It’s hard to say precisely when Clifton Collins Jr. started to make an impact, but it’s safe to say his career moved up a notch after 2000, when he played the coked-out gay hitman Francisco “Frankie Flowers” Flores in Steven Soderbergh’s Oscar hit Traffic. Since then, he’s established himself has one of the best character actors in the business, inexplicably missing out on Oscar love for his performance as real-life killer Perry Smith in 2005’s Capote. That oversight will hopefully be corrected this year with Jockey, the Sundance hit for which he shrank to 143lb to play the role of ageing rider Jackson Silva.
DEADLINE: How did you get involved with the Jockey production?
CLIFTON COLLINS JR.: I had a working relationship with Greg Kwedar and Clint Bentley. Greg directed Transpecos, the film we did a few years ago that won the SXSW Audience Award [in 2016] and Clint produced it. It was Clint’s turn to direct, and he wanted to tap into something that was part of his childhood, which was horse jockeying, because his father was a jockey and he, also, was a jockey for a little while. I’ve got some history with it, too, because my father used to take me to the races across from the trailer park where he used to live in Inglewood, California. So, they approached me, and I knew it was going to open up some old wounds for me, but what else is art for than to exorcize those demons? And to do it with two friends that you trust completely was a special thing.
DEADLINE: Did you have a lot of input into the character?
COLLINS: Oh, 100%, but also, that’s just the way that we work together, which is beautiful because they don’t have all those bad habits that directors might acquire early in their careers from being around fame-seekers or fame-mongers. They’re true artists, these two guys.
DEADLINE: How much research did you do?
COLLINS: I was embedded with the jockeys weeks early, in addition to my own research that I did before driving out to Northern Phoenix, Arizona. I’d gather all this intel through obscure YouTube documentaries, just going back into the history of horse racing and what it means. Y’know, it was the great American sport. It was almost as popular as baseball back in the ’30s and ’40s, so it was great to get that history under my belt before actually getting to the track. Although it has changed, and it has evolved, which is what you see in that movie. So, when Clint and Greg were location-scouting, I would be hanging out with the jockeys, just soaking up their lifestyle.
DEADLINE: Was it a big commitment?
COLLINS: It was. My closer friends all knew that I was going disappear for a while. I mean, you got no money, so the only [currency] you have is the time that you put in. My agent tried to send me some money gigs, and I was like, “If I take three, four hours out of my day to read a script, that’s four or five hours you’re literally robbing from our budget. We’ve only got 20 days to shoot.” I said, “If you do this one more time, I’m going to call-block you.” Sure enough, he called me—and I call-blocked him!
DEADLINE: Jockeys are incredibly fearless people, in terms of injuries…
COLLINS: I get it. I mean, how many times have I done crazy stunts on independent films? Granted, you shouldn’t do your stunts on every independent film, because not every film is worthy of your stunts. I’m a very physical guy, I’ve done a lot of martial arts and fighting, been weapon-training since I was a kid. For me, it’s like, “Hey, if you guys want me to race on real horses, let’s shoot that last, just in case something happens—God forbid.” I’ll go out on a limb here, but I think most true artists are going to have to take that leap of faith for those films that matter. It’s funny, I get really nervous flying on a plane when I know I have to do reshoots or pickup shots, but when I’ve wrapped a film and I know it’s in the can, I don’t care if there’s turbulence or the plane’s going down. I don’t. I got another movie in the can to leave the world, and hopefully it’s not shit.
DEADLINE: Were the jockeys very guarded with you while you were doing your research?
COLLINS: Yes, we did have to earn their trust, and we all did it in different ways. Personally, my biggest thing was just to get rid of the stigma of being an actor or, worse, a celebrity. That’s a terrible one to have to shake. I hate that label. I just wanted to be viewed as a regular person. So, it wasn’t like, “Don’t look in my eyes! Don’t talk to me!’ [Laughs] It was like, ‘You need me to shovel shit? I’m here to be of service.” They all had my number, and I said, “Hey, if you guys want to talk about movies, let’s get that out of the way this first coupla days. I’m here for you guys and to soak up your world.”
DEADLINE: Did the jockeys have any particular concerns about the movie world?
COLLINS: I think we were all of the same mindset, because I think one of their greatest fears was for [the movie] to come off a little bit on the corny side. Not that Seabiscuit doesn’t have its audience. It does, but it’s not the real jockeys.
DEADLINE: Had you done much riding before taking this part?
COLLINS: Well, for Westworld, I did quite a bit of riding. But then those are rodeo horses, and we have some of the best horse wranglers that this industry has to offer. I [was riding] Jamie Foxx’s horse from Django Unchained. And that thing’s like a brand new 911 GTS Porsche, just so precise. But that’s not
the case with the horses you get on the racetrack—they are the dragsters of the horse world. Very, very different mechanics.
DEADLINE: Your grandfather, Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez, had a long career in Westerns, but it’s a genre you don’t seem to have tackled yet.
COLLINS: You’re 100% right. I haven’t done my Rio Bravo, I haven’t had chance to do any of that. Westworld [for HBO] was the closest. My grandfather was friends with [original Westworld star] Yul Brynner, so it’s really special. And when J.J. Abrams and Jonathan Nolan found out that I had my grandfather’s gun belt from Rio Bravo, right away they emailed and said, “Is there any way you’d wear it for the show?” So that’s the closest I got, and then Quentin Tarantino hired me for Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, where I appear in the Western pilot that Leo’s character is shooting. There’s a lot more that we shot—a lot—that I know Quentin’s probably going to use at some point. Sadly, we lost Luke Perry, rest in peace, and many my scenes were with him. Quentin’s a huge grandpa fan, and this was kind of a hat-tip to him. But, no, I haven’t really had my real Western yet.
DEADLINE: You seem to have worked out a way of doing big movies and small movies. Is that something can you control?
COLLINS: Sometimes you’ve got to take the projects that come to you. You’ve got to pay the bills. But when you’re starting out, you’re just hungry to find your true voice and what your true purpose is, and not every role will service that. At the same time, those projects, like the Traffics or the Tigerlands or the Capotes, will find their audiences. And along the way I picked up some friends, some great actors I’m very blessed to have worked with, and they would reach out. There’s a lot of politics in play when it comes to the studios, and if you don’t have those politics on your side, you better hope you have a director that’s going to champion your cause.
DEADLINE: Speaking of which, do you remember when you met Guillermo del Toro for the first time?
COLLINS: It’s funny, he asked me the same question last week, because we both were kind of like twiddling our fingers—how did we meet? We both knew we were fans of one another. He first became a fan because of One Eight Seven , and then there’s a couple films that he called me for. At one point he was attached to The Count of Monte Cristo, at another point he was attached to something else. So, we tried to work together a few times before. And then he wrote this fantastic role that was half Latino and half Asian in Pacific Rim, hence my Cantonese dialogue in the film. And for Nightmare Alley, I play Funhouse Jack—I’m the only original character that’s not in the original novel or the Tyrone Powers film. I run the carnival, so to speak. Like a song and dance man would.
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