Meet 'The Chi' Star Curtiss Cook

Jeryl Brunner

When Curtiss Cook was a high school student in Dayton Ohio his drama teacher, Patricia Copeland, took him aside one day for a conversation that would change his life.

“Curtiss, YOU’RE GOOD!” said Ms. Copeland.

Cook had performed in plays since he was a child. “I liked the attention and the superficial part of acting,” he says. But Ms. Copeland saw possibilities, “I can see you doing this for a living. You have talent, but it is raw and needs to be cooked,” she said. “And I’m here if you are willing to cook that talent.”

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That fierce belief, that investment and focus in him would push Cook and set in motion a career that would take him from Dayton to getting a full scholarship to study at the prestigious Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts in London. It would propel him to being on Broadway in Miss. Saigon and The Lion King. It would lead him to star in Mayans M.C., Manifest and House of Cards and work with legends like Sydney Pollack, Martin Scorsese and now Steven Spielberg.

Along the way Cook also struggled a great deal. In his early twenties Cook became a single father with three children. “My ex-wife left us. I was very, very broke. I was evicted from my apartment because I was so poor,” shares Cook who was on welfare when he got the news that he was cast in the Broadway company of Miss Saigon.

Cook plays businessman and 63rd Street Mob leader Otis 'Douda' Perry in the hit Showtime drama, The Chi. Created and executive produced by Lena Waithe with executive producer Common, the show centers around the intertwining lives who make up Chicago’s South Side. We experience their struggles and joy as they cling to hope and survival.

“This role is an actor's dream,” says Cook who joined the cast in the second season. The producers were looking for an actor who could create a character and seamlessly bridge these two worlds as a businessman and head of the 63rd Street Mob. “There wouldn’t be huge stereotypes and caricatures,” he says. “It is a dream job to play those two dynamics where it doesn’t look like I'm twirling a mustache.”

During the show's third season we witness even more layers of Douda’s complexity as he runs for mayor. He also becomes a father figure to Jake (Michael Epps). “There is so much to lean into,” says Cook who also appears in the highly anticipated Steven Spielberg directed film West Side Story which debuts December 18.

Cook shared more.

Douda is a fascinating character as he straddles these different worlds. He does terrible things, but we have empathy for him. What qualities does he have that you like?

I like the fact that he is complicated and three dimensional. I believe he has a good heart and good ideas for people and for the community. He cares for them genuinely. But his tolerance level is very low. He doesn't have time for BS. He doesn't have time for people who are not with the program. In his soul he knows that he can make some things better. But you have to buckle up and do the work. And it's not going to be easy work.

What advice would you give to Douda?

As a father figure to Jake, I would say, “You may have to meet him three-quarters of the way, as opposed to half way.” Jake has had major, major, major trauma in his life. And that is something that you understand. You can't walk in as this father figure and think, just because you give him this life, it’s going to be all rosy and Jake will be so happy.

I would also tell him, “You will have to go even further than you would under normal circumstances. That means having a lot more patience than you would have with most people. Also, Jake is a child. Although he's hard talking and acts tough, remember he is a baby. You really have to cradle him more than you would anybody else.” That is difficult for Douda. He is used to people doing exactly what he says when he says it and moving on. There is no explaining.

What can you share about this reimagined West Side Story, which was directed by Steven Spielberg, with a screenplay by Tony Kushner and choreography by Justin Peck?

I cannot say too much. I am playing a character who Tony Kushner and Steven Spielberg created for this reimagining of this original classic. It amazes me that I am a part of it. I was a black boy in Dayton Ohio watching musicals with Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, the Nicholas Brothers and watching Cabin in the Sky. My mother and father were were not musical theater people. But I loved these musicals to death. I remember watching West Side Story and seeing the Jets and the Sharks. And now, all these years later they created a black character and included me in this new vision.

When you were single father and struggling so much, what kept you going?

I'm not entirely sure. But I can look back and say, I knew I had to get off the couch because I had three mouths to feed. I know I can do it. I just need the right opportunity. So keep banging on those doors. Maybe it was a stubbornness? But maybe it was my ancestors or my guardian angel who kept whispering in my ear and saying “It’s going to be OK.”

How did becoming a father change you?

It's easier to remember being a father than not being father. I was such a young father. I was in my early 20s. I look at my daughter. She is now around my age when I had my first child. I came to New York City right out of school and we got pregnant. I had to learn how to support, love and teach them. I'm still learning every minute. But I had a good example in a great dad and beautiful mother who have passed on. I had wonderful examples.

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New York based journalist who has written for Forbes, Parade, InStyle, National Geographic Traveler, Travel + Leisure, and The Wall Street Journal. Author of the book "My City, My New York, Famous New Yorkers Share Their Favorite Places" and podcaster, ("When Lightning Strikes"). I cover the arts, theater, entertainment, food, travel and people who are motivated by their joy and passion.

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