Los Angeles–born and raised, Clifton Collins Jr. (grandson of celebrated character actor Pedro Gonzales-Gonzales) is one of those “Wait, I recognize that guy .?.?.” actors whose presence in a movie is always a welcome surprise. You may not know his name, but his work in films like Traffic, Menace II Society and Dead Presidents consistently leaves an indelible impression. He’s often the best thing in the frame, gracing assorted thugs, gangstas and Central Casting lowlifes with bolts of humanity that launch them beyond the outlines of stereotype. Witness his last two films, Capote and Dirty: In the former, he played real-life murderer Perry Smith with such wounded vulnerability that you found yourself pulling for a cold-blooded killer, almost hoping that he would get away with his crimes; in Dirty, his portrayal of a former street-gang member turned LAPD officer (different sides of the same coin .?.?. get it?) was the emotional center of an overblown tale of police corruption. Curiously, a lot of Collins’ films are set in Los Angeles, and many of them do much to perpetuate the outsider’s perception of the city as an apocalyptic urban nightmare. But even when his characters are seemingly incorrigible and their surroundings bleak, Collins functions as a one-man civic committee, showing his villains — and by extension, Los Angeles itself — to have multiple layers beneath their familiar surfaces. Next up for the actor are the F/X television series Thief and a role in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel, which co-stars Gael Garcia Bernal. Now all that’s needed is for someone to cast him in a romantic comedy, a science-fiction film or even a period piece that doesn’t revolve around guns — something that lets this fine actor use his empathic gifts for something other than rehabilitating hoods.

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