When Clifton Collin Jr. first came onto our radar, about six years ago, he was generating a buzz in Hollywood. With high profile roles opposite some of Tinseltown’s biggest names, he quickly turned the heads of fans and critics alike. His credits are as eclectic as the characters he plays in films such as “Traffic,” “Boondocks Saints 2: All Saints Day,” “Star Trek,” “Transcendence” and Guillermo del Toro’s “Pacific Rim.” With each passing day, his creative fire burns more intensely as he continues to shine in every project he takes on. 2016 will surely go down in the books as Clifton’s breakout year with roles in John Hillcoat’s “Triple 9” and HBO’s highly anticipated new series, “Westworld,” starring Ed Harris, Ben Barnes, Ingrid Bolsø Berdal and Sir Anthony Hopkins.
Clifton’s drive and determination goes further than the silver screen. His latest and most ambitious challenge is as an author. “Prison Ramen: Recipes and Stories from Behind Bars,” hitting stores this November, is a collaboration with his long-time friend, Gustavo “Goose” Alvarez. A unique and edgy cookbook, “Prison Ramen” takes readers behind bars with more than 65 ramen recipes and stories of prison life from the inmate/cooks who devised them, including contributions from celebrities such as legendary guitarist Slash (Guns n’ Roses), Shia LaBeouf, Samuel L. Jackson and many more. Truly a labor of love, a portion of proceeds are donated to Homeboy Industries, a charity for which Clifton has an unending admiration. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Clifton Collins Jr. to discuss his unique career, the genesis of “Prison Ramen: Recipes and Stories from Behind Bars,” the challenges of bringing it to life, his upcoming projects and much more!
It’s been about six years since our last interview. It was right after your role in “Star Trek” and right before “Boondock Saints 2.” How has life changed for you in that period of time?
That is a very big question! How much time do you have? [laughs] It has been huge. I never thought I would see myself as a published book author for starters, so that is pretty exciting. The charity involved with the book is even more exciting.
Let’s touch on that first. I know from following your adventures online you are very involved with Homeboy Industries. How did you get involved?
I was first fascinated with Father Greg [Boyle] when I was in high school. I was 14 years old and some of the mandatory reading was his award winning book, “Tattoos On The Heart.” It is a book that demonstrates so much compassion and empathy, the likes of which I have never understood until recently. We all grow up certain ways and learn certain things that we agree with or don’t agree with. Father Greg reminds me of the Spencer Tracey character in the old classic “Boys Town” with Mickey Rooney. He is really that guy. I went to visit my buddy Gustavo Alvarez, who we call Goose, in Chino Penitentiary after their big riot and he came off of lockdown. I had just finished shooting “The Experiment” with Forest Whitaker and Adrien Brody, which was around five or six years ago. We had our little riot, a fake movie riot that we were shooting in Iowa. After shooting it, I saw that my buddy Goose was in a real riot in Chino. I was petrified and was hoping he was OK. When I got back to LA and they were off lockdown, I saw him. He pitched me this idea of wanting to do a cookbook — a ramen in prison cookbook.
Ramen, in prison, is a staple food. It is also currency where each ramen is worth a dollar. The thing about ramen is that these guys get together and do big spreads. A spread is where you put a few ramens together. Anyone who happens to have any commissary vegetables, extra seasoning or any extra stuff will come by and put it in. You basically get to sit down in what is essentially a family environment and, obviously, in prison you are going to be missing family a lot. Visitation is a very big thing. When the riot was over, they wouldn’t let any of the black guys back into their cells and left them out in the cold to freeze. Even though the riot involved a lot of the Mexicans and the blacks, there was still compassion. Believe it or not, there are a lot of beautiful rules in prison that I wish civilians in the free world exercised because this would be a much prettier place. Goose got all of this extra commissary and made it for the guys out in the cold. He made a bunch and he wanted to feed them all and give them some kind of comfort because the guards weren’t letting them back in. Most of the guards were already gone, they took off. [laughs]
I said, “Damn! This is a great idea! We can make the ramen book but how do we sell the message of compassion? You were just in a giant riot and almost lost your life and now you are cooking a meal for these guys. Everyone is trying to help each other now that it’s over but how do we convey that message?” It led me back to Father Greg and Homeboy Industries. I hadn’t seen him in forever. I went down to Homeboy and I didn’t even know he was there but when he saw me, he got up and gave me a big hug. He said, “Son, what are you doing here? It is so great to see you! What have you been up to?” It was such a profound heavy moment. Mind you, the moment before that was me walking into Homeboy Industries and seeing all these rival gang members interacting. Let me tell you, in my younger days I would have been on one side or the other and certainly not in the middle! To see everybody there, had it been a dream, I would have been waiting for someone to start the rumble. It was anything but a rumble. If it was a rumble, it was a rumble of love and compassion. I saw everyone helping each other and sharing a kinship and a deep, profound desire to become better people and not hate one another. It was so moving to me. Going in there really touches your heartstrings.
