Clifton Collins Jr. Hopes ‘Jockey’ Makes a Familiar Face a Familiar Name, Too

Every time Clifton Collins Jr. boards a flight midproduction, the possibility of the aircraft crashing petrifies him. “I’ve got to finish the film,” the actor thinks to himself midair.

Once the movie is completed, turbulence, ups and downs? None of that matters, because he knows “I got another film in the can, especially if I’m hopeful that it’s going to be good,” he said. “I don’t care if it goes down. I’d feel bad for the other people, but me personally, I’m OK. I finished.”

Collins, 51, has maintained such intense focus for more than 30 years as a character actor embellishing the ensembles of renowned directors like Steven Soderbergh (“Traffic”), Alejandro González Iñárritu (“Babel”) and Quentin Tarantino (“Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood”), though you might know him better for scores of appearances on television series like “Westworld” and “Ballers.”

Now the actor is breaking through, finally, with a rare lead role. In Clint Bentley’s heartfelt indie, “Jockey” (in theaters Dec. 29), Collins plays Jackson Silva, an aging horseman confronting physical ailments and potential fatherhood. The visceral performance, born of immersive preparation, has already earned him a best male lead nomination from the Independent Spirit Awards, a first for him, and a special acting prize at Sundance. It’s not his only role in a prominent picture this season — Collins plays a carny in Guillermo del Toro’s lush noir “Nightmare Alley” — but it may be the one that makes the biggest difference.

Collins, pictured here with Moises Arias in “Jockey,” worked as a grunt at a racetrack so that other riders would see him as one of their own.Credit…Adolpho Veloso/Sony Pictures Classics, via Associated Press

During a recent interview at a restaurant in the Studio City section of Los Angeles, where he wore a fittingly unpretentious Pink Floyd T-shirt, Homeboy Industries cap and cozy flannel shirt, he explained, “I’ve had other leading roles, just not like this.”

The distinction isn’t only about screen time but also about his continuing collaboration with Bentley, a first-time director, and the producer Greg Kwedar, who cast him in his directorial debut, “Transpecos,” a 2016 thriller in which he played one of three Border Patrol agents forced into an illicit drug-trafficking mission. For “Jockey,” Collins expanded his investment, and put his money on the line as an executive producer.

To play Jackson, Collins dropped some weight from his already thin build to match the scrawny frame of a jockey. But that was only the superficial transformation. At Turf Paradise, the Phoenix racetrack where the film was shot, he became a grunt, hanging around every day and helping with the horses, to rid himself of the performer label in the eyes of the real riders.

“I didn’t want to be seen as an actor. I didn’t want to be treated special,” he explained, adding, “To be embraced by the very people you are portraying is the biggest gift that any actor could ask for.”

When it comes to the integrity of a character, Collins goes all in, however small the part. For the 2001 prison drama “The Last Castle,” he consulted multiple speech therapists before agreeing to play a character with a speaking impediment, even if it was only a supporting role. On another job, the 2009 comedy “Sunshine Cleaning,” he nearly refused to embody an amputee because the director hadn’t thoroughly considered the details of the fictional man’s condition.

His requests weren’t self-aggrandizing but a way of respecting the experiences of individuals for whom these circumstances aren’t a costume but their truth. “You can’t just desecrate the challenges real people out there are trying to overcome,” he said.

The actor was inspired by his grandfather, a self-made entertainer who appeared in the western “Rio Bravo” and “was the only person who said, ‘Yes, you can do it,’” Collins said.  Credit…Carlos Jaramillo for The New York Times

On “Jockey,” Collins shares scenes with actual jockeys whom he tried to guide through the cinematic process with patience and space for spontaneity. The affecting banter in a hospital scene with an injured jockey, played by a real rider, Logan Cormier, resulted from the camaraderie he built over time with nonactors.

“You might take it for granted when he’s being generous alongside Clint Eastwood” in “The Mule,” Bentley said. “But to have that same generosity with somebody who’s never acted before and in some cases is never going to act again speaks volumes to his quality as a person and artist.”

Collins, who was born and raised in the Los Angeles area, also channeled memories of his father, who, when sober enough, would take him and his sister to his trailer in Inglewood, Calif. When his father met friends at Hollywood Park, a racetrack nearby, he would occasionally let Collins tag along and taught him how to bet on horse races from a tender age. The final speech Jackson delivers in the film — about Jackson’s father being an angry man who only showed affection while drunk or gambling — came precisely from these bittersweet childhood memories.

Del Toro turned to Collins for “Nightmare Alley” (their second collaboration, after the kaiju epic “Pacific Rim”) because the actor “seems incapable of anything but being truthful and present and brimming with ideas,” the director said via email. Collins “has a cadence, rhythm and delivery that no one else has,” del Toro added. “He has cinema in his bloodline and his eyes. His eyes command the camera and our attention completely.”

