Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Alfred Molina got his start in front of the camera in the U.K. in the late 1970s, but within a few years, his face was soon seen all over the world as a result of a small but prominently placed part in Raiders Of The Lost Ark. It would be a few more years before Molina began to pull more significant roles, but he’s accumulated a substantial number of credits over the course of the past few decades, ranging from sitcoms (Ladies Man) to dramas (Monday Mornings), biopics (Prick Up Your Ears, Frida) to superhero adventures (Spider-Man 2). Currently, Molina can be seen owning a soccer team on El Rey’s new action series, Matador.
Alfred Molina: I got into it the usual way. I got approached to find out if I’d be interested in doing it, and I read the script and I liked it. So I had a meeting with (co-creators) Jay Beattie and Dan Dworkin, and I liked the pitch of what they were suggesting and what they were after in terms of how they saw the character, the story, and the tone of the whole show and how it would develop over a period of episodes. And from there, I had lunch with Robert Rodriguez in L.A., and I signed up!
AVC: So who is this fellow?
AM: He’s a self-made man. He describes himself as having started life selling cigars to American tourists in Mexico City. He talks about himself as someone with not much of an education. He kind of pulled himself up by his bootstraps, got into selling telephones, made money, and then ended up owning a telecommunications company and being able to launch his own satellite. He became a very powerful, very influential mogul… and like all moguls, when you’ve got more money than you know what to do with, you go and buy yourself a football team. [Laughs.] So his path, I think, is very traditional in terms of what happens to very successful, rich, powerful people.
AVC: Presumably you came into this project with at least a certain appreciation of soccer.
AM: [Laughs.] Oh, yeah, absolutely.
AVC: Did you feel the need to do any background work on how best to portray the owner of a soccer team?
AM: Nah, I’m not really one of those actors that does a lot of research. I just take what I’m given and tell the story that’s in the script. I don’t actually have to run a football club to play the part of an owner of a football club. [Laughs.] I don’t need to kill anyone to play a murderer, you know? They’re paying me to use my imagination.
AVC: From your current TV series, let’s jump back to your first TV series, which seems to have been The Losers.
AM: That’s right. I played a very bad wrestler. [Laughs.]
AVC: Was that your absolute first time in front of the camera?
AM: [Hesitates.] You know, I think it was! It my first TV gig, absolutely. Yeah, I’d forgotten about that. Well, not forgotten, but I haven’t thought about it in a while.
AVC: You got to work with Leonard Rossiter when he was between the second and third series of The Fall And Rise Of Reginald Perrin. Were you familiar with his work?
AM: Oh, yeah, very much. He was a huge star in England. We all grew up with Leonard Rossiter. He’d done a couple of series before that, including a series called Rising Damp, which was absolutely brilliant. He was also a wonderful theater actor, and I actually worked with him a couple of times. I worked with him later on a movie with Michael Caine called Water, but it’d been a while since I’d seen him at that point.
AVC: Was there a learning curve for you to go in front of the camera with someone who was such a well-established comedic actor?
AM: Oh, yeah. But he was a big part of helping me learn. One’s tendency is to perhaps try a bit too hard when you’re young. You know, you want to make an impression, you want to do right, and you kind of throw yourself into it with a lot of enthusiasm. And he was sort of old enough and successful enough and experienced enough to just know that you can take it easy, you don’t have to crack all your eggs to make an omelet. You can be a bit more judicious. So I learned about restraint and I learned about timing from him. It was a great experience.
AVC: Since you worked with Rossiter on Water as well, I’ll just quickly ask if you were around when George Harrison and company were performing their number.
AM: No, I wasn’t. I saw them afterward, but I had a tiny part. I was only there for four days. But I did see them when I got invited to the big screening they had for the film in London, and I met them then, and… that was a bit great, too. [Laughs.]
