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Interview with “Jockey” Star Clifton Collins Jr.

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | October 24th, 2021

l-r: Christopher Llewellyn Reed and Clifton Collins Jr. at the 2021 Middleburg Film Festival

I recently watched Jockey (which I also reviewed), from director Clint Bentley, slated for a December 29 (initially limited) release from Sony Pictures Classics, at the 2021 Middleburg Film Festival, where I also had a chance to interview its star, Clifton Collins Jr. (Transpecos). In the movie, Collins plays the titular role of an aging champion jockey struggling to maintain his position within horse racing even as his health and fortunes decline. Joined by Moises Arias (Monos) and Molly Parker (Deadwood: The Movie), as well as an ensemble of real-life jockeys, Collins leads the way in this gritty drama. Here is a condensed digest of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Film poster: “Jockey”

Christopher Llewellyn Reed: How did you first meet Jockey director Clint Bentley and co-writer Greg Kwedar for your collaboration on the first film you did with them, which was the 2016 Transpecos?

Clifton Collins Jr.: Which Greg directed.

CLR: Right. He directed that one.

CCJr: And they both co-wrote. Greg called me. I think he got ahold of my manager at that time. And we had a meeting, we sat down, and I read their screenplay. I had a series of script notes and I knew it was a lot. So I said, “Hey, let’s sit down and go over these notes. And if you guys are okay with the notes, what’s important to me is not that you take my note, what’s important to me is that you understand my note. Because in understanding the note, we can make the changes because maybe I’m not right or I’m misinformed about something. And if I am, we can find a better way to get to that place.” So, that collaboration, which has continued to build, was what led to Jockey.

And now, we’re like all elevated through working with this. We have a shorthand, a mythology that they’re expecting and an evolution. It’s just the same process, but excelled. And it’s a joy to jump into that, so much so. And our friendship had evolved so much, which helps in doing a film like Jockey, where there are a lot of risks taken: working on a live track, one; two, originally started with the same budget as Transpecos, but days before shooting, maybe a week, I get the call that we lost half our budget. So now the possibilities for things going wrong just increased tenfold. But I know what the process is, and I know that we’ve evolved. And they’re my friends and they wrote this for me. So let’s get down. They know I don’t care how dirty it gets.

CLR: Well, speaking of getting dirty on this track, there was a time, in the heyday of the Hollywood Western, when basically every actor who wanted to act had to know how to deal with horses. And I understand that your grandfather, Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez, was in many a Hollywood Western, including one of my favorites, Rio Bravo.

CCJr: Yes, sir.

CLR: Yeah, I love that film. How about for you, an actor of your generation? Did you grow up around horses, and know how to ride horses? Or is this something that you did when you started to take roles that required you to be on horses

CCJr: I’ve ridden horses before. Anytime there is any type of dangerous situation in film or television, I would always ask for some type of rehearsal or an opportunity for a way for me to do all the skill set. I remember, doing a pilot long ago and I had to be on a polo team and I’ve never played polo. So I’m like, “Okay, this could be dangerous because they sent a stuntman,” this and that. I said, “Well, let’s really do this.” I went to the ranch and I said, “I want to meet the horse that I’m going to be riding. I don’t want to just meet the horse on the day. I know enough about horses that I need to know this horse.” So they said, “Okay.”

I drove all the way down there. And these old timers, just grizzled old, tobacco-chewing … racist, who knows? I don’t know, probably, they’re old school. So they’re like, “All right, we got to get him saddled up, take this kid, he got to learn XYZ. What’s your story, boy?” And I had a picture of my grandfather, and I say, “That was my grandfather, Pedro Gonzalez.” “Gonzalez Gonzalez, well s***, you should already been known how to ride these horses. We’re going to have you spit-shined. Grandpa’s going to be proud of you.” They really took me in, like this is something you have to know. So, I started there and then it escalated all the way to Westworld. We had some of the best horse wranglers and trainers on that, and gunslingers that I would spend time with.

Still from JOCKEY ©Sony Pictures Classics

CLR: In your prep for this role, in particular, I understand you spent a lot of time with real-life jockey Logan Cormier. He’s in the film playing your friend, Leo. What was that like, learning from an actual jockey to get ready for your own role?

CCJr: Well, it wasn’t just him for him because he played my best friend, too. I’d always have him come over where I was or we’d kick it and stuff. But, whenever I can get into the jockeys’ room and just take in that culture and acclimate to their environment, the dos and don’ts and things of that nature, I do. 

CLR: You’re my size, more or less, and that to me seems big for a jockey. Moises Arias is a much smaller guy. Did you find that there were a lot of jockeys your size?

CCJr: I dropped to 143 pounds. There are quite a few jockeys that are taller than me. Actually, the one that loses his sense of smell, he’s taller than me, he’s a good two inches taller.

CLR: Okay. So there are taller jockeys.

CCJr: Oh yeah, for sure. So, spending the time with them … maybe you want to hang out and talk about nothing, we can do that, too. So, it was a lot of fun. Stuff that goes on behind the scenes is way crazier than what happens on the track. It’s insane. And it allows me to be crazy, in my own right, which is pretty out there, as well, which they loved. So, they realized I’m not just, like, f***ing trained actor guy. I’m a crazy nutball that found a job that allows him to be himself without getting fired. (laughs)

Molly Parker in poster for HBO “Deadwood” series

CLR: So speaking of being a crazy actor, Moises Arias, who in the other films I’ve seen him in has been pretty crazy, is much more restrained in this film. And then, speaking of Westerns, Molly Parker is in this film, too. I have been a huge fan of her ever since Deadwood.

