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From Doc Ock to Joe Orton’s homicidal lover, Alfred Molina has run the gamut. The quintessential character actor, he has stolen whole movies with a few minutes of screen time: He got impaled in Raiders Of The Lost Ark’s first reel, but he left an indelible impression as Dr. Jones’ traitorous South American guide, and he managed to upstage Mark Wahlberg’s prosthetic schlong with his turn as a cracked-out drug dealer with a fondness for Night Ranger in Boogie Nights. In An Education, he takes an affable turn as Jack, an aspirant patriarch in 1960s England who’s set on his precocious high-schooler daughter Jenny (Carey Mulligan) going to Oxford. So firm is his desire for his daughter’s betterment—and, by social osmosis, his own—that he’s swept off his feet when a charming stranger named David (Peter Sarsgaard) starts taking his daughter to see string quartets in London and name-dropping C.S. Lewis. Although his character teeters on the edge of comic caricature, Molina fills him with so much heart that it’s hard to avoid being a little on his side. Molina recently sat down with The A.V. Club to talk about growing up in 1960s England, playing “exotic” roles, and why it took him years to feel British.
The A.V. Club: Your performance is really critical to making the movie work. In order to buy the plot, we have to believe that this overprotective, somewhat overbearing father can do a complete about-face when confronted with this charming, seemingly cultured man, to the point of letting his teenage daughter go away for the weekend with a man more than twice her age.
Alfred Molina: I think he responded with the best will in the world. He’s a man who clearly wants the very, very best for his daughter, and his drive, his ambition, is in a way satisfied vicariously through her. I think he was a very typical man of his era. This is a man who, in the early ’60s, would have been through the war, would have come back to a country that was supposedly a land fit for heroes, where they endured up to… 10 years after the end of World War II, they still had rationing in England. So I think there was a whole generation of men who, by this time, were fathers of young men and women who really wanted something much, much better for their children. And that meant education. We had the Education Act of ’44 [which made secondary education feasible for young women and the working class], National Health was in place, it was everyone’s right. If you were bright enough and smart enough, you could go to university, and I think for lower-middle-class parents like Jenny’s, that was the most crucial thing they could give their children.
AVC: And that was the first time they had the chance to go to university?
AM: Yeah, very much. Particularly for that class. So it was something which they’d earned, they’d worked for, they’d fought for. Now, given the fact that he’s got a rather limited, narrow, patriarchal, provincial view of the world, given the fact that the man has very little imagination of his own, into his almost hermetically sealed life comes this rather exotic whiff of the outside world, which challenges him on almost every level. Jack is an older man, he’s not a schoolboy, which is something that David could control and manipulate, as we see with his relationship with the young school-kid who she does bring home for tea. David is a man of the world, a man who seems very plausible, in terms of education, class, knowledge, information, access. To use an anachronistic term, he ticked all the boxes that would have made someone like Jack think that this whole thing was kosher. Plus the fact that on an emotional level, I think, because it’s what all successful con men do, is that Jack, like his daughter, in a sense, falls in love with David. So the romance—the infatuation, I think, maybe is a better word—is the same for the father and the mother as it is for the daughter. It was something I never thought about consciously while we were making the film, but I realized afterward that the only time you see Jack drink, the only time you see him laugh, the only time you see him having a good time, is in the presence of David.
AVC: His daughter acts as if she’s never seen him drink in the house before.
AM: Yeah, he drinks, they go out. David releases, liberates him in a way. So the shock of the betrayal, the shock of discovering the guy’s not what he seems to be, is as hard for the parents as it is for her. That’s the tragedy, because he didn’t see it, and he didn’t protect her.
AVC: In a way, their relationship gives him what he’s hoping to get by sending his daughter to Oxford, but without the trouble of sending her to Oxford.
AM: Absolutely, absolutely. Of course, the other contradiction implicit in that is that when she suggests David might be proposing marriage, the father is the first one to say, “Well, that’s great. Marry him, and you don’t have to bother to go to university, because you’ll have everything that university would have given you.”
AVC: Because it’s just a means to an end.
AM: Yeah. Yeah. I think it would be easy for us to look back on it now and sort of say, “Oh, he was a terrible father,” or what have you. But he was simply a product of his time, you know? One likes to think that you wouldn’t do that now, you’d be more sophisticated, more knowledgeable, more aware. But I’m not sure if that’s true, because I think we’re all susceptible to flattery, we’re all susceptible to the successful, the good con. There’s that lovely thing that Jenny has with Dominic Cooper’s character, when she says, “Where were you when he was… why didn’t you tell me about his wife?” and stuff, and then he says, “Well, where were you when we were boosting the maps from little old ladies?” We’re all complicit at some level.
AVC: They always say the easiest person to con is someone who thinks they can’t be conned.
AM: Yeah, that’s right. And I think it’s because good cons are all based on the victim’s need, and the successful con artist is the one, I guess, who can exploit that. I remember reading something about this, that one of the great traits of confidence tricksters is the level that they flatter their victim. Not necessarily something like, “Oh, that’s a nice coat you’re wearing,” but just making them feel good, and them wanting more of that.
AVC: This time period is essentially when you grew up, although you would have been several years younger than Jenny. Did you need to do research for the role?