AM: Yeah! That was my first real movie. Hardly been in front of a camera before that. I was so green, the carpenters were giving me notes. [Laughs.] But what an experience. Spielberg was already a star director, Harrison [Ford] was already a star actor, we shot most of it in England, and they cast me in England. It was like a weird dream, in a way, because up until then I’d just been working in the theater. I wasn’t a star in any way. I was a busy actor. I was a jobbing actor, busy working, doing plays in small theaters or maybe the occasional bit of television. One TV job I think I’d done before that. But the theater was essentially my employer… and then this job came along.
I met with Steven, and he didn’t even ask me to audition. I was expecting to have to audition, like you did in the theater. I had my Shakespeare piece ready, and I had my modern piece ready. [Laughs.] But we just talked. We just sat across a table, and we just talked. He said, “This is what the movie’s about, blah blah blah, there’s a character here you might be interested in,” making it sound as if it was completely up to me. I had no idea of the protocols. I didn’t realize the protocols were so polite and pleasant! And then he offered me the job, and… I can remember the offer was £1,000 a week, and it was for three weeks’ work. At the time, at the theater where I was working, the top rate was, I think, £200 a week. Or at least that’s what I was earning. And I kind of went, “What? Yeah!” And my agent said, “We’ll try to get it up more,” but I said, “No, no, that’s okay, I’ll take it!” Because my daughter was about to be born. When we finished filming, my ex-wife was in her seventh month of the pregnancy, and I’ll tell you, that money came in real handy. I mean, we bought a cot, we bought a push chair, we bought a stroller, I got the little room that was going to be her bedroom decorated. I was broke when that movie came around, and I’ve thanked Steven publicly many a time. And I’ll do it again. [Laughs.] Thank you, Steven. You saved my bacon in more ways than one.
AVC: How many times have people come up to you and said, “You know, you really should’ve thrown him the whip”?
AM: [Laughs.] It’s amazing. I think the reason why it got such a high profile wasn’t because of the size of the role. You might be a bit too young, or you might remember, but at the time the movie was released, all the trailers featured me very prominently, because my little chunk of the movie had nothing to do with the rest of the film. It was just, like, a little introduction to Indy, so it didn’t give away any of the plot, so they used that 10-minute sequence at the beginning, because it introduced Paul Freeman’s character [Belloq], it introduced Indy…
AVC: It introduced the boulder.
AM: Exactly! All of that. So in the trailer, it looked as though I had a huge part. It looked as if it was like me and Harrison. So I was getting phone calls from people saying, “Oh, my God, I’ve just seen the trailer!” I’m like, “Yeah, relax. I get popped off in, like, 10 minutes. I barely make it past the credits.” [Laughs.] But everybody saw it! Generation upon generation are still coming up to me saying, [As Satipo.] “Throw me the idol, I throw you the whip.” I’m delighted. I’ve got a little corner of movie history that’s mine. So I’m fine with it.
Cabin Boy (1994)—“School Professor” (uncredited)
AM: Yeah! I did one day on that movie, and I had, like, two lines. I had no idea what was going on. I hadn’t read the script. I wasn’t given a script. I was just given my pages, which was, literally, just two pages. At the time, Chris Elliott was probably one of the biggest names in American comedy, a protégé of David Letterman or something, and everybody was talking about Chris Elliott. I’d only just moved here, I think, and, I had quite a nice career in England. I’d done a couple of films that were quite well known here, but I wasn’t really established. And I told my agent I didn’t want to be one of those British who just sits around the pool at the Sunset Marquee, waiting for the phone to ring. I wanted to get stuff. I wanted to roll my sleeves up and get work. So this thing came up, and he said, “Look, it’s a day’s work, you’re basically a glorified extra, but it’ll go toward your Screen Actors Guild card.” And I thought, “That’s good enough for me!”
So I went there, and… I wasn’t even allowed to help myself to the craft service table. [Laughs.] Because I really was just an extra! I had these two lines, I did them, and I got sent home. And that was it. I had no idea what the film was or what it was like, and Chris was improvising and throwing all kinds of stuff at me, and… I had no idea what I was doing. No idea. All I knew, the only clue I got from the director, was that I was frustrated, that he was the worst kid in the class. I just remember thinking, “That’s all I’ve got to work on?” It was kind of fun. But it was also a rather brutal introduction to American filmmaking.