How did you and your friend/co-writer Gustavo “Goose” Alvarez originally cross paths?
Goose and I have been friends since we were 15 years old. He was gangbanging at a younger age. At the time, I had affiliations with friends from Inglewood, Culver City, Watts and 83rd Street. Some of these people I am still really good friends with today. I grew up in a broken up family. My dad was an alcoholic and my mom wasn’t present. When my stepdad came into my life, my sister and I became the B family. My grandfather, Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez, picked up the slack when he could, which was pretty much any time I needed it! He was always, always there. Not everybody has that. It was comforting to have them as a support group. For me, it was never a neighborhood thing, it was just my group of friends. I knew they would fight for me. When I ran away from home, they gave me food, money and made sure I stayed out of trouble and stayed in school.
Speaking of friends, Goose and yourself have some amazing contributors to “Prison Ramen: Recipes and Stories from Behind Bars.” What can you tell us about those and how it ties into Homeboy Industries?
We have been so blessed! We had Mr. Cartoon, who is a famous L.A. tattoo artist. He does so many great things. It started out with him, Danny Trejo and Estevan Oriol. Then I went to one of my number one mentors, Samuel L. Jackson. I got on the phone with him and said, “I could use some help with this.” The book really just started out with Goose’s stories but every ramen recipe, and they are all real ramen recipes, has a story. Each story has a little insight on life. It shows you how to be grateful or thankful for what you have because once you are locked up it’s a little too late. Hopefully, it is a way to deter these young kids from taking the wrong path. In LA County alone, it costs $100,000 to $150,000 a year to incarcerate a juvenile. That isn’t including mental health, educational services or any of these other things. For adults, it is $45,000 to $65,000 a year. With privatized prisons there is no incentive to rehabilitate for the people who own the prison because they don’t want their cash cows leaving the prison and becoming contributing members of society. They would rather keep them down and have them come back and visit. It’s like Motel 6, “We’ll leave the light on for you.” Right? In this case, Homeboy Industries does rehabilitation, education, tattoo removal, anger management and more. It is the most successful rehabilitation and reentry program in America. They are doing what prisons were supposed to be doing in the very beginning. The root word of penitentiary is penance but that is long gone because the corrupt, greedy people want to make money off of the privatized prisons. Father Greg is the exact opposite. he wants these kids to come out and be successful. He will put rival gang members together and it shows that you can overcome your greatest obstacles. If you can love your enemy, who is also your brother, that is a big challenge. I don’t know of many people in my business that hate each other that would overcome those kind of obstacles.
Everyone has really come to bat. Danny Trejo gave me some beautiful stories. I have known him since I was about 15 years old, before I even started acting. It’s funny because he has some very close friends that he has done time with and are family to him and to all of us really. When he is telling me this story, his shorthand is so tight. He will be like, “Hey Manny! Make sure you give him that recipe. You know, the one we used to eat over there in the corner of the other wing.” That was all he had to say. He didn’t have to say the ingredients or anything! Manny was like, “Yeah! I got it homie! Don’t worry!” I literally have the recipe handwritten over here on my board right now! It was the most fascinating thing! Those guys have been out of the penitentiary for a long time now but you touch on one little memory associated with food and they can pull the recipe out of the air just from that memory! It was amazing to me! [laughs]
There were so many great contributions to this book. Taryn Manning stepped up and gave me some stuff. Shia Labeouf gave me a beautiful, heartbreaking story about his craft and how he could have lost it. Clancy Brown has played a juvenile in the pen in “Bad Boys” with Sean Penn to the famous CO in “Shawshank Redemption” so his perspective is as an actor who has been on both sides of the story. That isn’t even taking into account the research he has done on the prisons, which is really insightful. Father Greg also gave me a great spread. We have a story from a correctional officer who ended up serving time because she got into a relationship with somebody. There are a lot of really heartfelt stories. There are also some really funny ones. For example, Jacob Vargas did a spin. Troy Duffy and I did one for Romeo from “Boondock Saints.” Actually, the Romeo story in this cookbook is actually one of the scenes from “Boondock Saints 3.” I think you might be the first to be hearing this! It’s not a secret now that I have said it to you! It is pretty dope! Troy didn’t know about spreads and once he was here and heard about the book Goose and I were writing, he got turned on to it and next thing you know he wanted to incorporate it into the story. Troy is going to be doing a couple interviews with Goose and myself in regards to the book. They will be little three-minute clips that talk about the story.
