Q&A: “HELLBENDERS” star Clifton Collins Jr.
In HELLBENDERS, opening in select theaters (in 3D) and on VOD today from Lionsgate, a group of rogue priests calling themselves the Augustine Interfaith Order of Hellbound Saints will do anything to fight evil—including committing some pretty sinful acts themselves. Both enacting and confronting bad behavior on screen is nothing new for actor Clifton Collins Jr., who plays the group’s second-in-command, Larry.
When Fango visits the set of HELLBENDERS, written and directed by THE BURROWERS’ J.T. Petty, in a Brooklyn Catholic church/school building, Larry is having a hell of a day. He’s in the midst of a struggle with a possessed rabbi (Larry Block), and at one point lays a smackdown on him with a large Bible. Also seen this year as part of PACIFIC RIM’s monster-battling team, Collins has previously tracked murderers in MINDHUNTERS and HORSEMEN and played them in RAMPAGE: THE HILLSIDE STRANGLER MURDERS and CAPOTE. He took a break from his Augustine Interfaith duties to talk to Fango about HELLBENDERS and some of his earlier films.
FANGORIA: What can you tell us about your character in HELLBENDERS?
CLIFTON COLLINS JR.: I play Larry, one of the promising young exorcists on a team of elite “hellbenders,” hence the title.
FANG: HELLBENDERS is a mix of horror and comedy; is your character played straight, or does he have a quirky side to him?
COLLINS: I think everybody in this film is flawed, which also makes it interesting. I love flawed characters; they’re the best.
FANG: So what exactly qualifies Larry for the “hellbenders”?
COLLINS: Well, that’s a part of the journey of the story, and part of the fun. J.T. created such an amazing world that I completely fell for. You know, it’s not THE EXORCIST or THE RITE or anything like that. It’s a whole new spin on things. I was completely intrigued, and it’s hard to find this kind of script that has a fresh angle on such an old story. J.T. gave me some really good research materials, like this book HOSTAGE TO THE DEVIL. It’s really heavy.
FANG: Have you talked to any clergy or people with actual exorcism experience?
COLLINS: I had an opportunity to do something like that, and then I realized that this isn’t that story, though we use elements that are very authentic in terms of that process. In my journeys and my research, I’ve learned that priests are trying to get the higher-ups to acknowledge that possession exists and is real and is not just a mental disorder. Granted, not all people allegedly possessed by demons are really possessed, but I do believe some of them are out there.
This is a true indie film, which is really nice. It’s a fun one, too. You know, my grandfather Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez’s very first movie was a 3D Western called WINGS OF THE HAWK with Van Heflin, so I find it funny that, at 40, I’m finally doing my first 3D film.
FANG: How has it been filming with the process?
COLLINS: I’ve been very intrigued by 3D, just because it’s been so big for the past couple of years. I had the luxury of working with the EPIC camera on a short Greg Williams did called TELL-TALE, so to see two full EPICs with their prism and all that other stuff is really a joy for me.
FANG: How about J.T. Petty as director?
COLLINS: I love working with J.T.! He’s even-keeled, he doesn’t get upset, he doesn’t yell, he’s always got ideas and he’s collaborative. He’s probably one of the most level-headed directors I’ve worked with in a while.
FANG: Were you familiar with his previous work?
COLLINS: I was familiar with THE BURROWERS, but not his other stuff. I was more intrigued by HELLBENDERS itself. We did have a great conversation about his past experiences and working with bigger budgets, and his frustrations as a filmmaker. You look at the situation with Kevin Smith, where he had to distribute his own film [RED STATE], and I think that’s a natural evolution of the way things are going. J.T. was speaking about the problems of working with the money; you have a certain amount that goes on the screen and the rest is tied up in P&A. It’s really disappointing. We’re really fortunate to have a fantastic technical crew and CG team. They’re all young and very hungry, and it’s fun for me, having been in this business for 22 years, to work with a bunch of people who are getting their feet wet on something like this. HELLBENDERS is a pretty ambitious project.
FANG: How has it been acting opposite Clancy Brown and Dan Fogler as your cohorts in exorcism?
COLLINS: I love it, man. Clancy’s a legend, you know what I mean? I can’t stop picking his brain, like, “Tell me about BAD BOYS! Tell me about SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION! Tell me about ‘There can only be one’!” He’s Clancy f**king Brown, so I’m having a great time with him. Everybody here is wonderful, and comes in to play hard.
FANG: Can I assume that Clancy’s Angus is the rock of the group and Fogler’s Eric is the wild man, or do they play with those personas a little bit?
COLLINS: They do. I’m probably a little more of the loose cannon, and yeah, Angus is more of the rock, trying to teach his sheep how to be shepherds.
FANG: Films about the devil and exorcism have a history of odd and spooky events taking place behind the scenes. Has there been any of that so far on HELLBENDERS?
