Curtiss Cook’s Road to Success: From Dayton, Ohio to the Big Screen
Curtiss Cook is one of the busiest men in Hollywood. After an explosive season four finale of “The Chi” on Showtime, he is gearing up for the Steven Spielberg-directed film “West Side Story,” hitting theatres on Friday, December 10. Curtiss talks about his journey as an actor, starting in high school, and leading up to his monumental roles in television and film.
When did you first start acting, and what inspired you to do so?
I started in junior high school. I was in 7th grade when I realized there was really something that could be done with acting. I really enjoyed it. I really enjoyed the freedom of expression it gives. I grew up in Dayton, Ohio, and I came from a lower middle-class family. As the oldest of five children, I had no older siblings to look up to, so theatre and dance were escapism for me. It made me be really creative, open, and allowed me to express myself in that way. That was one of the major inspirations for pursuing it.
I didn’t really realize that I could make a living out of it until my last year of high school. Then it kind of hit me that it is a lifestyle, and there is money to be made from it. I wasn’t thinking big and fabulous though. I was thinking about doing community theatre in Dayton, Ohio, and making just enough to live off of it and have fun. But God had bigger plans for me.
What was it like moving from Ohio to London to pursue your dreams?
It was a shellshock, or culture shock rather. It was big! I didn’t know what to expect. What you have to realize too was that I had never flown on a plane before, ever. So, that was major. I didn’t know what to pack! I was even packing my iron and all kinds of crazy things to take with me over there. Once I got there, I realized that the iron wouldn’t even fit into the outlet. So there was no actual reason to bring this. It's a huge country! Of course, they have irons over there! I didn’t need to pack that. So it was major, and the way that that came about was a gift from the universe that I will never forget. I will always be thankful for it.
I was doing a production in Dayton, Ohio, with the Muse Machine run by this woman with the name of Suzy Bassani, who I consider one of my living angels. She asked me what I was going to do at the end of a run, to which I responded that I planned to go into the Navy. After, I would come back and work for Montgomery county engineers, like my Dad, doing street work, and then buy a house out in the suburbs and be able to do plays on the weekend. She said, “No, darling, you have too much talent for that.” I responded, “Well, thank you, but I’m going to do what I’m going to do.”
Turns out, she knew the principal of the school in London, and every year—I don’t know if they do this to this day—they travel to LA and Chicago, and they have auditions for the students. She asked them to come to Dayton because she knew them. So, they did. I sang, danced, and did a monologue for him, and he enjoyed it. I was helped by Miss Patricia Copeland, who is no longer living, but she was my high school drama teacher, an angel. Afterward, he had my parents come in for a meeting, and he said that they wanted to offer him admission at the school. My father and everyone was really happy at the meeting. When we got home, I remember seeing their sad faces when they explained that they didn’t have the money to send me there. I was heartbroken, but I understood it. As I said, I was the oldest out of all of my siblings, and I knew it would be a large amount of money. So I went back to tell Suzy that I, unfortunately, wouldn’t be able to take the scholarship and attend the school. When she came back, she told me that they would give me a full ride to the school. So I’ve been blessed for a long time, and I am very fortunate.
Did you begin on stage or with film acting? How did you find your passion for film acting?
It was a long and slow process. When I worked on theatre in the city before I got my Broadway National Tour, I was auditioning for small things here and there, but I never really took it seriously. I thought that theatre was my home and that theatre was my life, and that was all I ever wanted to do. I was like a ridiculously snobby actor. I realized that television might not be so bad when I did a small but integral part on a show, and they paid me my Broadway salary for one day.
So that started my quest to figure out how to act on camera as opposed to on stage. Although the journey to the character and finding your true self is the same on television and stage, the way that you give it out is different. I felt like I needed to learn more of that, and I had a commercial agent, so I started doing more of that so I could get more comfortable in front of the camera. I make that sound really easy like you can just go and do a commercial, but I had to audition a lot, and it took me a while before those started to come. I also did a lot of student films. So I auditioned for these roles in films so that I could get familiar with camera work, camera angles, and my performances. I would also take a lot of audition classes, and I really learned how to laser-focus my emotions, which would help me with television because it is more precise on camera.
Tell us what your experience in Showtime’s “The Chi” is like.
It is an amazing show! It is on Showtime. The character that I play is Odis Douda Perry, and he is a gangster who ends up being the mayor of Chicago. I’ve been there for three seasons now. We just got renewed for our 5th season, which is a feat for any show. It is especially an accomplishment for a show like this one because it kinda concentrates on unapologetically Black life on the south side of Chicago and how we deal with our ups and downs. It is not a type of life that is being shown as often as it should be. This character is a wild dude, and many people think that he is evil. I don’t think that, though. I think he is just misunderstood. In the fourth season, he defunds the police, and then a whole backlash of events occurs. It is a really great show, and I look forward to what season five is going to bring.
What is it like bringing the revival of “West Side Story” to life?
It’s great to bring it to life again. I’m just honored to be a part of it. I feel like I could call Arthur Laurents, who is the original writer of “West Side Story,” a friend. I did a production of “Hallelujah Baby!,” which he directed and wrote a few years back, so I had the opportunity to sit and learn from him. It amazes me,the fact that I am bringing his creation back to life now. Especially on the big screen in such a monumental way. It really means a lot to me.
Although Laurents was troubled, he was a straightforward and honest man. He was very talented, and he knew how to spot and recognize talent. So I would like to think that he would be proud that I am a part of this revival of “West Side Story.” On top of that, the production that we were working on, “Hallelujah Baby!,” was about a Black woman at a time where she wanted to be the biggest star in the world.
Including a leading Black player in “West Side Story” is something that I think he would be proud of now.
I’m not sure if this is true or not, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he had fought for it initially.
I am really excited for everyone to see it. I am really excited to see it, I really can’t wait, because I haven’t seen it yet either. I know what it felt like to be on the set and to work with Steven Speilberg and have that opportunity which was utterly amazing.
What does a typical day on the set of “West Side Story” look like?
Well, it was weird because we shot this almost two and a half years ago because it was supposed to come out, but then the [COVID-19] pandemic hit. So it was this big hush-hush thing. We were in parts of the city where it was hot, and we would have to put on big coats because photographers were there trying to see what the costumes looked like. It was like we were in this covert-operational secret movie. I have never been a part of something like that before. When we went from our trailers to the set, we would have to bundle up and have an umbrella in front of us to hurry up and get to the set. Then, once we got there and started talking to one another, it was astonishing. It was like we were back in the 1950s. Everybody was cool and young, and everybody was trying to stay in character. There were a lot of theatre people in the cast as well, so there was a lot of method acting going on. People were telling stories, and Steven fell right in too. He was sitting around and talking to us about other projects. It was really a dream come true. It was like something you could only imagine. Then we would start doing the work, and you know, I would know the songs and the words, and it's like, “Oh my God...I’m actually saying these words I have heard for 50 or 60 years.” It was amazing.
What do you appreciate most about your character Abe?
The fact that he’s there. The fact that he's a representation for young Black boys like I was in Dayton, Ohio, who now see themselves and see that it's possible if they do the work. The fact that he’s going to be there and be that representation for somebody out there means a lot to me. I hope that it stands and it holds justice and that it resonates as well as it can. That's not up to me. That's up to how it works out. It's an honor to be a part of it.
Be sure to catch “West Side Story” in theatres this December!
Editor’s Note: Interview has been edited for clarity.