“To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage almost, almost all of the time,” James Baldwin said nearly a half-century ago. In the first part of our two-part interview, actor Curtiss Cook opens up about the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many others have affected him. In many ways, it was a brief conversation between two Black men about emotion and what can be done to better support the next generation. Over time, Cook dives into how his first major career opportunity involved him getting on a plane for the first time and flying out to London.
I saw that you posted something about George Floyd. How are you holding up with everything that’s going on?
It hurts, man. It hurts. Normally, I wouldn’t be starting off the interview this way, but it’s just so present. It’s just like a huge boulder sitting on my chest. Being a father of two young men and being a Black man myself and having daughters and nephews, you know what I mean? I’m trying to stay positive. I’m trying to find a silver lining. I’m trying to find something hopeful to be like, “Well, you know,” but there’s nothing readily coming to me. It’s like I have to force something through that space. I have to make myself say, “Ok, relax,” and almost not think about it. Then, I’ll feel guilty and think to myself, “No, you have to think about because this sh*t has to stop. It has to stop.” We’ve hit this brick wall and it cannot continue this way. I’m going to leave that there because otherwise, my old ass is going to be crying on here. You’ll be like, “Ok, I’ll call you later.” It’s a lot bro. It’s a lot. How are you handling it?
It’s difficult. In addition to working for Def Pen, I also work for ABC News. Part of my job over the past two days has involved me watching parts of that video repeatedly. The aspect of the video that has stuck with me is the length of it. When people say nine minutes, I don’t think people truly understand how long nine minutes is. It’s a really long time. I’m just trying to hold up and keep moving forward. This is something that’s been around my entire life and I’m sure you’ve experienced it throughout your life. It’s something that’s been a part of our country since our country was founded.
On a brighter note, one thing that I saw that you started since the pandemic hit is the Chris and Topher Show on IGTV. How did that come about? What inspired you to start it?
That happened because me and my friend Marcuis Harris in L.A. have been friends for over 25 years. We worked together in New York back in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Everybody’s been stuck in the house, getting frustrated and in need of an outlet. We both said to each other, “Let’s just do something different and silly on the gram.” It wasn’t for an audience. It was just for us. It was there just to make us laugh. In the process, we found that it kept us busy, focused and working. If you look at any of them, they’re not just regular old sitcom scenes. There’s some work to it and there’s some unspoken language between us, so you just have to catch on to that. Right before you catch on to that, something else happens, so we’ve just started this narrative. It really came out of necessity. Hopefully, it brings a smile to some folks out there. We’re not trying to change the world or hit ’em with a huge message. For 90 seconds, the audience can say, “They’re so dumb. They’re so silly. Let me go on with my day.” That’s kind of what started it
As a parent, how has it been to be in the house with your kids during this quarantine period? How has parenting changed, if at all, during the pandemic?
Let me ask you this. Do you want any kids? I’ll sell them for cheap. I’ll give them to you for cheap. Do you want some children? No, no. You don’t have to buy them. I’ll just drop them off. Where do you need them to be?
I’m a father of five and my oldest is 29 now. The three oldest are 29, 28 and 24 years old. The two that are home now are twins and they’re 16-years-old. It’s a boy and a girl. When I tell you some days are better than others, some days are [truly] better than others. My boy is going through it. He’s a sports attic, so he’s going through it. He’s been playing football since he was in junior Pee Wee. Since he was four or five years old, he’s been playing football. Now, he’s coming into his manhood, so now all that testosterone is coming all through his pores. You know what I mean? Being trapped up here with me, his mom, my mother-in-law, who’s also here with us thank goodness, and his sister, his chest is a little bigger. He’s trying to push his chest out a little and try to challenge things. I may not be as young as I used to be, but I will knock a mutha— out. Look, I tell him, “You can keep talking like that. Did I hear you say- What? Did you just say what?” Then, you hear him take a big sigh as he walks away. Then, you say, “Come here. Let’s discuss this.” Then, there are those days like when the quarantine first started where we watched all of Watchmen. We had never watched it. I had never watched it. It’s the Regina King series on HBO that she starred in. So, we’ve had those nights where we all sat down [and watched it]. Then, we started Game of Thrones. We are enjoying it, but there are just so many of them and we’re making it through [quickly]. We just started season three and we’re making it through slowly, so that’s the good the part of it.
