- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 14, 2016

When New Zealand chess great Genesis Wayne Potini began hearing — and responding to — voices in his head, he descended rapidly into barely contained madness, which ended his professional career prematurely. From then on no one expected much of the former champ as he bounced in and out of mental institutions and lived a transient life, often neglecting his medications and winding up warehoused by the state yet again.

But Potini did find a calling that inspired him to keep his focus and maintain his medications well enough to function. A friend of his invited Potini to help coach a youth chess league, populated almost exclusively by at-risk youth who were all but certainly headed toward the gang life that had ensnared so many of New Zealand’s indigenous Maori people.

“I was immediately kind of captivated by him as a character, as a person,” said filmmaker James Napier Robertson, the writer and director of “The Dark Horse,” a film about Potini opening Friday in the District. “There’s just so many sort of facets to him. He’s so kind of larger than life but honest and inspiring.”

Potini was indeed large. A Maori himself, Potini towered over his young charges, which caused many of their parents to be fearful of him. But Mr. Robertson said that in addition to Potini’s physical size, what he found most intriguing was his bigness of character and integrity.

“The first time I met up with Genesis, he really lived up to any expectations,” Mr. Robertson recalls of his initial encountering of his subject. The two then sat down across a chessboard from one another. His chess faculties still sharp despite his handicap, Potini of course won the matches, but Mr. Robertson said he was able to lose “slowly and persistently enough that I think I kind of managed to earn his respect, because he learned that I did care about the game that he cared about so much.”

Mr. Robertson set to work on his screenplay and began casting about for Potini’s onscreen avatar. The script for “The Dark Horse” found its way into the hands of Cliff Curtis, perhaps New Zealand’s most famous homegrown actor.

However, at first Mr. Robertson wasn’t certain the veteran of such Kiwi films as “Once Were Warriors” as well as international fare like “Collateral Damage” with Arnold Schwarzenegger would properly fit the bill.

“He’s such a kind of handsome clean-cut guy, and the Genesis that I knew was this big, toothless, eccentric guy. And I just couldn’t quite see the leap” of Mr. Curtis taking on the role, the director said.

However, Mr. Curtis gained 60 pounds to channel Genesis, and he stayed in character for the entirety of the shoot, even off-camera.

“The whole time, 24/7, there was no Cliff Curtis. Everyone had to call him Genesis or Gen,” Mr. Robertson said of his star, who even lived and slept in Potini’s clothes as well.

“Genesis for me is a biblical-type figure in the sense that he is this man with a huge heart and loves in a very generous way and has huge compassion for those around him,” Mr. Curtis told The Washington Times. “He wants to help people.”

At the outset of the film, Potini suffers yet another breakdown and is summarily thrown into a state mental hospital. His brother Ariki, played by nonprofessional actor Wayne Hapi, agrees to take him in, provided that Genesis sleep on the couch and stay out of the way of Ariki and his gang buddies, who drink beer well into the night.

Mr. Robertson found Mr. Hapi at an unemployment office, where he and his producers put out a call for tough-looking Maori, with the caveat “those with criminal records and tattoos were welcome.”

“I brought him in for a callback with Cliff, and Cliff is like a megastar in New Zealand,” Mr. Robertson said. “And I thought this will really put pressure on Wayne, so let’s just see how he copes.

“And I found out later he had to catch like three different buses to get to the callback. It took him a couple of hours. But from the moment he sat down, it was extraordinary.”

Mr. Hapi not only holds his own against Mr. Curtis but practically steals the show in all of the scenes the two have together, his force of nature and powerful spirit all but dominating as Ariki dominates over Genesis. Their dynamic becomes increasingly fraught when Genesis takes Ariki’s son Mana (James Rolleston) under his tutelage.

“He didn’t have a phone number at that point [and the producers asked] what if he just doesn’t show up on set,” Mr. Robertson said of Mr. Hapi. “But I believed in him. I was so grateful.”

The film doesn’t shy away from Genesis Potini’s mental illness, nor the fact that even under medication he was known to walk the streets at night talking to the voices. Mr. Robertson and Mr. Curtis both say that the key to being more empathetic with those who suffer mental illness is understanding.

“One of the ways we have to manage the way society deals with or reacts to people with mental health struggles is by embracing them,” Mr. Robertson said. “They need support, they need to be understood, they need to be given the help that will allow them to live a good life and allow the people around them to live a good life. I think it’s dangerous if people are just sectioned off.”

“What drew me to his story is the immense obstacles he had to overcome,” said Mr. Curtis, who divides his time between New Zealand and Los Angeles. “Mental obstacles, environmental obstacles. That’s why they call it ‘The Dark Horse.’ What he achieves I think really challenges” what it means to have a successful life, he said.

“You can’t pretend they’re not there,” Mr. Curtis added, saying he has taken up chess since starring in the film. “That’s one of the privileges of this movie. We bring it into the light; we discuss it. No solutions are going to be found if we don’t have a spectrum of understanding about it and what the possibilities are. Because usually solutions to these things are just like the problem: They’re multidimensional.”

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