AM: Yeah! “I can’t kill every wolf in Europe!” [Laughs.] That was a great experience, ’cause that was, like, my second big movie. I’d done Raiders a few years before that, and then I’d gone back to the theater in London and done a few TV gigs, and then Ladyhawke came up, and I spent nine weeks in Rome. It was my first time working with Dick Donner, and I had a great time with him, so it was lovely.
AVC: Was it enjoyable doing a period piece like that one?
AM: Yeah, and very different. With every movie that comes along, you have a different sort of sensibility, and the story and the circumstances make a different demand on you. In a sense, all films are period pieces, but certainly this one was unique, a fantasy-action thing, which I’d never done before.
AVC: That seems like the sort of role where a director might actually encourage you to take it up a notch rather than down.
AM: Yeah, every now and again, they’d say, “Let’s juice it up a little bit!” [Laughs.] That was a good one. I really enjoyed that. It’s a shame the movie didn’t quite do as well as we would’ve hoped, but it was just sheer, unadulterated fun. I mean, actually getting to literally twirl a mustache…
AM: We did that at CBS for a year and a half. That was great fun. And that was my first experience of sitcom. I’d never done a sitcom before. Actually, I’d done one in England, but in England the TV season is about six weeks. The idea of doing 22 was unheard of over there! We had a great cast. I got to work with people like Dixie Carter and Sharon Lawrence and Steven Root. And Betty White, for heaven’s sake, played my mother for a year and a half. You can imagine, it was like heaven. And watching those wonderful actors who have sitcom in their blood, in terms of the technique. It’s a very specific form, and it was like a master class every week. It really was. They had a facility. Especially Betty, who could take the simplest, most banal moment and turn it into comic gold. I had a great time on that show.
AVC: Are there any particularly different beats doing an American sitcom versus a British sitcom?
AM: There really is, I think because of the nature of the beast over here. You’ve got teams of writers, and they’re basically churning out product. So every page has got to have a laugh, there’s got to be an arc of laughs, you’ve got to end up with a big one at the end before the commercial break. There’s a craftsmanship involved. Whereas in Britain, sitcoms are much more individual. In terms of the individual writers, I mean. You’ll have a team of writers that might just be two writers, like [John] Esmonde and [Bob] Larbey, or writers who work on their own, and they’ll write six episodes and that’s a season. So the ability to really find your own voice as a writer in that genre is so much easier. Here, there’s more of a feeling that it’s a sausage factory somehow.
AM: Those were the sort of nice little parts—almost cameos, really—that you get a lot of juice out of. They’re fun to do, because you pop in for a few days and you pop out and you work with great people. It’s a nice way to make a living. [Laughs.]
AVC: Your scene in Boogie Nights may be directly responsible for prolonging Night Ranger’s career.
AM: Oh, maybe! [Laughs.] Maybe so.
AVC: How do you feel about that?
AM: I’m delighted. If it helped in some way, I’m proud of it.
AVC: How did your scene in Magnolia come about? Did Paul Thomas Anderson mention to you while you were on Boogie Nights that he might have something for you in his next film as well?
AM: No, that came very separately. I mean, it was just another call from P.T. saying, “Will you come and do this movie?”And I said, “Yeah!” There are certain directors that you’ll just say “yes” to because you know you’re going to have a good time with it. And there are some directors who, frankly, I’d lurk in a doorway for if they wanted me to, because it’s very fun to be in their company. Lasse Hallstorm is someone I’d work with in a heartbeat. I’d be happy to work with P.T. or Stephen Frears. Mira Nair’s another one. I’d be happy to jump in a van and stand outside a doorway for any of them.
