INTERVIEW: Star Trek (2009)'s Ayel, Clifton Collins
Star Trek (2009) blasted into theaters five years ago today, and so we thought it only appropriate that we interview someone from the film that revitalized the Star Trek franchise. Clifton Collins Jr. co-starred in the adventure as Ayel, the former Romulan miner who served as Nero’s second-in-command aboard the Narada. Collins made quite an impression, with eye-popping makeup complementing an intense performance, but audiences are used to such turns from the actor, whose 25-year-long career spans from Freddy’s Nightmares, Tigerland, Traffic and Alias to Capote, The Event, Red Widow and Pacific Rim. StarTrek.com recently caught up with the high-energy Collins, who recounted his Trek experience and filled us in on his current projects.
How familiar were you with the Trek franchise when you won your role as Ayel in Star Trek (2009)?
COLLINS: I saw most of the films as a kid, but didn’t remember them very well, so I re-watched them. Sadly, they did not contain what I was looking for, nor did I think that J.J. (Abrams) was making that type of a Star Trek movie. This franchise was dead in the water, and J.J. was going to bring it back to life. I had worked with him on Alias. He and his writing team wrote this role based loosely on my character from Traffic, Frankie Flowers. I had heard rumors of my being in Star Trek, so when he called I accepted. It wasn’t like he called me collect or nothing, when he offered me the role.
How hard is it to believe that this week marks the 5th anniversary of the film's release?
COLLINS: It's not too hard to believe. Time flies, sometimes even at warp speed. Can you imagine your Timex flying at warp speed? It'd come out looking like a Dali Clock.
What intrigued you most about Ayel?
COLLINS: Being Bana's right-hand baddie, and being directed by J.J.
What kind of process did you go through, first for them to devise the makeup, and then each day in the makeup chair to apply it?
COLLINS: I worked pretty close with Neville Page, who had a big say in the Romulans’ appearance, and got to act with him as well. Me and Bana's day would start at 3 a.m. on a Monday morning with prosthetics and getting our head shaved, etc. Come Friday our call times would be like 9 p.m. On a good day we’d get it all done within 2 1/2 hours, and on a bad day it may take 3 ½ to 4 hours.
What do you remember most about the shoot?
COLLINS: Funny enough, 18-hour days aside, I recall how grateful and happy everybody was. You had producers that really cared. They were aware of how hard everybody was constantly working to put out something great. They were always present. When they gave that pep speech every so often, you'd really feel that sh-t because it was coming straight from their hearts, and that’s a beautiful thing. It’s kind of rare in this town, just another testament to J.J. and the classy company he keeps.
How did you enjoy working on set with Abrams and Bana?
COLLINS: Both were a blast, and both were hilarious. J.J. is a bit of a freestyler on the mic on those last few hours of the long 18-hour day, and well, Bana and me both come from comedy. So you can only imagine the antics that ensued.
Ayel's gloating at Kirk, in part, got him killed. What did you make of the character's death scene?
COLLINS: Naaah, t’was not the gloating that killed me, my good man. Kirk was going to have his filthy way with me come hell or high water. The whole fight scene was a last-minute add. I had gone to Loyola High School with Robert Alonzo, who was one of the main fight choreographers. We were both crazy martial arts geeks and Rob and his brother, Richard, me and my cousin all taught the martial arts club at the Loyola. When Robert and I got to playing with the end scene, he was like "Does J.J. know that you real good at this sh-t?” I was like, “Uh…no.” Right then, we knew what we both were thinking: “It would be damn cool to be in a showdown/get-down with Captain Kirk.” There ya have it.
Let’s get caught up on current events. IMDB lists you as having the following projects on the way: Untitled Terrence Malick Project, Hacker, Stung and Secrets & Lies. Tell us a little bit about each project, what you play, and what made the experience memorable for you.
COLLINS: Working on two Malick pics is a definite highlight in my career, whether I make it into the film or not. He is truly magical. It’s as though the world was created for him to shoot in, like a planet set. He's truly awesome and I think the word "wonderful" is very fitting. Hacker was a quick fun stint in Hong Kong, based on a true story. The character I play is quite... different than anything I've ever done. Stung was another fun pic that I did in Berlin. It’s sort of a practical creature feature. So in a sense I kind of did my own Them. This was a fun one to prep, watching all the old monster movies, old and new, like The Fly and Corman’s Wasp Woman, etc.
Secrets & Lies is going to be epic. It’s a TV show that even keeps me on edge. Also, I get to work with an old friend, Ryan Phillippe. We go back like 20 years in this biz and it’s our first time working together. Of course, it’s a blast to get down with Juliette Lewis. I've been a fan of what she does for a very long time. This girl has been bringing it for years.
What else are you working on these days? We heard something about a cookbook?
COLLINS: I am working on a cook book. It’s 101 Ways To Cook Ramen - Prison Style. It’s really a book for anybody that’s had a "Ramen Phase" in their life, so to speak. I’m really excited for this one, as its’ my first real venture in getting heavily involved with important charities. Some of the proceeds will be going to Father Greg Boyles’ Homeboy Industries, which means a lot to me and my co-author, Gustavo Alvarez, who racked up a total of 14 1/2 years in prison. Let me tell you, lots of life lessons. Not sure if you knew this, but Ramen is not only a staple, but also a form of currency. The stories/lessons learned while incarcerated are both eye- and heart-opening. That said, we also have quite a few awesome guest recipes from fellow actors/musicians/directors who have also done a little time. They're donating to the cause, and I’ve also got old friends Mr. Cartoon and Estevan Oriole helping out with art and photo pieces. Every recipe has its own tale or moral, so it’s kind of self-help/how-to-survive-in-prison book.
I was thinking back on Ayel's time in Star Trek. There’s a scene deleted from the original movie that MAY be in the deleted scenes on Blu-ray, I’m not sure. But the scene is when Ayel and Nero were incarcerated, and I started to think, “Could Prison Ramen Spreads be so awesome that they'll survive the future? And what would Ayel’s Ramen Spread consist of… Romulan Ramen.” I may text J.J. and see if he's got some ideas, but maybe I can open this question up to the true fans? Love some ideas before we go to publishers.
We saw you at an autograph show a couple of weeks ago. How do you enjoy those experiences?
COLLINS: I love interacting with the fans. You can learn so much. Some are incredibly thoughtful, and actually study your work and have really profound questions. Some are simply fanatical fans, and other times I’ll get somebody whose life changed as a result of a performance that touched them, made them think, provoked change, and that’s probably one of the most humbling, most rewarding things any actor can ever experience himself. To actually hear and experience the story from the person who you touched, it’s kind of like those reunion shows that have both the victim and fireman meeting up after getting their life saved. Also, if you have a couple films that you’re not so proud of, this is a great place to find out exactly who that film was made for. And that’s always a fun wacky time that will leave you laughing and smiling for days on end.