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Your Heart's Just Bleeding Everywhere: Clifton Collins, Jr. on Jockey

Clifton Collins, Jr. gives a performance of heartbreaking tenderness and empathy as the title character in "Jockey," a man who is fighting to hold onto the only place he feels at home, riding a race horse. In an interview, he talked about creating the character's physicality, and about two very different techniques he used in preparing for scenes with his two female co-stars.

Even before your character said anything, I could tell he had broken a lot of bones and fallen a lot of times just from the way that you moved. How did you develop Jackson’s physicality, the way he stands, walks, and moves?

Thank you so much for picking up on that. As an actor you bring these subtleties to the table and you can't really point them out too hard because then it defeats the purpose of the performance. And that's really a testament to [director and co-writer] Clint Bentley. He said, “Jackson's really a broken man. He's got issues and has pain and this and that.” I said, “Okay, cool, so is it cool if I'm just a little janky, walking and certain stuff?” So, there's moments from getting ready to speak to somebody, I'm going to face somebody. So, I would have a little jankiness that I would slowly kind of shift and try to walk a little straighter as I ask Jerry for this horse. I was trying to walk a little straighter and less broken so he'd be like, “Sure.” But you're not going to fool the people who know, the way Ruth [Molly Parker’s character] knows him. I can't hide that from her. She knows me too well. But if you watch when she's sitting at the table you will see how I tried to compose myself and I stopped. No point in trying to pretend.

 Did you do much research? Did you talk to jockeys?

I hung out with them every day. Every day I hung out with, them, spoke to them, talked to them. Sometimes they want me to show up and meet them at a race or the owner of the track, “Hey come on, there's going to be a barbecue tomorrow.” I just wanted to be a part of the life that coexists at the racetrack because the jockeys are always there. Some are in the back, in the trailers. The owner of the tracks may be having a private party there that the jockeys are invited to. I partook in so much of the lifestyle. So that's where I got so much of the detail and the nuance and it gave me the vernacular that I was lacking to be able to apply that to some of the dialogue and some of the rewrites and things of that nature. And culturally speaking, the culture has changed since Clint was riding horses or his father was riding horses. So, to be a part of that and to soak that up it is a humbling honor and privilege to be welcomed into their world the way that they did so open-heartedly.

I'm sure they could tell that you were representing them very respectfully and accurately.

That's my only goal. I will fight for that goal. There's no way you could betray that.

I'm always very curious with actors how you do such a good job of conveying a lifelong relationship with someone that is just another actor. And so your relationship with Molly Parker as Ruth is so authentic. There was so much history and so much shorthand that your characters had with each other. 

We didn't have to really develop it. The kind of artist that Molly is, she showed up a little early also, not as early as I did. I had a week of shooting without Molly and Moises. But she shows up, she's got her trainer, she's spending time with her. When she sits down with me, she's already got all her guns loaded and safeties are off and she's ready to just play with me. So, to sit down with somebody that is that prepared, where I've been just gathering all this Intel and all this stuff and trying to fall into these roles, then just by default of similarity of passions and a process it just starts to boom. Boom, it's right there. She knows how I work. She knows how she works. We're working with each other. It's just neutrons and protons dancing in an atom.

I think a lot of that may be attributed, I'm kind of a whore for rehearsals, and all of the exploration. I don't care if it's in the budget or not, we do it in secret. I don't care, I'll pick you up, who cares, we do FaceTime. I'll do it by myself. So, every day Molly and or Moises would be in my room at the end of shooting, or even before we shot, and we'd go over the next day’s scenes the night before. And a lot of times I'd ask to go over the future scenes. “Hey, let's go over the scene because this will shoot on Thursday, and this one shoots next week on Wednesday unless that moves.” But let's talk about that. Just make sure that we got the flow and things that we're learning and stuff because Moises would go out and do stuff too. But with Molly and I, we'd sit down, we'd catch up on life and rehearse, and go through dialogue and just openly explore. And at that point, I already had so many through lines. To be able to throw the ball with Molly is just a gift. One longs to work with actresses like that. She's magical. Literally, when they call action, you just look into her eyes, you're just taken. She just has you.

