Clifton Collins Jr., the grandson of actor Pedro González González, best known for his roles in classic John Wayne westerns, comes full circle in HBO’s modern western sci-fi series, Westworld. “For me, personally, it taps into my own grandfather’s legacy,” Collins, who plays criminal host Lawrence on the hit show, tells PEOPLE CHICA. “For me it’s a dream gig. I’m even wearing my grandfather’s gun belt that he wore on Río Bravo.”
Collins says his grandfather taught him a lot about the importance of a strong work ethic and education. “He was incredibly compassionate and had a giant heart because he came from nothing. He couldn’t read or write. That’s why he was very adamant about his grandkids having both an academic and creative education,” he says. His grandfather, who passed away in 2006, received a posthumous star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2008, which Collins accepted in his honor.
The 47-year-old actor of Mexican, Apache and German descent, who has had roles in films like Capote, Traffic and Babel, is in the process of writing his grandfather’s life story for the big screen and plans to direct and star in the film as well. “He came from a family of nine brothers and sisters. His mother pulled him out of school at the age of 7 to start performing and creating these skits that were often reminiscent of the Tramp character by Charlie Chaplin,” he says. But his humble beginnings did not stop him from pursuing an acting career, despite so few opportunities available to Latinos in Hollywood. “He always dreamed big,” his grandson said.
Collins recounts an exchange between his grandmother and grandfather before the former reached fame: “John Wayne was his hero and he told my grandmother: ‘If I could just sit there and hold the reins to John Wayne’s horse, I could die a happy man.’ And my grandmother laughed and said: ‘You are dreaming too big.’ Then, three years later, William Morris would sign him and John Wayne would put him under a contract playing bigger parts.”
Although González González has been criticized for playing a comic sidekick and roles that perpetuate negative Latino stereotypes, his grandson defends his legacy and says he’s been an inspiration to other Latin stars like George Lopez and Cheech Marín. “He played common characters and he would be shunned for this, but the truth of the matter is he was shunned for playing common Mexican-Americans. He grew up around farmers, around poor people. These were, in fact, family and friends. He would say ‘They are saying bad things about me because I’m not playing doctors or lawyers, but growing up, I didn’t know any Latino lawyers or doctors.’ Now, we have them in our own Gonzalez family, but at that time, he didn’t. It’s something he enjoyed doing and he had no shame.”
Collins says his grandfather is the one who motivated him to pursue an acting career. “He was the one voice who told me I could do it. Nobody else believed in me,” he confesses. “We all need that one person that we look up to who can make us feel good enough about ourselves to take a chance.”
The actor thinks Latinos today are offered a wider variety of roles in Hollywood. “I think there is still more progress to be made, but it’s better. With films like Black Panther and a lot of great Oscar films this year, Latinos are becoming more and more visible. I think people are realizing we come in all shapes and colors.”
For Collins, the determining factor in choosing a role is the character’s authenticity and complexity: “I gravitate to interesting roles regardless of ethnicity,” he says, “I don’t want to play a role because he is Latino, but because he is complicated and real.”