Q & A with Clifton Collins Jr. of 'Sunshine Cleaning'

April 16, 2009 

I love character actors. The most fun I’ve had interviewing actors over the years has been those that do the small roles that can make or break the movie. One of my favorites is Clifton Collins Jr.

Who?

Now that’s the mark of a great character actor. When you see his picture, you go, “Oh, that guy. He’s really good.”

Collins has a small and critical role in the new movie Sunshine Cleaning. He’s the one-armed owner of a store that sells cleaning supplies to characters played by Amy Adams and Emily Blunt. Winston helps them a lot because he knows the rules and regulations they need to follow to be able to legally do the job of cleaning up crime scenes.

It’s a low-key, excellent piece of work and, as always, Collins is terrific. He is also a co-star in the new Star Trek movie that opens on May 8.

Sunshine Cleaning opens at Carmike Cinemas on Friday, April 17.

Wolcott: You remind me of the guy in high school. Sits in the back of the room. Doesn’t say much. Very quiet. For a long time I didn’t get to know him, but he exuded this centered confidence, a cooler than cool demeanor. Once we finally talked, I found him to be very deep with many dimensions to his personality. Are you that kind of person?

Collins: I can be. And I like to play characters that are always thinking.

Wolcott: Playing a character has to be a lot more fun than being a big star and getting stuck doing basically the same person over and over again.

Collins: I definitely have more fun.

Wolcott: What attracted you to Winston?

Collins: I’ve never played a character missing a limb before. But he’s the voice of reason. There’s a beautiful irony in Winston in that he is not physically complete but emotionally together. Everybody’s more capable in what they’re able to do but the guy with one arm teaches them how to appreciate and love life.

Wolcott: That’s an interesting way to put it. When you pick a character, what are you looking for?

Collins: I just want to be remembered. I want to do a character that you either love passionately or you laugh at or laugh with. I just want you to get lost a little bit and forget about the problems of your day, and if I can do that I’ve done my job.

Wolcott: I like you in everything you do, but I don’t see you enough. Why is that?

Collins: I have a good way of hiding.

Wolcott: Why are the parts you do so memorable?

Collins: When I look for a role I first ask, ‘How can I make this role memorable? How can I make you love this person or hate this person passionately?’ If I can’t bring that to the page, whether they want me or not, I’m not that interested. It’s not fulfilling. I want to bring something to the table.

Wolcott: Which Winston does. How do you prepare for a role like Winston?

Collins: Winston was a little different. I had a lot of questions that there weren’t really answers to. I wanted to prepare a loose background for him. My director [Christine Jeffs] was so focused on the story’s meat that she didn’t give it much thought, either. So I went to a doctor and asked about people that lose limbs.

I asked how does it affect their psyche? On a physical level, I found out, your limbs don’t know they’ve been amputated. Whatever’s left continues to move. The first question I asked is ‘Am I a below the shoulder amputee or a below the elbow amputee?’ After that I asked, ‘how are we going to do this?’

Wolcott: I have friends who are missing limbs. You nailed it.

Collins: There are two different ways to film something like this. The first is to put a green sleeve onto my arm. They then are able to remove the limb [via special effects] in post-production. The other way we tried was to get me a prosthetic nub and then tie my arm behind my back. But the nub wouldn’t move and it would for a person with an amputated arm.

I ended up trying my arm behind my back really tight with a belt and then pretended that it didn’t hurt at all.

Wolcott: Ouch. That’s hard to do.

Collins: But I pulled it off, right?

Wolcott: (laugh) Maybe. You do have this pained expression on your face most of the time.

You’re also in the new Star Trek. What’s that like?

Collins: It’s a little surreal. I had a lot of fun working with J.J. Abrams. You can trust a person like J.J. And it’s fun to be a part of the revamping of the Paramount franchise.

Wolcott: I try not to learn much about a movie before I see it so I know very little about the film. You have a pretty central role in the plot don’t you?

Collins: Eric Bana and I are Romulans, and we have a bit of a beef with some of the folks on the Enterprise.

Wolcott: Do you like being a villain?

Collins: I do. It’s a blast. I do enjoy it and have a lot of fun playing bad guys depending on what kind of a bad guy you are.

Wolcott: So what’s more fun—a good guy or a bad guy?

Collins: It just depends on the character, the layers, where they come from, who they are, what their intentions are. It can be boring being a good guy or a bad guy if he’s written that way. First I have to find out what kind of a film am I jumping into. What is the overall feeling of the character I’m playing? You don’t want to take away from a film or a character, you want to compliment.

Wolcott: Great character actors—like yourself—understand that. In the 18 years I’ve been doing this, I’ve seen a lot of movies. Playing a supporting character is one of the hardest things to be as an actor because you support so much, fill in the blanks, and often anchor the movie.

Collins: If I can be a character that people fall in love with then I’ve done the job.

Wolcott: Do you become your character during the entire shooting of the film? Some actors do.

Collins: I try not to but sometimes you really get caught up in the role, you get consumed by the role and you work so hard that it’s hard not to. You’re like a little kid with a new toy. It’s hard not to play with it.

Wolcott: Do you have a favorite film that you’ve done?

Collins: That’s a tough one. And one I can’t answer. I love what I do and the roles that I go after are generally for different reasons. I just like breathing life into somebody. Sometimes I just love the collaboration with my crew or director, or other actors. It’s very rare that I take a role and not love him. I love almost every single character I’ve ever played. So I can’t make you a list.

Wolcott: Who do you like? Who impresses you?

Collins: I love Christian Bale. He brings such truth to all the roles he plays. Whether you agree with his choices or not, he’s 100% convicted. Another person I love watching is Gary Oldman. Sometimes he’s over the top and sometimes he’s pumped the character up but you know he’s doing it for a reason.

Wolcott: Did you like Heath Ledger’s Joker?

Collins: I did. I just saw it recently. Heath was a friend of mine and it was kind of tough.

Wolcott: He was an amazing actor. Like all actors he had to do a lot of crap movies, but when you put him a role that had some depth or a film with some depth, Ledger was one of the best ever. I would have given him the Oscar for Brokeback Mountain instead of Philip Seymour Hoffman for Capote.

Collins: I didn’t see it. I grew up watching cowboys. John Wayne was my grandfather’s boss. John Wayne was everything that was macho when I was growing up. I know it is one of those special things, and I’ll probably watch it someday I am sure.

Wolcott: Any roles you didn’t get that you wanted?

Collins: The Wilson role in Cast Away.

Wolcott: (laughs) OK, what haven’t you done that you’d like to do?

Collins: I’d love to find myself a good western. Did you like 3:10 to Yuma?

Wolcott: It was OK, not bad but not great. I liked Appaloosa better. They should make more westerns and you’d be good in one.

Collins: I come from an acting family. My grandfather was in Rio Bravo. He played the hotel owner. My grandfather started my career. He had me tap dancing at seven.

Wolcott: And now you’re now directing music videos.

Collins: I just wrapped one up. It’s a lot of fun.

Wolcott: Do you want to direct a full-length feature?

Collins: Yes. I have five scripts now that I’m working on, and two of them are ready to rock and roll. The others are still developing. I love storytelling.

Wolcott: If you’re as good giving three-dimensions to your movies as you are to your characters, then I’m looking forward to seeing them.

Collins: Why thank you. I hope to be able to do that for you.

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