Star Trek. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Capote. Boondock Saints 2. Sunshine Cleaning. Prolific character actor Clifton Collins, Jr. is everywhere and then some, and that only touches on a small fraction of the number of films he’s had roles in. Most recently, he appears in Guillermo del Toro’s giant monsters vs. giant robots blockbuster, Pacific Rim. In del Toro’s colorful vision of the apocalypse, Collins plays Tendo Choi, a Chinese-American technician and the brains behind the massive robots called Jaegers, which humanity uses to fight off the colossal, invading alien monsters known as Kaiju.
Like del Toro, Collins is a busy man; he not only has Pacific Rim under his belt in 2013, but also Parker, ABC’s Red Widow, a horror film called Hellbenders (to be released this Halloween), and Terrence Malick’s (The Tree of Life) currently-untitled next film, which is presently in post-production. Among other projects, 2014 sees Collins in Transcendence, Dark Knight Trilogy cinematographer Wally Pfister’s directorial debut film about deceased man (Johnny Depp) whose brain is uploaded into a computer following his assassination. Not a light slate by any stretch of the means.
Screen Rant had the chance to catch up with Collins about Pacific Rim, and the discussion drifted from that film to Transcendence, the rumored third Boondock Saints film, what it’s like working with directors like del Toro and Malick, and the benefits of doing stunt work.
So let’s talk about Pacific Rim, which just opened up this weekend. The film has such a big, wide-open world that draws on so many different influences for its foundation. Here you’re portraying Tendo Choi, one of the Jaeger technicians; what inspirations did you use for playing this character?
Inspiration? Honestly, working with the passion of Guillermo del Toro. You put that in your tank and you just go. [laughs] You know, he’s exceptionally passionate and he’s quite the visionary. What I like to do is listen to director commentaries if I don’t get a sit-down with the actual director, so I listened to, you know, Pan’s Labyrinth and The Orphanage and The Devil’s Backbone, the commentaries on them on top of watching the films, and just got a sense of his reality and how he likes to play within those worlds.
So I did that, and then after that came the magical collaboration between he and I, and I just kind of ran with that. And then you get the whole saving the planet thing. [laughs] If that doesn’t motivate you, I don’t know what will.
Yeah, that’s pretty universal, right?
You know, if you don’t care about your family, if you don’t care about the planet and you don’t recycle, then maybe you might have a problem. [laughs]
You mentioned Guillermo’s passion – one thing I really appreciated about the film is that it feels so lived-in and bursts with a sense of scale. How challenging is it for an actor to stand out in an environment that’s so bustling, alive, and brimming with energy?
The key for me as an actor…you want to be singled out, but to actually stand outside of the context of the scope of the story is, in truth told, kind of doing an injustice to the piece, if you will. That doesn’t mean you can’t be fantastic in what you’re doing, but I generally try not to even think about that kind of stuff. I’m always excited about the choices I bring to the table, and once again I always do hope I get singled out. Then there are spaces of imagining, and creating, and playing, literally. You always look for obvious yet fleeting choices that are going to make a difference and help you stand out in a place that’s, like you said, where there’s a lot of commotion going on, and that still allows you to fit in and not upstage the action – not that I could ever upstage the Jaegers or the Kaiju! [laughs]
I completely forgot I was in the movie, I was so taken by the craftsmanship of Guillermo, of both Guillermos, in the special effects, and the music, and the sound design, and the colors and all this stuff. It really became a time machine for me, I turned into a giddy little seven-year-old boy, like, “Whoa, where did I just go?” [laughs] So much fun.
So it’s more about blending in than anything else?
So your position in the film allows you to interact with a lot of the other characters, and the other actors. What kinds of relationships did you have or develop with your fellow cast members?
