It’s safe to say that Curtiss Cook, Jr. has showbiz in his blood — his father is a veteran actor who has a recurring role on House of Cards. The younger Cook’s career is just starting to heat up. This year the 22-year-old had his first starring role in Amateur, a short film about shady recruiting in high school basketball. And, in 2014, he’ll be in his first feature-length movie, Naz + Maalik.
Based in several neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Naz + Maalik is the story of two gay Muslim teenagers whose secret relationship results in them being mistaken for terrorists by an FBI agent. Director Jay Dockendorf was inspired to write the story after reading reports about surveillance of mosques in the borough by the NYPD and FBI. YACK spoke with Cook about filming the intense movie and what life is like for an up-and-coming actor in New York City.
YACK: The character you play is black, gay, and Muslim. A movie focusing on issues facing any one of those groups would’ve been powerful, yet this addresses all three. What was it like playing that role and how did you prepare?
Cook: It was kind of a complicated part. I’m only one of the three [types], but I did see a lot of myself in [the character]. In relation to the Muslim part, I would go to mosques and had a few conversations with some gentlemen there. I felt like I had to be real honest with this, and if I was going to go talk with them I would let them know why I was asking these questions. I met some resistance, but I [also] met some really respectful people that were willing to have conversations. We swapped ideas and would go over verses and chapters in the Koran.
Also, everybody knows somebody who is gay. When I was a kid, my mom’s best friend was gay. I didn’t even know until I got older. He was just the funnest, happiest guy, and that rubbed off on me. And I have other friends who are gay and pulled on those memories.
YACK: When you first read the script, were you like, Wow, how am I going to pull off playing this character?
Cook: Immediately I saw something of myself in it, but I can’t say there wasn’t any anxiety. I had those thoughts — do I really want to kiss a dude on camera? But I felt the message of it was strong enough to overpower that. I read it and I felt like I could do the character. It was me in many ways.
YACK: Profiling is a major theme in this movie. Living in New York City, has it affected you personally?
Cook: I think I’m kind of naive to that in a way because I’m so happy-go-lucky and chipper. I do feel like it may have happened to me, but I didn’t pay attention to it. A big chunk of my life was growing up in Yonkers, New York, and hanging out with my friends I’d hear about things that would happen to them, like how cops would harass certain people that we knew, frisk them for no reason. And sometimes they may have had something on them, like a knife or marijuana. What [the police] would do sometimes is take them to this alley and kind of rough them up. But nothing that extreme has ever happened to me.
YACK: You mentioned some resistance when you visited the mosques. What were they resistant about?
Cook: In [some] Muslim culture, you can’t be gay and be of God— that’s against what Allah wants, they feel. A few people that I spoke with didn’t feel that part should be accentuated — if you’re going to make a movie why are you telling this story? Which I definitely understood, because they have been flamed so much in the media. I felt where they were coming from.
YACK: How did you respond?
Cook: I kept trying to elaborate on our reasons for making this movie, and just saying that we’re telling the truth. This movie is not to skew anybody’s perspective; it’s to have you critically think and provide you with something that’s actually going on. Fact wrapped in fiction, but still at the root of it, fact. It needs to be addressed in the masses. It’s not just about Muslims; it’s about gay rights as well.
YACK: The roles you’ve done are very socially conscious. What draws you to these projects?
Cook: I want to do stuff that matters to people. I don’t believe there’s any such thing as pure entertainment — every single thing, no matter if it’s a horror movie, a funny movie — has some kind of effect. It may not be the most profound thing in the world, but you’re leaving with something. If I’m going to do movies, I want you to leave with something that possibly could help you progress in your life in some way. Address the facts and tell the truth — that’s really the main thing.
YACK: On a lighter note, do you have any funny stories from auditions you’ve been on?
Cook: For the Amateur audition, the night before they sent out a breakdown letting me know what to prepare and how to look. It said to be clean shaven. I kept that in mind, but the next day I was rushing and ran out the door. When I got out of the train I felt my face and realized I had a little bit of a beard. I was like, Oh man, I’m going to mess up my audition. So, I ran into Duane Reade, grabbed some shaving cream and razors, and hit the bathroom. Unfortunately, I nicked myself pretty bad and was bleeding profusely all over the place. It just wouldn’t stop.
YACK: What did you do?
Cook: I thought I had a little time before the audition, but once I got there the lady was like, “Hey Curtis, we’re ready for you” and I was like, Oh shit. I was a little freaked out, but some kind of confidence came over me and I did my lines while holding a little napkin to my chin. At the end I was like, “Yeah, I’m bleeding everywhere, guys.” And they said, “We thought you were just into the character and he holds his chin all the time!” [laughs] No, that’s not what I was doing. At all.
Naz + Maalik is in post-production and the filmmakers are currently raising funds with a Kickstarter campaign. Cook is filming his second feature film, tentatively titled Beatbox. Watch Amateur in its entirety below.