Interview: Actor Clifton Collins, Jr. (THE PERFECT GAME)
As I was preparing to interview Clifton Collins Jr. for his latest film, THE PERFECT GAME, a couple of things came to mind. First of all, this touching story about the first non-U.S. baseball team to win the World Little League Series seemed like an unusual choice for the actor. Take a look at the past few films he has done, whether it’s CRANK: HIGH VOLTAGE, THE BOONDOCK SAINTS II: ALL SAINTS DAY, EXTRACT or STAR TREK, PERFECT GAME seemed to quietly find its way into release after a string of wild and wooly roles. Yet, that is the nature of Collins, he is never afraid of a challenge and he is always looking ahead to what hasn’t been done before.
And secondly, I have the great fortune to call Clifton a friend. I’ve known him for awhile, but it feels much longer, and I respect the hell out of the guy. So in many ways, it is a strange experience to interview somebody that I speak to on a fairly regular basis, especially since we are having a one-on-one interview. It is very easy to shift from subject to subject and back and forth, without really thinking of where you are going. But what he does so well is tell stories. They mostly revolve around his wonderful memories of his Grandfather, Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez. His family certainly plays an integral role in his personal and professional life.
So here we talk about quite a bit of things. And hell, we even talk a little about his latest film which is absolutely worth going to see. But it is clear that he honors family, friends and the art of his craft, which thankfully he treats as such. Whether he is directing music videos for The Zac Brown Band or challenging himself as an actor, writer or producer, he will always strive to make something unique. After all, there are very few fellas in Hollywood as original and genuine as Cliff.
I don’t think I mentioned this, but you were awesome on Southland dude.
Oh thanks man. You know what’s so funny? Out of all the movies I did, the amount of recognition I’ve received for one episode of Southland is a testament to how many people stay at home and watch good television. ‘Cause it’s on par with, you know, I’ve probably had more people say they saw me on Southland in one collective group tell me that they’ve enjoyed my work than throughout the whole year, and all the different films.
That could be because in your films you look completely different…
Well then there’s that.
Yeah man, you never look the same.
Lately I’ve been having close friends making jokes about me and how they don’t recognize me. That’s usually the thing, you won’t believe this but my close friends don’t even recognize me. Now I have them actually making the jokes.
Well it took me forever to actually see the “real” Clifton Collins.
Sweet! Well, they’re making me question me, like, who am I? [laughing] Well I don’t know who the f*ck I am. They don’t know, and they’ve known me this long, how am I smarter? Or am I?
Well are you gonna do another Southland? They gonna bring you back?
Oh, no, no, no, they want to, and I want to too. I mean honestly, this is… I don’t really talk about the television work that I do so…
The fact that I don’t talk about the television work is… you know it’s just unprecedented. It must be a good show if I’m gonna talk about it, put it that way.
No kidding. Is this something I can put in the interview?
Absolutely, I’d love it. Please. You know, for me it’s like, the fact that I’m excited about going back to work with John Wells and Ann Biderman… man, I’ve never said these kind of things before.
Now as you mentioned, you did a lot of films. And you’ve played so many strange and inventive characters. Why choose this film, and why do a family movie like THE PERFECT GAME at this point in your career?
Um… that’s a really good question. No, honestly, what happened was I had heard about this movie. One of my best friends, Jake Vargas told me about it. And I had heard rumors about the game, and the story, and the movie. I was like, I had already done like two Latino roles, I couldn’t really afford to… if it didn’t really contribute to the diversity of doing it, like it didn’t matter how good or how poor it was. It didn’t matter. What mattered was I had diversity. I had some great opportunities. But on the same note- following my heart - I ultimately got to do a film that I’m very proud of. It was a film I didn’t want in the beginning, I didn’t see it in my creative path to do it at the time. So I passed on it. And I remember Jacob Vargas saying, "…well it’s not really about Mexicans, it’s got a bigger message." And I said, "Well is there a Mexican baseball team?" and he said, "Yeah." "Does it take place in Mexico?" he said yeah, and I said,"‘It’s a Mexican movie then. It doesn’t matter what the message is…"
I’ve been doing this too long and dealing with this thing, I don’t know if I’d call it racism, but being judged by your ethnic make-up [rather] than your talents. I betcha I was treated completely different before I changed my name to Gonzalez-Gonzalez which was done to honor my Grandfather. You know, to actually experience it firsthand at a time when you thought it didn’t even exist anymore. It’s really kind of a shocker, because you don’t think... oh, it’s no big deal it’s just a name. Everybody knows that I’d spent twenty years of my life being treated as a white person, and then suddenly in the business that hires actors to pretend to be other people, whether you’re an alien or a mad scientist or a robot or a zombie or whatever, you know... Or Gandhi, Ben Kingsley who is a white person, one of the greatest teachers of our generation… You’d think that they’d be open to so many different things but when I did that in front of my grandfather it felt like it was kind of a witch hunt. Just because it was so foreign to me, I just really couldn’t comprehend it. But lately, with PERFECT GAME, I’ve been asked a lot about these things, you know, "Did you experience racism like this…?" and I’m like, "No, I didn’t." But then I started thinking to myself, wait a minute! I know all the stories that my grandma and grandpa went through, and the stuff they endured. You know, both before making it and after. So I had that that I related to directly. And with the kids, I tell them stories about my grandpa, he was around when this story was happening; he dealt with a lot of these things. He’d seen a Mexican kid lynched in Texas as a child. My Grandpa didn’t have shoes when he went to Elementary School. The only two photos I have of him at that young age, he didn’t have shoes even.
