Clifton Collins, Jr., and Zoe Saldana entertained themselves and fans at the Midnight Awards Saturday, April 23.

Explosive Actors, Anecdotes Light Up SFIFF54’s Midnight Awards

Kim Nunley April 24, 2011

“Oh, God, I hope I’m not flashing anybody,” said actor Zoe Saldana, one hand holding a mic and the other tugging on her strapless dress as she took a seat on stage at the W San Francisco hotel. Host Beth Lisick, joining her as host for 2011’s San Francisco International Film Festival's Midnight Awards, replied, “I think that’s alright. Is everybody okay with what’s happening here? I told Zoe we were going to keep it loose.”

And loose the evening was. Using a talk-show format, SFIFF’s Midnight Awards highlighted two electric, young acting talents, Saldana of Avatar and Star Trek fame and Clifton Collins, Jr., known for his unique performances in Capote, The Perfect Game and Extract.

Saldana plays a young woman who becomes a deadly assassin after witnessing the murder of her parents as a child in her latet, Colombiana, written by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen, and currently in postproduction. “Anybody that knows anything about Luc Besson, as a director and a producer, he’s pretty fabulous. He’s an amazing filmmaker that writes great roles. Great characters. And now the coincidence is that women happen to fill in those shoes and they happen to kick major ass in the roles that he writes.”

Lisick pointed out that Saldana seemed to be very comfortable in that type of role. Saldana agreed. “I’m from Queens, New York, so in my mind I have this notion that I’m this badass. I sort of gravitate naturally towards those roles that resemble women that I’ve known in my mind and throughout history that I’ve admired. When I was growing up as a kid, I was never the damsel in distress for Halloween. I was never a princess. I was never Juliet. I was Ellen Ripley or Sarah Connor.” She added, “I’m a very dominant alpha male deep down inside.”

Early in her career, Saldana moved from dance to acting, and in response to a question on the transition from Lisick, Saldana offered, “You have to be honest with yourself. I had been dancing for ten years and I realized that I had extended my physical ability to its fullest and I knew I didn’t have the physical talent to become a principal in any company.” She still has what she calls an “affinity for ballet.”

Her extensive physical background made an impact on her ability to take on roles, notably Neytiri in Avatar, a performance she pointed out following a question from the audience, was the most challenging of her career. “For Neytiri, it took me five months to get the part. It took me seven months to get her to come to life, and then it took me two years to shoot her. So, I spent the most time with her. She actually became my best friend.”

As typical when spending a significant time with friends, there comes a point where you’ve had enough. After the extensive production period of Avatar, Saldana was ready to move on. “It was the kind of friend that after you’ve been paying her rent, you keep asking her to leave and she won’t.”

Those in Saldana’s circle are likely happy too. “After I was done shooting Avatar, I would be home and at a typical dinner with my family and they’d ask me if I wanted onion with my potato and I would ‘hiss’ (like Neytiri),” Saldana joked. “And I remember my mom would go, ‘I can’t wait until Neytiri leaves.’”

Saldana’s Star Trek co-star Clifton Collins, Jr., wearing head-to-toe white, couldn’t stop smiling throughout the evening’s festivities, and laughed when Lisick admitted that she had been stalking him on Twitter, noting that she knew he was in Haight-Ashbury and at Ghiradelli Square earlier in the day.

Collins’s extends over a wide array of genres, with notable roles The Perfect Game, Capote, Dead Presidents, Sunshine Cleaning and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. The Los Angeles native has a long lineage of entertainers in his family, most notably his grandfather, Pedro Gonzalez, the sidekick in numerous John Wayne films. “I thought it was only natural that I fell into it and carry the legacy,” he professed. In response to Lisick inquiring when he knew he wanted to get into acting, Collins stated, “I decided when I was about 17 years old. I figured those four years I spent in college, I’ll spend auditioning, trying to find out what this crap was about.”

Early in his career, Collins, Jr., struggled to find variety in his roles. He felt he had to pay his dues before being picky. “I’ve got to be honest. I didn’t turn down a whole lot of stuff until I was established.” But, he landed important roles in films like One Eight Seven, which he noted as a turning point in his career, and Menace II Society.

Lisick pointed out that females online were discussing how attractive he was during his one-armed role in Sunshine Cleaning, Clifton laughed. “I’ve got to lose one of these arms. I’m doing something wrong here. I’ve got too much baggage.”

He strives to bring truth to every role, including his critically acclaimed portrayal of killer Perry Smith in Capote. “I was playing who I thought he was. I went through that book In Cold Blood with a comb. I want to know him personally. He hung for something that he regretted doing.”

As Lisick joked that after watching Capote, she told herself that she wouldn’t again forget his name, Collins, Jr., smiled, “Doesn’t help that I change my name every once in a while.” Collins, Jr. changed his last name to Gonzales for 10 years to pay tribute to his grandfather. “My grandpa was complaining how nobody gave props to trailblazers. And my dad, rest in piece, was never really around for me, so I figured, ‘Hey Grandpa, what if I took your name?’”

Although it was simply meant as a personal homage, Collins, Jr., received significant attention from the Latin community, who took the name change as an act of political assertion. “I didn’t know I was going to have the Spanish Inquisition after me,” Collins, Jr. claimed. “I’m very proud of my heritage, but I’m not a politician, I’m an artist first and foremost.”

When asked what role he feels is missing from his career, Collins, Jr. replied, “I haven’t had a chance to do a good western. I grew up on westerns. My grandfather did a shitload of westerns, so I’m kind of waiting for that good one. I read for 3:10 to Yuma and got really close, but I’m kind of hankering to do one of those.”

When an audience member asked him what he wanted to be when growing up, he replied, “Funny you say that. I think we’re all actors, whether you’re acting for your wife, your husband, a cop, or you’re lying about your homework. I mean, how often are you 100 percent honest? With that said, I was kind of always the class clown, getting attention. I just didn’t know there was an occupation called actor, where I could make some money and pay my rent and help my friends out.”

The night’s biggest laughs came when Lisick brought up a well-known scene from Mike Judge’s ‘Extract,’ where as Collins, Jr. explained, “There’s an explosion and this piece of shrapnel that’s flying at my family jewels.” After reading the script and noting that scene, Collins, Jr. questioned Judge on his plan of implementation. “I read the script and I was like, ‘Mike, how are you gonna do this whole… when he gets his ball blown off?...I mean, we’re talking about my balls here, man!”

Although Judge offered the contribution of a stuntman, Collins, Jr., agreed to do the scene himself. “It should be cool, man. If not, hey, you know, Lance Armstrong won like 7 Tour de Frances.” And it paid off. Collins, Jr. claimed that one of his favorite acting moments was hearing at outburst by Judge immediately after shooting that particular scene, as he exclaimed, “Holy shit, that was fucking genius!”

While Collins, Jr. is likely to continue his dramatic roles, there’s no doubting he appreciates the comedic element of film. “To get a ball blown off at 120 frames a second… god damn man, this is real filmmaking. Who’s done this?”