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Curtiss Cook on creating a new Black role in ‘West Side Story’

The actor recounts his story from dancing in Dayton, Ohio, to appearing in Steven Spielberg’s remake of the classic musical

Among the many updates director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner made to the new West Side Story, which opened Dec. 10, is the addition of a brand new character, Abe, played by actor Curtiss Cook. Abe is the first Black character featured in the story of young lovers caught between battling teen gangs and ethnic divides in 1950s New York. 

When he was first told that Abe would be Black, Cook, 41, thought Spielberg and his team were turning one of the musical’s Latino characters into an African American. Learning that he would be playing a new character made him even more enthusiastic about making the role his own. 

In addition to West Side Story, Cook has appeared in the NBC science fiction series Manifest, FX’s Mayans M.C., Netflix shows House of Cards and Narcos, and Showtime’s The Chi, produced by Lena Waithe and Common. 

Cook spoke with The Undefeated about his journey as an actor, Black representation in television and fine-tuning his passion for acting.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

As a kid growing up in Dayton, what made you enroll in classes at the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company?

I was in this organization called the Muse Machine in Dayton, Ohio. This organization brought concerts to the students. They brought orchestras, bands, art, sculpting and painting. They would also bring dance companies through. DCDC was one of the companies that [was] brought in, as well as the Dayton Ballet. They would perform for us and then after that, they would have ‘talk back’ to the children afterwards. My little self was enthralled by these dancers. Not only because they were amazing athletes, but they were very beautiful. I was thinking I was smooth and suave talking to these young ladies who were a good three or four years older than me. So, you know, I’m like in the eighth grade thinking I’m somebody and they’re like, ‘Oh, boy get out of here, be quiet.’

I start talking to this one dancer, Debbie Blunden, the daughter of Jeraldyne Blunden, who was the founder of DCDC. And I was like, ‘Yeah, you know, I would love to dance. I could do what y’all do.’ She’s like, ‘Oh, you can? Listen, if you come to our studio, I’ll give lessons for free.’ I’m like, ‘OK, yeah, I’ll come through there and I’ll do my thing.’ And she’s like, ‘Yeah, right. Whatever.’ She expected never to see me again. I’m good on a challenge, so I came through. I fell in love with it. I fell in love with the athleticism of it all. It was hard and I wanted to figure out if I could do it. I mean, I would never really call myself a dancer. My wife is a dancer. But I can hold my own. I was able to stay with them. I was in the second company with DCDC. I also sang and acted. So, that’s what really got me involved. It was me being a knucklehead and thinking I knew everything, but ultimately learning more about myself than I could even imagine.

How did you know that performing was for you?

I would do community theater things and stuff in high school. I thought I was going to be a singer at one point. I used to be in a cover band in high school. I was a clown. I was loud. But as far as doing this as a profession, there was nobody in my family who did that. And there was nobody in my immediate vicinity who I knew [that] was an actor or dancer or somebody who did it and that was their only job.

It wasn’t until my senior year in high school, the founder of the Muse Machine asked me what did I want to do after high school. I told her I was going to go to the Navy. Then after I get out of the Navy, I’m going to come back to Dayton and work at Montgomery County Engineers like my dad. I’m going to make a good $30,000 a year and I’m going to be living good. She’s like, ‘No, darling, you have too much talent for that.’ She introduced me to the principal of Mountview Theatre School in London, England, and I auditioned for him. That’s where I got my scholarship, and I ended up going to London for drama.

In addition to West Side Story, Curtiss Cook has appeared in the NBC science fiction series Manifest, FX’s Mayans M.C., Netflix shows House of Cards and Narcos, and Showtime’s The Chi.

James Washington

Out there is when I started to realize there are people making a living doing this, like a real living. So once again, I’m always good for a challenge and trying to figure out how to do it and do it at my best. The school was a godsend. Some of my teachers were Judi Dench, Michael Caine and Vanessa Redgrave. At the time, I didn’t know who they were. I was just a young Black boy from Dayton. These old English people coming and talking to me every day and I didn’t even know what they were talking about. I did not realize how much wealth and knowledge that was being seeped into me like a sponge. I was just soaking it all in.

How did you make the transition to television?

By the time I left school, I knew that I was coming to Broadway. And musical theater was my first love. It took me a while to get on Broadway. I did a lot of regional plays. I didn’t think I would ever do television or film. Not because I didn’t want to, but I was just kind of one of those actors that felt like it was beneath me. Like, I’ll stay on the stage. I was doing my second Broadway play and I kind of rolled on to some television show. I only had one line on it, but I was still doing this Broadway show. I was making decent money. This is in the early ‘90s. [In the TV show] I was a police officer. I don’t even think I had a name. I got my check for that one day and it surpassed my Broadway salary for that one week. So, I was like, ‘OK, I need to learn how to do more television and film because if you’re paying me this for this one day and these one-lines, what could it possibly be if I’m doing more?’

