- The Washington Times - Monday, October 31, 2016

“Westworld” actor Clifton Collins Jr. has a special prop that helps him get into character on the HBO sci-fi Western, in which replicant humans help futuristic park patrons act out their fantasies. The 46-year-old veteran of over 100 films is a fourth-generation entertainer, and on the new show, he wears a gun belt and ammo bands that belonged to his grandfather, character actor Pedro Gonzalez Gonzales, who often played a sidekick to John Wayne in films like “Rio Bravo.”

“Sometimes there are special places actors like to go for a certain kind of role, but when you put on something like Grandpa’s gun belt, pretty much everybody on set knows the value of that,” Mr. Collins told The Washington Times. “I had two guys come up going, ‘Whoa, is that Grandpa’s gun belt?’ You know, just wanting to check it out.”

Mr. Collins‘ grandfather, while he worked consistently, wasn’t able to graduate much beyond stereotypical Latino companions to the likes of Wayne. And even though Mr. Collins started off his own career playing gangbangers like those he knew growing up in East Los Angeles, he made the decision to go his own way by dropping the stage name of Clifton Gonzalez Gonzalez — in homage to his grandfather — and instead use that which he was given.

“[My grandfather] was my biggest influence, and the biggest irony is that [I’ve] never really done a Western,” Mr. Collins said. “Now I’m doing one.”

Mr. Collins‘ “Westworld” character, Lawrence, is saved by the Man in Black (Ed Harris) in an early episode for reasons that are not yet clear. The cast also includes Oscar-winner Anthony Hopkins, Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton and Jeffrey Wright, and is a loose reinterpretation of “Jurassic Park” author Michael Crichton’s 1973 film of the same name.

“You’ve got these mini-movies, and all crammed into one hour,” Mr. Collins said of the show. “It’s not rushed. It sucks you in.”

After cutting his teeth in TV and small film parts — while working by day selling gym memberships — Mr. Collins first gained major notices for playing Cesar Sanchez in the 1997 drama “One Eight Seven.” Starring Samuel L. Jackson as Trevor Garfield, an upstanding teacher trying to make a difference at a tough East L.A. school, the film climaxes with a 20-minute-long scene wherein Cesar forces Garfield to play Russian roulette with a loaded gun — mirroring a similar scene in “The Deer Hunter.”

Unlike most films, “One Eight Seven” was shot in sequence. And just as Mr. Collins and Mr. Jackson were getting ready for the emotionally wrought climax, Mr. Collins got word that his father had committed suicide.

“Sam was like ‘When we yell cut, you don’t go to your trailer, you kick it with me,’” Mr. Collins said Mr. Jackson — his greatest influence as an actor but for his grandfather — told him during the tragic period.

Mr. Collins soldiered on, delivering his side of the scene’s coverage first, with his family tragedy making his villainous performance even more intense. Mr. Jackson, though he was off-camera, was there to deliver his side of the conversation and help his young co-star with his performance.

“You always hear these horror stories about actors not giving you anything off-camera. [Mr. Jackson] gave me so much off-camera that he actually lost his voice,” Mr. Collins said.

After the wrap party, Mr. Jackson went back and shot his half of the scene, and even offered to help Mr. Collins with his father’s funeral expenses. Not long after, Mr. Collins changed his stage name to his given name, partly to honor his late father.

Mr. Collins‘ output over the next decade included playing cops, soldiers and various other parts. Then, in 2005, he was hired to portray Perry Smith, one of the real-life killers who murdered the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas, in 1959, and which became the basis for Truman Capote’s nonfiction novel “In Cold Blood.” For “Capote,” Philip Seymour Hoffman was cast as the titular oddball writer from New York who comes to the Midwest to research his book — and inadvertently falls for Smith on death row.

“‘In Cold Blood’ became a bit of a bible for me. I still have my copy here, and I’ve got notes on every single page,” Mr. Collins said of researching “Capote.”

Mr. Collins relates how Hoffman, who died in 2014 of a heroin overdose, was notoriously hard on himself on the “Capote” set, but he nonetheless gleaned much from the star.

“Working with Philip, I learned a lot from him,” Mr. Collins said of Hoffman, who won a best actor Oscar for his work in “Capote.” “He was a dedicated, competent artist.”

While he wasn’t an especially big sci-fi fan, when a call from J.J. Abrams came in to appear in a rebooted version of “Star Trek,” Mr. Collins could barely contain his joy. Mr. Abrams, at that point know for creating TV shows like “Lost” and “Alias,” entreated him for the small-but-key part of Ayel, the right-hand Romulan of new villain Nero (Eric Bana).

“I took a deep breath and went, ‘Yeah, I don’t know J.J. I’m not really a Trekkie.’

“He’s like ‘What?’”

Mr. Collins then let his ruse drop and started laughing.

“‘I’m just kidding, dude,’” he told Mr. Abrams at that point. “‘I’ll walk off a cliff for you!’”

Mr. Collins, barely recognizable underneath layers of special effects makeup, further blended into his otherworldly alien by modulating his normally baritone-level voice into a deeper bass register to make Ayel even more threatening.

“They bought in [a linguistic expert] to create that dialect of Romulan, which was loosely based off an old Russian dialect,” Mr. Collins said, adding the dialect was unique to the Soviet gulags.

“I studied my prison Russian documentaries, maybe just to get a little bit of that vibe,” Mr. Collins said of better inhabiting Ayel and his nasty milieu.

Despite Hollywood success, Mr. Collins has remained true to his roots. Last year he published a book called “Prison Ramen: Recipes and Stories from Behind Bars,” which features celebrity noodle recipes from the likes of Slash and also from those who have done time behind bars. Mr. Collins is donating 10 percent of sales to Homeboy Industries, a Los Angeles program founded by Catholic priest Father Greg Boyle to steer young men away from the gang life.

“Homebody Industries has like a 70 percent success rate, whereas the regular American prison system has like a 30 percent success rate” against recidivism, Mr. Collins said.

Mr. Collins has four projects scheduled for a 2017 release, and hopes to direct a film called “The Pawn” he is writing with “Prison Ramen” co-author Gustavo Alvarez. When asked what counsel he offers up-and-coming actors now, Mr. Collins said it is incumbent upon young thespians to realize why they are pursuing acting as a career in the first place.

“A real actor is somebody who loves what they do,” he said. “You have a chance to audition, whether you think you’re right or wrong [for a part]. You get to audition for [Francis Ford] Coppola, and even if you’re not right for the role, show them how great you are. It’s like doing a showcase in an acting class.

“We’re so quick to denounce our own talents and skills,” Mr. Collins said. “If you really love acting, you’re going to do it and see what you get. But you have to understand what you’re doing it for.”

If fleeting fame rather than a lengthy career is what you seek, it “might be better to do Snapchat or Instagram or put out a sex tape,” Mr. Collins said with a hearty laugh.

“Westworld” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. Eastern on HBO.

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