I get a feeling for both of your characters that you are so good in one area of life and not so much in any other area of life. And so tell me a little bit about how you would describe your character.

He's just doing what he does to get to where he can get to as best as he can in the state that he's in. Not really paying attention to that state until he's gotten a choice. 

But I think he loves it.

He does love it. But he's also playing a hand that he knew he would get, he just wasn't sure when he was going to get it. And then he gets it at the end. But there's a great degree of pride in that this kid that I've mentored and inspired feels like a son. If I ever had a son, it would have been him. Like my spirit son, or my honorary son, or whatever you want to call it. It's something to cheer and root for. So, I look forward to that. Who knows, maybe I'll end up being some kind of horse trainer or an agent or something. I don't really know. I think at this point he would take a couple days to just kind of lick his wounds. 

He clearly loves that environment. But he clearly loves crossing the finish line. And that's a hard thing to give up.

But the fuse is lit to his ALS and stuff that's kicking in. It's not going to get better; it's only going to get worse. 

And that's such a powerful metaphor. For all of us, there's always a fuse lit. And you always have to make the best of the time that you have. There's a scene in the film, where you have a very difficult and disappointing conversation with your ex. I would love to hear a little bit about how the two of you prepared for that.

That was really interesting. Because [co-writer] Greg Kwedar and Clint came up with this fantastic idea. And I thought it was a little artsy at first, but then I was intrigued by the idea. Hey, Cliff like is partially experimenting with my process as an actor. They're my brothers. I welcome it and encouraging it's part of the fun that we have. But they're like, “Hey, we got this idea.” Colleen Hartnett was an actress in LA but had lived in Arizona for the last 15 years. That was the first acting scene we shot because we'd shot four days of me with the horses and track and no actors. So, she was the very first before Molly and Moises. They're like, “Look, about this scene see, are you opposed to perhaps acting with her when you meet her for the first time? Like you haven't seen each other in 25 years or 20 years. We can get you a photo of her. So you're there and then you see her for the first time as we’re shooting.” 

I get the artsy idea. “I get it. If that's something you want to try to pull off, that means I have got to know the lay of the land, where the cameras going to be. You guys have to kind of pre-plan where you think we'll be landing.” They know to just throw it at me. I've got quite a few films under my belt; I can make it happen.” We don't have the money, but we got the passion and love. We believe in each other so like yes, yes, yes, we can do that. So okay, cool. And then I said, “So, with that said, if it goes south for whatever reason, the experiment doesn't work will we have the time to be able to rehearse it out with her?” Because I don't know how she's going to be. She's very good, we saw her stuff. And they spoke to me about her skill set and what their experiences was just as viewers and working with her. So that gave me all the confidence I needed. Boom, I don't need to ask any more questions. I'm done with that. I trust them implicitly. 

So, then we do the scene and I see her for the first time. And I already know what the kitchen looks like. I know what the lay is and this and that so I know more or less where we're going. They left the lights on when I entered the house. I stayed in a secret bedroom on the side and she had her own secret bedroom and we still hadn't seen each other. It was time to do the same, they put her right there and I was over there. And then we did all of that. There's another version of the scene that's even heavier. I got tears running down and she's amazing too. I think it was after possibly take two because it was so powerful. Like these emotional explosions. I'm really sorry. “I'm Cliff, by the way,” and she's like, “I'm Colleen.” And then we went back into the scene again. So that's how that happened.

There's a lot that was flowing so you're there. Your heart's just bleeding everywhere. And that's just what was already on the page. As we were shooting, I could hear people behind us, somebody crying. I hear two people crying. I'm keeping one foot in the scene and one foot out. I got the producer side of me clipped in. I got the actor side clipped in. And it's like, “You guys, we got to keep it quiet. It's okay to cry but you can't cry during the scene, because we're acting and we're trying to keep our own emotions in check.” And then I go outside and I see Greg Kwedar. He's just got tears all over. Just saturated. It's endearing. It's beautiful. I love these guys.

Nell Minow

Nell Minow is the Contributing Editor at RogerEbert.com.

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