AM: Oh, yeah, that’s right, that was a little one-off thing. You know, the voice stuff, it’s a relatively new area of work for me. I haven’t done much of it. I’ve recorded books before, I’ve done radio plays before, but I’ve never really done that kind of voice work, for cartoons or animated films. But I’m enjoying it.
AVC: For that particular role, did they give you any particular direction on how they wanted the character to sound?
AM: No, they just said, “Let’s have fun with it. Let’s just find a voice.” So that’s what we did.
AVC: Did you have any particular point of inspiration that you went with?
AM: No, but what we do is a craft, so you get the gig and you’ve got to work out what tools you need to do it. It’s as simple as that, really.
AM: That was an important one. You get a chance to play real people, people who actually existed, either contemporarily or historically, and it adds an extra level of responsibility to what you do, whether they’re bad people or good people. Whether you’re playing Adolf Hitler or Sister Mary Theresa, you have a responsibility not to misrepresent them, to be honest and truthful about who they were as far as you can be.
It’s relatively easy when you’re playing someone we know a great deal about, and Diego has been thoroughly discussed in all kinds of media: documentary films, essays, books, and I think there’s even been a movie about him. Also, he was a huge self-publicist. [Laughs.] So there’s no shortage of material about him. It was a relatively easy process to do all the homework. There’s loads of books. He wrote a book about himself, and there’s loads of stuff written about him and there are lots of examples of his work all over the world. So it was easy to… Well, it wasn’t easy, but perhaps a better word is that it was very accessible. It’s harder when you’re playing someone whose life is less well known or was less celebrated. But then, of course, the less information you’ve got, the more room you’ve got for a leap of imagination. I mean, I loved working on Frida because it was a fantastic exercise in trying to inhabit an iconic character and person. That was a challenge.
AVC: Presumably this character was somewhat less challenging to inhabit.
AM: [Laughs.] Well, that was another fun job, because it was a very interesting premise. Jim Jarmusch basically said, “Well, you’re being yourself, but… not. You’re being yourselves, but in kind of a heightened, fictionalized way.” Steve [Coogan] and I had a basic script, but Jim was very happy for us to play around with it and tease it. And Steve is a masterful improviser, which I am not. I’m not very good at improvising, so I just decided to follow him, ’cause his mind works, like, super fast. He’s got a razor-like way of getting to the joke and getting into what’s funny, so I just tried to stay inside his slipstream, really. That was my trick there.
AM: That was the first time I worked with Jim. And that was a chance to work with a director I’d admired but had never worked with before, so that was the real incentive there. We shot it up in… Was it Bedford, Oregon? I think it was Bedford. And it wasn’t winter exactly, but it was late fall, and it was just a lovely experience. I’d never worked with Johnny Depp before, but I’ve ended up working with him three times now, so… it was good. It was really, really good.
AM: Oh, yeah! I went back to England to do that. That was fun. You’re picking all my favorites! [Laughs.] But I love working, you know? There’s almost always something enjoyable about working on movies.
AVC: Do you have a Bill Murray anecdote?
AM: No, I don’t. Bill was great to work with, and we had a lot of fun working together, but I don’t have the obligatory Bill Murray anecdote. [Laughs.]
AM: When I did that, I’d just come off a year in a play, so I hadn’t been near a movie camera for nearly 18 months. So that was nice to kind of get back into it again.
AVC: When you’re doing a film based on a hugely successful novel like that, do you feel obliged to hew as closely to the script as possible, as opposed to tweaking it to make it your own?
AM: Yeah, but I always try to do that anyway. On movies, the writers have worked very, very hard to get the script into the best place possible, so I think it’s the least we can do to actually say what they wrote rather than start saying, “Oh, I think I’ll change this.” A lot of work’s gone into the process before we ever sign up.
AM: That was interesting. We did one of those crossover things where we did two episodes, one for SVU and one for Trial By Jury. It’s a shame that that show in the franchise didn’t take off, because we don’t tend to see… [Hesitates.] Each episode is relatively, reasonably self-contained, but you don’t see the other episode very often. But that was an interesting job, playing someone with Asperger’s.
