‘Jockey’ Star Clifton Collins Jr. Is the Oscar Race’s Dark Horse—And He’s Got Stories to Share
Veteran actor Clifton Collins Jr. dropped weight, ran with wild horses, and revisited family trauma for the role of his career. Now, he’s spilling on what it took to get here.
Clifton Collins Jr. is a horse, a big, white mare with dark brown eyes and a milk-colored mane cascading down her neck. Yes, we are sitting at a table having breakfast at a hotel restaurant during the SCAD Savannah Film Festival, a journalist and a journeyman character actor. But, it has to be said again that, in this moment, Collins is a horse.
He has contorted his body so that his shoulders, arms, and hands do an uncanny pantomime of hooves hitting the grass, becoming the wild horse that made its way toward him from an embankment in Arizona’s Coon Bluff in the Tonto National Forest, where he was filming a scene for his upcoming movie Jockey. (“Two racist names,” he says. “Sounds kind of scary. I was like, if we see the Klan hats we just run, OK? Fuck the shot.)
He starts to add his own sound effects—“clop, clop, clop!”—and then begins whipping his neck and head around, mimicking the horse’s braying, loud whinnies and all.
Suddenly, he’s back to being Clifton. He and the crew had spent hours chasing a shot of wild horses in the forest, about a three-mile hike from base camp, he explains. They were losing light. Collins decided to call it, and started heading back. As he strolled, everyone else still packing up and far behind him, he was contemplating how the previous four days had each provided what he calls a “magical moment” of production serendipity—a miracle for such a small film with such a small crew. He thanked the “SAG Gods” for that blessing, but greedily wished for more.
When he glanced up, he saw the mayflies jumping off the water of a stream ahead of him, all of it lit by the dramatic orange light of magic hour. He squatted down, picked up some rocks, and skipped them over the stream, like a little kid. That’s when he noticed her, the mare.
Left or right. That’s what he immediately thought. Which way was he going to parry so that when she inevitably charged him, he would be able to grab her mane, hoist himself up, and then bareback ride her until she was calm? But she didn’t charge. And he didn’t retreat. As she came down off the embankment, he stood so that he was at her eye line.
They’re face to face. She dropped her head and shook her tail, and then began lapping up water from the stream, Collins sitting with her, two creatures at peace at sunset. Another “magical moment.” But the crew had been so far away. Did anyone see it?
The horse trotted off and Collins turned around, where, about 30 feet behind him, cinematographer Adolpho Veloso was lying on his belly, handheld camera to his eyes. He had managed to quietly sneak up, a stealth move that wouldn’t spook the mare.
Now Collins is telling the rest of the story as a whole host of characters.
He pitches his voice up to become Nancy Schafer, a producer who was now running toward him, tears in her eyes at what she had just seen, repeating, “Oh my God, oh my God,” over and over again. He’s sound mixer Sean McCormick, who frantically asked, “Did we get the shot? DID WE?” And then he’s Veloso, calm and assured, deadpanning in a foreign accent: “Yes. I think we did.”
After a hearty laugh, Collins becomes McCormick one last time. “He goes, ‘I was thinking this could go one of two ways…’ Meaning the way it did or the horse running me over and charging me. But that’s not how I saw it. I saw it taking me up the sacred mountain, to the top to meet something.”
The scene in the finished film is stunning. That the capturing of it was so spiritual, that it happened with such kismet, tracks given the intimacy of the storytelling, Collins’ personal connection to it, and his fierce devotion to making sure it happened at all.
Directed by Clint Bentley, who co-wrote it with Greg Kwedar, Jockey is about an aging competitive rider named Jackson Silva, who is training for one last race when an aspiring young rider arrives who claims to also be his son.
Jockey premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival, where Collins was singled out with the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Prize for Acting. Since then, it’s been a mainstay on the festival circuit, with Collins continuing to be recognized for his acting. The day we are meeting for breakfast, we’re both in Georgia for the SCAD Savannah Film Festival, where he was receiving the Distinguished Performance Award. This weekend, he’ll be in Colorado at the Denver Film Festival to receive the John Cassavetes Award.
It’s the classic little-movie-that-could story. Jockey was shot on a micro budget, with a crew so small Collins estimates there may have only been about 10 people on location for filming. But festival crowds that have seen it have been evangelists, especially when it comes to Collins’ performance. The Hollywood Reporter, for example, called him “a revelation as a working-class athlete who can still cut a youthful silhouette even while staring down mortality. In his every glance, Collins conveys the man’s professional pride and his growing vulnerability.”
Nearly 11 months after that first Sundance showing, with more than a month to go before its official release date, Collins is now smack in the middle of the awards conversation. In other words, the Oscars’ dark horse contender has found its Jockey, a fitting parallel to the film itself.
This would be the first Academy Award nomination for the veteran actor, though there are plenty of people still irked that voters failed to recognize him for his work in Capote playing Perry Smith, one of the murderers at the center of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. He’s been acting on screen since the ’90s, racking up multiple credits per year swinging between TV and film, as well as small, independent projects and massive blockbusters.
