Serial killer. Gay hitman. Interstellar evildoer. Clifton Collins Jr.’s movie roles don’t exactly scream out “family movie.” But this week in The Perfect Game, the chameleon-like Mexican-American character actor (Star Trek, Boondock Saints, Capote) takes on just that, playing the real-life Mexican-American Little League coach who turned a rag-tag group of boys from Monterrey into the first non-U.S. team to win the Little League World Series in 1957. On the way to glory, the team had to endure blatant racism, lack of money and equipment and other challenges. Collins talked to Latina.com about overcoming his own odds, branching out in his career (he is currently on TNT’s critically acclaimed Southland and directs a Web channel TheTVFantastic.com) and about bringing the story of his hero, trailblazing acting grandfather Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez, to life. It turns out that the actor, who next plays an ex-Aryan Brotherhood con in The Experiment, is far from done taking the kind of risks that have made him a sought-after, intensely watchable actor.
The Perfect Game is very different for you.
I know! I ain’t been PG in 20 years!
What drew you to a kids’ film?
Working with Cheech Marin, to start with. And the story is timeless, so special. I don’t mean to be superstitious. I love the sentiment of the piece. I had the honor to sit down with Angel Macias [the team’s pitcher] and others. To hear the real stories the true stories of what they went through, it was a gut-wrencher and a tearjerker. I was like, ‘So glad that you made it and were driven and didn’t care that the other kids were bigger and you didn’t care that the teams were American and that the odds were against you. You had this passion to see it through regardless, for the love of the game.’ I think it’s such a beautiful message that transcends anything.
What was one of the more touching stories they told you?
The catcher was telling me about how they once had bunk beds on the road. He woke up in the middle of the night to find that the teammate in the bottom bunk was actually sleeping on the floor. And he’s like, ‘What are you doing on the floor? You have a bed. Why don’t you sleep in it?’ And the boy was like, ‘I’ve never slept in a bed before. I don’t know how to sleep in it.’ Your heart goes out to those little kids.
Did you like working with kids?
Yeah. I loved hanging out every day and work with these fine young talents. We ate meals together and they asked me real questions about acting and career—things that took me forever to learn. I still get texts from them all the time. Plus, what other set can you sit and throw dirt clods at your costars? I couldn’t do that on set One Eight Seven with Samuel Jackson. I would have gotten whacked.
Did you shoot in Mexico?
Are you kidding? The cast and crew would be gone by now!
Although if anyone would take a risk like that, it might be you. You certainly take a lot of onscreen risks…
I like to do my own stunts and my own fighting and my own horse riding. I just like to make it look real in a stunt and fight sense, as long as I’m not holding up production, it’s great. I’m not one of those lazy actors. If I got a weekend to rest up, I’m good.
Well, no one could accuse you of being lazy. You made 7 or 8 films just last year.
I love what I do. If I could get paid for building model airplanes and tanks, I’d do that too.
What was it like for you to be on a big studio blockbuster like Star Trek [in which he played baddie Ayel] when you usually do smaller indies?
Star Trek was great, because director JJ Abrams called me at home and offered that to me. Just to be considered for that by JJ, it was a great feeling. It was kinda confusing, though. I’ve never been in outer space.
You’re on Southland now. How is TV working out for you?
Southland has completely changed my ideas on television. I always thought TV was quick, fast, they don’t care if it’s real or focused. And Southland is completely different. They shoot in real neighborhoods, real gangs, real people. That was part of the joy for me, along with working with John Wells [producer of ER and The West Wing] and [actress] Regina King. I play her new partner and it was kinda surreal how effortlessly we flowed together.
You’ve directed an award-winning video for the Zac Brown Band and you you’re your own web channel, where you post webisodes that you and your friends make. Tell us about going behind the camera.
It just comes down to the fact that I love storytelling. I remember my grandfather sitting around the dinner table telling stories, whether it be about extreme poverty, of being born in a tent or hanging out with Groucho Marx and going to premieres with John Wayne. And with my family being entertainers, there was always music. We could be making tamales, or my grandma be making gorditas, and we’d break out the instruments. I’d play my clarinet. I do really miss those days. Now, when do stuff with my friends, it’s kinda an extension of my family.
You’re also making a documentary on your granddad.
Yeah, it’s been really difficult. We’ve shot in Texas, went to the original bus station that my grandfather left from to do the Groucho Marx Show. I went to the original house my grandparents bought when they first got married. It was beautiful.
Your granddad is the big hero in your life. What did you learn about him that you making the documentary?
Just how driven entertainer he always was. Even though he knew that he was great, he was still humble. I remember him telling me how he would watch John Wayne movies and think, ‘If I could just hold the reins to his horse, I could die a happy man.’ Little did he know that later, he would be contract player for John Wayne. He wouldn’t just be holding the reins, he’d be the manager of the hotel building in Rio Bravo, or his oil rigging buddy in Hellfire. It’s hard enough trying to get work today, being literate and having a knowledge of Hollywood history and relationships. Much less to be an actor in the 50s? A contract player? And wait, you’re Mexican American? And oh, you have a thick accent, oh and wait a minute, you can’t read? How did this happen? Talk about the American dream. All you have to have is drive. I’ll tell you one thing, never stop believing in yourself. Always have confidence.
Is there a dream role or project?
It’s always something that I’ve never done before, new different, exciting.