When can we expect the release of the book? I know it is available for pre-order through Amazon, as I pre-ordered it myself recently.
You’re a rockstar, Jason! I love ya! [laughs] Yeah, the release date is November 3, 2015, which also happens to be Goose’s birthday!
Will you be hitting the road for any promotion when it comes to the book? What are you looking at there? I know you have been super busy with your acting work.
For sure! I have been very busy. I have “Triple 9” opening in Berlin. “Man Down” with Shia LaBeouf and Gary Oldman in the Toronto Film Festival and it opens in Venice. There is a lot of great stuff going on. I also have the new HBO show, “Westworld,” which I am very excited and proud about. I have to tell you, you will be excited too! With that all said, everyone around me is really supportive of this book and its charity. Homeboy Industries has their 5K run coming up in late October and I am going to be there. I will also be doing the New York Comic Con, which is October 9, 10 and 11. I will be doing a book signing there, so they are letting me out for that. I am a big believer in Homeboy Industries and Father Greg. I have never met a man with so much love in his heart. This whole world could use a lot more love!
Writing a book is an intense process. What is the biggest thing you took away from the process not only as a writer but on a personal level?
Wow, you know, it has been a lot. Goose and I sit back and laugh. When I was first starting the project, Slash gave us a great story and a recipe. He had totally forgotten about it. When I initially told him about it and mentioned ramen, his eyes lit up. There are a lot of fond memories that come with the days of struggling and you find out later, now that they have money, they will still do it. One of the things that Slash told me was, “Clifton, you can’t look at the mountain, bro. You have to take one step at a time.” He started telling me about the “World On Fire” album, which he is on tour with right now with Myles Kennedy and The Conspirators. He said, “You think I could have finished this album if I looked at the mountain as a whole? It is so daunting. I couldn’t have. I started with a riff here and a lick there and I build on to it.” I directed the video for it called “Gotten,” which features Adam Levine and Slash. When he first played the song for me, all I heard was the guitar because at that point it was all he had written. That was way before I had any intentions of directing the video and I had no clue I would.
One of the biggest projects you are a part of is HBO’s “Westworld.” I am sure you can’t tell us too much at this point. However, I am curious to hear what you can tell us about what you’ve been putting into the role both physically and mentally?
Oh, man! So much has been going into this project. As you know, my grandfather was a contract player for John Wayne. He did a lot of Western’s like “Rio Bravo,” “Chisum,” “Strange Lady In Town” and all those pictures he did back in the day. This is my first real opportunity to dig into something real for me. It’s a Western! I mean, I am riding a horse with fuckin’ Ed Harris! [laughs] I was telling one of my study partners yesterday, as we were going over a really big scene for a really big episode for my character and Ed’s, that I never stop having those moments where I want to pinch myself. Ya know, Ed will be talking to me and I will have a moment when he is talking to me where I kinda zone out and look at him. I kind of shake my head and think, “Oh, my god. Is that Ed Harris as a cowboy?!” [laughs] He is such a badass! To be able to do this is a really magnificent experience.
There is a lot of love and awareness for my legacy, specifically my grandfather and his connection to the Westerns. There are a lot of things coming in from that and it is fascinating to get lost in these western towns and be on horseback. With the type of acting I like to do, I really like to be seduced by the world and be taken into it, so much so that it is easy to forget there are crew people standing around. I love my crew to death and they are my family and I would do anything for them. They would do the same for me but, in those moments when I am actually doing it, I like to pretend they are figments of my imagination. To be sitting there and doing all of these things, I have to tell you, makes it a true dream gig. It puts me back into bed with JJ Abrams and that family, which I absolutely adore, along with people like Chris Nolan and Jonah Nolan. There is so much passion for this project, I think everyone is seduced by it, truth be told! It doesn’t matter if you are on camera or not! Both JJ’s crews and Nolan’s crews, a lot of these guys I have worked with before on many projects, so it is always great to work with so many talented people. It is also a challenge because it is a very ambitious project. I think it is HBO’s most ambitious project. That said, I have never been a part of a project that was this ambitious with this many hard workers. There isn’t a single person on set I can’t count on. They are all A+, top of the chain and working overtime even when they aren’t on the clock. That is a special thing!
