My phone interview with Clifton Collins Jr. had a rocky start. It went something like this: “Hello?” “Hi, this is Perri from Cinema Blend.” “Who?” At first I thought I called the wrong number or miscalculated the New York/California time difference. Finally I thought to toss in the key word, extract, and the two of us were on the same page. You forget that even though most of the country is focusing on the upcoming release of Extract, the film’s cast and crew are probably busy with other projects. Clifton is certainly no exception.
Whether or not you know Clifton’s name, you’ve seen some of his work. He’s played key roles in a number of hit films including Traffic, The Last Castle, Capote and Babel and is making his repertoire even more impressive with an extremely successful 2009. He’s starred in Sunshine Cleaning alongside Amy Adams and Emily Blunt, played an evil Romulan in one of the summer’s biggest blockbusters, Star Trek, and, this weekend, will make you laugh as the lovable but unlucky Step in Extract.
You’d think with a laundry list as extensive as Clifton’s he’d have zero time to devote to anything besides his acting career, but he’s been able to put to use another talent, directing music videos. Clifton directed two videos for the Zac Brown Band and I called him right in the middle of his next one. “No, I’m not the lighting company, I’m Perri from Cinema Blend. Would you mind switching gears for a bit and talking about Extract?” “Sweet, you can take as much time as you need. I love this movie!”
What drew you to Extract?
Mike Judge is the guy who created Bevis & Butthead and King of the Hill. It’s an opportunity to work with him. I took a meeting on Idiocracy because I wanted to work with him. I wasn’t incredibly crazy about the screenplay, I thought it had some funny stuff, but I really wanted to work with Mike. I didn’t get the part in that film, but then I did get this one and this one I really loved because I felt like it was really more of the Office Space type of attitude, scenarios and stuff of that nature. So, a shot to work with him and not to mention somebody as talented and brilliant as Jason Bateman, Mila Kunis is a good friend and having the opportunity to work with everybody. It was really a great thing.
Is it overwhelming working with such a big ensemble cast?
The movie I did called Traffic with [Steven] Soderbergh had like 138 speaking parts. So, to answer your question, a Mike Judge comedy and working with friends like that, no, not all.
Do you feel any pressure to live up to the expectations of the hardcore fans of Office Space and Mike’s other work?
I’m not really responsible for that. I’m just an actor that plays one character in a piece. The movie doesn’t rest on my shoulders so I can’t really take on that responsibility, but I’ve seen the movie and I do believe that the fans are going to be happy. This is not so much of a studio piece as the last one where often times a filmmaker’s hands are tied because the powers that be and the money involved and they start to limit their creator’s vision and compromise it. This was one of those pieces that was really supported in such a beautiful fashion by Miramax. They really gave him a lot of freedom to be himself and to be the funny brilliant guy he is and allow his actors to do those great things.
You’re a very busy guy and play such a wide array of characters. How do you get out of one character and into the next so quickly?
It’s kind of hard sometimes. I’ve got to be honest; I’ve been trying to figure that out myself. In a case where I was doing Capote and Dirty, I wrapped Capote on a Friday and I was shooting Dirty with Cuba Gooding on a Monday. So in that case I was able to shave my head and kind of like cleanse myself that way.
Did you ever get to visit an extract plant and learn about the business?
I wanted to, but part of my job is kind of like just fucking up. A lot of the humor is the fact that I’m not the best at what I do, but I aspire to be the best and I think it’s more attitude and drive than it is knowhow. Step is a loveable, not-so-bright guy. Ironically enough, he still has dreams and I think it’s kind of dope when you get a character that’s not like, you know, he didn’t go to Yale, he didn’t even go to community college, but he still has a dream in a funny way. He still dreams some day he’ll be one of the head managers at the factory.
You have a huge list of films on your resume, but very few are comedies. Did you enjoy summoning your funny side and would you like to do some more comedies in the future?
Are you kidding me? Directors have been trying to get me to do comedy for a long time ever since One Eight Seven. Kevin Reynolds is like ‘Cliff you need to do more comedies man.’ We were doing a very dark film, One Eight Seven with Sam Jackson. My background is comedy. My grandfather was a comedian and he was the only known entertainer to one up Groucho Marx on the “You Bet Your Life Show.” So my whole background is comedy so it’s kind of ironic that I make my mark with some heavy films like One Eight Seven or Traffic or Capote. I do have some more lighthearted films coming up. Comedy is great; you get to laugh! Life is so serious. There’s so many real issues going on and it’s really nice to be able to go to your job, just sit and laugh all day and come up with shit that’s not on the page or throw the ball around. I get to sit there and collaborate with somebody like Bateman and Judge and come up with some ideas or just do what’s on the page and when you hear your crew laugh or the producers behind the monitors that’s a great feeling. For me to sacrifice one of my nuts so that America can smile and laugh, it’s well worth the loss of a nut.
Was most of the movie scripted or did you get to ad lib a lot?
Obviously we have a great screenplay to work off of that’s the basic map, but Mike’s very open to a lot of stuff. Part of being a good director is acknowledging when you get a good idea and it really doesn’t matter if it comes from your actor or if it comes from the craft service lady.
What about a leading role? You’re extremely well known for playing secondary characters that resonate just as much, if not more, than leads. Will we see your name headlining a film sometime soon?
Perfect Game should be coming out soon. It’s been held back a little bit but I’ve already seen it and it’s really a sweet movie. I’m kind of psyched about it because I haven’t done a PG film in a long time. I got to work with Cheech Marin and a bunch of cool young talented actors like Jake Austin and Ryan Ochoa and Moises [Arias] from Hannah Montana. Working with these kids was just so much fun and clearly, working with Cheech was a big joy. I am definitely the lead in that. And you’re going to like it too; it’s a precious, precious tale. It’s a true story and it’s a triumph for the spirit.
Acting isn’t the only thing you’re good at. The music video you directed for the Zac Brown Bag nabbed two CMT awards. How’d that come up?
Mike Judge gave me two four day weekends and my managers at ROAR introduced me to Zac Brown and Zac got to watch two of my music videos that I had directed. So I got to leave the Extract set on my days off and fly to Georgia to shoot “Chicken Fried” for the Zac Brown Band, which ended up winning a CMT award for Breakout Video of the Year.
The award ceremony happened to be on your birthday. Was that award the best birthday present you’ve ever gotten?
It was pretty darn close. That was truly special. I was really contemplating skipping my birthday that year and just focusing on work when I got the phone call they wanted me to fly to Nashville. It’s funny because when we were shooting that, Zac was like ‘It’s going to be great man, we’ll be at the CMTs getting an award’ and I’m like ‘Wow, you dream big and think big. Okay buddy.’ Sure enough, we got nominated for two and then we won one.
Any interest in directing a feature length film?
Oh yeah, I’ve got my feature here, written. I’m working away at getting those deals done and script rewrites. I’m actually having to do another [music] video right now that’s very cinematic, if you will.
To learn more about Clifton check out his website by clicking here.