We’re sitting around and we’re seeing these shows. We’re learning more about each other and we’re talking more than we ever have just about all kinds of things. We’ve also started watching The Last Dance. Of course, we’ve also been having dinner together. They’re going to see that this is something that they won’t appreciate until ten years from now. This will be their lives. This will be their new normal from this point on. The fact that they’ll have this dividing line from what was, into what will be, will mold them into different types of people. Then, they’ll be able to tell their children, “You know, me and your grandparents were sitting in the house for three to four months altogether.” The kids will be like, “What?” It will be defined in that way. I try to keep that in the forefront of my mind as I make sure that they see me and their Mom going through and talking about things. I want them to see that it’s helpful, the good and the bad. I think they need to see both sides of it to understand that this is how you solve problems, discover problems and avoid problems. Above all else, this is how you love each other. Hopefully, they’re seeing that because we’re doing our best to demonstrate that.
I’m pushing through it, but there were a lot of hurdles. There were a lot of sleepless nights. I would ask myself what I was doing and if I could do it.
It’s interesting that you put it way. There’s a way things were before and there’s a way things will be afterwards. It’s definitely going to be interesting to see how things will be moving forward.
Taking things a little further back, I saw that you got your start in acting during middle school in Dayton, Ohio. What was the moment or experience you had growing up that drew your interest in acting?
I don’t know if there was any one particular moment that led me to acting. When I was younger, I would always pretend. Anytime I got an opportunity at school or in front of family members to pretend, I would do it.
I will say that I didn’t realize it was a profession, make money or live off of it until I reached high school. I had a drama teacher by the name of Miss Patricia Copeland, God rest her soul, who pulled me to the side one day. She said, “I know you’re just playing around or doing these plays for fun, but you’re good and you can have a career doing this.” That got the ball rolling for me. I asked, “What do you mean by a career?” She answered, “Like the people on TV.” To me, that is Never Neverland. Meanwhile, I’m in Dayton. I’m in the Midwest. I wasn’t thinking about Hollywood or New York. I was thinking that after high school I’d go to the Navy. Then, I’ll come back and work for government county engineering. Those are the people who do the streets, paint lines and all of that. After that, I’ll buy me a little place out in the suburbs of Dayton, make about $20,000-$30,000 a year and I’ll be set. At the time, that was my mindset. Ms. Copeland told me no and that I could do acting. Then, she started taking me to different plays and all of that kind of stuff. At the time, I got interested in dance and other things. It kind of turned my life around. Subsequently, that’s what introduced me to the Muse Machine, which introduced me to my conservatory in London. I was fortunate enough to get the scholarship to go there, which blew my mind. I got there and thought, “Whoa! You’ve got a lot to learn.” After I came out of there, I came to New York. I worked for a cruise ship for a while and then I came to New York to start my acting career.
Of course, I’m pushing through it, but there were a lot of hurdles. There were a lot of sleepless nights. I would ask myself what I was doing and if I could do it. Just as I got my feet on the ground of making it, I met my ex-wife and I turn around and we’re pregnant. It was a long journey and I found my way through it. Knock on wood, I’ve been fortunate enough to continue to do it at a very high level. The Chi on Showtime is nothing to sneeze at and there’s Westside Story coming out next year. I’m very fortunate. I’m a very fortunate actor and I would like to think it’s because of my “stick-to-itveness,” my belief in my ability, the great fortune of the creator and the love that is along with me as well.
What was that first moment of a culture shock when you left the U.S. for London?
