Curtiss Cook dinner on creating a brand new Black function in ‘West Facet Story’ — •
Among the many many updates director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner made to the brand new West Facet Story, which opened Dec. 10, is the addition of a model new character, Abe, performed by actor Curtiss Cook dinner. Abe is the primary Black character featured within the story of younger lovers caught between battling teen gangs and ethnic divides in Nineteen Fifties New York.
When he was first advised that Abe can be Black, Cook dinner, 41, thought Spielberg and his staff have been turning one of many musical’s Latino characters into an African American. Studying that he can be enjoying a brand new character made him much more keen about making the function his personal.
Along with West Facet Story, Cook dinner has appeared within the NBC science fiction collection Manifest, FX’s Mayans M.C., Netflix exhibits Home of Playing cards and Narcos, and Showtime’s The Chi, produced by Lena Waithe and Widespread.
Cook dinner spoke with • about his journey as an actor, Black illustration in tv and fine-tuning his ardour for performing.
This interview has been condensed and edited for readability.
As a child rising up in Dayton, what made you enroll in lessons on the Dayton Up to date Dance Firm?
I used to be on this group referred to as the Muse Machine in Dayton, Ohio. This group introduced live shows to the scholars. They introduced orchestras, bands, artwork, sculpting and portray. They’d additionally deliver dance firms by means of. DCDC was one of many firms that [was] introduced in, in addition to the Dayton Ballet. They’d carry out for us after which after that, they’d have ‘speak again’ to the kids afterwards. My little self was enthralled by these dancers. Not solely as a result of they have been superb athletes, however they have been very lovely. I used to be pondering I used to be easy and suave speaking to those younger girls who have been a very good three or 4 years older than me. So, you understand, I’m like within the eighth grade pondering I’m any person and so they’re like, ‘Oh, boy get out of right here, be quiet.’
I begin speaking to this one dancer, Debbie Blunden, the daughter of Jeraldyne Blunden, who was the founding father of DCDC. And I used to be like, ‘Yeah, you understand, I’d love to bounce. I may do what y’all do.’ She’s like, ‘Oh, you’ll be able to? Hear, for those who come to our studio, I’ll give classes free of charge.’ I’m like, ‘OK, yeah, I’ll come by means of there and I’ll do my factor.’ And he or she’s like, ‘Yeah, proper. No matter.’ She anticipated by no means to see me once more. I’m good on a problem, so I got here by means of. I fell in love with it. I fell in love with the athleticism of all of it. It was laborious and I wished to determine if I may do it. I imply, I’d by no means actually name myself a dancer. My spouse is a dancer. However I can maintain my very own. I used to be in a position to stick with them. I used to be within the second firm with DCDC. I additionally sang and acted. So, that’s what actually bought me concerned. It was me being a knucklehead and pondering I knew the whole lot, however finally studying extra about myself than I may even think about.
How do you know that performing was for you?
I’d do neighborhood theater issues and stuff in highschool. I assumed I used to be going to be a singer at one level. I was in a canopy band in highschool. I used to be a clown. I used to be loud. However so far as doing this as a occupation, there was no one in my household who did that. And there was no one in my rapid neighborhood who I knew [that] was an actor or dancer or any person who did it and that was their solely job.
It wasn’t till my senior 12 months in highschool, the founding father of the Muse Machine requested me what did I wish to do after highschool. I advised her I used to be going to go to the Navy. Then after I get out of the Navy, I’m going to return again to Dayton and work at Montgomery County Engineers like my dad. I’m going to make a very good $30,000 a 12 months and I’m going to be dwelling good. She’s like, ‘No, darling, you have got an excessive amount of expertise for that.’ She launched me to the principal of Mountview Theatre College in London, England, and I auditioned for him. That’s the place I bought my scholarship, and I ended up going to London for drama.
Out there’s after I began to comprehend there are folks making a dwelling doing this, like an actual dwelling. So as soon as once more, I’m all the time good for a problem and making an attempt to determine methods to do it and do it at my finest. The college was a godsend. A few of my lecturers have been Judi Dench, Michael Caine and Vanessa Redgrave. On the time, I didn’t know who they have been. I used to be only a younger Black boy from Dayton. These outdated English folks coming and speaking to me day-after-day and I didn’t even know what they have been speaking about. I didn’t understand how a lot wealth and information that was being seeped into me like a sponge. I used to be simply soaking all of it in.
How did you make the transition to tv?
By the point I left college, I knew that I used to be coming to Broadway. And musical theater was my past love. It took me some time to get on Broadway. I did numerous regional performs. I didn’t suppose I’d ever do tv or movie. Not as a result of I didn’t wish to, however I used to be simply sort of a kind of actors that felt prefer it was beneath me. Like, I’ll keep on the stage. I used to be doing my second Broadway play and I sort of rolled on to some tv present. I solely had one line on it, however I used to be nonetheless doing this Broadway present. I used to be making first rate cash. That is within the early ‘90s. [In the TV show] I used to be a police officer. I don’t even suppose I had a reputation. I bought my verify for that someday and it surpassed my Broadway wage for that one week. So, I used to be like, ‘OK, I have to discover ways to do extra tv and movie as a result of for those who’re paying me this for this someday and these one-lines, what may it probably be if I’m doing extra?’