You were a single father of three while trying to book gigs on Broadway. What motivated you to go after what you wanted in your acting career? 

Honestly, I don’t know if I can answer that. That might have to be a question for my children and I have five now. I would like to think my example to them is that there are going to be hard, rough times. Curtiss, Isis and Kimani, it was just us for a long time. They are my oldest children. Their mother decided to part ways with us and so it was just me as a single dad with the three of them for a while. During that time, all I ever did was act. In my full adult life, I’ve only had one 9-to-5 job and that was before Curtiss was born because I was scared. I didn’t have health benefits. I needed to find something because we’re about to have a baby. It did what it needed to do. We had insurance and she was able to get prenatal.

But while I was in that 9-to-5 job, I was dying on the inside. I didn’t know why I was so evil and so irritable. I was so depressed all that time. It wasn’t until I was like, I’m just going to go on this small audition for this show and just see how I feel because I hadn’t done it in a while. Then I did this audition and just the audition itself, I just felt alive. It was like a plant that was dying and you just added water and fertilizer to it. That’s how I felt on the inside. I knew I couldn’t do my 9-to-5 anymore.

Your oldest son, Curtiss Jr., is also an actor. What have you taught your children about pursuing their dreams?

If there’s anything I would hope that they get from my experience is that you are enough and who and what you feel is important to you, you have a right to do it. You have an obligation, almost, to do it. Because if you don’t, you’re deeming something inside of you and it’s been given to you by God and the universe. If you neglect that, then something else will be neglected inside of you, you can and will get sick. I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I’ve done a lot of stupid things. But you know there are no losses, there are only lessons. Let’s do better the next time.

With your role as Douda in The Chi, you get to show the good, the bad and the ugly of the Black experience in America. Why is it important for different Black stories to be on the big screen?

Because they exist. Black people in general have built this country, and for the longest time haven’t been represented and haven’t been shown in our complexities. We’ve only been stereotyped and dumbed down to a way to where we are stereotypes of a stereotype sometimes. So, the fact that you have someone like Lena Waithe and Showtime, you know what Lena has done with the show has been amazing. But we know that there have been many Lenas and folks like that who have had great ideas, but you haven’t had an organization strong enough or competent enough or brave enough to allow that to show in its fullness. Not to say we need these large organizations to do that, because we’ve done it on our own a lot of times. But to have someone like Showtime come in and believe in what we do and how we do it and give us a platform, it’s a blessing.

When we were kids, we used to watch game shows a lot growing up. Whenever there was a Black person on the game show, we didn’t know them, but we didn’t care. We would just start rooting for them. When you see yourself, you get excited. That’s why I feel like it is happening now with Broadway. I mean, they’ve always been there, but the fact that we are having an opportunity now to see more, and different sides of those things, is so important. With a show like The Chi, it makes me proud to be a part of something like that. So we’re, you know, at one point in time really looking high and low for these Broadway gigs and now you have directors like Steven Spielberg making roles just for you.

How does it feel to know that one of the biggest directors of all time created Abe’s character for West Side Story?

Even when I hear it it’s like, ‘Wow,’ I mean, it’s like it’s not real. Then you go and you do the work, you still feel some way inside and it’s like, is this really happening? Am I really doing this? Musical theater has always been my first love. So, of course I knew what West Side Story was. Of course I realized there’s no Black people in it. People from Puerto Rico, they matter, too. So, I wanted to be a part of it, but I did not want to take their roles.

Although Abe may not be the central character of this piece, because it’s not about Abe, it’s the fact that I am there. We are there. There will be another little Black boy looking at the screen when everyone goes and sees it and all the hoopla, and he’ll see himself. It’s still going to be there in five, six years, 10 years from now my grandchildren can see it. They are going to look at the screen and wonder, ‘What’s this?’ Then all of a sudden, this dude is going to walk in and they’re going to be like, ‘Wow, hold on. He looks like me.’

I’m not trying to get emotional because it’s close to that. It’s amazing. It’s overwhelmingly amazing. I’m grateful for that opportunity. It allows me to know once again that betting on yourself counts, and betting on yourself is important. Because if I would have said to my teacher back in high school, ‘Thank you very much for trying to get me into this school but I’m going to go to the Navy and I’m going to come back and work as an engineer,’ none of this could have happened. I had to say yes to myself. To the dance woman, I had to say yes. Even with the television shows, I had to keep saying yes to myself. And if you don’t say yes to yourself, the no’s can be crippling, because you haven’t said yes.

Alexis Davis is a former Rhoden Fellow. She loves styling suits with sneakers and can name any sneaker you show her. She quit basketball to cheer in high school but hopes the women's basketball coverage she does now makes the sport forgive her for going to the other side of the sideline.