Let’s take a second to focus on your grandfather. Was he one of the catalysts who made you explore the craft of acting? Was there a specific moment that lit the fire in you?
Yeah, there was actually. Sometimes, you are so deep in the forest you can’t look at the trees, smell them or know they are there. I have always been a natural class clown, which I think makes me a good candidate for the business I chose to go into! [laughs] They tried to get me in when I was a kid but I just wasn’t having it. There was a moment when I was teaching martial arts with my cousin as a teenager. I had all of these kids coming up to me asking me if I was an actor. I had such low self-esteem because of my immediate family, my mom, my father who was no long present and my stepdad who was a complete asshole. There are always doubters and naysayers and we have to all go through that as human beings. My mom told me I would never make it and I would starve to death. She said, “Don’t call me when you need money.” My aunt and uncle laughed in my face. Not the uncle who is my grandfather’s son, as he has always been there for me come hell or high water. My grandfather was the one voice that was constant. Truth be told, I was a little embarrassed to even ask him. I was 17 years old, hungry and needed some kind of mentorship. My grandpa was complaining how nobody followed in his footsteps. I just thought my cousin or sister could do it. He said to me, “Son, you can do it.” I was taken aback and I said, “You think I can do it?” He said. “Yes.” That was all I needed to hear!
That is amazing! Look how far you have come, Clifton!
There have been some struggles, Jason! Don’t get me wrong! There have been plenty of moments! [laughs] I was talking to Goose just yesterday. I was telling him about when I was doing “Capote,” I was sitting in that jail cell thinking, “Damn. What else can I do if this whole acting thing doesn’t pan out? I can run cable. I can carry flags. I can set up those lights! Maybe I can get out of this cell and shadow one of these crew guys because I do like being on set!” [laughs] That is when I got into directing with the music videos and stuff.
What is next for you behind the camera? Do you have your eye on anything specific?
Yeah, feature work. Goose and I actually just turned in our first real novel that is not a cookbook! It is loosely based on some of his experiences in prison. Obviously, you have to bend some of the truths and combine characters together. This is something I gave to Samuel L. Jackson years ago, before the last two times Goose got locked up! [laughs] It’s great now because he is two years clear, is completely legit and has book money and stuff like that. Samuel read this and it is something he wanted to produce and it is something I want to direct. It is something I am very, very passionate about. We just turned the actual book in two weeks ago to the agency, so now we are going to start the screenplay. I hope to be done with it in a few weeks. We turned that book over in about two weeks and it was a 500-page book! I was hustling! [laughs] The guys on set asked me what I was doing over Labor Day weekend and if I was going out. I was like, “No. I am going to stay at home and finish writing this book.” They were like, “You are writing a book? The cookbook, right?” I said, “No! We are done with that! This is an actual prison novel!” They were a little surprised when I had plans to finish it over a weekend! [laughs] And I sure did! You hump it! You get up at 5 a.m. and start writing and write all day. You shut off the phone, get in the zone and hunker down. I just keep writing and didn’t let any distractions get in the way. It’s a beautiful thing when you are passionate about something and you get to make your living on it. It may be a struggle but you are still having fun. Even when you are a kid having hard times, it’s not going to stop you from playing. If you are passionate about it, it is kind of like playing.
As you mentioned, you and Slash are friends. You recently did a series of interviews with him for his upcoming horror flick, “The Hell Within.” What can you tell us about the project?
Slash and I are dying to get into something. He sent me a script recently. However, “The Hell Within” is something he is very passionate about. His director, Dennison Ramalho, is an amazing talent. I have seen some of his work and clips from his reel. Slash, obviously, is Guitar God. He is the Ghandi of Guitar Gods. He is so zen. [laughs] He is masterful in so many other things as well. Film is certainly one of them. He is such a student of the horror genre. He blows my knowledge out of the water! This guy knows the music, the score, the directors, how they did it, the black and whites, the colors, the new ones and the old ones. He found this badass and when he was telling me the story, I knew it was going to be really good. They are doing a little fundraising project for it and the fans are going to be involved. It is really dope. Slash is one of those people who is so good to his fans. It is something that my grandpa did and Danny Trejo does but it is so great to see someone like Slash have the kind of love and interaction he does with his fans. I am constantly learning from him because I can be so much better and I am longing to be. I am so grateful to have these great examples around me to help me out! I can definitely tell you Slash is very passionate about this project and it is going to be badass. I can’t wait to have another conversation with you about the actual film when it is done!