You have been a single father of three whereas making an attempt to guide gigs on Broadway. What motivated you to go after what you wished in your performing profession?
Actually, I don’t know if I can reply that. Which may need to be a query for my kids and I’ve 5 now. I want to suppose my instance to them is that there are going to be laborious, tough occasions. Curtiss, Isis and Kimani, it was simply us for a very long time. They’re my oldest kids. Their mom determined to half methods with us and so it was simply me as a single dad with the three of them for some time. Throughout that point, all I ever did was act. In my full grownup life, I’ve solely had one 9-to-5 job and that was earlier than Curtiss was born as a result of I used to be scared. I didn’t have well being advantages. I wanted to search out one thing as a result of we’re about to have a child. It did what it wanted to do. We had insurance coverage and she or he was capable of get prenatal.
However whereas I used to be in that 9-to-5 job, I used to be dying on the within. I didn’t know why I used to be so evil and so irritable. I used to be so depressed all that point. It wasn’t till I used to be like, I’m simply going to go on this small audition for this present and simply see how I really feel as a result of I hadn’t completed it shortly. Then I did this audition and simply the audition itself, I simply felt alive. It was like a plant that was dying and also you simply added water and fertilizer to it. That’s how I felt on the within. I knew I couldn’t do my 9-to-5 anymore.
Your oldest son, Curtiss Jr., can be an actor. What have you ever taught your kids about pursuing their goals?
If there’s something I’d hope that they get from my expertise is that you’re sufficient and who and what you’re feeling is essential to you, you have got a proper to do it. You’ve gotten an obligation, virtually, to do it. As a result of for those who don’t, you’re deeming one thing within you and it’s been given to you by God and the universe. If you happen to neglect that, then one thing else might be uncared for within you, you’ll be able to and can get sick. I’ve made numerous errors. I’ve completed numerous silly issues. However you understand there aren’t any losses, there are solely classes. Let’s do higher the subsequent time.
Along with your function as Douda in The Chi, you get to indicate the nice, the unhealthy and the ugly of the Black expertise in America. Why is it essential for various Black tales to be on the large display screen?
As a result of they exist. Black folks normally have constructed this nation, and for the longest time haven’t been represented and haven’t been proven in our complexities. We’ve solely been stereotyped and dumbed all the way down to a option to the place we’re stereotypes of a stereotype typically. So, the truth that you have got somebody like Lena Waithe and Showtime, you understand what Lena has completed with the present has been superb. However we all know that there have been many Lenas and people like that who’ve had nice concepts, however you haven’t had a company sturdy sufficient or competent sufficient or courageous sufficient to permit that to indicate in its fullness. To not say we want these giant organizations to do this, as a result of we’ve completed it on our personal numerous occasions. However to have somebody like Showtime are available and imagine in what we do and the way we do it and provides us a platform, it’s a blessing.
After we have been youngsters, we used to look at recreation exhibits rather a lot rising up. At any time when there was a Black individual on the sport present, we didn’t know them, however we didn’t care. We might simply begin rooting for them. Whenever you see your self, you get excited. That’s why I really feel like it’s occurring now with Broadway. I imply, they’ve all the time been there, however the truth that we’re having a chance now to see extra, and totally different sides of these issues, is so essential. With a present like The Chi, it makes me proud to be part of one thing like that. So we’re, you understand, at one time limit actually trying excessive and low for these Broadway gigs and now you have got administrators like Steven Spielberg making roles only for you.
How does it really feel to know that one of many greatest administrators of all time created Abe’s character for West Facet Story?
Even after I hear it it’s like, ‘Wow,’ I imply, it’s prefer it’s not actual. Then you definately go and also you do the work, you continue to really feel a way inside and it’s like, is that this actually occurring? Am I actually doing this? Musical theater has all the time been my past love. So, after all I knew what West Facet Story was. After all I spotted there’s no Black folks in it. Individuals from Puerto Rico, they matter, too. So, I wished to be part of it, however I didn’t wish to take their roles.
Though Abe is probably not the central character of this piece, as a result of it’s not about Abe, it’s the truth that I’m there. We’re there. There might be one other little Black boy trying on the display screen when everybody goes and sees it and all of the hoopla, and he’ll see himself. It’s nonetheless going to be there in 5, six years, 10 years from now my grandchildren can see it. They’re going to have a look at the display screen and surprise, ‘What’s this?’ Then rapidly, this dude goes to stroll in and so they’re going to be like, ‘Wow, maintain on. He seems like me.’
I’m not making an attempt to get emotional as a result of it’s near that. It’s superb. It’s overwhelmingly superb. I’m grateful for that chance. It permits me to know as soon as once more that betting on your self counts, and betting on your self is essential. As a result of if I’d have stated to my trainer again in highschool, ‘Thanks very a lot for making an attempt to get me into this college however I’m going to go to the Navy and I’m going to return again and work as an engineer,’ none of this might have occurred. I needed to say sure to myself. To the dance lady, I needed to say sure. Even with the tv exhibits, I needed to maintain saying sure to myself. And for those who don’t say sure to your self, the no’s may be crippling, since you haven’t stated sure.