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Cliff Curtis was born in Rotorua, Aotearoa, New Zealand, on July 27, 1968.
Of New Zealand Maori descent (Ngati Hauiti, Te Arawa) he spent time when young learning the traditional Maori fighting styles of mau rakau. He enrolled at the New Zealand Drama School, and then the Teatro Dmitri Scoula in Switzerland.
After returning to Aotearoa New Zealand from Europe, he was cast in The Piano (1993). Subsequent roles in New Zealand include the camp melodrama Desperate Remedies (1993), the gruelling urban drama Once Were Warriors (1994), in which he plays a child rapist, and the lighthearted comedy Jubilee (2000).
In Hollywood, Cliff Curtis has played a range of different roles and ethnicities in films. He plays a Colombian in Blow (2001), an Arab in Three Kings (1999) and The Insider (1999), a Latino in Training Day (2001) and Runaway Jury (2003), and a drug dealer of ambiguous ethnicity in Bringing Out the Dead (1999). However, he is probably best known for his role as Paikea's father Porourangi, in Whale Rider (2002).