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The chameleon: King Vidor Award winner Alfred Molina opens up about his long career

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You'd be forgiven for not knowing Alfred Molina is very British. After all, the veteran character actor has a way of disappearing into roles, hiding behind a penchant for various accents and an ability to play a wide array of ethnicities.

He starred as Mexican muralist Diego Rivera opposite Salma Hayek's Frida Kahlo in Frida (2002), small-town French mayor Comte De Reynaud with Juliette Binoche as chocolate maker Vianne Rocher in Chocolat (2000), and Spanish Bishop Manuel Aringarosa with Tom Hanks as Robert Langdon in The Da Vinci Code (2006).

DOC OCK Veteran character actor Alfred Molina, this year's King Vidor Award winner at the SLOIFF, stars as Dr. Otto Octavius in the 2004 blockbuster, Spider-Man 2. - PHOTO COURTESY OF MARVEL ENTERPRISES
  • Photo Courtesy Of Marvel Enterprises
  • DOC OCK Veteran character actor Alfred Molina, this year's King Vidor Award winner at the SLOIFF, stars as Dr. Otto Octavius in the 2004 blockbuster, Spider-Man 2.

Molina is this year's King Vidor Award winner for the 25th annual San Luis Obispo International Film Festival, and he'll be accepting his prize during a special event on Saturday, March 16, in the Fremont Theater (7 p.m.; $20 general or $15 student at slofilmfest.org). After the award presentation, Turner Classic Movies' Ben Mankiewicz will speak to Molina about his career, followed by a screening of Chocolat.

Molina, who's been busy filming two new movies—the horror-thriller Relive by director Jacob Estes starring David Oyelowo, and the drama The Devil Has a Name directed by Edward James Olmos with Martin Sheen and David Strathairn—as well as executive producing Saint Judy starring Michelle Monaghan and Common, which opened in limited release on March 1. He spoke to New Times via phone.

New Times: I loved Vice and was so surprised to see you in the cameo as the waiter in a scene I thought was really important to the film. I also noticed you've done some recent short films. You seem like an actor who likes to work.

'THROW ME THE IDOL' In his first film role, Alfred Molina stars as Satipo, guide to Indiana Jones, in the 1981 film Raiders of the Lost Ark. - PHOTO COURTESY OF PARAMOUNT PICTURES
  • Photo Courtesy Of Paramount Pictures
  • 'THROW ME THE IDOL' In his first film role, Alfred Molina stars as Satipo, guide to Indiana Jones, in the 1981 film Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Alfred Molina: Yeah, I've been very fortunate in the sense that I've been working a long time—I've been a professional actor for more than 40 years—and now I've reached the point where I can be a tad more fussy about what I do, so if something comes along that's just interesting, doesn't have to be a big thing or a major event, it could just be something that kind of grabs my interest, I can go and do it. With the short films, you get a chance to work with young directors and people who are just making their way in the industry, and it's a nice way to—I'm trying to say this without sounding too self-aggrandizing, but there's a very famous quote from Jack Lemon, who said, "If you're lucky enough to get to the top floor, it's your obligation to send the elevator back down."

NT: From your first role as Satipo in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) to Ali Massoud Sadiq in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (2016), you've played exotic foreigners. I believe your mother was Italian and your father Spanish, and you're a Londoner, but you frequently play a wide variety of ethnicities with various accents. Is that something you've cultivated or is it a matter of your looks and abilities with accents? How did you come to be this shape-shifting character actor?

AM: I think it's more of the latter than the former, because I didn't have any hard and fast plans, I've never strategized in terms of work. My only criteria has been just to stay employed, keep working, and pay the bills. It just so happens that those kind of parts came along. I suppose to a certain extent that was a result of the way I look and my build, my coloring, and so on. I was never going to play Romeo or any of the romantic leads. I was a character actor from the start really. I was playing Eastern European thugs at drama school, let alone professionally. I think it was something I fell into, and also I enjoyed it. I enjoyed being able to utilize different accents. It became this little niche I found myself in, but I was quite happy to exploit it because it meant I was working.

MURDERER Alfred Molina stars as Kenneth Halliwell, who murdered his lover, British playwright Joe Orton (Gary Oldman), in the 1987 biopic Prick Up Your Ears. - PHOTO COURTESY OF ZENITH ENTERTAINMENT
  • Photo Courtesy Of Zenith Entertainment
  • MURDERER Alfred Molina stars as Kenneth Halliwell, who murdered his lover, British playwright Joe Orton (Gary Oldman), in the 1987 biopic Prick Up Your Ears.