For the actor, wandering through the set of “Nightmare Alley” felt like stepping into the bygone realm of his maternal grandfather, Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez, a proud Tejano and self-made entertainer whose career began in traveling tent shows, or carpas. The vaudeville-esque Mexican American diversions, like La Carpa Garcia, were popular during the first half of the 20th century, and Collins’s grandfather mostly performed for other Latinos working the fields in Texas. He would go on to work as a contract player for John Wayne, most notably in the seminal 1959 western “Rio Bravo.”

Where you’ve seen Collins: In “Transpecos,” above.Credit…Samuel Goldwyn Films
In the drama “One Eight Seven.”Credit…Warner Bros.
Opposite Amy Adams in “Sunshine Cleaning.”Credit… Lacey Terrell/Overture Films
And in the series “Westworld.”Credit…John P. Johnson/HBO

“My grandpa was the only person who said, ‘Yes, you can do it,’ and all it takes is one voice, one person you respect, to say it,” said Collins, who first tried to go college for engineering before dedicating himself full-time to acting, with his grandfather’s blessing.

Collins said that it was his work on “Capote” (2005), in which he played the death-row inmate Perry Smith, that convinced Gonzalez-Gonzalez he’d have a future in acting. “He was really worried if I was ever going to be successful or make it in this business,” Collins said.

One evening while shooting “Nightmare Alley” in Toronto, del Toro encouraged Collins to write a screenplay about Gonzalez-Gonzalez. Collins began writing that very night.

Gonzalez-Gonzalez himself received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2011, five years after his death and decades after he first sought it. Instinctively switching to Spanish whenever quoting his grandfather, Collins recalled: “When he got cancer, the second he told me, ‘Mijo, I’ve had a life bigger that I could ever dreamt of, the only thing I never got was that pinche star,’ and I said, ‘Grandpa, I promise you I’m going to get you that star.’”

The promise was kept thanks in part to the advocacy of Samuel L. Jackson, whom Collins considers a father figure. The two starred together in the 1997 crime drama “One Eight Seven,” in which Collins played a young gangbanger opposite Jackson’s high school teacher, and have remained close friends ever since.

Collins embodies the “there are no small parts, only small actors” truism, Jackson said, citing “the preparation, the attention to detail, the love of the craft.” Collins is “the kind of actor that demands your best and gives you his.”

Onscreen, Collins has walked on both sides of the law, as a border agent on several occasions, and many others as men behind bars, like Cesar in “One Eight Seven.” But there’s a double standard for Latinos, he said, when it comes to roles that, while psychologically three-dimensional and rich, are not positive portrayals or seem to perpetuate stereotypes. With “One Eight Seven,” mainstream critics discredited him, the actor said, by suggesting the production had simply found a real criminal for the part, as if he couldn’t have been an actor who worked on the role. Meanwhile, he said, the ALMA Awards, which honor American Latinos in entertainment, wouldn’t consider his performance because they only highlight what they consider to be edifying representation.

“How come Robert De Niro and Al Pacino can get awards for playing gangsters of their communities? But when we play gangsters of our communities, they say, ‘Don’t do that. We got to be the good immigrants.’”

Collins said he and other Latino actors faced a double standard with roles that are psychologically rich but not necessarily positive. Credit…Carlos Jaramillo for The New York Times

One of his most notable criminal characters was the morally conflicted robber Jack “Bump” Hill in the mini-series “Thief,” for which he received an Emmy nomination. The show’s creator, Norman Morrill, recalled that Collins wasn’t enthusiastic about doing more television work. The actor admits his hesitation came from arrogance. He had romanticized the struggling actor persona.

Convinced of his magnetism, Morrill persuaded him to join the cast opposite Andre Braugher. “A lot of actors need words to communicate; the really great ones don’t. Cliffy’s silence sizzles,” the showrunner said. “The camera can just sit there and you go, ‘I’m going to watch this.’ That’s about as great an accolade anybody can get.”

Bentley also saw the silent fire within, notably in the very last scene of “Jockey,” when Jackson is walking away after a defining moment. “It’s about three minutes long on his face, and he’s going through this whole color wheel of emotions,” the director said. “You could not write dialogue that would get across what he’s giving the audience. We get exactly what he’s going through.”

With “Jockey” and “Nightmare Alley” behind him, a determined Collins has shifted focus back to polishing the script about his grandfather. Having honed his storytelling skills for years helming music videos for country performers like the Zac Brown Band (“Chicken Fried”) and Jamey Johnson (“High Cost of Living”), he also aims to direct it.

“That’s the only singular goal I have,” Collins said. “I can’t see past that.”

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