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Photo Courtesy of “Jockey”

On the Verge: Clifton Collins Jr.

Clifton Collins Jr. has two buzzy film projects this award season. The actor stars in the title role of Jockey, playing an aging jockey getting ready for one last championship. However, years of injuries have taken a toll on his body, while the arrival of a new rookie (Moises Arias) claiming to be his son further complicates things. Collins Jr.’s performance in Jockey has already won him a U.S. Dramatic Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. This past week, he was nominated for a best male lead Independent Film Spirit Award.

The 51-year-old actor is also part of the ensemble cast of Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar-contending thriller, Nightmare Alley. He plays the banjo-playing carnie, Funhouse Bob, alongside actors such as Bradley Cooper, Willem Dafoe, and Rooney Mara.

Collins Jr. spoke to Casting Networks about his experiences with the casting process, working creatively with filmmakers and how he prepares for auditions.


You previously worked with Jockey filmmakers Clint Bentley and Greg Kwedar on the 2016 film Transpecos and with del Toro on Pacific Rim. Is it safe to assume you did not have to audition for either of these two new roles?

Clint called me and said he had an idea for a film, and it was the Transpecos collaboration that inspired them to write Jockey for me. They gave me the original script, which was, like, 60 pages. Then we started working together and collaborating on who these characters were.


And Nightmare Alley?

Guillermo wrote that role for me. It was constantly being redeveloped. Over Covid, I had the luxury of reading, I want to say, ten drafts of the script.  And when Guillermo does a polish or a rewrite, it’s Guillermo del Toro, so he’s doing a hell of a polish! It’s not just a change of a word or two. My character was constantly being developed and fleshed out. There were so many different iterations of Funhouse Jack. One thing that remained constant was the playing of the blues. So I was constantly practicing that.


It must feel good to get to the point in your career where you don’t have to audition for roles and prove yourself that way.

I’ve been in this business for close to 30 years. I love auditioning, and I love acting. If I have a chance to audition, that means I have a chance to perform. That’s fun for me. But most of my jobs now come through creative discussions. I’ll read the script, break it down, and have a slew of notes, usually. On rare occasions, I won’t have any notes, like on Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, or Bennett Miller and Dan Futterman’s Capote.


What does that collaborative and creative process look like for you?

There is a beautiful joy in process. I thrive in process. When you have masters like Guillermo that welcome you into that process, my notes come from what’s in the screenplay, and breaking that screenplay down. Within that screenplay I may find loopholes or certain things that build toward theme or arcs of characters that I can speak to.


Is there an example you can give?

I can say, “Hey, Guillermo, I noticed on this page, such and such is happening, but my character says this on page 27. How does that tie into this? Maybe we can do this thing to tie it in.” I try to vicariously learn and feel what the filmmaker’s vision is. Then I want to complement and speak to it and bring anything I can to the table to make it better without upstaging. You want to shine, but you’re not trying to outshine. You’ve got to shine amongst, and with, thereby elevating everybody.


Some actors find the audition process stressful or even terrifying. You mentioned that you find it to be a lot of fun. In what way?

I think it’s a gorgeous exercise to engage in. I have a problem hearing, “Clifton, you gave a good read.” I’m like, “A good read?” I think most people can read. Me, I’m off-book. I come with wardrobe, probably a little bit of makeup, depending on the character. I love having the chance to go in and entertain, perform, and wow somebody, pain someone, or inspire somebody to hate me, or love me, or to laugh at me or laugh with me.


Wow, it really is fun for you!

I do an immense amount of preparation. I shut down everything that’s going on around me, and I delve into [the character]. For those actors who fear auditioning, I think that comes from a lack of preparation. Through preparation, you get rid of all those nerves and anxiety. Once you do, you know how to hit the bullseye. You should be able to hit that bullseye with a blindfold on. But you’ve got to put in the work. I’ve spent a whole night without sleep studying until it was time to audition. You’ve got to have that kind of drive.


So when you’re prepared to that extent, the nerves disappear, and you go for it?

Through that process, the nerves go away, and you can go in there and actually perform, instead of audition. So now, I have a chance to perform! Maybe I’ll get a job out of it, maybe I won’t. But I still performed for you. And everybody in the room, that was my audience.


Jockey comes out in theaters in New York and Los Angeles on December 29, 2021. Nightmare Alley is currently in theaters.

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