Cliff Curtis was born in Rotorua, New Zealand of New Zealand Maori descent (Ngati Hauiti, Te Arawa).
At the tertiary level, he enrolled at the New Zealand Drama School, and then the Teatro Dmitri Scoula in Switzerland.
After returning to New Zealand from Europe, he was cast in The Piano in 1993. Subsequent roles in New Zealand include the gruelling urban drama Once Were Warriors, and the light-hearted comedy Jubilee. He then moved to Hollywood and has played a range of different roles and ethnicities in films. His credits extend to the Hollywood blockbusters including, Blow, Three Kings, The Insider, Training Day, Runaway Jury. However, he is probably best known for his role as Paikea's father Porourangi, in Whale Rider in 2002. His latest film, The Dark Horse is currently in cinemas.
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