AVC: How was it working with Angela Lansbury?
AM: Fantastic. I was very proud to have her as my mom. [Laughs.] Very proud, indeed.
AVC: Is there any project you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?
AM: Oh, that’s interesting. Yeah, there’s a few films. I did a movie called The Hoax, with Richard Gere and Lasse Hallstrom, that we really did a nice job on, and it would’ve been nice to see it get a bit more love from the audience. I don’t know why it didn’t. I think maybe people weren’t comfortable seeing Richard playing such a sort of cynical or manipulative character. I don’t know. But that was a film I was very proud of, and I wish that’d seen a bit more action.
AVC: That’s one that was based on a true story as well. Was there much research necessary for your role?
AM: Yeah, but a lot of it had been done already, because the writer had really created something very thorough, so there was a lot there. Also, he presented us with a lot of contemporary material, including the big interview that Clifford [Irving] did, all the newspaper coverage that ensued when the whole scam blew up.
Prick Up Your Ears (1987)—“Kenneth Halliwell”
Spider-Man 2 (2004)—“Dr. Otto Octavius”
AM: Spider-Man 2 was a big sea change. That was a big shift in my career, to play an arch villain in a big franchise movie like that. That was fantastic.
AVC: When I spoke with Gary Oldman about the unlikelihood of both stars of Prick Up Your Ears eventually going on to appear in big-budget superhero movies, he said you always used to say, “Our careers are over after this.”
AM: Is that what he said? [Laughs.] Well, we kind of did think that, because at the time… films with a gay theme weren’t mainstream like they are now, and it was unusual to see actors playing openly gay roles like that without an agenda. Of course, now it’s part of the whole spectrum of storytelling, thankfully, but it was a different time then, so, yeah, it could’ve easily have gone a different way. That it didn’t, I think, was a credit to the sensitivity and the sensibility of the movie. It was done with some class and grace, and it was a beautiful film.
Prick Up Your Ears, that was my first leading role in a film. I was 32, 33, something around there, and… I’ve been a character actor all my life. I never really expected to play leading roles—certainly not romantic leading roles—in films, so character parts were always the ones I gravitated toward. Partly because that’s what was available, but also they proved to be very interesting roles. I’d already worked with Gary. I’d done a Mike Leigh film with Gary called Meantime, and he and I had done a production of a play in London. Hang on, I might be getting my chronology wrong. [Laughs.] Maybe the play came after the movie. Yeah, I think the play came after the movie: It was Meantime, then Prick Up Your Ears, and then the play. I’m not 100 percent sure, but I think that’s the way.
Anyway, we’d worked together a few times, so we knew each other well and we were chums. We spent a lot of time together working on it. Gary had this wonderful idea, which I thought was a brilliant piece of preparation, but in order to get some research done, he suggested we build a timeline of our characters in real life and then see how we could match it up with the movie, with what happens in the film. So we had a great time spending about six weeks together researching and meeting and interviewing people and going through all kinds of material that had been collected by other people who’d had an interest in Halliwell and [Joe] Orton.
AVC: Had you known anything about the Orton/Halliwell relationship prior to that?
AM: Very little. I knew something of the events around the murder. I knew a little bit because it was huge in England. Huge headlines everywhere, really. But I didn’t know much about their life together. I certainly didn’t know the relationship was that long. You know, they’d known each other from the early ’50s, from when they were at drama school together. I didn’t know any of that. So that was really interesting, finding all of that out.
By the time we did Prick Up Your Ears, I think Gary was already leaning toward what has now become a fantastic career in movies. He truly does deserve the title of chameleon. He’s created the most extraordinary range of characters on film. This is just my opinion, he may even disagree with me, but I think his instinct was always toward movies. I think in movies he found his natural place. Although, don’t get me wrong, he’s a fantastic stage actor, very charismatic, but in terms of what he loves and what he’s found most creative, I think it’s films.
