Not everyone gets the attention their talents deserve; not everyone catches the eye of the press who will often write a thousand stories about a new, untested face. Sometimes, no matter how hard you work, no matter how many good movies you make, you become that guy from that movie. But sometimes, just sometimes, that guy has a banner year and gets his face out in front of people a half dozen times. Such is the case this year with Clifton Collins Jr.
I first met Clifton in the fall of 2001 when I was just a cub reporter on my first big travel story. I was tagging along with another reporter on a set visit to Roger Avery's Rules of Attraction where I spent several days hanging out with the likes of James Van Der Beek, Jessica Biel, Kate Bosworth, Shannyn Sossamon, Jay Baruchel, and Eric Stoltz. But the guy who I actually geeked out about meeting was none other than Clifton. By that point in his career he'd already made his mark as a great character actor starring in films like Dead Presidents, 187, Traffic, Tigerland, and The Replacement Killers and was a personal favorite of mine. He wasn't shooting that day, but he was stopping by just to hang out -- such was the vibe of the set. I recognized him with a, "Hey, you're Clifton Gonzalez Gonzalez," to which he responded, "Yeah, but I go by Clifton Collins Jr. now. Who are you?" As it turned out, in a strange twist of fate he was a regular reader of mine. When that happens, you are required (pretty much by law) to have lunch. It's how things are done.
Collins was friendly, funny, and very dedicated to his craft. The overall theme of what he was trying to do at the time was breaking away from the typecasting he was falling into, and he was extremely proud of his upcoming film, the wonderful (but sadly overlooked) The Last Castle. It felt like he was on the verge of exploding on the scene. He had the intensity, was working with Redford and Avery, and had just come off of a Soderbergh film -- he was set.
But it didn't take. He never caught on. It happens. In fact, it happens a lot. But undeterred, Collins pressed on, becoming one of the most reliable, talented character actors in the business, garnering roles in such films as Capote and Babel. The man has incredible range -- he can play subtle and blend into the scenery, or go larger than life and chew it up. This year, however, appears to be his year. You can't throw a stick this year without hitting a theater playing a Clifton Collins Jr. movie. Sure, he's never the lead. But he's always memorable, and he's always great. And by now you're probably starting to say, "Hey, isn't that the guy from that movie?" So where have you seen him this year? Here's where.
Star Trek. This is the one film where it's actually possible to miss him, as he spends the film in the makeup of a Romulan bad guy. Collins plays second in command to Eric Bana aboard the gigantic doom-ship that is threatening the federation. He gets to mix it up with Kirk and Spock and has plenty of screen time opposite Bana in one of the summer's biggest hits.
Crank 2: High Voltage. Almost completely ignored upon release (and how could it not be, what with it being unceremoniously dumped by Lionsgate with zero press support), the film is starting to pick up steam on DVD with the fan buzz that followed it from those who actually saw it. Here Collins plays the big boss, the bad guy at the end of the tunnel that is putting Chez through the wringer for something he did in the previous film. In the gloriously delicious final sequence, Collins chews up the scenery with an over-the-top performance that actually makes Statham look a bit toned down. He proves to be the cherry on an already sugary, sweet, hot fudge sundae of exploitation camp.
Extract. In what is probably his most memorable performance of the year, Collins plays Step, a redneck factory worker who loses a testicle in an industrial accident. Collins is understated, quiet, and very funny as a very believable, salt of the earth guy who just wants to do right by those around him. But when the beautiful Mila Kunis decides to milk him for settlement money, he loses his mind a little, blinded by the adorable newcomer. Step is a classic Mike Judge character and is treated both by Judge and Collins with all the care in the world to make him one of the standout aspects of Extract.
Sunshine Cleaning. Starring Amy Adams and Emily Blunt, who play sisters, Sunshine Cleaning was one of this year's sleepers; it opened briefly on a few screens before a quiet release on DVD. Collins plays the local owner of a cleaning supplies store, a one-armed loner who slowly gets assimilated into the sister's family unit. Here Collins doesn't have a lot to work with in terms of character and is forced to work on the force of his charisma alone to sell the role, which only affords him a few solid moments to prove himself. But he does very well, adding an important third dimension to the film upon which it can ground itself.
The Boondocks Saints II: All Saints Day. While this film still has another month before it sees a limited theatrical release, the trailer has exploded online and Collins is all over it. Collins and I spoke about this project back in 2001 -- that's how long he's been attached to it. That it is finally filmed and coming out is a big deal. And man, he looks awesome in it as the ass-kicking, mohawk-wearing new addition to the Saints. Will this be the one that puts him on the map? I've got my fingers crossed.