Hugging The Rock ‘like hugging a tree’
When Cliff Curtis was cast as Dwayne Johnson's brother in Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, his first instinct was to hit the gym.
In the spin-off movie to the multibillion-dollar, action-packed, street-racing, franchise the versatile Kiwi plays Jonah Hobbs, a Samoan mechanic and estranged sibling to Johnson's title character. And the more he thought about the daunting prospect of measuring up to the former WWE star and man mountain, the less attractive the proposition seemed.
"That was my first response emotionally but in fact I thought 'nah, come on, I could go to the gym for a decade and not catch up with that dude'," he says with a laugh.
"So I thought I would go the other direction. I'm supposed to be a bit of a responsible older brother and a mechanic and a computer geek and I thought he didn't need to go to the gym. He's busy taking care of family, he's taking care of the kids, tinkering around with the cars - he's that guy. So I thought, great, I will save the gym for some other experience. That was my strategy."
Although Johnson has deep ties to Curtis' homeland having lived in Auckland as a child, the pair had only briefly met years ago at a dinner organised by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Curtis was not sure what to expect from one of the biggest and highest paid stars in the world but was delighted to find a "very level-headed, focused, determined, disciplined, committed man", who took his work very seriously, but not himself.
"He goes out his way to make you feel comfortable and is very welcoming and very generous to work with as an actor," Curtis says.
"And he doesn't have to be - he doesn't owe me anything - so he wouldn't have to be generous to me one iota and I'd just have to turn up. But no, he's very generous to me in the scenes and was really happy for me to work and explore some different ideas."
And he's a good hugger.
"Very warm, strong, present - he doesn't shy away from the hug," Curtis adds with a chuckle.
"He gives a good man hug. He's not like 'I'm not a hugger' - yeah, he can hug. It's a little bit like hugging a tree but I love trees, so what can I say?"
Curtis also gave credit to Johnson for including his Samoan heritage in such a high-profile, big-budget blockbuster.
As a proud Maori, he was also excited to see Polynesian culture front and centre with a traditional war dance and weapons, but says that Johnson's mother, a regular visitor to the set, was even more thrilled at the homage paid to her culture and heritage.
"It was great to see that he honoured her in that way," Curtis says.
"So to all the sons out there who want to impress their mums - take a page out of his book. All you have to do is have a massive franchise and incorporate your mother's culture and heritage and she will probably be very proud."
For decades, Curtis has been celebrated as one of the most versatile actors around.
After breaking out in homegrown hits such as Once Were Warriors, he headed for Hollywood and proved himself to be a man for all regions, landing roles as an Arab in Three Kings and The Insider and Latino gangsters in Training Day and Blow to name but a few.
And while he now says that those opportunities acting opposite huge stars such as George Clooney, Denzel Washington and Johnny Depp set up the eclectic career and comfortable life he has today, it was the strange culmination of a lot of hard work.
"It was very odd," he says of his fluid onscreen ethnicity.
"I was like 'do these people know what they are doing?' - but they gave me opportunities. The casting directors gave me opportunities - they don't just throw roles at you when you turn up in Hollywood. It's not like 'oh wow, let's get that guy from New Zealand - he's brown, that will do'. No, when you are starting out you have to get a meeting and get an audition and get a call-back and then meet the casting director and the director and go through this process - it's a big deal."
And despite the leg-up it gave his career, he's not sure it would happen now.
When he was getting his start in Hollywood, he says roles were characterised "white, black, Asian or other".
But the business has changed after years of so-called "whitewashing" and filmmakers now are more careful about, and sensitive to, casting actors in culturally appropriate roles.
"There are so many great brown actors now," Curtis agrees.
"There are tons of them. There is a lot more awareness around cultural sensitivity and appropriateness and misappropriation and representation as opposed to misrepresentation. We are a lot more conscious about that stuff now."
He adds with a laugh: "It's less work for me, mate. Less opportunities for me."
But the welcome flip side of that change is that he now gets to play characters such as his Travis Manawa in Fear the Walking Dead as either Maori or without specifically referencing any ethnicity.
"They look at me as an actor they want to work with and they are much more open to working in my ethnicity and saying 'look, he's a man'," Curtis says.
"He's a man with a tan but he's a man - does it really matter for the role what ethnicity it is? Do we need to obsess about these things? He's a guy who is good at what he does and we play the character, whether I have the character attributes of the role as opposed to the ethnic specificity of the role. That has changed a lot."
Curtis says that his own Maori heritage has been incorporated into the four Avatar sequels he has signed up for.
Oscar-winning director James Cameron has been a fierce advocate of indigenous voices over the years, and even asked Curtis to come up with a haka for his role as Tonowari, the leader of an ocean-going alien tribe.
"He really takes great pride in representing something that is inspired by his appreciation of indigenous cultures," says Curtis of Cameron.
"He has a real blend of things that is very, very rich - it's not just Maori culture but he definitely incorporates those elements of Polynesian culture and African culture and Native American culture. He has such a rich tapestry and has done such an amazing job and I am very blessed and grateful to be a part of that franchise.
And with Avengers: Endgame having just passed the first Avatar as the highest grossing movie ever, Curtis thinks a little perspective is in order to recognise the enormity of Cameron's 10-year old record, and won't rule out his taking the crown back.
"(Marvel) built a whole universe of 20 different movies to build up to something that could rise to the commercial success of a single movie," he says.
"Jim is just such a visionary and he has such an incredible vision of how to reach audiences on a massive scale."
FAST & FURIOUS PRESENTS: HOBBS & SHAW OPENS TOMORROW.