Pretty awesome. You know, when you enter the film under the umbrella with the love and passion that Guillermo del Toro has, it’s kind of hard to come in less than enthusiastic. Everybody is there with the same positive, hard-working, creative energy. So we all hung out at different times with each other. It was fantastic. Charlie Day and I, we were hanging out at the premiere, and it was so great to see everybody together in one place again after such a huge endeavor to get this bad boy together, and give it out, and all this other stuff, and just to celebrate. And I was sitting there with Charlie and he said, [mimicking Charlie Day] “You know Clinton, I think this is the most fun I’ve ever had. On set and stuff, it was pleasant. In fact, you know what, it was fun.” [laughs]
And we’d hang, and play the blues, and Charlie Hunnam’s awesome, and we all went out and supported Idris [Elba] when he was DJing one night – it’s not really music that’s gotten in my playlist, but I love Idris and I’m gonna support anything he does. And he was awesome, and the music was great. So we all got to hang out. It’s family, you know? And you’re part of a team, and we’re all hardcore team players.
That feels really appropriate and in-line with the themes of the film.
I remember, at the end of the movie…I know it’s just a movie but you know, as an actor you really get lost in these roles, and that’s part of the fun. When you’ve got a captain of the ship like Guillermo, it’s a lot easier to do, and it just naturally kind of escapes you. And I remember sitting there at the end of the movie going, “Oh my god, we did it! We saved the world!” Idiot, it’s a movie!
That’s the catharsis we get just watching movies in the first place, right?
It really is. I just find it so self-amusing when the actor himself thinks he saved the planet, when it’s just a movie we all put together.
Well, you all saved the planet this time, and maybe this is jumping the shark, but if Pacific Rim 2 ever comes along, is that something you’d be on board with?
Oh man, I jumped on board at day one when they asked me to do part two and three. So yeah, I don’t think there’s a single one of us that wouldn’t want to be involved with anything else Guillermo does. He really creates a positive environment. But there’s already been talk about the sequel coming along!
Yeah, there was talk even before the film came out!
I remember reading that as well!
Well, I totally dug it, so I’ll definitely keep my fingers crossed!
You know, I hear you, and I’m getting Tweets from people watching it two or three times. If I wrap my film in time, I’m gonna go see it again, probably in Denver.
I’m looking forward to taking my family to see it.
You know, Guillermo nuances a film the way fine actor nuances a performance. There’s just an insane amount of layers – visually, musically, story-wise. It’s just a gigantic world, and you can’t go to Disney Land or Magic Mountain just one time. You’ve got to go a few times to really get the lay of the land. You’re always going to pick up new stuff with him. I’m just fascinated with the foreground and the background, and what’s in the immediate frame, the style of the music and how they change it. There’s so much attention to detail, and I think that’s one of the things that makes this so fantastic, really.
I completely agree with you. That’s why I’m a fan of del Toro’s films.
He’s a badass, what else can you say?
Shifting gears a bit, earlier we were talking about Transcendence, which you’ve been doing shooting on. There hasn’t been a whole lot of info released about the film so far; is there anything you can tell us about the film itself, your role, or any challenges you’ve run into while shooting? I know Wally Pfister is keeping mum on this…
Yeah, it is pretty mum, but it’s also pretty fantastic and pretty amazing, I gotta tell you. Working with Wally has been a lot of fun too. Whenever there’s time, he takes a peek at the camera while he’s directing, and I gotta say man, it totally is, it’s kind of pornoish! It’s awesome. I love it when he picks up the camera, I feel like I’m walking into a strip club with a pocket full of per diem. He’s such a badass with the camera. It’s like, shut up, listen watch, and learn!
And they’ve got a great cast. We have legends like Morgan Freeman, and then we’ve got Paul Bettany, Cillian Murphy, Rebecca Hall, Cole Hauser…it’s just a really fine cast, and we all get along famously as well. The shoot here is a little different, though, not like on ‘Pacific Rim’ where we’re all doing things together and stuff. We only get to see each other for two hours, but as soon as we do we’re all over each other. We had a fun off-the-cuff weekend not that long ago, we all got together and sang songs, and played guitars, and had some delicious food and told stories. Stuff like that.
It’s been a great time. Paul put it best when he said, “it’s never going to be like this again”, but I was like, “we’ll do it again next weekend”. [laughs]
Talking about additional feature projects: there have been some whispers and rumors from Troy Duffy about a potential Boondock Saints 3 movie…
If I may ask, has he spoken to you about that and is that something else you’re interested in hopping back into?
