• Interviews

The Quarantined Talent: Curtiss Cook

Curtiss Cook was a single father of three, who had to go on welfare at one point before his acting career took off. Now he stars in Showtime’s hit series The Chi, where he plays Chicago South Side businessman and hustler, Otis “Douda” Perry. He will also be seen in the highly anticipated Steven Spielberg remake of West Side Storywhich explores forbidden love and tensions between two rival gangs on the streets of New York in 1957. I spoke to the actor about reprising his infamous character in the third season of The Chi (premiering June 21) and bringing to life the new character, Abe in West Side Story.


How are you coping with the pandemic?

I try to look at how blessed I am at this time because I have a lot of family members and friends who aren’t as fortunate as I am right now. I’m at home, 65 miles outside of New York City. We live up in the mountains on three acres of land so we have a lot of space to walk around. I have my wife, my youngest two children who are twins – 16 – and my mother-in-law here. And two cocker spaniels who are running around every day. The beauty is that we all have our separate spaces that we can go to if things get a little too hectic.  


You were a single father of three before your acting career took off. How would you describe your life back then?

Hand to mouth, like “how are we going to get by today?” It was very difficult. I had three kids – Curtiss Jr., Isis, and Kimani when their mother decided to leave. I was doing off-Broadway plays at the time and they don’t pay a lot. I remember one time we were evicted from our apartment. The children had just come home from school and the marshal knocked at the door and told us to leave. I was mortified. As much as I wanted to be an actor, I sometimes thought maybe I should work at McDonald’s or the post office. It was that feeling of, “okay, I have to provide for my children.” But I just kind of felt that would pull me away from my journey. I had to find a way to continue to do what I wanted to do, but make sure I was there for them every second of the day. The beauty of it is that we made it through that. It made me a stronger person and I promised myself and my children that we would never go through this again.

The third season of The Chi premieres on June 21. What attracted you to the role of Douda?

They were looking for a guy who could play the straight-arrow businessman but then on the other side this crime boss. And I couldn’t fall into any of the clichés. It had to be believable and I was thinking this is an actor’s dream. I came on in the second season and I think my character was supposed to be there for three episodes but he ended up having eight.


What can we expect from Douda in the third season?

They are going back to his origins and how he became this crime boss. Nobody is truly evil, there are always reasons for that. He is also running for mayor and Lena Waithe will come in as a guest star and be my rival opponent. They also introduce my wife and my mother this year and something that happened to me in my childhood. He is a pretty cool dude. I don’t think I would want to hang around with him but I respect Otis Perry.


You are a part of the new Steven Spielberg production of West Side Story. What can you tell us about it?

I can’t really say too much about my role because it’s a surprise. There weren’t a lot of African Americans in the original West Side Story or even the play. But of course, we know in the late ‘40s and ‘50s, there were a lot of black people walking around New York City. So that’s the brilliance of Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner


How did you meet Steven Spielberg?

I had done a couple of his television productions, Bull and Tommy. So I had gotten a call saying that there was a role in West Side Story and if I would be interested. And I was like, “Is that a real question?” So I had a meeting with Mr. Spielberg. Pretty straightforward but one thing that kind of floored me was when he told me that he loved me on The Chi. And I said “come on, I know you are not watching The Chi” and then he went through my character arc and what I had been doing on the show. I was so impressed.


How do you explain the success of The Chi?

I think it’s because it doesn’t mince words, it doesn’t try to color a lifestyle or a section of Chicago. It’s very much like kitchen sink drama and it’s very real to life. You get to go into people’s lives and see them three-dimensionally. It’s not just gangbangers or black folk having a hard time. It’s about the stories and you get caught up in that. We’re all trying to find a way to live our best and most fruitful and happy lives. And a lot of that comes with pain but somehow we make it through because we wake up the next day, and we start our day and in that day somewhere we laugh, maybe not as much as we want to but we do and I think that’s what draws people in.


What’s next for you?

I am waiting to hear if a pilot that I was able to shoot right before the pandemic will move forward. We are hoping that it gets picked up by Showtime. It’s a really great script called Rita. It stars Lena Headey as an unconventional teacher. There is a Dutch version of it that is already out on Netflix and Christian Torpe brought it here to do an American version of it. I’m one of the regulars and I play the principal who is having a sexual relationship with Lena’s character.