Clifton Collins Jr.

The highly versatile actor talks about his role in the film based off the wonderful true story

Clifton Collins Jr. had one hell of a year in 2009, appearing in a vast array of films portraying vastly different characters such as Star Trek, The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day, Brothers and Extract, just to name a few. He's back this year with a starring role in the true-story sports film The Perfect Game, which was released in theaters this past weekend. I've talked with Collins several times over the past year and it's always great to get a chance to speak with him, as he is truly one of my favorite actors working in the biz today. We spoke for so long, in fact, that I'll be splitting the interview into two parts, this part where he talks about this new film and the second part where he discusses the new projects on the horizon. Here's what he had to say this time around.

This is kind insane, isn't it? You shot this movie about three years ago, I believe? What does it feel like to finally have this come out?

Clifton Collins Jr.: It's actually really beautiful. I've got to be honest, man, I had this conversation with my manager and after awhile, you realize things aren't going the way you thought or going the way certain people tell you they're going to go, meaning people say, 'This will be released in a couple of weeks or a couple of months,' and I knew that when we were shooting it, things weren't sound. I figured, if this movie, it had shot once before and now it's back again, if all these things are happening, you're not going to be able to stop this film. I don't mean that it's going to be like an Avatar, I just mean that it will find its audience. I said to myself, after I was in the midst of the storm and watching the havoc, I said, 'You know what, that's OK. This can go straight to DVD and it's going to find its audience and it's going to be great.' That's what you want. You want people to enjoy it, you want people to get the message, and they will get the message. It's just like the original Boondock Saints. It had zero P&A (publicity and advertising), no release and look what it did. I think we're just lucky that it is a good message and it is a good family film. There are great performances, it's a beautiful tale and it's a true story, and what a perfect time.

I remember one of the last times we talked that they originally offered you the part and then they went into production and got shut down and then they came back to you again. Did they kind of reboot the whole thing? Did they have to re-cast other actors besides you or was it a whole fresh start when you came on?

Clifton Collins Jr.: There was a lot of 'he said, she said,' finger-pointing, all kinds of stuff. It's something that ultimately turned out for my benefit. I honestly wasn't in a position to turn down work, but I knew that, in regards to the diversity in my career and the path that I've chosen, I couldn't afford to do another Latino role at that point, as much as I wanted to. It's just a testament to following your heart and things will work out the way you want to. I wanted to do it and one of my friends, Jacob Vargas, said, 'You know, Clifton, this is a really special story, you should look into it.' I said that I'd love to but I can't. I read the story and I thought it was precious. I had a few script notes but it was just a beautiful tale overall. I wished I could do it but I couldn't. I told my manager and explained it to him and he kind of fought me on it a little bit. I just said that my diversity and my artistry and my career as a whole has to come first. Do I want to do this movie? Yeah. Can I afford to do it? No, I can't, because it would've been like four Latino roles back to back. It's like Jimi Hendrix saying, 'If I stay too long, the people will try to hold me down, you dig?' (Laughs)

I was also curious about your own background with baseball in general. Did you play as a kid or have any background with Little League? Did you have to learn some new tricks to play this coach, Cesar?

Clifton Collins Jr.: I did, man. It was a great thing for me and to fall in love with a character and a tale, you really want to do it justice. With Little League, I played for the Expos with my cousin. I was really bad. I'd swing at any ball that came my way. I don't care if it was over by where they players were sitting on the benches, I was going to be there trying to hit it (Laughs). Also in the outfield, I was guaranteed to get clobbered in the head. I was terrible. Also, I had a stepdad that also kind of pushed me into it. He'd take me to ballgames and he was less than the person that you wanted... It's funny. I was talking to a close friend of mine who is also my business manager. He's got some kids and he said, 'Oh, this baseball movie that you're doing, baseball is so great.' I said, 'Tell me about it,' because I want to be here. He said, 'I go with my sons and just to see the looks on their faces. It's not even really about the game sometimes, it's really about just enjoying it with your kid.' I thought, 'You know, that's a beautiful story and that's what the American pastime is all about, spending it with your family, but I wasn't privy to that relationship with my stepdad.' My stepdad didn't really want me around and I was kind of like this little hanger-on that was at a ballgame with him. I've got a lot of really bad memories with that, just lonely, abandoned kind of stuff, so to get into this, and fortunately for me, I love kids, and these kids, I couldn't have been blessed with a better cast to work with. I had so much fun and I still talk to them today. I asked the producers, 'I want to sit down with a real coach. I want to learn the fundamentals of baseball. I want to learn these things, to teach the mechanics.' They'd say, 'Great, Clifton. Tomorrow we're trying to get you somebody. Don't worry about it.' They promised me somebody for like three weeks while they were working on my script notes and suggestions. Then I had the privilege and honor of working with this guy who was training me. His name is Tony Rivera and he's one of the owners of Primo and he owns like seven World Series rings. I think I've seen like five of them. I spent an afternoon with him, throwing the ball and hitting the ball and listening to him and it made all the difference in the world. I mean, in a perfect world, I would've loved to spend every day with him for a week, because his direction is so precise, so he helped me and the kids brought the love back into it for me.