AM: Oh, yeah. I read a little bit, because it’s always interesting. I’ve always been interested in certain social history, and that period as well, because I was born in ’53, so when this story was happening, I was 7 or 8 years old. I don’t think I was aware at that age of the subtleties of what was going on socially in England, but certainly since then. And I do remember the bleakness of it. I do remember the fact that at that time, England was a country where everything closed on a Sunday. And that sense of boredom, that sense of ennui that settled on the weekend, and the need, that terrible need to break out, bust out of that. And the whole idea of Paris, perfume, music, all that stuff is intoxicating. There’s that great shot of Jenny lying on the floor, listening to the album on her little record player. I had a record player like that, and that’s exactly what I did. I’d lay on the floor with my ear next to the tinny old speaker, just trying to get as inside it as possible.
AVC: Was that the equivalent of running away and joining the circus?
AM: Kind of, yeah. I’m sure there’s all kinds of links between that and where I ended up, what I ended up doing, and where I ended up going, and how I feel about it. You also have to remember that this story happened in the ’60s before the ’60s happened. It wasn’t really quite the ’60s. The ’60s didn’t really happen until midway through the decade.
AVC: And then they stopped in 1968.
AM: Yeah, basically. But there were hummings. The shot when you see David ushering the West Indian family into their new apartment, that’s the part of London where I was born. And I remember those horrible, horrible dingy streets, and those horrible, disgusting apartments, and [Peter] Rachman and all those horrible landlords who were ripping all these new immigrants off. My parents lived… Rachman wasn’t their landlord, but we lived in that area. And that was what was going on then, so there was a real… I almost said that it was reminiscent, but that’s rather a cozy way of looking at it. It did bring back a lot of memories, and I was kind of aware of it, so I did read a little bit, just to find out a bit more.
AVC: You did an interview once, and you were perhaps being slightly tongue-in-cheek, but you were saying, “I’ve played Jews, I’ve played Arabs, I’ve played Spanish, but I don’t do English very well.” You’re playing English in this movie.
AM: Yeah. Well, I think I probably was… I was either just trying to be tongue-in-cheek, or I was probably being very defensive. I’m not quite sure which.
AVC: You were talking to The Independent.
AM: Oh, well, then I was probably being defensive. What has happened, I think, because of my background, which is slightly more exotic than the average British actor, I think, I sort of occupied this little niche quite early on of playing the foreign guy. It started way back at drama school, I played an Eastern European heavy, I played the Russian mobster. And I have done all those different ethnic roles, and I think it’s partly because of my look, I think I’ve got an adaptable sort of nondescript ethnicity, which you can’t quite pin down, but it’s enough to kind of get a flavor of something.
AM: Exotic, yes. I never got a look in with people like Merchant Ivory and stuff like that. I never got seen for Noël Coward plays. And I think I went through early years of my career sort of thinking, “Well, maybe I’m just not British enough.” And I always remember my father—who was very prickly about this kind of thing, and I think I’ve inherited some of that—I remember him saying to me, “Don’t ever think you’re English, because however English you feel, some Englishman is going to remind you that you’re not.” Now, for him it must have been a much more acute experience, because he immigrated to England. I was born there, so I kind of felt I had the right to assume that I was British, but it’s true. The English are a very warm and welcoming people, but there’s a streak in there that reminds you, occasionally.
AVC: This is the period where that’s starting to unravel, though.
AM: Oh, very much so. Yeah. But I’ve never really found it an issue. I’ve never really found it something that gave me pain or concern, because I was always employed, I was always working. For many, many years, that really was my only criteria, was to keep working, and if it meant playing an Arab terrorist, or an East German thug, or whatever it was, Italian mafia guy, it didn’t matter.
AVC: Did you get to the point where you said, “I’m glad I don’t have to play those parts anymore”?
AM: No, I’m still happy to play those parts. I mean, I think there’s something rather interesting and fun about those parts. I don’t mind, because I’ve been fortunate that when I’ve had to play a different ethnicity, or a specific ethnicity—actually, I should say “nationality,” really, because there’s only four ethnicities, aren’t there, really?
AVC: I guess so.
AM: You know, playing Spaniards, or Hispanics, or Italians. They’ve always been interesting parts. I don’t think anyone, any actor in his right mind would say, [Dejected voice.] “Diego Rivera. Oh God, another Mexican.” You know what I mean? I don’t think any actor worth his salt would think in those terms. “Bishop Aringarosa in Da Vinci Code. Ugh, Mexican. God, Spanish.” If it happens to be a role that isn’t very interesting, then the fact that it’s Mexican or Cuban might make it worse, but so far, touch wood, they’ve been worth it. They’ve been parts that have had some value to them. I’ve been Irish, I certainly wouldn’t turn something down.
AVC: Are there any nationalities you have left to play that you have your eye on?
AM: Oh, there’s loads. There’s loads. I’m not ticking them off. I don’t have a big atlas in my office, going, “Okay, that’s another one done.”
AVC: Your agent’s like, “Here’s that Albanian role you’ve been looking for.”
AM: At last, Albanian! No, no, whatever comes up. But it’s a nice niche to have. If I’m one of the actors that they think, “Oh, well, let’s ask for it,” that’s fine with me.
AVC: You have to be careful, for example, playing another Mexican character, not to just do your generic Mexican accent.
AM: No, I think you have to approach each one as freshly and as enthusiastically as you can. Each time you do it, it’s a new suit, it’s a new person. There may be similarities, you may end up sounding somewhat similar, but in the same way that you approach a role from any kind of creative point of view in terms of what the person’s like, all those things apply, regardless of the ethnicity on them.
AVC: It definitely seems like character actors have the best job in that respect.
AM: Yeah, we do. And we have longevity. And I think we have the opportunity to just have more fun, in a way, because there are more fun parts to be had. Character actors aren’t a brand in the same way that high-profile leading men are.