CCJr: Sure. My God.

CLR: What was it like working with each of them?

CCJr: It was fantastic. Molly is so incredibly involved and present. When you do the kind of research that one does, the way I did for this particular role, and then you have an actress like Molly Parker show up who’s just got her guns all cocked and loaded. You’re just like, “Oh s***.” You sit there, it’s so much fun to work with people that care about what they’re doing.

CLR: Have you ever worked with actors who don’t?

CCJr: Absolutely. Or their image is more important or their fame is more important. It’s just the noise that surrounds the process, unfortunately. And it’s a necessary evil, if you will. But some people relish and thrive in that. And so be it. More power to you. There’s a world for that, it just doesn’t involve me.

CLR: Sure. But Molly’s not like that.

CCJr: Molly is not like that at all. And she was coming up and she’s still on this hit show right now. And she’s coming in for no money. There’s no trailers, no first AD [Assistant Director], no second, no hair, no makeup. You are just getting dirty and you’re just lying in things. You’re swinging for the fences. We’d sit together every night in my room and go through scenes, same with Moises. And we’d run through the dialogue and hang out and just kind of decompress while preparing. And there’s something really beautiful to have that kind of luxury.

You know, like when you’re at the Courtyard Marriott, where I brought stuff to make it my home. Which included little sparkly lights and freaking mood lights and speakers, my guitar, and tools that I might need for the character. Clothes, bins of clothing. Because I’m driving from Studio City to Northern Phoenix, I’m not driving back to get s***. Anything else you would get here. So, I brought literally a load. I said, “Rent me a truck.” Because I’m going to bring this, whatever the f*** I can. We got no money. All we got is what we bring to the f***ing table. I’m bringing everything I can.

Film poster: “The Mule”

CLR: Speaking of a Courtyard Marriott, you and I actually physically crossed paths once before, though you didn’t know this, back in 2018 when you were filming The Mule. I was in Las Cruces, New Mexico, for a conference and I wasn’t staying in whatever hotel you were staying in, but other people were. We had dinner and you walk in. I’m like, “Isn’t that … ?” Because you guys were all there in a not particularly fancy hotel for the Clint Eastwood film.

CCJr: Sure. I was losing my goddamn mind on that one. So, what you saw was just me in the middle of my chaos, which was also my preparation. And that was a restaurant, right?

CLR: Yeah. It was a restaurant.

CCJr: So, I only had two meals there. One was with a dear friend of mine, who’s done several Clint Eastwood films. But I’ve known him since the beginning of his career, like 22 years ago. And he’s an old hood friend of mine. So, we have that cultural connection, too. And he knows how I work and I know how he works. And he sat me down and he let me know. He said, “Clifton, just so you know, old dude’s probably going to do … just know that first rehearsal is the first take.” I see. He goes, “Part two is he’s probably going to ask you to do some of this s*** in Spanish.” He might just say, “Hey, all right, next take is Spanish.” That’s the intel I was looking for! Thank you, family. Thank you. Because I had the weight of my grandfather looking over my shoulder, the weight of the Westerns, the weight of my family legacy outweighed anything the studio had to say to me.

CLR: I was really curious about this shot that repeats twice, but in two different ways, where the camera’s right on you as you’re riding down the track. We don’t see the race. One time it’s one kind of race and then at the end it’s a very different kind of race, but the camera’s right on you. Were you actually on a horse or were you on something else? Because the camera’s so close and is tracking along with you. If you were on an actual horse, that’s pretty remarkable camera work.

CCJr: Yeah. We had a pretty remarkable DP [Director of Photography].

CLR: So, you were on a horse for this?

CCJr: I was on a lot of horses. Yeah.

Clifton Collins Jr. (center) in JOCKEY ©Sony Pictures Classics

CLR: But, even in that tracking shot all the way down? That’s incredible! 

CCJr: Look, I was this close to actually running a race, running a real race during a race which is very dangerous. But you’re the lead of the film, you got to be really careful with a lot of things. And for films that matter like Jockey, I’m happy to do that crazy dangerous s***, but let’s be smart. You do that the last day or second-to-last day. Make sure it’s in.

CLR: So, if you get injured, you’re not …

CCJr: Get the shot, get the shot! Look, when I was getting that s*** and stuff in my face, there’s times it went straight in my mouth. Because certain people didn’t have their timing on how the horses move and the beats and stuff. So I’m like, “Shut up … keep filming … we got to get the shot, keep filming it … let’s go!” I can’t breathe. Can’t inhale, like you’re trying to get a breath in and that horse is 1200 pounds. You’re breathing heavy, you’re breathing f***ing heavy. And you got a f***ing giant frigging half-a-bucket full of horse manure going down your throat and you’re trying to breathe, all you care about is getting the f***ing shot. You don’t want people to be scared. Like, “Sorry but shut up … let’s go. Get the shot!”

CLR: Well, that’s a great image to end on. Thank you so much for talking to me!

CCJr: Thank you, brother.

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is a former cohost of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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