Clifton Collins Jr. is the sort of actor you don’t know you know, you know? Perhaps you know him for his hauntingly restrained portrayal of a murderer in Capote, or as a villain in the most recent Star Trek film. For years Collins’ been portraying an absurdly diverse range of characters with the precision and enthusiasm that can only come from someone with an obsession for their craft and entertainers blood pumping through their veins (his grandfather was discovered on Groucho Marx’s quiz show, You Bet Your Life, and went on to star in John Wayne movies).
Now, with a role in Guillermo del Toro’s upcoming monsters vs. robots mega blockbuster, Pacific Rim, and roles in not one, but two Terrence Malick films, Collins is poised to have the biggest year yet of his enviable career. If his upcoming film work wasn’t impressive enough, Collins is also a regular on ABC’s brand new thriller, Red Widow. We caught up with Collins recently to discuss making the move to TV, his love for Guillermo del Toro, and the sheer joy of working with Terence Malick.
Tell me about your character in Pacific Rim.
I play Tendo Choi. It’s a character Guillermo literally handcrafted for me, which is probably one of the most flattering things that happened last year. Guillermo called me one day and said, “I’d love to write this for you, it would be an honor to work with you.” I said, “Are you kidding? You’re Guillerno del Toro! You’ve got it all backwards. The honor is mine. You’re like the Mexican Hitchcock.” We did a beautiful three picture deal and the whole nine. He’s got me speaking Cantonese.
Yeah, that’s what I said when I read it. (Speaks Cantonese).
Some of it is like, “get the fuck out of here.” Some really crazy shit happens, as you can imagine.
It’s such an effects-driven film. What was filming like? Were you in front of a green screen the entire time?
I really had to use my imagination to see things that weren’t there and believe it, because the more you believe it the easier it is to interact in this imaginary world Guillermo’s created. There were many practical sets but the very first day was rather difficult for me, personally. I’m standing on the third story of this set they built and I’m looking at the robot that Charlie Hunnam’s going to be operating. I’m breaking down on the technical aspects of it while I’m looking at a gigantic green screen. The first day was rough. Plus you have those first day of school nerves going.
How do you prepare for something like that?
I bought Robots for Dummies and I bought all these robot kits to learn the basic mechanics in hopes that I could get some foundation of how robots work. Honestly, it didn’t really help all that much except for the fact that I had basic visuals. These robots have come a long way from Lost in Space.
What was it like working with Guillermo?
It was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had. He treats his entire crew like family. He’s a huge lover of film. This guy wrote the book on the definition of camera movement in all of Hitchcock’s films at the age of 19. It was very much a collaborative, creative experience, even down to my wardrobe and some of the props I had. We had a really great talk about some of the other films I had done and Guillermo knew right away how I worked. When I sat down with the prop guy he said, “Which one of these watches do you like?” I said, “I kind of like this one but what is Guillermo thinking?” And he says, “He actually thought that you would want to choose your watch, being the kind of actor you are.” Usually we were already on the same page. It was an instant bromance, almost turned me gay. I love this guy.
You worked with Terrence Malick twice this year, first in Knight of Cups and then in another untitled project. He’s a director who’s famously adored or despised by his actors. What was your experience with Malick like?
I think he’s amazing. He’s truly a unique filmmaker. It’s as though the world was created for Malick to film in and there’s something so precious and innocent about that. I adapt to so many different environments, which maybe is tied into my character work. I love adapting, whether I’m learning German or learning Cantonese. The first film I did with Malick, Knight of Cups, we had 10 pages of ideas, it wasn’t really a scripted scene. Usually you think about the scene and the emotional content and play in that area, then you evolve into the dialogue and all this stuff. This case is very different. It can be nerve wracking but he gives you all the peace of mind on the planet. He says, “Just forget about everything. I want you guys to have fun and play and if you come up with some stuff, just throw it in.” So once I had that green light to improvise it was a blast. The second film I did with him I was reunited with Benicio del Toro, which is always fun.
Were there any highlights while shooting either of these films?
I had a gigantic scene that was completely improvised that was so magical. I was thinking, I was in Vancouver 48 hours ago in cold-ass weather shooting Red Widow, and now I’m in an infinity pool in Austin overlooking this gigantic lake with this hot woman, and Benicio del Toro and Michael Fassbender are boogying to African drum beats, and Natalie Portman is sexily sashaying around. And there’s Terrence Malick shooting me with a camera. What the hell is going on? I was waiting for Kutcher to come out and tell me I was Punk’d.
You’re describing every man’s fantasy.
It was truly magical. His process is not the norm, it’s not the stuff that you learn in film school, but it’s definitely the stuff that beautiful creative moments come out of. There’s nobody like him.
As you mentioned, you’re starring in a series called Red Widow. Do you have a preference between film and television?
It’s interesting. If you were to ask me that a year and a half ago I’d have a much different opinion. Working with Melissa Rosenberg and her staff of writers and the cast that we have has completely changed my idea of television. Granted, this situation is not the norm. There’s so much creative collaboration and there’s so much love. It reads like a graphic novel. It’s a page-turner.
Even the teaser looks thrilling.
It is! I can put my stamp on this project. I’m proud of Melissa, she’s so aware of her artistry. She sat me down at one point and told me there are some sexy things that happen later on in this piece. She says, “Clifton, don’t take this the wrong way, but you are the man meat. You’re the sexy FBI guy.”
And you are ready to be man meat?
I am! I’m totally ready. I was already pretty much in shape when I got up there. If I could do some fed work on my days off, I would. I called my FBI tech the other day, who has some amazing cases, and asked how he detoxes this stuff. I had like 30 breakdowns prepping this. I’m a federal agent and these agents go through a lot of trauma, they see a lot of dark, dark things. I tip my hats to them. So I missed out on a few opportunities to bond with my castmates, as I love to do, because I was watching these dark things. You’re not going to walk out afterwards and want to go to the bar and grab a drink.
Photography by Elias Tahan