Written By Noah Wade
Some actors may fail to stay relevant in the constantly shifting world of entertainment, but Curtiss Cook is not one of them. Cook, already more than two decades into his career, is experiencing a surge of success playing the role of Otis “Douda” Perry, a businessman and hustler from the Southside of Chicago, in the Showtime hit “The Chi”. He also has another big project set for release later this year as well.
Cook’s impressive resume should come as no surprise. He was the first American to ever be given a full ride to London’s Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts, which has produced dozens of acclaimed British thespians including Stuart Matthew Price of Harry Potter fame. His education and skills led him to work in just about every entertainment medium you can think of. From cable TV on shows like “Elementary” and “Bull”, on Netflix in the Kevin Spacey-led “House Of Cards”, in film in “Shutter Island” with Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo (one of my favorite movies of all time, by the way) and on Broadway in both “Miss Saigon” and “The Lion King”.
Selfishly, I had to discuss “Shutter Island” and “The Lion King” with him. The former came out in 2010, while I was still in middle school while I saw the latter on Broadway at five years old in December, 2001. Cook, jokingly, objected to hearing this so as to not feel “old”, but he discussed both projects with such rich detail and admiration for both his colleagues and the individual crafts of film and Broadway respectively.
After reading for, and almost landing a part in, another Martin Scorsese film called “The Departed”, Cook had the chance to read back and forth, with Scorsese himself, for “Shutter Island. He got a call that he had booked the job before getting off the train back home to Yonkers. In the film, he played one of the orderlies at the mental hospital that Teddy, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, was visiting in search of a missing patient. “As the orderlies, we were there about 70% of the time,” said Cook. “We had to always be there. I was like a fly on the wall watching these greats like Ben Kingsley, Leonardo, ‘Marky Mark’ Ruffalo and Michelle Williams.” It was just Cook’s second major film, so he really tried to soak it all in. “It was amazing on so many different levels,” he said. “As far as meeting people and getting to watch people work.”
On Broadway in “The Lion King”, he stepped in for the role of Banzai, one of Scar’s henchman hyenas, just before 9/11. Production, of course, had to be stopped for the time being, but would soon resume and Cook would stay in the show for the following two years. “Lion King”, is, essentially, Disney’s first big Broadway blockbuster, and Cook described it just as an audience member would. “When that elephant walks down the aisle and that sun rises up, it’s breathtaking,” he said. “The authentic African sounds and the singing….you’re transported.” He met his wife, who is still a member of the “Lion King” ensemble, during his time in the show.
Besides “The Chi”, Cook’s other big project is the Steven Spielberg remake of “West Side Story”, set for release on December 18th. The film follows what is now almost a tradition for big budget musical films, like “Les Miserables” and “Into The Woods” in previous years, to be released right around the holiday season. Spielberg’s film comes less than a year after the most recent Broadway revival of the classic show opened at the Broadway Theatre, but with an all-black cast. The new adaptation stars Ansel Elgort as Tony, Rachel Zegler as Maria and, of course, the legendary Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Anita in the 1961 film version, as Valentina.
The significance of this moment is not lost on Cook, who is set to play an original role named Abe in the film. “For a black boy from Dayton, Ohio to get the opportunity to do….”, he began, the gravitas of that statement clearly still palpable. “All I ever wanted to do when I came to the city was musical theatre. Now I’m involved in the new incarnation of ‘West Side Story’, that, when it comes out, hopefully, it will be one of those things that lasts as long as the original.” Cook had had a chance to previously work with Arthur Lawrence, who wrote the original “West Side Story”, and talk about his other works like “Hallelujah Baby” and “Gypsy”. “Now I’m doing his ‘West Side Story’,” he said, clearly still exacerbated by the whole thing. “It’s crazy.” On whether he wishes the new film would have taken more points from the all-black Broadway production, Cook said no. “I think just the inclusion of black folk there is important and necessary,” he said. “Just portraying that time period as it really was, everyone was there. It’s New York City. It’s the melting pot of the world. The fact that this incarnation has black folk around is an honor.”
Cook’s most current project sees him in the role of Otis “Douda” Perry” in Showtime’s “The Chi”, a show that is, both fortunately and unfortunately, very timely based on the reality of Chicago’s inner race wars. The cities issues have, if it was even possible, escalated, since the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis back in late May. Besides an increase of his Instagram following, Cook doesn’t view his involvement in “The Chi” as something that is altogether career-altering, but, like with “West Side Story”, he is proud of the story he is able to help in telling. “’The Chi’ itself is an amazing show,” he said. “It’s dealing with very need-to-be-talked about topics that black folk are dealing with in our country. To focus on the Southside of Chicago and to show us so unapologetically and honestly….there hasn’t been a show that has done that 10-11 years. I don’t remember a show that, specifically, has looked at a certain area of black America and honestly told what was going on.” In a time of such political and cultural unrest, a show like this, which portrays real and honest stories, is, as Cook said, extremely necessary.
At the end of the day, Cook is a dedicated husband and father who provides for his family by immersing himself in the art forms he dreamed of being involved in while growing up in Dayton, Ohio. His involvement in these incredibly timely and poignant projects are a clear indication that his career will sustain until he himself decides it’s time to slow down.