Best known for playing ‘Douda’ on the Showtime coming-of-age series The Chi, we prized the fitness fanatic away from training and sat him down to get inside the mind of a man for whom nothing seems impossible.
“Watching West Side Story growing up, I didn’t see my demographic being represented, but I loved it just the same,” says Curtiss. “Seeing it come full circle and then being chosen by Steven Spielberg to be a part of that was truly amazing. Steven told me why he decided to bring my character in and how important he thought it was that we showed a realistic 1954 New York.
“I had previously thought that when I did a movie with Scorsese or Sydney Pollack, that would be the end and I’d be like, ‘Okay, I can die now. I can just go somewhere and lay in a corner and get a blanket and say, thank you, Jesus.’ But then I got this opportunity in my fifties to work with Steven Spielberg and it blew the lid off my wildest dreams. I’ve been very, very blessed.
“African-Americans are usually portrayed in a certain way. It becomes an actor’s job to demonstrate to the public how art imitates life. So therefore, art needs to show life. Bringing my character into the plot during this time period shows there is a perception, a stereotype that we see of some types of characters, but this can also be true. So, I think my character is part of that conversation.”
One may expect Spielberg to be in complete control of his vision. But as Curtiss explained, collaborative production is the secret to making true magic.
“Spielberg is a dream to work with,” he says. “When it came to creative input, we had the perfect marriage. He knew where he was going to shoot. He knew exactly what the storyline was going to be. And he knew how we wanted to set up his cameras. But then when I came into the space, if I were to have any suggestions or any ideas, I didn’t feel as if I was pulling teeth.
“I was kind of shocked because I was prepared to do whatever it was that he needed me to do. But the fact that once I would make suggestions and he’d say, ‘‘Yeah, let’s do more of that. Let’s go in that direction. Let’s move more in that direction.’ That was incredible.
“Tony Kushner played a huge role alongside Spielberg. They were both so collaborative and so amazing. That’s the sign of a true artistic genius, that they’re capable and secure enough in what they do and how they do it, to allow other people to bring their input, knowing that it’s not going to move the story, it’s going to only enhance it.
“It took me aback for a minute, because you walk on Steven Spielberg’s set and you’re like, ‘This is holy ground. I want to make sure I don’t stink this place up. I want to make sure that I come in here and do my best work.’ And they created that space.
“Arthur Laurents is the original writer of West Side Story. He’s since passed, God rest his soul, and I had an opportunity to work with him a few years back. A producer friend of Arthur’s who was working on-set in the new production pulled me to the side and he was like, ‘Hey, Curtiss, you know, Arthur would be so amazed and so proud of both of us sitting here, doing this right now.’ And it was one of those moments that I’ll never forget. I can’t wait to see it. I haven’t seen the picture yet, I haven’t even seen any cuts, so I’m really excited to see how it ends up. We have a provisional release date of December 22nd.”
Curtiss Cook didn’t pause when we approached him for a fitness shoot. Let’s face it, he always appears to be in awesome shape. It’s reassuring then for us mere mortals to know that he is in actual fact, his own biggest critic.
“As I got into my late forties, I was like, ‘It ain’t snapping back. Hold on. I need to snap it back. But it ain’t snapping”
“If I’m being really honest with you, I think I have a bit of a dysmorphia some times,” says Curtiss Cook. “As you get older, things don’t snap back as quickly as you would like them to. In my early forties I was kind of like, ‘Oh, I’m going to be fine because I have a quick metabolism anyway.’ I’m kind of a slender dude in general, So I’d say ‘Oh, I can eat whatever and then snap back, I’ll just go to the gym for a week.’
“But as I got into my late forties, I was like, ‘It ain’t snapping back. Hold on. I need to snap it back. But it ain’t snapping.’ I realized that in order to keep this physical body, I needed to maintain it. I believe everything should be in moderation, so I started a regime strict enough that if I needed to be in great shape at any point, it wouldn’t take months on end to get there. I hover about six weeks out of what I’d call my ‘best body’, because I’m constantly doing something to maintain it.
“Right now, I’m in the break period because I was really worried about doing this magazine and taking my shirt off. I was constantly thinking of all these folks who look amazing, but they’re bodybuilders, they’re professional body models. And I’m like, ‘Okay, they’re younger. Okay, Curtiss, you’re never going to look like that. And that’s not even the goal, you don’t want to look like that.’