Are you kidding? Oh, in a heartbeat, man. Troy’s a dear friend of mine. We go back before Boondock Saints. I mean, it was funny, we did a live Q&A for the new Blu-Ray DVD release director’s cut for Boondock Saints, there’s 20 extra minutes of stuff we shot that didn’t make it. But talking to Troy about the character, he said, “Cliffy, I wrote you man. So just be you, man!” [laughs] Maybe there’s more to this character than I’m admitting. He’s a lot like me. Troy basically just wrote me into the piece. Not that I sit around crying all the time. I might whine here and there. I don’t know, I talk a lot of [expletive]. [laughs]
So yes, to answer your question, there’s a new Boondock Saints 3 in the works right now and Troy’s busy writing it.
Will there be room for a Romeo comeback?
Pretty sure! That’s kind of how we left part two.
Sounds like it’s just in the formative stages though.
Well, I’ll tell you, Troy writes pretty fast. I wouldn’t be surprised if I came home and there was a script for me. I might just call him, I spoke to him briefly the other day but we didn’t get a chance to get into it. But fans of the series are just going crazy, they’re salivating over it.
I’m sure they are!
And mostly it’d be fun for me too as I know how Troy works a lot better now, and there are things I can prepare for ahead of time. I just remember how many stunts I did last time – all of them!
Do you commonly do your own stunts?
You know, I keep forgetting that that was kind of like the table setting I laid out for my career early on, that I like to do my own stunts. There’s a beautiful truth that can be acquired in doing your own stunts as a character – your character would choose to fight a certain way, or choose to react a certain way, or choose to a load a gun a certain way, you know what I mean? There are just certain things an actor can innately bring to a stunt just by sheer knowledge of who that character is, provided you’re that kind of actor. That’s the kind of stuff I like to do.
Though don’t get me wrong, if I’ve gotta jump off a building, I like to have a stuntman! [laughs]But I can do most of my crazy fighting tricks, weapon stuff, stuff that I’ve been doing since I was a kid. It’s kind of a no-brainer. Now that I’m older I’ve really gotta warm up, stretch out. I’m not the flying buck I used to be in martial arts class, flying side kicks, spinning crescent kicks, all that other stuff. Of course Flannery never had that problem because he’s constantly doing it every day!
Any other projects that you’ve got coming up?
There are the Terrence Malick films…
Right! I meant to talk to you about those films. Mind chatting about your involvement in Terrence’s next two projects a bit?
You know, I’ve gotta say, I’ve had a very crazy year, and I’m very blessed. It was the fourth of July that I first got involved with his films, and it was an amazing treat. I mean, this guy, it’s almost like the world was created for him to shoot, and there’s something really fascinating and whimsical about his style and how he works and stuff. I can’t tell you how great that was. It was a dream come true.
Malick’s in this stage where he’s making lots of films. You have that twenty year gap in his career, and smaller gaps between The Thin Red Line and The New World. Now he has The Tree of Life, To the Wonder, and two other films upcoming. I feel like we’re really lucky right now to be getting all of these movies.
I couldn’t agree with you more. I’m of much the same philosophy, and I said something really similar recently, too.
And what you said about the world being made for him to shoot – that’s the most perfect thing to say about Malick ever. Even if you’re not a fan of the “stuff” of his films, he has an eye like no other.
It’s the truth. He’s so fascinating to work with, I wish I could articulate it better. He’s very childlike, and in that sense there’s a very wondrous innocence in his directing that makes it really easy to do anything he asks you to do. I’ll tell you this much, because God only knows what gets used and what doesn’t, for some reason I’ve noticed he’s got some fascination with water, and I, knowing and watching him, knew something like this was gonna happen, but he randomly came up to me and said, “Hey Clifton, how do you feel about going into the pool?”
And I didn’t skip a beat. I reached into my pocket, and I said, “Here, hold my iPhone.” And I turned around and jumped right in the pool. [laughs] I didn’t ask no questions. You just get into a zone, get into a flow, you get where he’s going and you run with that. It’s just an amazing, beautiful thing. I gotta tell you, I learned a lot from working with him on those two different films, I learned an immense amount in such a short amount of time. I’m really blessed for it.
You can catch Clifton Collins, Jr. in Pacific Rim right now in theaters; Transcendence opens in regular and IMAX theaters in the U.S. on April 18th; We’ll keep you updated on the status of Boondocks Saints 3.