Growing up in Dayton, Ohio, Curtiss Cook wanted to do and did one thing: Act.
His first brush with the stage was at the age of 10, and years later, the acting bug was in full force when Curtiss landed a role in his high school performance of A Raisin in the Sun. This experience led to countless high school plays, a career at the famed Dayton Contemporary Dance Company and a full scholarship to Mount View Theatre School in London, where he truly honed his craft.
Curtiss’s resume boasts three Broadway shows, countless national tours, spots on Law & Order, The Sopranos, Rescue Me and numerous commercials. In a PSA for TVBoss.org, an unforgettable Curtiss says, “I’m a have to block you,” to a fictitious MA-drug-abusing character. He has also worked with some of the biggest Hollywood names in the business: Nicole Kidman, Sean Penn, Andy Garcia, Leonardo DiCaprio, Sir Ben Kingsley, the late Sydney Pollack and the great Martin Scorsese.
Curtiss has most recently been seen as a guest star on the fifth episode of The Good Wife. Curtiss also has a recurring role and just finished filming the sixth episode of Mark Wahlberg’s new HBO series, How to Make it in America. Curtiss plays Alex opposite Bryan Greenberg’s character, Ben. He also has a supporting role in the upcoming Martin Scorsese movie, Shutter Island (February 17, 2010) — in which Curtiss plays opposite Ben Kingsley, Leonardo Dicaprio and Mark Ruffalo — in addition to the theater release of Tribeca Film Festival’s Audience Award-winning film, City Island.
The father of five, he and his wife, Angelica (who fell in love while both in the Broadway Company of The Lion King), now live in Upstate New York.
Jeanmarie Simpson: Tell me about the first experience you had on stage as a kid.
CC: My first time on stage was magical. That’s when I got the bug. (Just kidding.) One of my earliest times on stage was not a proper stage setting. It was in the third grade for a talent show at school. I decided I was going to sing at this show, and each week coming up to the performance, my teacher would hold rehearsals in the hallway in front of the other third, fourth and fifth grade classes. I was singing “The Greatest Love of All” (the George Benson version — this was way before the Whitney remake). Anyway, the show came up and I had a death in the family that was out of town, so I missed it. When I came back, none of my friends believed me. They thought I was too scared. Nothing was further from the truth. Unbeknownst to me, the faculty really liked the way I sang, and because of this, I sang on the morning announcement, about eight bars a cappella the rest of my 3rd grade year. That was my introduction into the world of a performer.
JS: What role did you play in A Raisin in the Sun?
CC: A Raisin in the Sun came many years later, and I played George. I was really too young to play the role and get the main theme of the play. I was just trying to make sure I remembered my lines. I was only 17 at the time.
JS: Did you have a sense of the overarching theme of the show? How did the illumination of racism in the show strike you, in the context of your own identity and life in Dayton, Ohio?
CC: Race in Dayton was wild for me. First off, you were either black or white. We had a few exchange students at my high school, but for the most part, they were special — very smart and didn’t speak a lot of English. How blind I was to the issue of race. It really didn’t present itself until I went to school in London. Talk about culture shock!
JS: You’re a theatre-trained actor and a dancer with three Broadway shows to your credit, including The Lion King. Do you still do theatre, or have you moved primarily into film and television?
CC: Yes, I am a trained actor, but I would never call myself a dancer. I have too much respect for dancers to try and throw myself in a class with them. I was also in Miss Saigon and I did the National Tour of Five Guys Named Moe. I love that show. My last theatre gig was with the great Arthur Laurents in a play he wrote and directed. That was about three years ago. My focus now is definitely on film and television, but my heart is forever in theatre. Does that sound sappy enough? [Laughs]
JS: Do you find the work as gratifying on the set of a film as you do in theatre?
CC: They’re just different. With film, I can sit in my trailer for 45 minutes while the next set-up is happening, then come on set and have magic happen. There have been times that the surroundings on set seem so real, you actually feel like you’re living the moment. It’s a great feeling. The focus is different. Theatre hasn’t ever really felt that way, but having something you say or do get an instant response from the audience (be it the one you wanted or not) is another type of gratification. For me, the rehearsal process of the theatre has always been the most exciting part. Well, the rehearsal, then the first 12 weeks of the run. After that, another muscle kicks in and you can tell the men from the boys and the women from the girls. It ain’t easy, folks. None of it is easy at all, but I love it. I love all of it.
JS: You play a lot of cops and criminals. Does that get old?
CC: Cops, criminals and lawyers. I’m still on the paying-my-dues route, so I try to find ways that my cops are different from the last cop I played and the last cop I’ve seen on TV or at the movies so it keeps it from getting too old too fast. But let me tell you, it’s hard out here for a pimp when you’re trying to get the money for the mortgage. [Laughs]
JS: If you had the opportunity to do anything you wanted, what would you do, project-wise?
CC: Wow! I would love to do a series based on the Easy Rawlins mysteries playing Easy, by Walter Mosley, or even do the Alex Cross series, playing Alex, by James Patterson. Something like that would be heaven for me. I’ll get it — that or something even more wonderful. I’ll get it!
JS: You’ve got a lot of kids, Curtiss!
CC: Yes, I do, although “a lot” is relative. I do have a lot, but the fun at my house is crazy. We have this annual Christmas CD we make. Sorry, but you have to be on a special list to hear it. Top secret stuff! But my children — I wouldn’t have it any other way. In many ways, they’ve saved my life.
JS: How do you manage your time? That’s a lot of people to give time, attention and love to, not to mention your wife and the rest of your community.
CC: You just do it. If I thought about it too long or too hard, I may not be able to, but that’s not an option. We have to share our time, my wife and I, and because of that, we make ourselves enjoy it — all of it. There have been some downs and ups, for sure.
JS: Is there any hope for this world? If so, what is it? Really. I need to know.
CC: Yes, there is. What, when, where, and how — I wish I had those answers. But the more we take responsibility for ourselves and really try to be honest, open, caring people, the more hope there is. The “ME” era is about to take a back seat for a while, and when that happens, there will be more smiles, more laughter and a downright good time for all. Trust and believe me. The only way is up.
JS: I hear you there, Curtiss! [Laughs] What’s next for you?
CC: As I write this, I’m shooting an episode of Law and Order: Criminal Intent (and I’m not playing a cop or a criminal!). This will probably air sometime in April or March; and of course the big movie, Shutter Island, based on the book by Dennis Lehane and directed by Martin Scorsese; then I have the new HBO series, How to Make it in America. That should start airing sometime in February as well; then the movie with Andy Garcia and Julianna Margulies, City Island. A few more things are in the works, but nothing has been signed yet. We’ll see.