But then the devil on my shoulder would chirp in and say, ‘But this is Muscle and Health magazine. I can’t look ridiculous.’ So, I got into this whole battle with myself. And so, I was doing a lot more training than I usually do. Now that we’ve done the shoot, I’m like, ‘Oh, I want to relax.’ I took three whole days off training. Yesterday was my first day of going mentally crazy because my body told me I needed to get up early and run, but my mind wanted to rest. I’m going to take this week off and see what happens. But I’m already thinking I’m about to go back to boxing classes.
“I started boxing over five years ago and I had never boxed before. My father was a kung fu instructor, so I always did martial arts and kung fu as a child. And then a few years ago I decided boxing looked easy and that it was something anyone could do. I decided I wanted to try it for myself.
“I took that first class, and I was like, ‘Oh, okay, this is a whole different discipline.’ There are so many aspects to it. I’m a guy who loves challenges, so I was determined to figure it out.
“Even after all this time, I would still say I’m still a beginner. I can’t really get in the ring and do major sparring because my face is my money and if it gets too messed up, I won’t be making any. So, I just do light sparring. But I love it so much and the conditioning and what it does for your mind and your body, it’s amazing. And I like the boxing physique. The average boxer can put on a nice suit and still look like a regular dude, yet you can see the outlines of their physique. And it’s a good conditioning workout.
“My jump rope regimen is thirty minutes. I do ten three-minute rounds with a one-minute rest”
“I normally train five to six days a week and boxing training will be a good four to five sessions. Normally, my jump rope regimen is thirty minutes. I do ten three-minute rounds with a one-minute rest. Within that minute, I do burpees or light overhead presses for ten to fifteen seconds too, so I’ll end up with around forty-five seconds total rest time.
“I have my bags at home. I have my heavy bag and my uppercut bag and my gym equipment down in my basement. I can stay down there for a good hour and a half some days. And it’s like, ‘Okay, you need to take your old self upstairs and sit down somewhere because you’re getting ridiculous. Just sit down somewhere.’
“When I’m not boxing training, I run or do sprints. I’ll maybe do a mile around the block and then ten sprints. And of course, every day, there are core exercises at the end of my workout.
“I do take my two days off, though, as a minimum and I’m not one of those guys who gets up at 4 am to work out. Not yet anyway. I’m trying to get to a place where I’m a little more relaxed about it. But I’ll touch my stomach and I’m like, ‘Oh, what is this you’re pinching? Oh.’ And everybody’s like, ‘What? There’s nothing there.’
“I like the way it looks when I train hard and eat well. I do. Sometimes I’ll put on a suit and think, ‘Oh my God, that’s me. Okay. Keep it up. Keep it up, you’re getting it together. That’s cool.’ But some days, I’ll say to myself ‘Oh, that shirt you had tailored, your stomach is sticking out.’ People are like, ‘You’re crazy.’
“On average, when I’m not filming, I get up around about half-past eight, nine o’clock, so I can eat and have an hour or so to digest my food before I begin to work out. If I have a 6 am call, I’m like, ‘Okay, today is my off day.’”
“Sometimes I’ll put on a suit and think, ‘Oh my God, that’s me. Okay. Keep it up. Keep it up, you’re getting it together. That’s cool.’”
Curtiss Cook follows a well-balanced eating regime but admits he can tend to go too hard on himself.
“This week, I had pancakes, and I’m very proud of myself because I let myself have pancakes,” he says.
“I stopped eating most red meat a long time ago. In close to twenty-four years, I haven’t eaten beef or pork. I don’t eat dairy either. I don’t eat any wheat. I mostly eat turkey or fish and I did reinstate lamb to enjoy on occasions. I have everything in moderation, so I try to mix it up. I do drink. I do smoke cigars. I want to continue to have fun and live and experience life.
“I normally stop eating around about 6 pm, if I can, unless I’m working late, or I have a dinner event. And then when I wake up, first thing in the morning, I drink a quart of water or so before I take any food in. Then I have my coffee. I eat a lot of greens. I don’t use a lot of sauces, but I do make the occasional sauce because I love cooking. I made a stew the other day with potatoes and turkey and carrots and celery. It was great.
