Born in Los Angeles, Clifton Collins Jr. grew up destined to inherit a Latino family legacy in the entertainment industry. His grandfather, Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez, was best known for his funny sidekick characters in the John Wayne pictures. Pedro was unable to break free of the Latino stereotypes set on him in the 50’s and 60’s, but his grandson certainly has broken those chains. Clifton is one of those actors who transforms himself into a role. He vanquishes the lines between himself and his character.
He started his acting career in the late 80's under his given name, but Collins switched at one point to honor his grandfather and went under the name Gonzalez-Gonzalez. His breakout role was in 1997 in the film One-Eight-Seven opposite Samuel L. Jackson.
I remember that film so well. It gave me a vivid impression of Los Angeles, with scorching sunsets and a cultural underbelly of rage-filled youth turning to gangs and a school system struggling to maintain control, all haunted by the soundtrack of Massive Attack. That film left an inextricable mark on me. I distinctly remember sitting in a movie theatre in South Africa and thinking “Who is that guy?!” Clifton’s performance was so raw, so visceral, and scary as hell. He broke the mold of Latino gang bangers with that part, bringing not only the fear-inducing tough guy aspect, but a three dimensional, relatable human aspect as well.
So cut to almost twenty years later, and I’m sitting at his home in LA, and what sits in front of me is literally nothing like what I was expecting. He’s got a huge smile on his face, he’s cracking jokes and is one of the most congenial, humble guys you’ll ever have the pleasure of chatting with. And I remind myself that he’s had quite a career over the decades, pushing the boundaries of characters in a collection of portrayals that is nothing short of impressive.
In looking back over his roles, probably the most memorable, at least in my opinion, was his portrayal of the gay Mexican hitman, Francisco Flores in the film Traffic. His short list of credits include The Replacement Killers, Tigerland, Capote, Scott Pilgrim vs The World, The Event, Star Trek, Pacific Rim, Ballers, and the upcoming Triple 9 and HBO’s SciFi thriller series, Westworld, based on Michael Crichton’s 1973 film of the same name.
The show is described as a dark odyssey about the dawn of artificial consciousness and the future of sin and is slated for release this Summer. The one-hour drama features actors Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, Evan Rachel Wood, Ben Barnes, James Marsden, Thandie Newton, to name just a few.
“I’m blown away being on set every day,” Collins exclaims. “I’ve been wearing my grandpas gun belt. I feel like Clark fucking Kent when he’s taking off his glasses and becoming Superman when they put my grandpa’s belt on me.”
He’s like a kid around a Christmas tree, who’s finally getting to live out that dream of playing cowboys. The glint in his eye is infectious. He continues, enthused, “The writing is just stupid good. I mean, it’s Abrams and Nolan!” Referring to J. J. Abrams and Jonathan Nolan, who collectively have been responsible for some of the biggest, most popular films of our generation, and who created Westworld.
He tells a story of how he got a script for one of the episodes and was disappointed that he only had one day of work, with only one line, and then after closer inspection he pepped up and said “Ohhhh but that’s a badass line! This shit is sick. Hell yea, I’ve got one line, this is gonna be the bomb! For once I’m on a TV show where all the writing is just magical.The crew and show runners are cinephiles, students of film, and the attention to detail is there. They’re just the real deal.”
So when he was approached to do the show it was a no-brainer and he said “Are you kidding me? Sure! I mean, that film [Westworld] was basically the thing that made the formula for Jurassic Park. Terminator stole stuff from that movie. It’s really a great piece of film. The layers and moral issues that it brought up, the writers of the show are now picking up on the nuances and the scope and potential that the film laid groundwork for, and they get to explore it now.”
Talking with Clifton, you get the distinct impression that he’s a fan of art, and particularly of film. I ask him how he keeps his intense interest up and he just smiles and replies “I try to. I mean, you have to, right?”
Which may seem like a simple answer, and I suppose it is, but there’s a power in that simplicity. This guy has worked with some of the biggest names in Hollywood. And he’s still a fanboy. And being somewhat of a fanboy myself, I ask him about One-Eight-Seven and working with Samuel L. Jackson.
“I was just desperate to get his respect. On one of the rehearsal days he gave me this spanking, and I was like ‘Oh shit. This guy has kicked it into high gear and is leaving me in the dust.’ I would race home and study all night and I just wanted his respect so badly. I wanted him to like what I was doing.”
It turns out that Mr. Jackson did like what he was doing. He liked it so much that they became close friends and he actually wrote the foreword for Clifton’s newest venture, a book called “Prison Ramen.” It’s a unique concept for a cookbook, although it’s so much more. It takes readers behind bars with more than 65 ramen recipes and stories of prison life from the inmate/cooks who devised them, including celebrities like Slash from Guns n’ Roses and Shia LaBeouf.
Instant Ramen is a ubiquitous food, beloved by anyone looking for a cheap, tasty bite—including prisoners, who buy it at the commissary and use it as the building block for all sorts of meals. Think of this as a cookbook of ramen hacks and the stories are a first-person, firsthand look inside prison life, a scared-straight reality to complement the offbeat recipes. The profits from the book benefit Homeboy Industries, run by Father Greg, another mentor of Clifton’s. “He taught me about compassion. He’s a great man. And a badass.”
He talks about compassion and the insights that artists have to have, especially actors. Compassion is something that doesn’t exist if you’re not willing to look, to observe and empathize with another human’s thoughts and feelings. “At the end of the day, true artistry transcends everything.”