Spun off from the wildly popular comics adaptation The Walking Dead, the series initially takes place in Los Angeles at the very dawn of the zombie apocalypse. Our focus is on a blended family who slowly come to understand that, not to put too fine a point on it, the dead are rising to dine on the living, and have to figure out how to survive as society crumbles around them.
The cast is absolutely top-notch, including Deadwood’s Kim Dickens, Harry Potter’s Frank Dillane, Australian actor Alycia Debnam-Carey, Panamanian entertainment legend Rubén Blades and, best of all, New Zealand’s Cliff Curtis.
The legend of Cliff Curtis
Easily one of New Zealand’s most accomplished actors, Cliff Curtis was born in Rotorua, The Bay of Plenty, on July 27, 1958. He carved out an impressive stage career, studying at the New Zealand Drama School and Switzerland’s Teatro Dimitri Scuola and performing in numerous New Zealand theatre productions before making his screen debut with a minor role in Jane Campion’s The Piano in 1993.
However, it was in Lee Tamahori’s Once Were Warriors that Curtis first came to international prominence. Adapted from Alan Duff’s controversial 1990 novel, the 1994 film is a confronting portrayal of alcoholism and domestic violence in an impoverished Maori community. The film’s breakout star was, of course, Temuera Morrison, whose muscular portrayal of the charismatic but brutal Jake the Muss became emblematic of the film. But Jake’s opposite number is Curtis’s Uncle Bully, a charming predator whose rape of Jake’s teenage daughter, Grace (Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell) propels the film to a bleak and horrifying climax.
The role propelled Curtis onto the international stage where, happily, his versatility soon saw him transcend villainous roles to become a sought-after character actor.
Where do I know that guy from?
Everywhere! Cliff Curtis is an extremely versatile performer who has turned up in supporting roles all over the joint. There’s almost no chance you haven’t set eyes on him.
He scared the living hell out of Ethan Hawke as a menacing gang leader in Training Day (2001), tortured Mark Wahlberg’s captive soldier as an Iraqi officer in Three Kings (1999), helped reignite the sun as an astronaut in Sunshine (2007), helped shepherd in the dawn of civilisation in 10,000 B.C. (2008), got Ewan McGregor sober in Doctor Sleep (2019), and played Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s brother in Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw (2019).
On the small screen Curtis has cropped up in everything from comedic fantasy epic Hercules: The Legendary Journeys to acclaimed drug industry drama Traffic. He even played Jesus in the religious-themed historical mystery Risen (2016), which I’m fairly certain makes him the first Maori to play the Son of God in a theatrical film.
Perhaps his finest turn, however, is in the acclaimed New Zealand film The Dark Horse (2014), a biography of chess prodigy Genesis Potini, whose struggles with bipolar disorder did not prevent him from becoming a mentor and chess coach to local disadvantaged youth. Curtis stacked on a whopping 27kg to play Potini, delivering a bravura, nuanced performance as a man possessed not just of incredible chess skills, but incredible empathy. For his efforts, Curtis handily picked up Best Actor at both the Asia Pacific Screen Awards and the New Zealand Film Awards, among other accolades.
Family man at the end of the world
The Dark Horse was a rare leading role for Curtis, who normally finds himself in support. That’s not the case with Fear the Walking Dead, though; as high school teacher Travis Manawa he’s front and centre.
As the undead plague rises, he finds himself responsible for his fiancée, Madison (Kim Dickens), her son Nick (Frank Dillane) and daughter Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey), his former wife Liza (Elizabeth Rodriguez), their son Chris (Lorenzo James Henrie), and a growing (and sometimes shrinking – it’s a Walking Dead show, after all) number of fellow survivors. Faced with increasingly difficult choices, Curtis’s Travis often finds his compassion at odds with the grim, often ugly practicalities involved in staying alive in an apocalyptic world.
It’s a great role for Curtis, who has played heroes and villains over the course of his career; while Travis is ostensibly a good and moral man, as things get worse he is forced into increasingly dire moral quandaries, and it’s fascinating to watch him wrestle with them. If anything, the ethical dilemmas in Fear the Walking Dead are more difficult than in its parent show; while in The Walking Dead society has completely collapsed, in Fear the Walking Dead it’s still more or less intact, but faltering, and so immediate problems must be weighed against the chance that help – or at least authority – might be just around the corner.
This is, when you get down to it, the meat of the zombie subgenre; while the gore and the horror are all part of the fun, the real crux is in discovering what ordinary people will do when under extreme pressure, and in Cliff Curtis we have the perfect guide to the end of the world.
Season 4 double episodes of Fear The Walking Dead premiere at 9.15pm, Sunday 1 May on SBS VICELAND. Double episodes air weekly on Sunday nights. Stream seasons 1–3 episodes at SBS On Demand. Start from the beginning:
Or skip straight to season 3: