Clifton Collins Jr. Interview

The actor pulls off amazing dramatic performance of someone with such a troubled past

Truman Capote was one of America's most prolific authors, and his most famous book was In Cold Blood. It was about the murders of a family in Kansas by two men, Perry Smith and Richard Hickock.

In the film Capote, Clifton Collins Jr. portrays Perry as a naive, confused simple man. He also makes you believe Perry fell for Truman as more than a friend, but a confidant. He trusted Truman to really tell his story as the truth, and possibly find him not guilty in this case.

After a whirlwind adventure up in Toronto, Clifton found our interview room. He's a very quiet person and was willing to open up about how Perry changed his life, for the better:

Was it a conscious effort to make Perry similar to Robert Blake in In Cold Blood?

Clifton Collins Jr: I kind of wanted to come in with my own ideas and collaborate with Bennett Miller closely and also Philip. I didn't want to take what Robert Blake did, and I loved that film and not to take anything away from what he did, but I wanted to come out with an honest, fresh approach to what was on the page – my own in, out.

Do you think Perry was in love with Truman?

Clifton Collins Jr: That's a really interesting question; I think he loved him. I don't really know, but if he was in love with Truman he would have been really torn – he was moralistic in the sense that he was old school, he was homophobic so I have a hard time believing that he would cross that line. I do believe they cared profoundly for each other.

Do you think Perry could have committed the murders?

Clifton Collins Jr: Look at the way Perry grew up, it's not surprising he would grow up to commit an act or acts of violence. In all my friends who are in prison or have gone through the correctional system, they all had some form of abuse, same patterns, lack of parental guidance.

How much research did you do or how much knowledge did you know about this character?

Clifton Collins Jr: None.

What did you do to research Perry?

Clifton Collins Jr: I started with the script, cause I didn't have much time before the audition process. Actually before I got the offer, I started going through some books and I remember a friend coming over and saying ‘What are you doing? Did you get the part? Why don't you put this away?' And I was like ‘Don't worry about it.' I don't know how you can't research someone like Perry, who I felt so much for him; I wanted to bring humanity to him aside from the man who did the crime.

What were you able to find in terms of journalism and research?

Clifton Collins Jr: You kind of have to put up your radar; you can only read In Cold Blood so many times. You kind of get a sense of who he is and who he was and you read something and you say to yourself ‘hmm, that doesn't sound like him; that doesn't seem like something Perry would do.' That's kind of how I went about it. Also, I had a lot of the letters they sent to each other, but it took a long time with soul searching just wrestling with my own demons.

Do you like him?

Clifton Collins Jr: Yeah, like I like all my convict friends (laughing). I guess I have a soft spot for that. I don't like what he did and I don't like anything any of my convict friends do, but I understand why they get there and I sympathize with them.

How do you see his relationship with Dick?

Clifton Collins Jr: He's that big brother, that father figure. But he ends up being like the bad big brother or the bad step father – the guy who should be a role model and then you find someone who really cares about you. Capote had his agenda as well, but they did have a real relationship and it's tragic that Perry would experience something like this after being incarcerated outside the system.

How did you and Philip work out some of the more serious scenes?

Clifton Collins Jr: Lot of rehearsal, lot of exploring, lot of questioning, stuff that actors do.

Was there a lot of adlib or breaking away from script?

Clifton Collins Jr: In rehearsal there was – we would improv, but for me, it became dangerous. I know Philip and Bennett told me they wouldn't tread into that dark area leading up to the confession ‘We're going to stay away from that.' I remember one day, those wily little rascals both went long in that session, even though they said they weren't. Wow, that was emotional; all that rage, all these demons rose up like Linda Blair in The Exorcist, really ugly. But it's good to know these places, good to experiment. We all have our demons, even if we say we don't.

Are you close to your family? Any similarities to Perry's family?

Clifton Collins Jr: I'm very close to my sister, that's my closest family member, well, I have my grandmother. But it was easy to play Perry, but in his family it was just that one sister. I had a father who committed suicide – Perry lost a sister and I think a brother to suicide, a lot of abandonment issues, I'm sure everyone here at this table has some kind of abandonment issues, you know, mine go pretty deep. So I was mixing and matching, identifying – some people take the right path and some people don't.

The confession scene was very intense; what was it like shooting it?

Clifton Collins Jr: We did three takes; the first time, the focus guy forgot to rack cause he was caught up watching it which is really beautiful – and the guy's a bad ass as you can tell. We did one take – that was more out there and expressive; and one that was internal and I think Perry had a hard time owing up to anything he's done wrong in his life. And that's what made that scene so special, I think, the first time he got to own up to it.