I read that all the kids' footage had to be reshot because they all had growth spurts between filming the first time around and then when you came on board.

Clifton Collins Jr.: Yeah. They put them on hold, but kids at that age, they grow pretty fast. It was funny because I saw the rough footage from Mexico and they were even smaller than when I had worked with them. Then I saw them again at the premiere, and they're even bigger now. I think Jake T. Austin is working on his second divorce (Laughs).

You said before how much you enjoyed working with all of the kids. Can you expand on that a bit more and talk about your overall experience in working with them?

Clifton Collins Jr.: It was a blast. Aside from these kids being dedicated - I mean they're still kids so they goof around like any kid - but quite a few of the kids on set were pretty serious about their craft. It's such a rarity to work with actors today that are really serious about their craft, much less a child that is so focused, and not focused because their parents are making them, but focused because they have a genuine love for what they do. I couldn't help but see so much of myself in them. When Jake T. Austin would sit and ask about a scene, what I thought about the characters, he'd ask me a real question and I was really flattered, surprised and happy . Ryan Ochoa sat me down and was talking to me about what really happens in an audition room. Do they really care about my day when they say, 'How was your day?' or are they tricking me to see who I am? They're asking me real questions about things that it took me years to learn and I looked at them with big eyes and said, 'Holy shit. You know what? I'm going to tell you something that's taken me years to learn,' and I told them. I told them exactly the plusses and minuses and the best ways to travel with it and not piss people off or burn bridges, be diplomatic. They're so driven and I love kids like that. I love kids with focus. You can have your fun too.

Aside from the kids, you have a really great cast of adult actors as well. You have Cheech Marin, Louis Gossett Jr., Bruce McGill, Emilie de Ravin, David Koechner. What was it like to come together with these guys as well?

Clifton Collins Jr.: Man, David Koechner is hilarious. As you know, we also did Extract together. We spent New Year's over at Slash's house and laughed our asses off. I think I did karaoke for the first time in my life and actually enjoyed myself. Cheech is an icon and a legend and he's been a friend for a long time. I love being able to work with these people and hear the stories of what they went through. It's kind of like the missing gap, for people like Cheech or George Lopez, any of my mentors or elders. It's like a generation gap. It'd be like if my dad had become an actor. I hear these stories from my grandpa and that generation and all these other mentors that I have along the way, the Samuel L. Jackson's and such, that can fill in that blank for me, the dark area that's missing. And also, don't forget, Louis Gossett Jr., he's on screen in like three different moments and you feel just the power of Louis Gossett Jr.. I longed to work with him more days but his time on the film was short. I've been a fan of his and he's just awesome. I loved him in the film. He brings such a regal and royalty and humility, all these nuances to the character.

Can you talk about your experiences working with the director William Dear? He has done a few baseball movies before. What was it like working with him for this film?

Clifton Collins Jr.: Bill is a big kid at heart. In that sense it's kind of fun, but you kind of have to be there a little bit and make sure you're trying to make your day and not making an EPK, stuff like that. He's always just a pleasant, fun personality, fun to talk to and hang out with. He's never too serious and I found myself kind of being the adult sometimes. I would say, 'Come on, Bill, we've got to do this,' and he's just fun like a kid. He's a funny dude and he's fun to work with.

You can watch Clifton Collins Jr. in his brand new film The Perfect Game, which is currently playing in theaters everywhere. Be sure to also check out the second part of my interview where he talks about his upcoming future projects.