Deep into production on Clint Bentley’s feature directorial debut “Jockey,” star Clifton Collins Jr. reached an impasse: His agent kept calling him up with what the actor referred to as “money scripts,” and the long-time actor just didn’t have the time or the headspace to worry about other projects. Hell, he didn’t have time to worry about anything else but the tiny indie about a jockey nearing the end of his run in the lauded drama. The film premiered at Sundance 2020 after being picked up by Sony Pictures Classics, and has earned Collins the best reviews of his career, plus a recent Indie Spirit nomination for his performance.
“I’m like, ‘If I spend two hours reading another script, that’s two hours you’ve stolen from our budget. Because time is the only currency that cannot be replaced. And I’ll be damned if you take another dollar from this budget, because my heart’s in this one. You call me one more time, you’re getting blocked,'” Collins told IndieWire during a recent interview. “And he did. I said, ‘What do you want?’ and he said, ‘I got a script.’ ‘Cool. It’s over.’ Call block, click.” (Eventually, Collins said, he did unblock his agent.)
It wasn’t just the agent who got the block. Collins said he cut off every part of his life that didn’t directly impact “Jockey.” “I told our wonderful producer Nancy Schafer, ‘Don’t give me any messages. I don’t care if Alfred Hitchcock’s come back from the dead to direct me in something that he wrote, I don’t want to hear about it. If my house is burnt down, I don’t want to hear about it because I can’t do anything about it. Tell me when it’s over.'” (Sadly, Hitchcock did not come back from the dead during the 2019 shoot, but at least Collins’ house didn’t burn down either.)
When Collins, who has been acting for the majority of his life, commits to a role, he really commits. Cutting off his agent and declining messages was just the start of getting into the mindset of journeyman Jackson Silva. A skilled rider who has spent plenty of his “Westworld” tenure on the back of a horse, Collins did his own stunts to play the jockey. He spent most of his time during production hanging out with other real-life jockeys, many of whom appear in the final film. He cut weight, getting down to 143 pounds, a weight he doesn’t think he’s made since he was 16. (He still recalls the pleasure of a rare treat during filming: two peanut M&Ms.)
But there’s still plenty of Collins in Jackson. The actor said his father used to take him to the racetrack when he was just a kid. “Those would be my weekends every so often, when he had the money to gamble, he would teach me how to read [the race],” he said. “The weight of the jockey, the weather conditions, what they won, what track it was on, stuff like that.”
And, of course, there’s the impact of his grandfather, fellow actor Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez, a John Wayne regular whose remarkable career has always inspired Collins, along with a wide range of other Latino performers. (Collins, who wrote his first book, “Prison Ramen: Recipes and Stories from Behind Bars” alongside former inmate Gustavo “Goose” Alvarez back in 2015, is now currently working on writing his grandfather’s life story.) The son of vaudeville performers, Gonzalez Gonzalez was a skilled comedian (Collins takes great pride in his appearance on Groucho Marx’s “You Bet Your Life,” during which his grandpa cracked up the star) and a diligent character actor. He was a man of reputation, and that seems to be the guiding inspiration of Collins’ own career.
Like his grandpa, Collins seems to thrive within creative collaborations. That was the big draw of “Jockey,” which reunited him with Bentley and co-writer Greg Kwedar, whom the actor first met years ago while making “Transpecos,” which Bentley and Kwedar wrote. “It was through that working process and through that collaboration that they were able to see how to work with me and how to collaborate, and it was as a result of that working relationship that they came after me for ‘Jockey,'” Collins said. “There’s something magical that happens when you get the three of us together.”
Mostly, it seems, Bentley and Kwedar always treated the actor as a creative equal. Asked if there was a moment he realized the duo were his guys, Collins recalled the early days of shooting “Transpecos,” when Collins told the pair that he had a number of notes on the script he wanted to go over with them. He remembered telling them, “What’s important to me is not that you take my notes, what’s important is you understand the notes, because in understanding the notes you’ll be able to help clarify the scene and/or tell me what’s really happening if I’m not getting it clear.”
Bentley and Kwedar embraced that. Collins recalls that the duo would “get really excited” every time they came to Collins’ room and saw “a shit-ton of Post-Its on the wall, because they knew I had a shit-ton of notes or questions or ideas or whatever.”
Why didn’t they balk? “Because they don’t have bad habits,” Collins said. “And I always run it by them, and they always know that there’s a reason why. It’s not me being like, ‘I think I should have a monologue here. I think this scene should have more to do with me.’ It’s never that. It’s always to service the story and the theme. Always. Anything else is a failure of artistry, in my opinion. And I know I could be a pain in the ass sometimes, but thankfully they’ve endured it, and then through enduring it, they see the light at the end of the tunnel and go, ‘Oh, that’s why he was doing that.'”
Collins, like his grandfather, has proven to be a reliable character actor over the course of his career. He’s long been the kind of star audiences might see on screen and think, “Oh! That guy! I love that guy!” and that’s not something he has a problem with. An Emmy nominee who has appeared in everything from “Capote” and “Traffic” to “Westworld” and the “Boondock Saints” sequel, Collins seems to love working, relishing different kinds of projects and roles. But “Jockey” offered something new: a real leading role. He ran with it.
Most of the film’s slim 20-day shoot took place at Phoenix’s Turf Paradise racetrack, and Collins spent nearly all of his time with a motley crew of jockeys, grooms, and valets that also appear in the film. “I was there two weeks early to go through the script and to hang out with the jockeys and to soak up any side lingo and dialogue,” he said. “Once we got all the actor-y stuff out of the way, I was able to have quite a bit of anonymity, which is one of the greatest gifts I think that any actor could have in doing a film this level. It’s very easy to hide. I was always with the jockeys. I might have gotten recognized maybe twice in two and a half months. Who knows who recognized me, but they didn’t say nothing, and I love it when that happens.”