COLLINS: Well, historically speaking, when I do films, I always attract those elements of… You can’t really explain them, you just go, “What the hell? How did this happen? What’s going on?” So as you can imagine, I got a little nervous preparing to take this film on and doing the research, and welcoming in those things. I spoke to Joe Mantegna, who told me a story about Jason Miller right before he did THE EXORCIST and the things that happened to him. You can’t deny that those things really occurred, but then, at the end of the day, this is a fun ride. I think the devil is going to steer clear of this one. I think I was getting worked up over nothing.
FANG: Looking over your credits, one of your first is FREDDY’S NIGHTMARES. Was it fun to work with Robert Englund at the peak of his popularity as Freddy Krueger?
COLLINS: I don’t recall working with him, but I did meet him, and it was, absolutely. Robert Englund? It was like, wow. It was like meeting Linda Blair after watching THE EXORCIST. He was A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET.
FANG: You’ve taken part in a number of serial-killer films over your career, including RAMPAGE: THE HILLSIDE STRANGLER MURDERS, where you portrayed Kenneth Bianchi (pictured below). What went into playing that role?
COLLINS: A lot of research. That was another independent; I think we shot that whole film in three weeks. There was lots and lots of dialogue. I watched the interviews with Kenneth, and read two great books on the killings. One had you more as a spectator, and I took lots of notes, and the other one put you more or less in his shoes, and…it was a difficult book to read, let me put it that way. But I couldn’t put it down. With every page I turned, I was like, “I have to do this. This is part of the job. One more page. One more page.” And thus went my day until my therapist called, and I was jarred out of my trance of reading. “Clifton, I’m just checking on you…” “Oh my God, I’m so glad you called me. I’m reading this book.” “Yeah, I figured you would be. That’s exactly why I’m calling. How do you feel, man?” “I don’t know. I’m deep in it and it’s making me a little sick.” “Did you read the other book?” “Yeah.” “How was it?” “It was good, man. I learned a lot.” “You know what? I think you’re done.” That was really all I needed to hear.
Also, taking it to that real place, I remember one particular scene where I had a victim on the garage floor, and I had to shoot her up with Windex. You know, she was naked, tied up, bound and gagged, and it was such a creepy scene. I always protect my co-stars; they come first and foremost ahead of anything. So if they feel uncomfortable, I say, “Just give me a tap or whatever and we’ll stop.” But I remember everybody looking at me like I was some f**king bad dude. Like, they said, “Cut!” and she was crying, and the wardrobe lady grabbed her and put a robe around her, and shot me a dirty look. The director, Chris Fisher, was shook up, and was like, “Everybody, let’s go outside, get some air and take a break.” And I’m like, “You guys, come on! I’m playing a f**king killer! I’m not a happy, fun-loving guy. It’s supposed to make you feel this way. You should be clapping! You’re OK, right?” It was that girl’s first film and she was from, like, Oklahoma, and it was like, “Welcome to Hollywood. Sorry it had to go down like this.”
FANG: You were also in THE EXPERIMENT, the remake of the German prison shocker—
COLLINS: DAS EXPERIMENT, a fantastic film.
FANG: Was there a lot to live up to in your mind when you took that movie on?
COLLINS: You know, I’ve come to learn that you have to take a remake for what it is. You almost have to look at it like it’s not a remake, and just make the best film possible, because otherwise you’re doing what Gus Van Sant did with PSYCHO. DAS EXPERIMENT was a truly fantastic movie; I was blown away by the filmmaking and the style. We had Adrien Brody and Forest Whitaker, both friends I’d worked with before and known for a long time.
FANG: You had a director with some experience in the subject matter at the helm: Paul Scheuring, the creator of PRISON BREAK.
COLLINS: Yeah, and I know there were a lot of fans of PRISON BREAK, but being somebody who has friends in jail, whom I go to visit… Among them, PRISON BREAK was considered the 90210 of prison series. It was on network television and it was the fantasies of the master race, truly. Pretty white guys running the penal system? Come on. I’m not bragging about being half-Latino and Mexicans running the system, but they do. So that was just another fairy tale, and I had a hard time buying into that. We all did the best we could on THE EXPERIMENT, and sometimes our hands were tied; once again, it was an independent film. All the money wasn’t being put on the screen, though Adrien, Forest and myself put our hearts and souls into it. It was a good time.
FANG: Do you think that you have more horror films in your future?
COLLINS: Oh, hell yeah. Me and one of my partners, Jack Rubio, are writing a script that’s THE EXORCIST meets MENACE II SOCIETY, let’s put it that way. But it’s based very much on reality, and the underworld and subcultures of the prison system and what really goes on there—the shit that people are afraid to talk about.
FANG: Having done HELLBENDERS in 3D, would you use the process for that project?
COLLINS: I hadn’t thought about it, but it’s definitely something, now that I’ve seen this, that interests me. That script is more thriller than action; it’s suspenseful and scary, but based on some real stuff. You hear about these prison organizations and gangs and stuff, and I’ve been very connected to a lot of those worlds since I was 16. I’ve had friends coming in and out of the system all the time. “I’m getting out Friday!” “Oh, I haven’t seen you in a few years, cool!”
For more of Fango’s set visit to HELLBENDERS, pick up issue #328, on sale now.