NT: You've also done a lot of voice work in animated TV shows, films, and even video games. What do you like about that kind of work?

AM: The nice thing about that is you don't have to learn anything. You can effectively turn up for work in your pajamas. It's the perfect gig for the lazy actor. I'm being facetious, of course, but also it's a very pure way of working when you're just relying on your voice to convey a character and the aspects of a character. It's interesting work.

NT: You started on the stage, which I imagine is very different from film work. Do you have a preference? Do you miss the theater and its nightly gratification of an audience?

CRAZY NIGHTS Alfred Molina played crazed drug dealer Rahad Jackson, in the 1997 film Boogie Nights. - PHOTO COURTESY OF NEW LINE CINEMA
  • Photo Courtesy Of New Line Cinema
  • CRAZY NIGHTS Alfred Molina played crazed drug dealer Rahad Jackson, in the 1997 film Boogie Nights.

AM: I'm not in a constant state of missing it, if that's what you mean. I think what I've always enjoyed is the ability to, or the opportunity I should say, to go backwards and forwards from the theater to movies and back again. That's always been a part of my working life, you know? I've never really made any big choices of whether I'm going to do theater for the next two years and then I'm going to do a film. I've never been in that position, never had the luxury of knowing what I'm going to do for the next couple of years. It's always been a job comes up and I say yes or I say no. Whether it's a film or TV or theater job is almost irrelevant. It's whether or not the job itself is of interest, whether it's going to capture my imagination. Sometimes it's even as banal asking myself whether it's even worth doing. I've been fortunate that most of the work I've done, I can't think of anything that I would have rather not have done. There were some jobs that were more satisfying than others, but I never choose between theater or television or film; it's always whatever the job is and whether it's the job I want to do at that time.

NT: You've had to gain and lose weight for roles, and as someone who finds it really difficult to lose weight, I'd love to know your secret.

AM: The secret is I have a lot of trouble losing weight as well. The whole weight thing—I blame Robert De Niro. When he put on all that weight and lost it all when he did Raging Bull, it kind of changed the rules. Everyone kind of went, "Oh shit! That's what we've got to do, is it?" I've done it a couple of times, but as I'm getting older, I find it's a lot harder to do. When I was in my 20s and 30s, or even my 40s, if a director said, "Can you lose 20 pounds?" or "Can you put on 20 pounds?" I would have said, "Yes. Yes, of course. I'll get onto it right now," and I'd be very conscientious and I'd do my best, but now in my mid-60s, if a director said, "Can you lose 20 pounds?" my answer is always, "I think you need to find yourself a thinner actor," or if they say, "Can you put on 20 pounds?" I say, "You need to find yourself a fatter actor." I don't do it anymore.

NT: You mentioned De Niro, and I also think of Christian Bale or Marlon Brando as examples of actors who really like to immerse themselves in a role and do the whole method acting thing. Others seem to think it's not all that complicated, I'm thinking Henry Fonda, you know? Hit your mark, say your line. I know you're an acting teacher. Where do you think your process falls in that continuum?

DELICIOUSLY SUSPICIOUS Alfred Molina stars as Mayor Comte de Reynaud, who believes a confectioner is bewitching her product, in the 2000 film Chocolat, which will be screened after Molina accepts the King Vidor Award, on March 16, in the Fremont Theater. - PHOTO COURTESY OF MIRAMAX
  • Photo Courtesy Of Miramax
  • DELICIOUSLY SUSPICIOUS Alfred Molina stars as Mayor Comte de Reynaud, who believes a confectioner is bewitching her product, in the 2000 film Chocolat, which will be screened after Molina accepts the King Vidor Award, on March 16, in the Fremont Theater.

AM: I always think it's rather dangerous to think in terms of having one process or one methodology and eschewing all others. Most actors I know adapt how they work depending upon what's required. If you're cast in a radical new production of Hamlet, let's say, and the director has this very specific way of how he or she envisions the production, then you'll develop a way of working that's appropriate for that project. If immediately after that you get cast as a talking refrigerator doing a commercial, it's highly unlikely that you're going to use the same methodology in that job. You see what I'm saying? We adapt to the circumstances. One of the first questions I ask myself when I'm reading a script—if it's something I'm considering—is what's involved and what's required? What's the baseline? What do I need to achieve or where do I need to be to even start working on this? Depending on the job, it's always different.