But, yeah, we used to talk at the time about how “this is either going to be the most fantastic thing that’s ever happened to us, or it’s gonna be the end of everything and no one’s gonna take us seriously after this.” [Laughs.] But there’s always that feeling, you know? You always have that sensation when you’re making a movie, especially when you’ve done something that’s pushed you so you’ve gone to an area maybe you’ve never gone to before, where you’re playing a part that’s maybe not that natural a fit or something that people don’t necessarily expect from you. Upsetting people’s expectations isn’t always a good thing. It can go either way.
Law & Order: Los Angeles (2010-2011)—“Ricardo Morales”
Harry’s Law (2011)—“Eric Sanders”
Monday Mornings (2013)—“Dr. Harding Hooten”
AM: Monday Mornings was a medical show with a certain amount of procedural stuff going on. All the usual things that you would expect from a medical show, but added to that—and I think this is what made it unique—was this element of the Monday morning meetings, where doctors and surgeons are held accountable for what mistakes they’ve made, the choices they’ve made, the decisions they’ve made. Dr. Harding Hooten was kind of like a judge and jury. He, in a sense, was the part of the show that brought in an element of courtroom drama. He wasn’t exactly a father figure, and he wasn’t exactly a mentor, but he was the boss. And everybody answered to him.
There was a certain level of intimacy with his staff, but at the same time there was a bit of a distance. Which is why I think it was an interesting choice, and a good one, that David Kelley said, “How do you feel about playing him British?” I said, “Well, is that gonna limit the character in terms of where he can go?” And David assured me that it wouldn’t, in the sense that he just liked the idea of a different tonality from him. I think it was a clever choice in that it made that distance he needed from his staff even more apparent, more clear, in a way, but it gave him a very unique voice as well.
AVC: You had just worked with David E. Kelley a very short time before Monday Mornings, doing a few episodes of Harry’s Law. Were you looking for a full-time TV gig?
AM: Well, I’d been living here in the States for 20 years, and after a career where I’ve spent a great deal of time living out of a suitcase, either on location or on tour, I suddenly reached a point where I thought that it’d be nice to get a job that keeps me in L.A., so I can have an interesting job, make a bit of money, and go home and have dinner with my wife in the evening. “Is that too much to ask?” I asked myself. [Laughs.] “Is that too much to wish for?” I was thinking, I guess, about television, but I wasn’t thinking specifically about getting involved in a series necessarily. But then I had my year with Law & Order: L.A., which was a great year, and I had a great time, but it was a tough year. In the sense that it was long hours, hard work, enjoyable work, but I began to feel exhausted rather quickly, and I suddenly thought, “Mmm, this is not good. Maybe I’m not up to this. Maybe this isn’t in my quiver,” as it were.
But then I did a couple of TV movies and stuff, and I went off and did a little independent film, but I was still kind of looking. Then the three episodes of Harry’s Law came up, which I had a wonderful time doing—that’s where I first met Bill D’Elia, our showrunner [on Monday Mornings]—and where I had a very curious afternoon. I was sitting just on the edge of the set, they were shooting a scene and I was looking at my script, and David Kelley came and sat next to me and just went, “Hello.” And I went, “Oh, hi, David.” And he said, “So, are you having a nice time?” I said, “Yeah, I’m having a great time, thanks.” “So you like TV?” “Yeah, it’s great!” And then he left. And I told Kathy Bates, “I’ve just had a rather curious encounter with David,” and I told her exactly what’d happened. And she said, “Oh, well, that was your audition.” [Laughs.] So maybe she’s right. Maybe that was my audition for Monday Mornings, because the next thing I knew, the pilot script came through. But it screamed “quality” right from the start. I read the script, and I went, “Oh, yeah, this is fantastic.”
AVC: So were you disappointed, then, when the series only ran the one season?
AM: I was a bit. But that’s the game we’re in. If we knew what was going to work and what wasn’t going to work, we’d all be in long-running shows.