involved in the project?
Well, that really comes from Te Arepa Kahi, who’s the writer and director of the project. It’s really about him looking at the true events of 2007, conceptualizing it all in the form of a movie, and then taking it back to the people from that region. And as he tells it, they then said, “No, that’s not enough. This story is not just about what happened in 2007. This started almost 100 years before and it’s about multi-generational impact. This is not just about a single day’s traumatic events in our community.” So then he really gave himself license to reach back thematically and say, “Okay, this episode is essentially a story about a dysfunctional relationship between a colonizing, institutionalized power and our indigenous culture.” So he took some liberties with the events of that day to reflect this broader scope.
The project really landed for me when I realized that we were making a parable. This story has happened in this place more than just once. It’s happened here many times. And it’s happened in many other parts of the world, with many different cultures. It’s kind of like a human default. This is where we go when power speaks to indigeneity with a colonizing point of view. When I realized it’s a parable, the questions the film was asking became clearer for me: How can we get ahead of this so it doesn’t keep happening? What are the forces at play that keep us in this cultural loop? Where’s the blind spot? Why can’t we see the warning signs of who we are and how we’re capable of treating one another?
How does the character you play, the police officer in the middle of it all, help illuminate this broken dynamic.
Well, he’s a protagonist who takes us to the heart of it, because he’s the guy who’s sort of stuck between these two forces. There’s his obligation to his community, to his family and to the people that he serves as a vocation. And then he’s also a police officer and he’s responsible to that institution. So he tries to be an authority figure within his community that they can trust — someone who has their back. But then he’s betrayed by his own institution. He’s just trying to be of service and he’s completely hung out to dry.
What kind of research did you do to prepare for the role?
I just did research into what it’s like for these community cops. And here’s the thing: In this community of maybe a few thousand people, in a very remote part of New Zealand which very few New Zealanders ever go to, there’s only one cop — and he’s related to everybody. The old folks, the teachers and the students, the people on the other side of the law causing trouble now and then — he’s related to all of them, or his family has ties of some kind or another with them. So I spoke to three different community cops from that place, who had served that role in that community. And there was always only one of them in the job at the time. And what happens in the film is very true to what happened to the cop who was in the job at the time of the raids. The officers above in the regional chain of command didn’t think it was worth talking to him in advance of the raids, so he was completely unaware and all of a sudden, all of these armed forces descended on his little valley and took control of the roads, buses and cars, and just locked everything down. It was a massive military operation in his own community and he was just told to sit tight while he watched it all go down. And then his whole community thought, “How could you do this to us? You must have known. You betrayed us.” So, some of the parts of the story were fictionalized a little bit, as it was turned into more of an action thriller, but it’s very well grounded. I did everything I could to understand what it was like for him to go through that.
Is it true that you had to learn the village’s local Māori dialect?
Yeah, it’s only like one hour from where I live, but I come from a distinctly different tribe. In this tribe, they have a different dialect. It was amazing to work on learning it, but it was hard.
How did you manage to do it?
Post production. (Laughs) We had to go back and rerecord some things. It was really tough. When you’re doing a dialect, you have to be a bit of a detective. You have to find your way into it. And it took a lot of different iterations of trying to find my way into the character and the way he spoke. For example, the community sits in a valley and there’s a river that runs all the way down the middle of it. So, what I learned was that every click up or down the river, they speak at a different rhythm. They describe it by saying that as the river runs down the valley, it gets faster as it approaches the mouth opening into the ocean. And it’s there that you have the most interaction with other people, so that’s where they speak at a quicker rate. The further you go up the river, deeper into the valley, the slower they speak. And the less they speak. They start to have this much more laconic approach. Maybe it’s sort of like that southern drawl you find in some parts of the South in the States.
Were the real events of the raid a landmark for you personally? How did it affect you at the time?
It was huge. This was post-Sept. 11, when there was this notion of an “axis of evil” on the planet. Therefore, governments everywhere were put on high alert, looking for terrorist cells and domestic terrorism. Eventually, in 2007, Sept. 11 came to our doorstep, even though we are on the opposite side of the planet. Our government decided that it had identified a domestic terrorist cell in our country. It was especially crazy for me, because I know that guy at the center of it, Tāme Iti. He’s an artist and a poet. I had known him for about ten years and even bought one of his paintings. He’s an activist and an agitator, for sure. He likes to confront social issues and he’s very dynamic in the way he does it. But I knew that there was no way that guy was a terrorist — not in a million years. So to watch this go down in our community on the news, it was horrible and shocking. It took about three or four years for the government to come clean and apologize. But the negative impact on our community was massive. And all they ever got Tāme Iti for was having an unlicensed rifle. You know, in really rural remote parts of the world like this, not renewing your gun license is like forgetting to renew your library card. He was out collecting honey when they came for him. And when they put him in prison, you know what he did? He continued making paintings. And then after he got out, then they apologized.
And now he’s in the film, playing himself! And man, I have to say, he’s a really great actor. He’s got this presence that kind of shines through the whole film.
He’s the real article, right? You know, there’s a whole period after the raids that’s not portrayed in the film. After the community was identified in this negative way, they got cut off from resources and isolated nationally. And at that time, he was selling his paintings trying to raise money for the community. He’s a genuinely creative artist. He does dance shows and art exhibitions. He was doing a restaurant at one point and he was a DJ at a radio station. He’s just finished an installation down in our capital city about the loss of indigenous language and the effort to revive it.
I think what really comes across in the film is his spirit and how resilient he is. Despite everything that went down and everything that happen to him, he was never victimized by it. He’s an empowered individual and he’s always looking for ways to create art. And this film just became another form of art for him that he had never tried before. It’s pretty great.
It was very cool to see that Muru was also the first film to receive backing from a New Zealand Film Commission fund that was launched recently to support films told in the Māori language. As we’ve discussed, Muru is a film about New Zealand’s very dark, very destructive colonial past and I don’t want to discount how real and present that legacy continues to be. But I have to say, coming from the U.S., it’s hard not to envy some of the progress New Zealand has made in recent years. I attended your industry’s Power of Inclusion Summit in Auckland back in 2019 and I was kind of in awe of how much energy your industry has marshaled to support inclusion in all its forms — as well as how much broad public support there seems to be for such priorities. So, I’m curious to hear what your current feelings are about the trajectory of your industry and the opportunities for indigenous filmmakers.
You know, it’s going amazing. It’s been really rewarding. With my first company that I started with my cousin, we did some short film production pods, and in one of those groups was Taika Waititi, who’s gone on to massive success in Hollywood. I can’t even keep up with everything he’s doing now. And Te Arepa Kahi, the director of Muru, was right there with us in the first pod too. They’ve taken different trajectories, but it’s very heartening and encouraging for our community to see how they have found their way. So many things are on a great trajectory now. I also think it’s really healthy for our government to be able to support storytelling that provides a challenging perspective on life in New Zealand. Would all countries allow their government agencies to throw their support behind a film like Muru, which puts a really embarrassing and shameful chapter in national history on the big screen? And then have those same government agencies help promote that movie globally? I don’t think so. So, I feel deep appreciation, because it’s not something that happens everywhere. And it’s what should be done. We don’t just need stories that show what a beautiful country New Zealand is, with all of our amazing landscapes. We also need the challenging storytelling that engages with our biggest mistakes, to build a more resilient society that hopefully can make sure these things never happen again.