Alfred Molina: a life in film

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From Mike Leigh's 'Meantime' to new Hollywood blockbuster 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice', Alfred Molina has had a long and varied career. Tom Huddleston meets him

In films as diverse as ‘Meantime’, ‘Spider-Man 2’ and ‘An Education’, Alfred Molina has established himself as one of Britain’s foremost character actors. With a new villainous role opposite Nicolas Cage in ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’, Molina talks Time Out through a few highlights from his extraordinary career.

Have you ever had any kind of career strategy?
‘No, there’s never been a plan. In any other job you’d be saying, "By the time I’m 30 I should be here, by the time I’m 40 I should be there." But I’ve never done that. My only priority was always just to be employed. Whatever came up, I would do. If I look back all I see is a sort of crazy quilt, I don’t see any pattern there at all.’

What are your memories of working on ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’?
‘Very fond, and a little bit embarrassing. I was so naive, and it was my first movie. I’d been trained for the theatre. But I was lucky that, although it was only a tiny part, I did all my scenes with Harrison Ford, who was incredibly generous with his time and his knowledge. I found myself asking him question after question, and he was always a real gent about it.’

Films like ‘Meantime’, ‘Letter to Brezhnev’ and ‘Prick up Your Ears’ came out of the political and class struggles of the ’80s. Was that something that you were involved with?
‘I went on some marches, got arrested a couple of times. There was something in the air. And it was a golden period for independent film in England, there was a lot of public money around. Lots of young directors kicking up dust and a whole generation of new actors: Gary Oldman, Ray Winstone, Tim Roth. It was a terribly exciting time.’

Who’s the better kisser, Gary Oldman or Salma Hayek?
‘Well, I know which one I’d prefer. I remember Gary coming into work [on 'Prick up Your Ears'] and saying, “We got any more kissing to do today? ’Cos I got beard rash off you. Shave a bit closer!”’

Do you thank your parents for giving you the face and skin tone of someone who could just as easily play a Russian sailor as a Persian camel racer?
‘That’s the way it was even when I was at drama school. I played the East German heavy, I played the Greek guy, I played the Arab guy. The genetic pool that I’m from is so mixed and muddied, I give good foreign. That’s got to be on my headstone: "Fred Molina. He gave good foreign." ’

Did you make a decision in the early ’90s to go for more Hollywood roles?
‘I’d been going over there since the ’80s. I did ‘Raiders’ and an episode of "Miami Vice", and I was always over for screen tests. And ever since I was a teenager I’d always had a fascination with all things American, so when I got the chance to work there I jumped at it.’

You made a huge impression in a tiny role in ‘Boogie Nights’.
‘I love to play those small cameos. You get to work with interesting people, to play a part with some bite to it. But “Boogie Nights” was a real accident because another actor had been cast and had dropped out at the very last minute. The producer phoned and asked if I was free. And I said, “Well, what is it?” And he said, “Well it’s not a big part. It’s basically a coked-up drug fiend on a shotgun rampage.” And I remember saying to my agent, “Jill, have I ever played a coked-up drug fiend on a shotgun rampage?” And she went, “Don’t think so.” So I said okay.’

Then ‘Spider-Man 2’ seemed to come out of nowhere.
‘Yes, I’d been chugging along nicely, playing respectable parts in respectable films, respectable leads in respectable plays and suddenly this big, all-out commercial thing comes along. It really did change things. Up until then I’d been an arthouse regular then suddenly 12-year-old boys want to know who I am. But Sam [Raimi] was very keen to give Doc Ock life and depth. So even though I was the comic-book villain, it was multi-layered.’

Have you ever gone into a film knowing it was going to be bad?
‘No. I’ve certainly been halfway through and come to the realisation that it was going to be a stinker, but that happens to all of us. Like my wife always says: “Well, you took the money.”’

Did you relish the chance to play a pantomime villain in ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice?’
‘Nicolas Cage said on the first day of shooting, “It’s all a game, right? It’s fantasy and it’s fun.” I think his philosophy is to take the work seriously but yourself not at all. And that’s a very healthy way to approach it. So there was a lot of giggling going on, and a lot of fun to be had.’

So you’re still enjoying your work?
‘There was a wonderful moment when I was doing the play ‘Red’ on Broadway. I was working with Eddie Redmayne, who’s 27 and very good-looking. And every night there was this long parade of young women going up the stairs to his dressing room. Lots of giggles, Champagne popping. I could hear them going, "Eddie, it was fabulous, you were fabulous!" And then as they came down past my dressing room they’d look in and go, “You must be very tired”! But it’s a great way to make a living. What’s not to like?’

Read our review of ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice'.

Author: Interview: Tom Huddleston



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