NT: You've played some notable but often complicated villains—from gay murderer Kenneth Halliwell in Prick Up Your Ears (1987) to Doctor Octopus in Spider-Man 2 (2004). Of course, in your hands these characters never seem pure evil. Do you enjoy playing someone with an evil streak, someone malevolent or misanthropic?

AM: Yeah, yes I do. I've never had a problem playing bad guys, the villains. From a practical point of view, I never had a problem because it put my kids through college, so that's a good thing. Plus, some of those roles have been quite memorable. People still come up to me and say "Oh, you're the guy that was in Raider of the Lost Ark. 'Throw me the idol and I'll throw you the whip!'" People remember those moments, and I'm always flattered by that to be honest. It never bothers me ... well, it only bothers me when people ask me to do it in the middle of Whole Foods. I always think, "Really? There's no need," but the fact that people remember it and remember me for it, that's very flattering. It's not insulting in any way, and most of the time people remember it with fondness. Guys come up to me and say, "Oh, I saw that movie when I was 14 years old. I fell in love with films." That's a wonderful thing.

EPIC ARTIST Alfred Molina was Mexican muralist Diego Rivera opposite Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo in the 2002 film Frida. - PHOTO COURTESY OF HANDPRINT ENTERTAINMENT
  • Photo Courtesy Of Handprint Entertainment
  • EPIC ARTIST Alfred Molina was Mexican muralist Diego Rivera opposite Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo in the 2002 film Frida.

NT: Well, it's funny that you should mention that because in 1981 I was a year out of high school and I walked into the very same theater you're going to be in getting the King Vidor Award, the Fremont Theater, this old, beautiful art deco theater that's been there since the '40s, and I went into a matinee, and I didn't know anything about Raiders of the Lost Ark, I was by myself, just going to a movie, and I'm telling you, that movie—whew—just blew me away. It was fantastic.

AM: Very often people come up to me and say things like that, and that's lovely. My contribution to that movie, in a sense, is a bit of a footnote, but it's there, and I'm very proud of it.

NT: It's a really memorable scene, and when you get all the spikes and arrows and stuff to the face, I mean, it's so shocking! Anyway, I know that you're also a philanthropist, and it seems advocating for those with AIDS is one of your endeavors. Where did your passion for that come from?

AM: It came from being a young actor in the '80s in the U.K. when the AIDS epidemic first became apparent to us. Not being gay, I was still shocked and frightened by the whole thing. Seeing many, many friends who were gay who died or had close partners who died—it was this terrible, terrible moment when we all felt so helpless and in fear, and it struck me the way people reacted to it, society on both sides of the Atlantic, we found society was shunning people who were gay or had experience with AIDS. People were losing their jobs over it or being thrown out of families over it. People being disconnected from families because they were gay—all of that was shocking to me. I can't really call myself an activist, but I've always lent my name and my support. I'm not one of the leaders of the movement or anything like that, but it's something that's always been very close to my heart. I've tried to make a contribution.

STRANGE LOVE Alfred Molina and John Lithgow played a gay couple whose lives are disrupted after they officially marry in the 2014 film Love Is Strange. - PHOTO COURTESY OF PARTS AND LABOR
  • Photo Courtesy Of Parts And Labor
  • STRANGE LOVE Alfred Molina and John Lithgow played a gay couple whose lives are disrupted after they officially marry in the 2014 film Love Is Strange.

NT: One last question: Ours is a relatively small film festival, and the King Vidor Award doesn't carry a lot of prestige, but our local audiences get a big thrill when a film actor of your caliber attends and accepts this award. I know it doesn't have much affect on your career, and it takes time out of your busy schedule, so why do you do it?

AM: Well, why not? Why not? SLO is a beautiful place. The size of the festival, the notoriety or lack of it of the award—that's not really relevant. What you have up there is wonderful. Any community that can sustain a film festival for more than just a one-off means that there's a community there that loves film, that's enthusiastic about film, and that's well worth supporting. It's people like that and people like yourself, who goes to a matinee of a movie you've never heard of on your own, that changes the way you look at things, that's bread and butter for actors and people who make films. The fans who watch movies have kept me employed, and maybe it's just a way of saying thanks. I'm looking forward to it very much. I'm thrilled and flattered. Δ

Contact Senior Staff Writer Glen Starkey at gstarkey@newtimesslo.com.

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