His profile rose considerably in recent years thanks to his supporting role on HBO’s Westworld. Not only does he have the microbudget Jockey coming out this awards season, he’s also in Guillermo del Toro’s Oscars-tipped psychological thriller Nightmare Alley alongside Cate Blanchett and Bradley Cooper.
He’s the kind of actor who gets off on the traveling-band, summer-camp aspect of mounting an indie film. He has a treasure trove of war stories—stunts gone wrong, tense negotiations with directors—but, for him, they’re love stories, featuring an ensemble of characters that would seem like name-dropping (del Toro, Cooper, Slash, Samuel L. Jackson) were it not so clear that, for him, these are not celebrities. They’re family—family that is now witnessing what seems to be a genuine moment.
“Near the start of the pandemic, I remember mentioning to my manager, wouldn’t it be funny if we finally get Jockey cut together and it comes out, and Guillermo finally gets Nightmare Alley, and then we come out of the pandemic and we’re kind of in the situations we are now, and suddenly I have to get publicists and do a circuit and all that,” he says. “How about that for a crazy idea?”
Collins is Hollywood handsome: a jawline that could have been cut with a laser, a resting face that settles into a mischievous smirk, and striking coffee-colored eyes, the kind that flicker between staring into your soul or delivering a playful wink. It’s the perfect face for a seasoned character actor, capable of contorting into terrifying menace, clownish amusement, or, in the case of Jockey, weary and profound sincerity.
His small frame boasts an obvious athletic build. “I’m kind of known for doing my own stunts, no matter how crazy they are.” There’s the time, for example, he and his Westworld co-star Ed Harris were filming a scene in which their characters ride on horseback into the sunset. Production cleared all the foliage in Harris’ path—and directly into the one Collins was supposed to take. It turns out horses don’t like galloping across scattered piles of cacti.
“I felt my horse set,” he says. “And it’s just like a boxer when a boxer sets. But you don’t want your horse to set. I was like, oh shit. He’s about to jump. So you just hang on. And then you’re up in the air and you fully do the full-blown Urban Cowboy John Travolta thing.”
So now Clifton Collins Jr. knows how to jump horses. In fact, he considers himself hypersensitive to them, thanks to Westworld and, now, Jockey.
The film was shot at a live track, Turf Paradise in Phoenix. It was the kind of environment he lived for. In order to try to be a jockey, he got to try to be a jockey. He hung out almost every day with the other riders at the track, most of whom didn’t know he was an actor. He likens it to the Boy Scouts, the military, or a motorcycle gang—a fraternity where, once you’re around them, you’re desperate to fit in.
Among jockeys, that means cutting weight. Prior to the film, Collins estimates he was about 155 pounds soaking wet, on a good day. He dropped to about 143 throughout production, adopting the other riders’ regimens of training and limiting calorie intake. That typically meant carb-loading in the mornings, and then nursing himself with some almonds here and there throughout the day. “If I was feeling crazy, I’d have a peanut M&M or two, but I have a hard time even telling you that,” he says, grinning. “It’s true. I cheated. There’s a little bit of shame.”
He insists it wasn’t about Method acting or appeasing producers who wanted him to look a certain way for the role. It was about wanting to feel accepted by the other jockeys, about belonging to a group.
He even considered “flipping,” an extreme diet measure that’s akin to bingeing and purging. At some race tracks, there are even porcelain basins stationed around for that unspoken purpose. At the last minute, Collins balked at the idea of doing it. “I thought about it for a minute,” he says. “I wanted to be able to flip without using my finger. I wanted to be able to do what the real G’s do.”
It did help him feel connected to the character: “You’re hyper-aware of every half-pound you drop.” His cheeks started to become drawn, and he noticed he was beginning to look sickly. But he was also out in the sun all day, so he got really tan. “It’s almost model chic. Trailer park model chic.” When he got home after filming, he was still stuck in that mode for another week-and-a-half, unable to shake it.
He worked closely with Bentley and Kwedar on the script and the story. (His wrap presents to both were framed versions of the script pages with the most maniacal amount of notes he had scribbled on them.) It’s not a surprise, then, that there is a personal connection to the story.
His parents weren’t together when he was growing up. “On the weekends that he’d actually show up,” Collins says, his father would take him to the racetrack. They’d leave his trailer park, walk across the street to the liquor store to get a paper bag of booze, and meet his dad’s friends at the Hollywood Park Racetrack in Inglewood, California.
“It’s not the ideal weekend,” he says. “Your dad’s getting fucked up with his boys and he’s taught you that you have to do, basically, math word problems. What is the jockey’s weight? Did he win last time? What were the conditions of the track? Was it raining? Was it muddy? What track was it? Did he place, win, or show? I’m like 9, you know?”
His other project out this season, Nightmare Alley, found him similarly spelunking through his family’s past in ways he perhaps never expected.
