At 55 years old, Cliff Curtis has this physical status:
Curtis started acting in amateur productions of musicals Fiddler on the Roof and Man of La Mancha with the Kapiti Players and the Mantis Cooperative Theatre Company, before attending the New Zealand Drama School and Teatro Dimitri Scoula in Switzerland. He worked at a number of New Zealand theatre companies, including Downstage, Mercury Theatre, Bats Theatre, and Centre Point. His stage roles include Happy End, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Othello, The Cherry Orchard, Porgy and Bess, Weeds, Macbeth, Serious Money, and The End of the Golden Weather.
His first feature film role was a small part in the Oscar-nominated Jane Campion film The Piano. He went on to win attention in Once Were Warriors, one of the most successful films released on New Zealand screens; the line "Uncle fucken Bully" referring to Curtis's character spoken by "Jake the Muss", played by Temuera Morrison, became one of New Zealand film's most memorable and quoted lines, as well as being part of the "Kiwiana" trend. He played Kahu in the short-film Kahu & Maia, a contemporary depiction of a Ngāti Kahungunu and Ngāti Rongomaiwahine legend. He played a seducer in the melodrama Desperate Remedies. In 2000 Curtis starred as family man Billy Williams in Jubilee, before playing father to the lead character in the international hit Whale Rider.
In 2004 with producer Ainsley Gardiner, Curtis formed independent film production company Whenua Films. The goals of the company are to support the growth of the New Zealand indigenous film-making scene, and support local short filmmakers. He and Gardiner were appointed to manage the development and production of films for the Short Films Fund for 2005–06 by the New Zealand Film Commission. They have produced several shorts under the new company banner, notably Two Cars, One Night, which received an Academy Award nomination in 2005, and Hawaikii by director Mike Jonathan in 2006. Both short films circulated through many of the prestigious international film festivals like the Berlinale.
At the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, Miramax Films bought US distribution rights to relationship comedy Eagle vs Shark, the first feature film directed by Taika Waititi. Waititi's follow-up feature Boy, also from Whenua Films, went on to become the highest grossing New Zealand film released.
In 2014, Curtis played the lead role in The Dark Horse, which the National Radio review called "one of the greatest New Zealand films ever made." The New Zealand Herald praised him for his "towering performance" as real-life Gisborne speed chess player and coach Genesis Potini, who died in 2011. Curtis studied chess and deliberately put on weight for the role.
Curtis has appeared in the films Martin Scorsese's Bringing Out the Dead (1999), Three Kings (1999), the drug drama Blow (2001) with Johnny Depp, Training Day (2001), Collateral Damage (2002), Live Free or Die Hard (2007), Sunshine (2007), Push (2009), and Colombiana (2011). In M. Night Shyamalan's The Last Airbender (2010), he played the main villain, Fire Lord Ozai. Curtis portrayed Lt. Cortez in the film Last Knights (2015) and Jesus Christ in the film Risen (2016).
In the NBC TV drama Trauma, he played daredevil flight medic Reuben "Rabbit" Palchuck. Curtis was cast as Travis Manawa, a leading male role of the AMC TV series Fear the Walking Dead, the spin-off of The Walking Dead.
In 2017, Curtis was cast as Tonowari and is set to appear in the four sequels to Avatar, including Avatar: The Way of Water and Avatar 3.
In 2019, he played Jonah Hobbs, the brother of Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) in Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw; their characters are Samoan.