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Clifton Collins Jr. as weary horse-racer Jackson Silva in the new drama Jockey.Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics / Mongrel Media

Even if you don’t know Clifton Collins Jr.’s name, you know his face. The soft-spoken actor with the intense eyes, hard-edged smile and silver tongue has been wildly active in the margins of your favourite blockbusters (Star Trek, Pacific Rim), Oscar bait (Traffic, Capote, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Nightmare Alley), prestige TV (Westworld) and more. But it took Collins three decades in the central-casting trenches before he landed a true lead: the weary horse-racer Jackson Silva in the new drama Jockey.

Playing Silva, a Phoenix jockey just past his prime, the 51-year-old Collins delivers a small-scale wonder of a performance, channelling years of pain, triumphs and battle scars into one tidy, enchanting package. Ahead of the film’s Canadian theatrical release on March 4, Collins spoke with The Globe and Mail about paying his dues, and giddying up.

I’ve been hearing about this film since its premiere at Sundance more than a year ago. On the one hand, it’s great that the buzz has sustained so long, but on the other, is it a burden for you as an actor to keep having to revisit a performance once it’s done?

When you have this kind of collaboration and this small size of a crew, the truth is that any chance to talk about it is a humbling honour. Before signing on to it, my 30 years of experience told me it was going to be a tough one, and a dangerous one. We didn’t have a lot of money, we’re on a live race track. So to get to look back on how we pulled it off, it’s a beautiful way to assess the goal you intended to reach creatively. And to realize it will work out for the next film, too.

This isn’t your first collaboration with Jockey filmmakers Clint Bentley and Greg Kwedar, having made the border thriller Transpecos in 2016. And from what it sounds like, this was another atypical filmmaking process, too, with you really becoming involved in your character’s arc ...

The way one approaches certain roles is always going to be dictated by the financial means and collaboration that you have. Working with someone like Guillermo del Toro on Pacific Rim, that’s a huge budget but also very collaborative. This one, all you have is the power of the word. Like Transpecos, it was very collaborative – Clint and Greg knew going into Jockey what I was going to bring to the table. It’s like hanging out with your buddies for a few months. Even on the weekends, I’d catch our amazing director of photography going to shoot some B-roll, and I’d be like, “Can I come along?” It’s a blast, when you do it for the right reasons.

Fun but intense, too, no? In terms of what was required physically from you.

You can’t think about that part. I got down to 143 pounds. You don’t want to let anybody down. I cut off all my ties from Los Angeles, keeping in touch only with my two mentors and my grandmother. Every night in northern Phoenix, I was going through scenes. I got there two weeks early to soak up the culture with the jockeys. The answer is really just living it.

There’s this old Hollywood joke – one repeated recently in Licorice Pizza – of always making sure on your resume to say that you can ride horses, even if you can’t. But you came to Jockey with experience.

Ha, yeah, you just answer yes to any question: Can you drive? Can you ride? Yes, yes. I do have a big horse background, though. My grandfather Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez was a contract player with John Wayne, so the western environment was a big part of the family. And coming from Westworld, too, where the horses are so highly trained it’s like driving a brand-new Porsche. But the good thing on Jockey is because we had a real skeleton crew, there’s a great deal of anonymity while I’m riding. If anything, I got heckled by spectators for being slightly overweight. Like, “I’m trying to make weight, pal!”

Your performance here offers a great narrative to writers like me: we have this long-time character actor who paid his dues, finally gets the spotlight. Do you pay much attention to how your career is perceived by the press, by others in the industry?

Not really [laughs]. I’m a fifth-generation entertainer, so it’s deep in the blood. I do have a great joy in sharing the growth and evolution of my career, but I also just want to support my films as much as possible. It can be a distraction if you pay too much attention.

I see a picture of your grandfather in the background there. Do you ever think about what he might make of how your career turned out?

He did get to see me in Capote before he passed. He was excited and felt that he could pass in peace because, he said, the greenness of myself had worn off 20 years in. Well, it sounds better the way he said it in Spanish. “The dumb has left you,” so to speak. I’m actually writing a film of his life story now, so there’s lots of time to reflect. It’s a biopic that takes us up into his first big career break on Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life. He was scared to go out to L.A. because he couldn’t read. He had that imposter syndrome. He just boarded up his house in Texas and thought he’d be back in a few weeks. That didn’t happen.

Jockey opens March 4 in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal theatres, with more cities throughout spring

This interview has been condensed and edited

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