Yeah, the only two photographs of him before he was actually performing in a place where they could take pictures, like school photos, are those two photographs. He didn’t have the money to pay for the photos and the teacher liked my Grandpa so much that she paid the quarter to take the two photos of him.
I love stories like that.
Yeah. It’s so weird to think that my Grandfather was born in a tent, the same tent he’d grow up to perform in. And then, cut to me being an actor and producing and directing things.
I am so blessed to have that legacy. And to be able to say that I know people like yourself and people like Jacob Vargas or Sam Jackson, or even Slash because of my Grandpa and his endeavors. It’s beautiful.
I think that is also what makes you interesting as an actor, the passion you have for your career. That, and you don’t play it safe and you challenge yourself. For instance, even when you do a “family film," it isn’t necessarily your typical kiddie picture. This isn’t just HANNAH MONTANA or whatever. It is a family film that deals with the issues you’re talking about. But do you think audiences are ready for that?
You know what? It’s so funny because… I was talking to my grandma, because I was doing another interview and they said, how did you identify with this film with racism and this and that. And it reminded me of when I changed my name to Gonzalez-Gonzalez for ten years. I was talking to Grandma about a story and I said, "Grandma, you know when Grandpa did his telethon with Mel Torme and Nat King Cole?" I had heard the story that when they were in Mobile, Alabama, they were walking down the sidewalk and the little black kids would walk off the sidewalk to allow Dane Clark – who was an actor in the forties and fifties – because a white man was with my grandpa and they wanted to step down. And both Dane Clark and my grandpa said "No, don’t do that, you’re people like us, stay on the sidewalk. And they said, "No, it’s the law here."
And the black audience that was in the theater, they sat in the back and the whites sat in the front. When it was time for Nat King Cole to perform, and the heads of the theater at the Telethon for Children said, "Pedro, don’t go out there and collect the black people’s money, only the white people’s money." To which my grandpa would say, "You know what, I don’t care if its black people’s money I’m here for the children. And if the black people want to give me money I’m taking it, because I’m working for the kids, not for you." And they couldn’t tell my grandpa what to do. The black people, even though they were poor, they still wanted to contribute to the charities of the children.
Well don’t you kind of see that a lot of times, the people who give more are sometimes the people who have less?
That’s nicely said.
Thanks man. [laughing] But seriously, you have some guy who is barely making a living. Yet oftentimes, he is more inclined to give somebody a couple of bucks that the dude driving a BMW.
You know what Jimmy; it’s like my buddy who is in Chino right now. He’s a really great guy and a family man, loves his kids. With homeless people, sometimes they want a meal, a legitimate meal, and sometimes they just want a drink.
But if you’ve done time, or if you’ve really down on your luck… it’s interesting because, this was before he got locked up again, but if he saw a homeless person begging or something, I’d be driving in my Cadillac or whatever, and we’d see them at the light or something and he’d be like, "Hey, slow down… slow down…" but excitedly, not like desperate or pissed off. He’d be happy and saying, "Slow down, slow down." And he’d roll down the window and crumple up some bills and literally throwing it. He’d call out, "Hey old-timer!" and he’d throw ‘em like fives. And he worked for his money. He had a regular job where he was making his money.
Now, this film deals with class in a very clear way with the underdog type thing. With Bill Winokur, who is not Latino, but he seemed to really grasp the essence of the story of these kids who were so desperately poor, living in Mexico…
Now did you ever feel like you needed to tell him, no, this isn’t how it is?
No. I think he had a pretty good grasp on that. And he also had a big part in writing the screenplay and was often on set. It was fun to have him around because he knows the players directly and he was a really wonderful resource to have.