With appearances on NBC’s hit sci-fi series “Manifest” and FX’s “Mayans M.C.,” and Netflix’s “House of Cards,” actor, Curtiss Cook is now a reoccurring character on the popular Showtime’s “The Chi.”
Executively produced by Lena Waithe and rapper, Common, “The Chi” follows the life for residents in a neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago and how these characters are connected through a series of events.
In the show, Cook portrays Douda, a Southside businessman and hustler who becomes a mentor to Reg, played by actor Barton Fitzpatrick.
In an exclusive interview, Cook discusses his journey into acting, being a single father of three children, and the significant role “The Chi” plays for the Black community, specifically in inner-city areas.
Atlanta Voice: Describe how you got into acting and the journey looked like for you?
Cook: My mother was a Jehovah’s Witness, and so we didn’t celebrate Christmas or any holidays. I was in kindergarten, or first grade and my school had this Christmas pageant where Santa Claus gave us a show.
I got picked to be one of his little helpers, and he said my name and I started spinning around in circles and falling and getting up, and everybody in the class died laughing. By the time I got into the seventh grade, we had a drama club, and I joined that. In high school is where it got to be semi-professional.
I was in this organization called the Muse Machine, and I’m from Dayton, Ohio originally. In my junior year, I got one of the leading roles in a musical production and then my senior year I got the lead role, and that was a big deal, and that’s when I got the bug for it.
AV: While pursuing acting, who was your support team, and how did they help push you toward your goals?
Cook: My mother first shunned me away from it, but once she saw that I was serious about it, she never stopped me, and that’s what I love.
I’m going to give a major shout out to the Dayton Public Schools system because I had a teacher named Ms. Patricia Copeland during junior high years and then I had another teacher named Ms.Corbin who was my music teacher.
Ms. Copeland was the first one who took me to a live performance of a play of Porgy and Bess to see her cousin performing. When I saw her cousin up there, it opened my eyes to make your possibilities. I started dancing for the Dayton Contemporary Dance Co (DCDC) dance company.
I was in the ninth grade; I’m saying that because Ms. Copeland and Jody Blunden who was the founding director, saw something in me as well. So it’s Ms. Corbin, Ms. Blendon, Ms. Copeland, and the Dayton Public Schools system with their programs at the time, the arts.
AV: What made you want to move to NYC and how did you balance being a single father of three and pursuing acting?
Cook: I don’t even know if you can balance it. I made it through like everybody does every day. After I got out of college, I moved to New York (Yonkers) in the late eighties, early nineties as a struggling actor, and had a degree from the Mountview Theater school in England. Subsequently, I met a beautiful woman, and we got together and ended up having three children together named Curtiss Jr., Isis, and Kimani.
Somewhere along the lines of our relationship, she decided that this wasn’t for her anymore. She said to me, ‘I don’t want to be a mother or a wife anymore.’ And I was like, okay, ‘you’re always going to be a mother, but you don’t have to be my wife.’ So we divorced, and by the time that had happened, I started gigging.
I could have found another path, but the acting was it, and in doing that, we suffered some hardships. I remember one time we had breakfast dinner. So we had like a little bit of pancake mix, so I made four pancakes and a few pieces of turkey bacon.
I give them their meals, and I go back to the kitchen, and I get mine and started to eat. Curtiss Jr., my oldest son finishes his food, and he comes back, and he’s like Dad ‘you ate all of it.’ It broke my heart. I was like, okay, let’s grind harder dude.
AV: How did your gig on “The Chi” come about?
Cook: I was very fortunate at the time when “The Chi” came about. I had just booked a pilot before called “Manifest” on NBC. The casting director Carmen Cuba sent a direct email saying, “‘The Chi is looking for this dude.”
I was like, I’m down for that. I sent in a self-tape of doing both sides of this character, Douda and then I got a call from Ayanna Floyd Davis, who’s the showrunner and executive producer of “The Chi.” She was like, ‘“I watched two minutes of your tape, and I had to stop it because soon as you started, I said, this is the dude we’re looking for.” I’m very fortunate that the writer of the show Lena Waithe and Ayanna felt confident enough in me to allow me to present that this year.
AV: How did you prepare for the role of Douda?
Cook: So, Chicago and Dayton are different, but in a lot of ways, they’re the same. The south side of Chicago, a lot of Black folks, can immediately identify the hardship of the inner city. I grew up in the inner city, so certain things become part of everyday life. Unknowingly, I had been prepping for this show from the time I was born in Dayton.
After I got the show, I watched a couple of the first season’s episodes, like oh, I know what this show is about. Subsequently, I watched it and realized; it was about people’s real lives. I left thinking, I know these people, that’s my aunt, that’s my cousin.
So the preparation was going to YouTube, reading a lot of James Baldwin books. I started reading a lot of contemporary authors and going back to that place of Dayton. It was a lot of soul searching, understanding of Black culture from a grown man’s perspective.
AV: What do you like most about the character of Douda?
Cook: I like his truth and awareness of what the community of African Americans can do. It’d be hard pressed to find that this dude ever lies. It takes a very confident and aware person always to tell the truth, and stand behind it.
AV: What is like working with Jason Mitchell (Brandon), Jacob Latimore (Emmett) and the cast in general?
It’s nice. I remember one of the first days I got on in the van; I looked around, I was like, “oh my God, look at all of these beautiful brown faces from crew folk, set and lighting folks, hair, makeup people.” It’s almost like going to a nice barbecue where everybody brought an amazing dish that they want to share and everybody is cool. The music is right, the food is good, the conversation is insightful, and it’s intriguing. The dynamic is beautiful.
AV: With “The Chi” being based in the south side of Chicago, and rife with gun violence, do you think it’s important to address issues of gun violence and other problems that rife the city such as drugs, and crime?
Cook: Hugely important to be conscious of individuals who decide to use guns that would take the life of another individual. I’m not a huge gun advocate, but I’m never that kind of dude who would say let’s take guns away.
I can’t see that being an answer to anything because I know that there are responsible people, but I will say that it can be hard to change your perspective when you’re trapped inside of a barrel full of crabs.
That’s the beauty of a show, like “The Chi.” It shines a light on some of the violence. You walk into it and you’re like, oh, this is a good show.
But then you can see yourself with the good, and the bad and you’d be like, oh sh*t, that is me. What am I doing? Maybe I shouldn’t be in a gang; maybe I shouldn’t be a part of that. A lot of times while we’re going through it, we don’t see it until somebody brings it up to us and it shows like “The Chi” to give us that reflection.