If you’re a fan of some of the hottest shows on television, such as House of Cards, Narcos, Luke Cage and The Good Wife, you’re probably familiar with actor Curtiss Cook. The Quintessential Gentleman caught up with Curtiss to learn more about the versatile actor and his current and upcoming projects, his thoughts on an evolving industry, and more.
Tell us a bit about your background and how you got into acting?
I’m originally from Dayton, Ohio and the oldest of five children and I’ve been acting since I was about 7 years old. I did community and school theatre, and then I started to take it a little seriously by the time I got to high school.
We had this organization in Dayton called the Muse Machine. It was actually kind of equivalent to the Tri-State area over here in New York – a big area where all high school students from all neighboring high schools and counties would come in – and I would audition for the major production of the year. So you would get about a good 2,000 kids auditioning for this organization. So in my junior and senior years I was cast as the lead in two musicals.
When that ended, I didn’t really think I was going to have a career in acting, but the woman who ran Muse Machine asked me a couple weeks before we got finished what I was going to do in the future, and I told her I was going to go into the Navy. She said to me, “No darling, you have too much talent to go into the Navy.” So she hooked me up with the principal of this conservatory out in London, the Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts, which often came out to America to audition talent in New York, L.A., and Chicago. Because she knew [the principal] and had a personal relationship with him, he came to Dayton. So I did a monologue, I sang a song and I did a little dance routine, and next thing I know, I was being asked to attend the conservatory. At the time, Mountview was one of the top drama schools in the U.K., and I had the experience of participating in sessions with top British actors like Vanessa Redgrave, Michael Caine, and Dame Judy Dench.
What was your first major role after arriving in New York?
As far as the musical theater, I did a lot of stuff, and we would be here talking forever if I were to name them all. But I performed on Broadway with The Lion King for two years. I also did Miss Saigon, as well as the national tour of Five Guys Named Moe, to name a few.
You’ve played a number of roles in hit television series and movies including Shutter Island, Netflix’s Luke Cage and House of Cards, as well as The Good Wife. Do you have a favorite role and why?
Well, my favorite would be the one I’m doing now, literally. That’s my favorite one because all my attention and all my focus go into it. I’m one of those guys that, once I get a role, I put everything into it and sometimes a little too much. But all of them have something that’s really meaningful to me.
The Interpreter was my first big Hollywood film – that was [director] Sydney Pollack’s last major film starring Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn. I thought that was going to be my huge breakout into the industry, because, when we shot [the movie], I played Nicole’s love interest. So we had all these scenes in Africa- we flew out to Mozambique- and it was wonderful. I go to view the finished movie, and the only part [referencing] the love interest you see is her saying “I loved him once.” And I’m like, “ok… I guess it’s not gonna be!” [laughs]. But then, I go on to do Shutter Island with [director] Martin Scorsese – another favorite. So all of them hold a major place in my heart, in my career definitely, but in my heart and gave me so much experience and preparation to move on to the next thing.
You recently completed working on the biopic Roxanne Roxanne, which is based on the life of hip hop icon Roxanne Shanté, also starring Mahershala Ali and Nia Long. Can you share a little bit more about your character in the film?
Without giving away too much, I can share that Nia Long plays Shanté’s mother in the film. I don’t know how much you know about [Shante’s mother’s] life, but she was never married, but she did have this dude in her life and I play that guy. So my character is not Shante’s father, but I play one of her mom’s beaus during her youth, which sets off a chain of events that tells you why Shanté started to do what she started to do and how she started to view men, and what made her as independent and as strong as she is today. So, of course, when [director-writer] Michael Larnell] called me about the role, I was like “Yeah, man!” and he says, “Oh, by the way, your love interest is Nia Long.” I say, “Do you need me there right now?” [laughs]
Who are some actors or directors you’d like to work with?
Wow, that kind of puts me in a sticky place because people might read this and say “Oh really? You didn’t want to work with me?” [Laughs]. But a lot of times it’s the material that really kind of attracts me to stuff primarily. I do like [director] Ava [DuVernay’s] stuff, though. There’s a lot of people out here that’s doing some incredible work, and a lot of young folk who are tearing down barriers with unique material. I’m just very interested in just telling real simple human stories. Kind of like [the film] Moonlight, just coming-of-age, beautifully shot work.
What is your dream role?
I don’t know if it’s dream role, but I do think about the main character in the book The Spook Who Sat by the Door. It’s a novel written by Sam Greenlee, and there was a movie adaptation of it a long time ago. It’s sort of a guerilla-themed story and plays on the concept that sometimes black people can be invisible in a white world. So it’s basically about this janitor or somebody like that who’s always around in an office but you never really pay attention to them, but they always kind of sat at their desk or station quietly observing. In the book, [the protagonist] gathered so much information and [spoiler alert] was really a CIA agent. So if I were to think about a dream role, it would be something along the lines of that, where it’s on the cerebral side but also has a “whodunit” mystery feel to it.
With awards season currently in full swing, what are your thoughts on diverse representation of actors of color in the TV/film industry?
I feel like we’re doing it. I think we always have been doing it, but I think there’s something to be said for some squeaky wheels getting oiled. People are standing up and saying “you know what? I’m tired of it!”
And I know we’ve done that before in the past, but I feel like this time maybe [people of color] did put our money where our mouths are and started to do stuff for ourselves. We have a lot more producers, like Pharrell Williams, who’s producing Roxanne Roxanne with Forest Whitaker. You have Common who’s starting to produce stuff, you have John Legend who is also producing…
So now it’s happening. And I’m very proud that not only is it happening, but we’re focusing on us as well. We’re telling our stories and producing them ourselves – and we [as an ethnicity] are supporting them. We’re going on social media with this saying “Hey, did you see this? I didn’t like this, “and “I liked this.” We’re having real debates and commentary, and only from that can more things happen. Do awards matter? Yes. But not for the reason of ‘I just won an award.’ The exposure [during awards season] gives that person in Dayton, Ohio who maybe never even heard of Moonlight or Hidden Figures, or whatever, that chance to say, “Let me go check this out.”
So what’s next for you on the professional front?
I’m currently working on season 3 of Netflix’s Narcos, and recently finished season 5 of House of Cards. The Black Caucus got some words to say this year! A whole caucus, we about to bring it! [laughter] Just make sure you watch it this season! I know there’s so much content out there now, so much good stuff to watch. I’m also going to be in a film called Movie No. 1, which is written and directed by Josephine Decker, that’s in post-production right now. I’ll be reuniting with [actress] Molly Parker [from House of Cards] in that film, which should be coming out some time next year.
Sounds like you have a lot of projects coming up for 2017 and beyond. So outside of acting, are there any hobbies or interests that you’re pursuing or working on?
Well outside of acting I’m a father of five – so I’m always busy! My oldest is 25 years old, and is actually in a film being featured at the Sundance Film Festival this year – so we’re going to be at Sundance together. My three oldest are out of the house now: my oldest, my 24-year-old and my 20-year-old who’s in college. They’re all out, but I still have the twins here at home now. So I’m at basketball games, I’m at birthday parties, I’m at this – I’m everywhere!
What is your definition of a quintessential gentleman?
He is definitely somebody who respects himself – first, you have to respect yourself in order to respect anyone else. That self-respect will lead him to having the confidence and the wherewithal to love and respect everyone around him. I think that also entails honesty, without being hateful or brutal to someone else. It also involves sacrificing some of his time for other people’s time who might need it more than him at that moment. And if he’s a Phi Beta Sigma man, that’s even better! [laughs].