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Graham: Collins mixes up roles from kindly to nasty

Clifton Collins Jr. (left) plays the kind-hearted owner of a cleaning supplies store in "Sunshine Cleaning."

Clifton Collins Jr. (left) plays the kind-hearted owner of a cleaning supplies store in "Sunshine Cleaning."

“Who is that guy?” I kept asking over and over at a screening of “Sunshine Cleaning,” the quirky Amy Adams comedy that flaunts its independent spirit.

He has such a commanding presence, despite high cheekbones, a scraggly beard and a thin face that shouts “I just love country music.”

His mystical appeal begins with a warmly resonant voice that gives him kind of a Buddhist peacefulness. This is definitely not a mismatch you see every day.

He’s playing Winston, the one-armed, kindly owner of an ordinary cleaning supplies store. There may be shelves full of toxic chemicals out front, but in back this gentle soul builds model airplanes. The warbirds of World War II are a favorite source of inspiration.

Winston is also one of those single guys who never quite grew up. He knows, and we know, during business hours he’s only pretending to be an adult. After work the ageless youngster comes out.

And there is the question of that missing arm. Maybe he lost it in Vietnam. Or since he looks about 35 (way too young for a Vietnam vet) maybe he was a wild teen of the late 1980s who got in big trouble somewhere and that calmed him down a lot.

“For this role I had to work out a lot of back story,” chuckles Clifton Collins Jr on the phone. It turns out he has both arms. Not only that but he’s also a Los Angeles native whose grandfather was the famous Mexican comedian Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez. Most folks on this side of the border remember Double-G as John Wayne’s sidekick in cowboy movies from the 1960s.

“I’ve been to Tucson,” says Clifton cheerfully. “I went with my grandfather when he made ‘Rio Bravo’.” Other family members went along, too. It sounded like a family outing, for sure.

Collins has also spent a lot of his adult life being sure his grandfather gets appropriate credit and respect for being one of Hollywood’s first Hispanic actors.

A quick check of online reviews for “Sunshine Cleaning” finds both Roger Ebert and A.O. Scott of the New York Times singling out Collins for special mention. Emily Blunt, Steve Zahn and Adams may get all the big lines, but Collins has the screen presence to make an impact.

It’s when the character actor says, “We thought Winston probably was a motorcycle or race car driver. He lost that arm in an accident and looked down at the road where the arm was lying, all bloody and twisted with its fingers twitching.”

Yipes! Is this the same kind-hearted cleaning supplies guy? An even bigger surprise is learning Collins played the sinisterly creepy cold-blooded killer Perry Smith who was manipulated by Truman Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman) in “Capote” in 2005.

That was also Collins the deadly drug menace in “Traffic.” It will also be Collins the violent gangland killer in “Crank 2″ starring Jason Statham. And then the even more high-profile intergalactic evil henchman complementing Eric Bana’s Nero in the new “Star Trek” movie coming out this summer.

“For an actor, playing bad guys really is the best,” Collins beams. Even on the phone you can hear the little kid in his voice.

“Playing good guys is deeper and more creative,” he admits. It is more artistically satisfying. “But playing bad guys, that’s really fun!”

Citizen Online Archive, 2006-2009

This archive contains all the stories that appeared on the Tucson Citizen's website from mid-2006 to June 1, 2009.

In 2010, a power surge fried a server that contained all of videos linked to dozens of stories in this archive. Also, a server that contained all of the databases for dozens of stories was accidentally erased, so all of those links are broken as well. However, all of the text and photos that accompanied some stories have been preserved.

For all of the stories that were archived by the Tucson Citizen newspaper's library in a digital archive between 1993 and 2009, go to Morgue Part 2

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