Hanging with the jockeys impacted both the physical and emotional side of Collins’ performance. “One of the biggest things that I learned [about the jockeys], besides the heart of golds that they have, is how many bones they break,” he said. “This guy kept telling me like, ‘Oh, mister, I broke this bone in this race, but I still raced anyway. And that day I had three races.’ Or, ‘Oh, I had an open bone break. My femur broke. It was open bone and it hit the air.'”
Collins also learned about “flipping” — jockeys making weight for a race by vomiting up whatever is in their bellies — something he initially thought was just rumor. “There’s this urban legend where they said there was the one stall that was used for vomiting to make weight,” he said. “It’s not urban legend. It’s very real to every track. The nicer tracks actually have a designed toilet for flipping. I did consider flipping one time. Well, I considered it multiple times. I ultimately ended up not doing it.”
The actor doesn’t recount any of these stories with judgement. They are all a part of an essential process, one rooted in emotion and respect. “The last thing you want to do, as an actor, is misrepresent the community of people that you’re hanging out with and spending time with,” Collins said. “It’d be so disgraceful, I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself, but I think that goes with every role too, though, whether you’re privy to that kind of environment or not.”
Collins’ immersive approach is hardly unheard of in Hollywood, but the actor’s interest in doing this stuff for the good of the project at hand feels special. He’s not doing it just to do it, he’s doing it to make the work better. It requires a lot.
“You basically try to hit the bottom and make sure you’ve covered every little nook and cranny, every little rock,” Collins said of his process of getting into character. “And then once you feel comfortable with that, then you can creatively decide what you’re going to use and not going to use. It’s not because you were lazy or didn’t take the time to research or you just made something up. It was a creative choice, not because I was negligent in my studies and research. We have a duty for authenticity. We have a duty for all of that stuff.”
Collins can easily recall any number of projects that required that level of care and commitment, like in Christine Jeffs’ 2008 dramedy “Sunshine Cleaning,” in which his character has an amputated arm, though the original script included scarce information about the injury or ailment behind it. The actor became obsessed with digging into the how’s and why’s of the amputation, because he was terrified that real amputees might see through the seeming artifice of the role.
“I remember driving home [from a meeting], thinking, I’m not going to risk looking like a douchebag and desecrating whatever challenges they’re trying to overcome and the problems they got to deal with,” he said. “There’s a lot of things that handicapped people have to deal with that we don’t have to deal with, and it’s not right to betray them.” Collins said he worked closely with the producers to understand the backstory of Winston, with the actor eventually getting to a place that felt right and true.
There are funnier examples, too. While shooting “Sunshine Cleaning” in New Mexico, Collins was also working on Jonas Åkerlund’s “Horsemen” in Winnipeg, in which he starred alongside Dennis Quaid in a crime drama really about the end of the world. To get further into his “Sunshine” character, a model airplane obsessive, Collins spent his scant free time building his own models. “Dennis Quaid was convinced I was just building airplanes in my little stuffy windowless room in Winnipeg, just so I could huff paint,” Collins said with a laugh. “I said, ‘No, I’m not, Dennis!’ It was a way to keep me [in the character], because how am I going to delve into that character if I’m flying back and forth [between two productions]?”
Over the course of more than three decades in the business, Collins has occasionally snagged the kind of “money scripts” he literally told his agent not to bother him with while making “Jockey.” With over a hundred acting credits to his name, Collins has only appeared in a handful of large-scale franchise tentpoles, including “Pacific Rim” and “Star Trek.” He’s not actively avoiding that side of the business, and he even got close to jumping into the superhero fray back in 2014.
When Edgar Wright was set to direct Marvel’s “Ant-Man,” rumors persisted that Collins was set for a role in the Paul Rudd–starring superhero outing. Collins confirms that the role, which eventually went to Michael Peña, was written expressly by Wright for him. “We signed contracts and did the test and everything, and powers that be got in the way,” Collins said. Eventually, Wright left the project.
Collins exhibits zero bitterness over the lost role. He’s certainly not sworn off the superhero world, but he does seem intent on doing it his way. “I’m actually talking to somebody right now for a non-Marvel superhero movie,” he said. “It could be a very important one for people of color, myself included. It’s a young badass director who’s already done a couple of films that I’m a huge fan of. He’s got so much integrity that it will be outside the studio system a little bit, where it can have that thing, that human thing.”
He’s been doing this long enough to know the difference, and what actually feeds him and his art. “There’s something to be said for the rewards gained after working on a project with your entire person on a film like ‘Jockey,'” he said. “There’s nothing like it. There’s no giant trailers, no giant catering, there’s no giant this or people that drive you around and do all this other stuff. It’s just very hands on and intimate, and there’s something so organic about, not just with our intentions, but within the execution, the collaboration. That’s something that you’re not going to get on any big studio film.”
Collins has spent so much of his life performing and playing other people, and yet his innate curiosity and deep empathy remain intact. Those traits are magic on the screen, but they’d likely translate other places, too. Asked what other careers he might have pursued outside acting, Collins turned predictably introspective and personal.
“I think I’d be some kind of engineer, an inventor or something. There’s a lot of things I like to do,” Collins said. “My grandpa did a lot of things, too. A song and dance man and he sold bottles filled with water. Necessity is the mother of all invention. I like affecting people. I like making them think and feel, and if I can expand anybody’s capacity for humanity, I think my job’s done.”
A Sony Pictures Classics release, “Jockey” is now in select theaters.