Few things feel better as a film lover than getting to see a longtime character actor, someone who’s been stealing scenes in supporting parts for decades, getting the chance to shine in a plum leading role and absolutely knocking it out of the park. Richard Jenkins in The Visitor. Melissa Leo in Frozen River. Clifton Collins Jr. in Jockey

Debuting to strong word at this year’s Sundance (our review here), Jockey stars Collins as Jackson Silva, a late-in-his-career jockey trying to make one last push for glory when Ruth (Molly Parker), a trainer and Jackson’s longtime friend, acquires a mighty impressive new horse. At the same time, Jackson’s world is thrown for a loop when a young rider (Moises Arias) shows up claiming to be his son. 

This intimate character study, directed by Clint Bentley and co-written by Bentley and Greg Kwedar (who had worked with Collins before on Transpecos), hums with authenticity, drawing from Bentley’s personal experiences in the racetrack scene. The cast and crew embedded themselves in this world for the duration of the shoot, and it shows with this on-the-ground story of a man battling time to pursue the thing he loves, while considering there might be more to life beyond those seconds of glory on the track. 

With the film making its way to theaters in the heat of awards season, we spoke with Collins about his remarkable performance—a rare leading role in a career that has featured turns in films from directors including Steven Soderbergh, Bennett Miller, Joel Schumacher, and Guillermo del Toro, whose Nightmare Alley you can also currently spot Collins appearing in.

The Film Stage: You had worked with Clint and Greg before, and they wrote this part in Jockey specifically for you. Once you knew what the character was, what were the first steps for you to get into the role? 

Clifton Collins Jr: I’m surprised Clint Bentley didn’t give you that question because he was constantly asking me “What do you think [the character] sounds like? Where do you think he’s coming from?” and I was always like, “I’m working on it, I’m working on it.” I didn’t want to expose it too early. Clint gets a little antsy, and I totally understand that. 

I started with the broad strokes, watching docs and finding obscure interviews on jockeys past and present––things of that nature. I was listening to tones and cadences of accents to try and define where Jackson comes from. We weren’t sure if he was gonna be Latino, or maybe he was Cajun, or maybe something else. It takes me a couple of weeks, usually. Sometimes it comes faster, to hear a voice, to hear a tone, to hear a certain sound about him. You’re just stealing every little tidbit of information from the research that you do. It can be slow, and Clint was getting really antsy, and I just kept telling him, “Don’t worry about it, I’m getting to it. I’m getting to it.” 

We FaceTimed probably three or four days before I started driving out to Northern Phoenix, and I decided I was going to give him a little taste. So, right before I hung up, I spoke a sentence or two and told him that was where I was thinking I was leaning towards—I knew that was exactly where I was going, but I always say “I’m thinking” just to give it a little room to breathe. He loved it, though, and then once I got to set things were becoming much clearer as I was working with Clint and Greg every night on the scenes before we started shooting. I was set on having a very specific pace for Jackson, especially after having met all of the jockeys, and that helped things really come together for me. I knew he had a certain rhythm to him. 

Clint has mentioned that part of the thrill of working with you is that you have this talent, this range, that he feels other filmmakers haven’t tapped into. You’ve spent a lot of your career stealing scenes in character roles as this kind of journeyman actor—do you feel that with this leading role you were able to tap into a part of your skill set that you hadn’t tapped into before as much? 

I’m always tapping into that, whether it’s small or big. I love little roles with arcs that I can steal things from. Like you said, steal scenes. I love to be standouts like that—without upstaging! I definitely love to be standouts. In this respect, with this film, to be able to collaborate with two young artists like Greg and Clint, it’s a dream. I think that’s where the real magic happens. There’s a confidence. There’s a comfort level. There’s an insane amount of trust. There’s no ego, and that’s how we set the table and the tone, and how we were working to polish this because it was constantly evolving. It’s easier to dial into those kinds of performances when everybody’s on the same page, and you’ve got everybody’s support, and you’re supporting everybody.

You had a very small crew on the film, and part of what makes it standout was the fact that you all got into the real world of this environment. As you said, meeting the jockeys, and the people who work on these tracks. How was it for you coming in as an outsider, working to gain their acceptance and trust to allow you into this world? 

That was first and foremost. I just wanted to be accepted and belong. We do that in everyday life, too, whether we got a new job or we’re going to a new school, or you’re joining a new martial arts class or a dance class. You just want to belong, to be one of the boys, to fit in. Sure, we’re there to make a movie, but if I’m not accepted and embraced by the people that I’m representing, then I don’t know how I would feel acting that role. That was my biggest thing. I didn’t want to be seen as an actor. I wanted everyone to just pretend I was a retired actor, that I didn’t want to act anymore, and I want to be a jockey now. 

I’m a Dickies guy, you know what I mean? I’m not a fancy pants guy. I’ll get dirty with any of ‘em, with the best of ‘em, and I might get even dirtier. When in Rome, right? To be embraced by them is one of the greatest joys. It’s the biggest box of tools that you can ever get as an actor, because you’re stealing nuances, you’re stealing keywords that are used within that culture. This is a culture that has evolved so much from when Clint was racing, and certainly since Clint’s father was racing. It’s an enormous gift. I think that’s kind of the key. I always get close to my technical advisors on films, but when you have the luxury of actually delving into the world and just coexisting and living there all day, every day, that was the best. 