Showing flashbacks to show he actually committed the murders was a surprise to me, was it a surprise to you that he actually admitted it?

Clifton Collins Jr: I didn't really know and it didn't concern me; I was just struggling to tell Truman or not tell him cause once I tell him, I've told him everything he needs to know. And are you still going to be there for me?

What was the fascination with words for Perry?

Clifton Collins Jr: He kept this diary that in many strange ways, he longed to be kind of like Truman, he fancied himself as a musician, he fancied himself as Truman-esque even though he didn't really even know Truman. He had this diary that was filled with big words you would never really use. He had speeches in his diary, just in case he might need them, you never know when you'll be called on to make a speech – ‘Here you go, here's my money speech right in my pocket.'

The shooting seemed like being in a play with long two shots; did it feel like that?

Clifton Collins Jr: Absolutely, and the environment was as well. We were setting up the set with lighting or anything, it would always change. It was always so quiet; none of the grips would ask ‘oh, what did you do last night' or something like that. It was all focused and quiet, kind of like being in a library.

You mentioned your grandfather a while ago and we were talking earlier about why you don't use your real last name Gonzales?

Clifton Collins Jr: Originally, I used Collins for the first two years, and I remember my grandfather bitching one morning over breakfast ‘None of these kids know who I am, they don't know who Groucho Marx is, they don't know who John Wayne is.' They ask him if he's ever worked before. I told him, ‘Grandpa, I'm going to take your name; I'm going to bring it back.' He was like ‘Oh, I would love that.' And was like ‘You're latching onto the Latino explosion!' so it had nothing to do with Hollywood and everything to do with my grandfather. And so I went to that; and I lost my father when I was doing 187 and he was always really upset that I took my grandfather's name – ‘You're not Gonzales Gonzales, you're Collins Jr., I'm the father. I said, ‘But you're not an actor, grandpa loves this and he loves what I'm doing and I love him.' And there was a period of time where I'd be haunted by him. I used to live in a trailer park in LA in Inglewood and all these planes go by and I these thoughts come back as I was a child. I started to miss him and I started missing my own name and my grandpa's back movie got released, re-released, released on DVD.

I heard you were doing the Boondock Saints sequel (Boondock II: All Saints Day); I was wondering if you've seen Overnight yet?

Clifton Collins Jr: Have I? I was there when they were shooting it.

Has Troy (Duffy) mellowed out?

Clifton Collins Jr: Quite a bit, yes sir, rightfully so. That's a wonderful documentary – sorry Troy. I love it, it's my guilty pleasure.

So you were there when they were shooting?

Clifton Collins Jr: I was in one of the original cuts. He was just a little bit too much, too soon, too fast, just drunk with power. But he wouldn't listen to anybody; but the same things you love about him, you hate about him. It's kind of like Truman – there were things you loved about him and a lot of things you hated about him. He's like this really strange dichotomy – that's Troy.

Can you relate to Truman as a person?

Clifton Collins Jr: As a person? Not really; I try to vicariously as Perry, but I can only dream about being like him and I can only attempt. And maybe through the attempt I can, but I can only feel it.

If there was something you could attach from yourself to him what would it be?

Clifton Collins Jr: His vocabulary, I was always writing down these big words cause I wanted to have them and remember them, like megadalopolis, it's the definition for being big fingered – like who would ever use this word.

What kind of perk is it for you to be able to get your hands on some of this research?

Clifton Collins Jr: It was a big benefit to me to have him be a real guy, but even with that said, personally I can never get my hands on enough research material. I couldn't get any sound bytes on him, I wanted to be able to hear his voice; cause a lot of times, someone moves, the way they walk or move gives you so much insight into what they've been through and I got a couple little seconds of when he got arrested at the courthouse that they have, but I couldn't hear his voice at all. There's countless stuff on Truman and I had fun sitting with Philip watching a lot of that and I was always jealous of him – ‘Man, you get to hear that, it's such a gift, it's such a tool.' But on the same note, I was able to create my own thing.

It must have been like that when you did The Hillside Strangler?

Clifton Collins Jr: Yeah, I saw a lot of that, too. Kenneth (Bianchi) was different; I didn't like Kenneth, I didn't, I didn't. He was trying to find a way to get out of this twisted thing he got caught up in and he's not Perry at all; I cried for Perry.

Does that affect your performance if you don't like the character you're playing? Are you not able to bring everything to that?

Clifton Collins Jr: No, I get lost in the goal, I get lost in his agenda and his objective; Kenneth Bianchi was so complex, it was challenging to me as an actor, it's something I really wanted to do. And then watching those tapes of him being hypnotized and his alter-ego comes out, it's so unbelievable, it's so intriguing. It's like ‘Wow, you're going to try to pull that off like this?'