In Guillermo del Toro’s film, a remake of the 1947 noir that itself was based on William Lindsay Gresham’s novel, Collins plays Funhouse Jack, an overseer, of sorts, of a seedy carnival.
Especially given the film’s World War II-era showbiz setting, it gave him occasion to reflect on his grandfather, Pedro González González, a character actor best known for his comedic supporting roles in John Wayne movies. (In 2008, González González, considered a trailblazer for the Latin community in Hollywood, received a posthumous star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame that Collins accepted.)
At one point during production, del Toro sat Collins down and insisted that he dig into his family’s history and write a screenplay. “He was like, Clifferton—he calls me Clifferton—your family, with your legacy and with your great-grandparents, you’re like the Latino Barrymores,” a reference to the classic Hollywood acting dynasty. At first, Collins protested, but del Toro stared at him and repeated it until he would concede. “I believe it now because he made me believe it,” he says. “Then I said, ‘Does that make me Drew?’”
Collins had already been ruminating on all of this. He had eight hours of interviews that he had conducted with his grandmother before she died. When he returned home after filming Nightmare Alley in Canada, he discovered three similar interviews with his grandfather he had done over the years. He also had video footage of his grandmother and her two sisters talking about their past, which he describes like watching “the Latina Golden Girls.”
It made him rethink what his parents and family had gone through. He heard stories about when his grandparents were touring the South, trying to get by as entertainers. His grandfather would get off a bus and dig through dumpsters. If he was lucky, he would find a tub of melted Carnation ice cream that he could use to fill bottles to feed Collins’ mother. Sure, there was a lot of sugar. But at least it was milk. And that was on top of the prejudice they faced trying to make it as Mexican American entertainers, walking the fine line of what stereotypes they might exploit in the pursuit of a laugh and a paycheck.
Collins just finished work on the screenplay, and hopes to direct and star in a film version. “It’s been quite debilitating these last couple of weeks,” he says. “I’ve just been depressed on the floor under my table. I can’t return texts. It’s because I’m learning all this stuff. I’m still processing all the trauma, generations of trauma within my family.”
He’s emerging into the circus of awards season, which, even with a pandemic still mandating limits on certain events, means a gauntlet of travel, festival appearances, press, and glad-handing in support of Jockey.
The day before we meet, Variety published a pointed article about his Oscar chances and what it could mean: “Can Clifton Collins Jr.’s Performance in Jockey Break the Oscars Curse for Latino Actors?” A Latino man hasn’t been nominated for Best Actor in 10 years, and only four have made it into the category in the Academy’s 94-year history.
Collins has mixed feelings about all of this. He’s flattered, of course. At the same time, one of the things he was most proud of with Jockey is how his character’s ethnicity wasn’t the point of his journey. Sure, Jackson peppers in Spanish words here and there when it feels natural. “But he’s not rocking the Mexican flag,” Collins says.
“It’s not about that. When you become a part of a community, that is your identity. I’m a jockey. If you’re Black and you’re a jockey, you’re a jockey now. I don’t care what color, what breed. If you’re a jockey, you’re a jockey. Race is not gonna play a part. How fast are you? What do you weigh? That plays a part. I’m going to be prejudiced against you because of your weight. It has nothing to do with the way you look.”
And maybe that’s the point. It’s not lost on Collins that he is being celebrated for a role that doesn’t feature Hollywood stereotypes about the Latin community, roles that he has played in the past, been proud of, and, he feels, are authentic—even if they may be unsavory.
“The Latino community doesn’t really celebrate the gangbanger role, even though that is a very much three-dimensional role,” he says. “It sucks because there are people like Pacino and De Niro that will be honored and celebrated for playing gangbangers from their communities and their cultures. ‘Ooh, The Godfather.’ But if there’s a Mexican Godfather, it’s like ‘Oh, it’s just gangbangers and Cholos.’ Like, wait a minute. Is it because I’m not Italian? Because I’m Latino? Is that a double standard?”
It’s a lot to think about, and he’ll have time to consider it; the awards-season maelstrom has already whipped up into high gear, but the Oscars are still four months away.
But, hey, it’s 2021. What even is time anymore? Jockey’s premiere at Sundance that started it all was in January, which was both a lifetime ago and seems like yesterday. The festival was virtual then during the still-harrowing months of the pandemic. Now people are back at theaters, back at festivals, and back to watching movies on big screens.
Not that he’d trade in the experience he had then. The night Jockey premiered on the virtual platform, he got a hammer and nailed a white bed sheet to the wall of his house. He set up the projector that del Toro had given him as a wrap gift for Nightmare Alley, and his manager and friend Jordan Bridges, the son of Beau, came over.
“Just the three of us, watching on these bed sheets that I just nailed to my wall. I’m like, ‘Fuck it. It’s my house. I’ll spackle it later.’ It felt like Little Rascals. Bedsheets. Our masks. Our hand sanitizers. Munching and smoking and watching. It was pretty good.”