One of the standout scenes in the film is referred to as the Jockey Church scene, which has this sort of AA-esque meeting with all of the jockeys going around giving their war stories about the toll the sport has taken on them. How did hearing from those guys help inform the part for you, and did that experience give you anything that you took outside into your normal life as well? 

Originally, I had dialogue in that scene, and I spoke with Clint and decided that I didn’t think Jackson was ready yet to talk about his ailments publicly because they were that close to him. They were almost ready to expose themselves, whether he could control it or not, so there was this fear of being discovered, and he couldn’t actually talk about his ailments. 

Then, being in that room, listening to those that were okay with talking about these things, it reminds him of this situation he has with this kid that may or may not be his son. So, when he hears them, it’s kind of like he’s thinking, “Oh, maybe this would be a good time to have a son.” Maybe that is his kid, and he’d hate to run the risk of pushing him to the side. Why not mentor somebody that is showing up with open arms, wanting to be a sponge to soak up things because he’s a fan of yours? And that’s the same for me with any fan that might approach me on the street, someone that’s got dreams of being an actor or things of that nature. When they come with true, honest intentions, you can’t turn them away. It’s impossible. For me, anyway. 

Those guys in that scene are talking about the passion they have for this sport that keeps breaking them down, destroying their body, but because they love it so much they just keep getting up and going back to it. Do you find a parallel there with your passion for acting? While it doesn’t take the physical toll on you that being a jockey does, it’s certainly a career with a lot of highs and lows, but if you love it you always push through those lows. 

There’s a beautiful parallel. Probably my first decade of acting, I got to a place where I realized that if I really prepared, and I dedicated an immense amount of time to the point where all the nerves were gone, I would have an actual, honest chance at performing. Whether they gave me the role or not, I still had a chance to perform it. I’d be going into the audition in a little bit of a wardrobe. I’d probably have done a little bit of rewrites. I’d gotten a cool cadence to whatever this character might be in my mind. I can perform it. 

A lot of these jockeys, they might win a race, and then they might not win for a couple of weeks, but they’re gonna race every day. If they can’t, if they get hurt, they’re gonna wrap it up, and maybe take a pain pill, and then keep racing because of the thrill of it. Because they really love it. Sure, they wanna win, but there’s still a thrill of being on that horse. You’re going 40 miles an hour, and you hear the thunder, you’re together with the horse and moving in unison, you’re the yin and the yang, and you’re trying to make it through and you wanna win. 

It’s a rush. It’s the same rush that you get when you execute a beautiful performance that you spent a day, or five days, preparing. I’ll cut off my whole world. I’ll cancel my dates. I’ll tell my dad, I’ll tell a girlfriend that I’ve got to call it off, because I want to slam this performance. When I see the look on someone’s face, like “Oh my God,” whether they’re smiling or laughing or crying, that’s the joy. I might get a phone call saying that I got the gig. I might not. Either way, I already affected them. I’ve already touched them. That’s the goal of any artist: to touch people. 

Thinking back on your career, one of the roles that always comes to mind is your soulful performance as Perry Smith in Capote, where you shared most of your scenes with Philip Seymour Hoffman, maybe the best actor to ever do it. What was that collaborative process like working with him? 

We worked both similarly and differently. He’s very intense. It’s a little more excruciating for Philip, rest in peace. I remember him telling me, “I don’t have fun acting, Clifton.” I said, “What do you mean? You don’t have fun?” and he goes, “You know what’s fun for me? It’s having cigarettes. Smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee with my friends. That’s fun.” I think that’s also some of the curse of being an artist—you long for, I don’t want to say perfection, but for true authenticity in the sense of building an organic performance. 

For me, it’s very much a collaborative thing. We had extensive rehearsals on Capote. Bennett Miller, Dan Futterman, and Philip had a relationship since they were like fifteen years old so, much like in the book, I was the outsider there. Perry Smith and Clifton Collins Jr. were both the outsiders, so those paralleled greatly. I love my crew, you know? They work their butts off for you all day and night. Many of the crew on Jockey I had worked with before, and I love to be with the people, man. When you’ve got a crew of ten, you need some extra hands. So, I was often carrying gear, and then you’re having fun doing this thing, and you’re all doing it together, and everybody’s focused on the same thing, and you all have the same tensions. When you’re working with a bunch of people that have like minds, a lot of magic happens. 

There was a lot of magic with Capote too, but it was a much bigger piece. Philip liked to have a little bit of distance between the crew and himself. That movie was a big risk for him, you know? He lost a lot of weight. He’s got a naturally very deep baritone voice, and he raised it like five octaves. It was tough for him. For me, I consider myself to be a part of the crew all the time. It doesn’t really matter the scope of the project for me, personally.

Jockey releases in select theaters on December 29.

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