“I eat three meals a day. Breakfast, lunch and dinner. I don’t really snack that much. I’m not a big snacker. I may have a few almonds if I’m really hungry, but that’s about it.”
When he veers off the beaten track, Curtiss is fast to rein himself back in.
“I love chocolate cake,” he says. “I love it to death. Oh my God, I love it to death. And so, every now and then, I’ll be like, ‘You know what? I’m getting a piece of cake.’ And I’ll just eat it. And of course, then, I’ll be like, ‘Okay, how many more burpees do I have to do now because I just ate that cake?’
“If I see a gummy, if I smell a gummy, if someone says gummies, all of a sudden, my palate starts to salivate. I can feel it. I’m like, ‘Okay. Okay. All right.’ I won’t stop and my stomach will start hurting because I’ll just eat so many of them”
“My biggest, biggest problem is gummies. Candy. Gummy bears. Those are my Achilles’ heel. If I see a gummy, if I smell a gummy, if someone says gummies, all of a sudden, my palate starts to salivate. I can feel it. I’m like, ‘Okay. Okay. All right.’ I won’t stop and my stomach will start hurting because I’ll just eat so many of them. I don’t know what’s in them, but I can’t stop eating them.
“So, I do allow myself some treats. I do drink alcohol if I fancy it. I’ll have a glass of wine, or a scotch or something like that.
“I don’t overanalyze anything. I just eat when I’m hungry. I could be like, ‘Okay, yeah, you know what? Your knees are hurting because you ran too much, and you didn’t rest.’ Or if I’m starting to feel heavier in a certain way, I’ll try to do a different exercise or some HIIT and exhaust new muscle groups to start to burn down the fat.
“Work-wise, I’ve never been asked by any producer to gain or lose weight, but I always find something different to present in each of my characters. The viewer may not notice a change in my physical structure at first. But then when you see the energy that comes from that person, you begin to notice the other things about him.
“I have everything in moderation, so I try to mix it up. I do drink. I do smoke cigars. I want to continue to have fun and live and experience life”
“My thinnest was on House of Cards. I purposely got very, very thin because I felt like the politicians dealing with the daily lying, deceiving, and deal-making would become internally sick. And so, they would be very thin and very drawn and that would make them kind of ghostly and eerie.
“If you watch my journey in House of Cards, you’ll see my character Terry Womack starts out as a healthy, kind of nice dude, then as he starts to get in bed with Francis’ character, he becomes thinner and thinner.”
Becoming someone new is not just about physical appearance for a top actor.
“Once I’m doing a show, a television show, particularly, because those are longer periods of time, I get inside the character and I stay there,” says Curtiss. “That said, in the same way I keep my body fat at a certain level, I retain enough of Curtiss so I can switch back to reality when I’m off-set. It’s relatively easy for me to stay in the realm of the character so that when it’s time to snap-in, it’s not a big process.
“It does become draining sometimes. And it becomes hard on my family sometimes too. I’ve been doing this for over thirty-seven years, so they’ll say, ‘Oh, he’s working, he’s going through this thing.’ But then when it’s time to break, the silly, funny dancing guy comes back.
“There’s hope if Josh Brolin is out there still running around and fighting. I’m like, ‘Hey, you need some old guys out there doing it too. Come on. I’m ready for my Marvel superhero.’”
“I enjoy those spaces because it’s my job. It’s my craft. I enjoy it. I love it. I can’t imagine doing anything else, ever.”
Curtiss Cook reveals he dreams of a Marvel role to complete his big black book of achievements.
“I mean, there’s hope if Josh Brolin is out there still running around and fighting and doing stuff like that,” he says. ‘I’m like, ‘Hey, you need some old guys out there doing it too. Come on. I’m ready for my Marvel superhero.’ I’ll take it in a heartbeat. As soon as that conversation happens, I got to run. Already, I’m talking about it and thinking, ‘Okay, now I need to bring this waistline in just a little bit more. And maybe bust this up, couple more extra push-ups just to push this out.’ I would love to do more things that are in that realm. But I’m very fortunate. I’m very fortunate that Douda’s coming back to The Chi and hopefully, we’ll get to see a different side of him this season as well. I don’t know what they have in store for him yet. At the end of the last season, he got kicked out of town. It’s going to be interesting to see what he does now.”
West Side Story hits screens December 2021. Curtiss Cook also stars on The Chi on Showtime.