The star of Sundance hit Jockey speaks on the intricacy of working with animals and his love of movie westerns.
Clifton Collins Jr is one of the most well-versed character actors in the business and his latest film, Jockey, is a career-best performance that sees him finally get the credit he’s always deserved. With unflinching dedication and unparalleled commitment, Collins threw himself head-first into this character study of an ageing jockey whose retirement is staved off by the arrival of a racehorse that is a sure bet for victory.
LWLies: You’ve worked with the writers of Jockey previously but the character of Jackson was written specifically for you. What is it like coming aboard a project in this context?
Collins: We had a previous experience on Transpecos, a film that Greg Kwedar directed and Clint Bentley produced, so it was through that collaboration we got to learn about one another. To continue to build upon our process that was already developing a quick shorthand is a dream scenario for an actor. When I got the initial script it was sixty pages but they knew so much about my personal past. [Jockey] is a little piece of all three of us, Greg, Clint and myself.
How did you go about integrating yourself into this live racecourse and getting familiar with the nuances of the extremely competitive horse racing community?
Extreme humility. I wanted to blend in. I didn’t want to be the ‘actor guy.’ That said, I went to great lengths to do things to help people feel comfortable. I’ll do all the groundwork, happily and willingly. I want to know what that work is because you don’t start at the top, you start at the bottom. Also, because we were a skeleton crew it allotted for a great deal of anonymity which is another gift. No one’s singling us out, I had people coming up saying ‘I didn’t see you on the form, I’m gonna put some money on you.’ They don’t expect to see an actor there and with the size of the crew, it probably looked like a documentary crew. It made it easier to acclimate, to delve into that world and soak up as much as you can.
It was very difficult to leave them. I still speak to some of the jockeys today but I miss it. The people and the jockeys have so much heart. There’s something very attractive about being with people that are so humble and resilient and willing to risk everything for that one winning moment.
It’s such a dangerous sport, a completely different physicality with handling horses and sitting in the saddle compared to horse riding.
You’re right. You’re sitting in the saddle up to the gate then you’re up and pretty much on your feet in the stirrups whereas on Westworld you’re seated in comfortable saddles. The saddles on quarter horses are like little g-strings with a bit of foam in them. When you get into that gate, that’s half the danger right there. The sheer anticipation of hearing the horses loading up and the gate locking up: clack clack clack. It’s palpable. You’re in sync with your horse and when that last gate closes you know you’ve got anywhere from a half-second to maybe two seconds which get stretched out to a minute in your brain because your anxiety is so high. It’s a lot.
There are some amazing scenes between your character and Molly Parker’s, the cracks in his stoic masculinity beginning to open. How was building the long-term jockey-trainer relationship with her in the short amount of filming time?
We shot the film in twenty days and I got there two weeks early to hang out with the jockeys and to workshop the screenplay with Clint and Greg. That all said, prior to getting out there I did extensive research via YouTube finding obscure interviews of trainers and jockeys, getting the beat on that relationship. The finer nuances come from actually being on a worksite and running dialogue exploring scenes, moments, and possibilities. When you have an actress who is as talented as Molly Parker, I mean, she brings it all. It’s almost effortless acting with her. She’s a force to reckon with. When they call action, boy lookout, because it’s *finger guns* boom!
How did you approach that collaboration with Bentley for his directorial debut alongside the fact that this is a personal story to him?
First-time directors and their first films, there’s so much you can find out about the filmmaker just through the project. That always plays in my head because sometimes you’re so deep in the forest you’re not really sure what the path is. [Jockey] is very dear to his heart so you always want to honour the material and help it to blossom and bear the fruit you think it should be bearing.
Jockey feels a part of this cinematic western renaissance. Your grandfather, Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez, starred in a number of Westerns, namely Rio Bravo. With Jockey and Westworld, is the western a genre you find yourself drawn to personally and professionally?
Without a doubt. I would love to do a hardcore western. On Westworld, we had some of the best horse wranglers this business has to offer. Our horses were highly, highly trained, it’s like the accuracy of a Porsche. It’s so meticulous whereas with quarter horses you just hang on for dear life. They’re in sync with you but it’s a different thing, you’re just a passenger and not driving. I’ve learnt their personalities and characters that I didn’t quite know on Westworld because of the nature of our stuff [on Jockey] you had to be hyper in touch with these horses. I never used peppermints. I always wanted my relationship with the horses to be organic as silly as that might sound. And those wild mustangs that appeared in the river, there was no horse wrangler. The sun was going down and I had that moment with a beautiful white mare.
That scene wasn’t planned?
It actually was written in the script. I remember that morning looking at Greg Kwedar and going ‘ok Greg, so today we’re going to go to the park without a horse wrangler and these wild mustangs are going to cross and we’re going to catch it all on film?’ It sounds so absurd! I remember Greg realising what a big ask that was and just shrugging his shoulders. For that magic shot we got, I was already walking back to basecamp and had this moment with the white mare that just stopped me in my tracks, for the obvious reason I mean it could’ve run me over. It was just her and I, we locked eyes and the whole world disappeared. It was one of the most magical moments of the entire year for me.
You choose some great directors to work with. What are you looking for from roles at this point in your career as you choose a real mix of studio and indie films?
It doesn’t matter how big the character is as long as he’s got a good arc. Moreso, the filmmaker. When you have a beautiful collaborator and also mentor like Guillermo del Toro it’s hard to say no. You don’t want to ever say no. It doesn’t matter how big or how small, any chance to be with the man and get any bit of his pixie dust on you that will make you a better artist and in turn a better human is a beautiful gift.
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Published 3 Feb 2022
Clint Bentley's debut feature is an authentic character study profiling the realm of professional horse racing.
The Yul Brynner-starring original from 1973 expertly fuses futuristic science fiction and classic western tropes.