The Hot Seat: Alfred Molina

The character actor likes playing nutjobs.

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Illustration: Rob Kelly


While it's true that Alfred Molina can do any accent (or as he says, "give good foreign"), his real-life voice is that of a sexy British gentleman, the kind of part he rarely gets to play. Instead, the 56-year-old has portrayed a variety of deeply disturbed oddballs, including Spider-Man nemesis Doc Ock and a Speedo-sporting, cheesy-'80s-song--loving drug dealer in Boogie Nights. And now he's playing yet another messed-up guy: abstract painter Mark Rothko in the West End stage import Red. Although John Logan's biodrama doesn't deal with Rothko's eventual suicide, it does present a portrait of the artist as a middle-aged neurotic, when he was working on the Seagram murals that became a major part of his legacy. The morning after his first Broadway preview, Molina called to chat about the show and explain why he's always careful when approached by ostensible fans.

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Last night at 3am, I came across you playing a rapist-murderer on Law & Order SVU. Not exactly a role that puts an interviewer at ease.
[Laughs] No, I suppose not.

How do you get into the heads ofall these—let's be blunt—fucked-up guys?
The truth is there's something rather attractive about them. I don't mean in the you'd-like-to-have-dinner-with-them sort of way. They're challenging. They present me with a set of problems that I need to solve in order to make them live.

You're a sort of ethnic everyman.Is there any type of person youcan't play?
Well, I don't think I'd be very convincing as African-American, but other than that...you know, most ethnicities I've played, I've managed to offend someone.

Like when?
I played an Iranian character in [the 1991 film] Not Without My Daughter. One day I was on my way to a rehearsal in London and a gentleman approached me and said, "Are you that man from Not Without My Daughter?" I thought he was a fan, so I said, "Why yes!" And he just punched me. I don't remember it hurting. It just threw me back and I landed on the bonnet of my car. All I could think to say was, "But I'm just an actor!"

You made your Broadway debut in Art and now you're playing abstract painter Mark Rothko. Are you one of those actors who really wants to be an artist?
No, I think it's just sheercoincidence, really. I've also donea couple of movies where I've played artists.

I read that Julie Taymor, who directed you in Frida, sent you to art school for six weeks to prepare. Did you do anything similar for Red?
I did not. I learned absolutely nothing at those art classes...except how to argue with an annoying art teacher.

Rothko is a historical figure; did that affect how you approached the role?
I got the facts and figures about the guy. But ultimately the audience isn't paying good money to see me show off my knowledge. I try to balance history with the demand for drama. Of course, I can't do anything that would in any way misrepresent him. Like I couldn't suddenly decide, [Puts on a brogue] Well, I'm really good at an Irish accent. I'll make Mark Rothko from Dublin!

Rothko was so rankled by the Seagram commission that he abandoned the project. Have you ever been that upset by anything you've worked on?
There are always levels of feeling dissatisfied with everything. I think naming the specific jobs would be in poor taste. But I've never given the money back, even when I thought I was bad.

How do people know you best: as Indiana Jones's ill-fated jungle guide in Raiders of the Lost Ark, or as the "Jessie's Girl"--crooning drug kingpin in Boogie Nights?
It depends on what time in my life you ask me that question. Before Boogie Nights, I did get a lot of "You throw me the idol, I'll throw you the whip." That's always the line they do. After Boogie Nights, people would come up to me and say, "Oh, that's Cosmo...he's Chinese." Lately it tends to be all Spider-Man lines, especially from younger kids.

Funny you should mention Spider-Man...since you had to shave your head to play Rothko, I was thinking you'd make a great Lex Luthor in the upcoming Superman film. Would you play another comic-book baddie?
Of course! I'd play a supervillain every day of the week if I could. It got two of my kids through college, you know.

Red is currently in previews and opens Apr 1.

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