I am looking forward to it! Speaking of horror, I have to tell you, I loved your work in “Stung” a few months back!
That was great! That was like my version of “Them.” That was a classic, practical effects, very little CG flick. Obviously, the little things flying around were CG and that was a funny thing to shoot and watch as all these German extras are running around like things were chasing them! It was hilarious! [laughs] The practical effects and puppeteering were amazing. Talk about a mind-fuck when you are shooting! To make that crew disappear and sit there and pretend there is a giant wasp in there as I am feeding a larvae to Matt O’Leary with Lance Henriksen was crazy! I was like, “Did I really steal that transporter from Star Trek and end up somewhere in Berlin with this house with wasps? What the hell is going on here?” [laughs] I had quite a few of those where am I moments on that project.
I had the chance to talk with director and Lance Henriksen, who both had a blast as well.
Yeah! Lance is a legend! Lance was so much fun to hang out with. He dragged me to a place in Berlin to do an autograph signing. I was going to go into Berlin and explore. He said, “Yo, kid. Why don’t you come with me. They would love to have you and you are going to make some cheddar. Come with me!” [laughs] I was like, “How am I gonna say no to you, fucker! Let’s go!” [laughs] I took off with him on a train and we went to a signing. I hung out with him that weekend and it was just awesome!
Looking back on your career and evolution as an artist, what is the best lesson to be learned from your story and experiences?
I would say to focus on your passions. Focus on you and just go for it. Never underestimate yourself. My grandfather said, “Clifton, always have confidence in yourself.” I have been blessed to have the mentors that I have along the way reiterate those things, be it Samuel L. Jackson, Slash or Joe Mantegna. I have been so blessed to have so many wonderful people around me who support me in different ways. It is so easy to start doubting and think we can’t do it. That brings me back to Homeboy Industries. When I walked in there, any problems I had were out the window. When you get the perspective of kids who have way less than you and have been left on Skid Row at 7 years old, to see these kids come out of that is amazing. Some of these kids are coming into Homeboy at rock bottom. Maybe they are in a wheelchair or have tattoos all over their face. You think, “Wow. This is the moment where you decided you can actually do something with your life? Not when you were walking around, ditching school, gangbanging or whatever other trouble you were getting into?” The triumphs of the human spirit, it’s determination and resilience, is a beautiful thing. There are people who are willing to let all their past conditioning and negativity go to become productive members of society. It is really a testament to who these kids are and I admire them in so many different ways.
As we wind down here, what should we be on the look out for over the next few months?
I have to be honest, this is the first year where I haven’t had 12 films on deck to come out. However, this is the first year where I have had something like “Man Down,” which reunites me with Steve McAvey, who produced “187” with myself and Samuel L. Jackson. Then I have “Triple 9.” Are you aware of the cast in this movie?
Absolutely. Kate Winslet, Norman Reedus, Aaron Paul, Gal Gadot, Woody Harrelson and yourself. It goes on and on! Not too shabby in my opinion.
Yeah! It’s gangbusters! I have already seen the film! Working with John Hillcoat was a true joy. To be working with Nolan and Abrams again, along with the entire cast and crew on HBO’s “Westworld,” truly is amazing. With these projects, the cookbook and giving back to a charity in a way I have never been able to do before, I have a full plate! I couldn’t be happier about it! I have some hard work that is fueling my heart and it had brought me to a whole new level. I am truly blessed!
It is awesome to hear that! You know it is funny. When we spoke six years ago, I believe the title of the piece was “The Hardest Working Man In Show Biz.” It looks like I am going to have to duplicate that title!
Yeah! I absolutely remember that now! I love it! Thanks for your time, Jason I really appreciate you!
The pleasure was all mine and we will keep spreading the word! I am sure we will be talking again sooner than six years!
We absolutely will! Talk to you soon, brother!
Pre-Order “Prison Ramen: Recipes and Stories from Behind Bars” on Amazon. The book hits stores on November 3rd, 2015.