It was a few things, Ryan. I was in Dayton and I had never been on a plane before in my life. So, my first flight was overseas. As I’m packing, I’m packing everything. I’m packing my iron, soup cans, etc. I’m just packing anything and my Mom is saying, “Take this! Take this!” I don’t know if you remember, but back in the day they had these huge suitcases that were almost the size of dressers. They probably wouldn’t even allow those on planes nowadays. I probably had two of those filled with stuff I didn’t need.
When I got off the plane, I was supposed to have someone from the Student Union meet me at the airport, but she didn’t make it. So, I’m walking around and pulling these big bags. While I’m on line, I ask someone where the bathroom is. Now, I’m as Dayton as Dayton could be. How they let me out of high school in the first place is a miracle. I got my Black ass out [of high school], but I’m not the brightest stick in the drawer. Let me just say that I’m not the sharpest knife. I ask, “Can you tell me where the bathroom is?” They’re like, “Uh, what?” The problem is that I was asking for the bathroom which isn’t slang for anything there. They’re thinking, “What is he talking about? A bathing room or what?” If I would’ve asked where the toilet was, it would’ve been easier. They would’ve just told me that it was down there or whatever. I’m running around saying, “Are you serious? We’re at this airport and there is no bathroom. There has to be a bathroom in here somewhere.” People were telling me that there was no bathroom. They didn’t know what I was talking about.
So that was a culture shock. The girl didn’t pick me up, so I’m trying to figure out how to get from the Heathrow Airport to northeast London where I was supposed to be. Luckily, I had made a reservation at this hotel. The day that I got the scholarship, I made a reservation and the school told me not to worry about it. They told me that they would set me up with a place, but I never canceled the reservation. Luckily, I hadn’t. I called because I was there waiting for hours for this girl to come. I was there for hours just sitting with these bags. I was calling this number that I had, there was no answering machine or anything like that. Anyway, I called the hotel and asked if they had my reservation. The hotel said, “Yeah, Yeah, you’re supposed to be here.” I just told them I would be late.
So, of course, I— See, Ryan? You can’t ask me too many questions because I’ll just go in the history books and it just opens up so much stuff.
I only had a certain amount of money in my hand at the time. The amount of money that it would have taken me to get from the airport to this side of London would have taken all the cash that I had on me. I started wondering how I would get there. I couldn’t take a taxi, but someone told me that I could take the train. Obviously, if you’re from New York, you would say ok and ask where is the train, subway or whatever you want to call it, but I’m from Dayton. I don’t know what that means. Finally, I get down the escalators. People are helping me bring my bags all the way down. I finally get on the train and I put my bags on one at a time. It was rush hour time and people were getting off work. It’s packed, but I finally get to my stop. The guy that was helping me said, “Oh, this is your stop,” and I said, “Oh, great. Great.” I start taking my bags off and start putting them on the platform. I get back on the train to get my other bags so that I can put it on the platform. I thought they just let people off and get their stuff off the train. But no! I notice the train started to move, so I get back on and get my other bag. The door closes and I start saying, “Hey! Wait a minute! My bags are out on the platform. Don’t go! Don’t leave yet! Those are my bags!” The train just goes on and everyone is looking at me. What do I do, Ryan? I look down and I see a red cord. I don’t know if you remember the red cord that used to be on the trains. I don’t think they have them anymore.
No, I don’t think they have them anymore.
It’s the emergency stop cord. I go and I pull the red cord. We’re talking about some mad people. They were looking at me and I’m scared because everyone is seething and staring at me. Then, I hear these doors shut because the conductor is coming through. Luckily, it all worked out in the end. So, that was my culture shock. That was my first day in London. That, right there. I finally got to the hotel and cried my Black ass to sleep. I called my Mom and said, “I don’t want to do this Momma. I don’t want to do this. I’m coming home.” My Dad got on the phone and said, “What? What are you talking about boy? You said you wanted to do this? You said you wanted to be an actor, right? You just had one bad day. Sit down somewhere.” I’m glad he did that. It kept me going.
Stay tuned for part two of our conversation with Curtiss Cook. In the next installment of our interview with the actor, Cook talks about transitioning from London to New York, working on Broadway, the new season of The Chi and working with Steve Speilberg.