There's a scene at the end where Chris Cooper's character shakes Perry's hand; is it documented that that actually happened?

Clifton Collins Jr: As far as I know, yeah. For me, it was incredible; I discussed this with Bennett, I think a strange part of Perry wanted to get caught, not that Perry was a serial killer, but serial killers leave these clues. But to break it down to a smaller scale, like a child acting out, you want the attention, you want to act out, ‘hey here I am.' I think that night, he was at the wrong place at the wrong time, I don't think he had the intention of killing that family ever. To see the father there, asking about the family, to be there; Perry actually stopped Dick Hickock from raping Nancy, he was really a pedophile, Dick. It just shows, he had this strange site into what's right and what's wrong.

Is there a point that you can't have sympathy for these people and realize that they are the people are monsters who killed four people?

Clifton Collins Jr: This act was monstrous, I don't think he was ever a monster and that was my goal to show the humanity in who he is. And ultimately, I think Perry's journey is he made his apologies for it, he finally owned up to it, he said this happened, ‘I'm the guy, it wasn't Dick, there's no conspiracy, it's me, I did it, I pulled the trigger.'

Did you ever ask why? Truman never does, so do you know why?

Clifton Collins Jr: As Clifton and Perry, I can identify with, it's complicated, I can't put it into words, being there that night, being there all night, I can see Mr. Clutter, I can see these things, I can see how this never was meant to happen. He grew up around a hunter, his father was a hunter, a gold miner, once his throat was cut, he wasn't a medic. Not to put it in these terms, but once your horse is down, you got to take her out; it's not like I'm going to kill my horse. And then the family is there; do I want this family to grow up without a father, like I didn't have. There are all these questions, you can look at both sides, Perry's kind of torn.

Do you think this is the first time he had taken a life?

Clifton Collins Jr: He claims it wasn't; he claims he through someone off a bridge during the war, but I don't know that to be true. It seems back then, if you could take big about something bad, you were a bad dude. Dick was a big talker and Perry wanted to be what Dick pretended to be, but Perry really was.

Which war?

Clifton Collins Jr: I want to say the Korean, don't quote me on that one.

Where does this fit in your grand career plan? What enters into the decisions for the roles you choose?

Clifton Collins Jr: Right now, my choices come from a part that I haven't played before, to grow and destroy the mold of the character of the last thing I played. I always want to go way out in left field from where I was, just keep it mixed up, and keep the people guessing, keep myself guessing, I love it; it keeps me alive?

So Tom Picasso (Tom 51) is very different from Perry?

Clifton Collins Jr: Tom Picasso is very fun, it's a comedy, it's very different, it was lighthearted, I had a bunch of friends involved. If you love what you do, then why not keep doing what you do, so we put this project together; I called up a bunch of my friends involved and lets all hang out and make a movie, it was that kind of thing. It was fun, I didn't cry, I didn't get hung, I didn't stab anyone, I didn't rape no one, I didn't spray Windex in anyone's jugular, none of this stuff, it was just fun. I got to laugh, I love to laugh, I love what I do. And it's great to play something like this, to get together with Philip; it's just a great joy, but I like to laugh a lot too.

So you're one of the voices in one of the most controversial video games of all time; have you been following that, what's your take on that?

Clifton Collins Jr: I don't know, I think it's just bad; I love Grand Theft Auto, first of all, but I don't like the way it makes me feel. ‘Woah, I just carjacked somebody and I'm happy,' that's not good. My biggest concern is just the kids, parental guidance, they've got to be educated in these games. My cousin was a police officer for Oakland, he got caught up in the whole Oakland Riders trial. His son will stop at all the stop lights and won't do the carjacking – ‘No, it's wrong,' and he doesn't play the game the way you're supposed to play it, cause his dad's a cop (lots of laughing).

Did you know about the hidden scenes?

Clifton Collins Jr: I just found out about the hidden scenes a few weeks ago, but in all honesty, I've had so much work to do, I haven't even gotten to my character, which is embarrassing; I got past level three and I'm almost there. I start spray painting the walls and I can't find that last thing I'm supposed to spray paint.

Do you have anything else lined up besides Boondock?

Clifton Collins Jr: Yes sir, I start Babel, Alejandro Gonzalez's film with Gael Garcia and Brad Pitt, Kate Winslet (Cate Blanchette will actually be starring in this film.). And then I'm hoping to jump on Joe Carahan's film; he's very much like a Troy Duffy, their intensity and how they are, their machismo. I love to work with Joe. In Babel, I got that magic red script with my name on it, so I can't really talk about it.

Capote is currently in theaters in Los Angeles and New York; look for the film to open nationwide soon. It's rated 'R.'