Alfred Molina’s Sundance schedule was so packed that we didn’t even get to talk to him until he returned, but he very graciously made time in the middle of his weekday for a phone call.I actually saw him speak at the Q&A following the premiere of Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes, talking about sticking by director Francesca Gregorini’s development and joking that Tom Wilkinson turned his role down. Molina plays the father of a rebellious teen, whose mother died giving birth to her.
CraveOnline: I got to see the film at the premiere, where you spoke in the Q&A afterwards about supporting Francesca Gregorini’s vision. Did you really see your role as facilitating this raw new voice?
Alfred Molina: Well, sort of. I think what was interesting about the script and the way that Franceca wrote it was that she, as I think I said at the Q&A or maybe I was just thinking it, she managed to avoid a lot of the usual cliches of the relationship between a concerned father and a troubled teen. We’ve seen that scene. We’ve seen that movie story many, many a time and there’s all kinds of cliched tropes that tend to be used and she’s managed to avoid all those. The fact that she had this wonderful scene where the father’s put through this rigorous reliving of the event which he clearly has to do every time it’s her birthday because his daughter’s birthday has such traumatic meaning for her, because it’s not just her birth, it’s her mother’s death. I think she dealt with that in a very simple but very effective way. So if that’s her voice then I was delighted to be able to voice it, to give it some breath as it were.
It does avoid those cliches because he’s pretty strong, still trying to connect with Emmanuel against all of the sarcasm she throws at him.
That’s right, yeah. There’s always that. I’ve got two stepsons and a daughter and they’ve all been through their teens. Any father who has had a teenage son or daughter in his house knows exactly what that’s like. They go to bed one night and you’re the greatest hero in the world. They come down the next morning and they don’t talk to you for five years. It’s a pretty standard scenario. In this case, she gave my character a slightly deeper backstory in the sense that he’s trying very hard to, in a sense, love three women: his new wife, his daughter and in a sense the memory of his dead wife. The first wife didn’t leave as a result of a bad relationship. In fact, she left this world presumably at the height of their happiness, just as she was about to give birth to their child.
So that’s got a real resonance in the story in trying to be in a sense everybody’s father, everybody’s husband. It’s both romantic and rather tragic at the same time and I think that’s part of the magic of the script. Francesca’s written something which is really subtle and the script kind of insinuates itself into you. It’s not over the top. It’s not all gushy or lots of music coming and telling you when to feel something. And the pace of it I thought was interesting as well, the way she allowed the story to evolve is really quite wonderful in this day and age.
How hard was telling the birth story, even though it’s acting?
Oh, it wasn’t hard at all. That’s great writing. Great writing is a delight. There’s no two ways about it. Acting isn’t hard. Getting it right is hard. [Laughs] And finding the right way to do it can be difficult and elusive but this notion of actors putting themselves through some kind of personal hell in order to achieve art is bullsh*t. If it was that hard, why would we bother?
I suppose some actors do that, so are they doing it wrong?
No, they’re not doing it wrong, I just think acting should be fun. It can be hard work. There’s no two ways about that but if it’s actually genuinely painful then why would you want to do it? There’s got to be some sense of joy and achievement. If acting just leaves you feeling like death warmed up, why would you bother?
Is it true that Tom Wilkinson turned this role down or were you joking?
No, that was just a joke. That’s just one of my silly gags. It got a laugh which was the whole point.
Yes, it did and I wrote it down because I wanted to check whether or not that was real.
As I’ve grown older and matured as a movie audience, I’ve found that I really enjoy stories about dealing with grief. Do you understand that and what great drama there is about that?
Oh yeah, I think that’s perfectly natural. There is a progression in these things. As one gets older, I suppose because as you get older grief touches you in some way. Your parents die and maybe your contemporaries. When you get to my age, people you were at school with start to drop off. You kind of think oh, geez, there but for the grace of God. As you get older, grief starts to touch you. It’s interesting, I was having a conversation with my daughter who is in her very early 30s and she has recently lost a very close friend. She was saying how this is the first time that she’s really experienced it. She’s been around when my mum died and my dad died, but in a sense there was a sense of distance because she didn’t know them as well. But this was a close, close friend, someone who she grew up with and she was finding it very, very hard to deal with it. I thought in 10 years time, 15 years time it’ll be a different story and as we get older, we do find maybe stories about grief are a comfort in a sense. Because it’s something after all we all have in common, so there’s something in it.
I just think it’s healthy, and it’s something other people may otherwise avoid.
Oh yeah, I completely agree with you.
There’s probably nothing at this point that hasn’t been asked about your role in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but after you became a well established actor did you ever ask for a bigger role in one of the sequels?
No, no, it didn’t occur to me to do that. I did it and I was thrilled to do it and very, very happy with the result. It sent my film career off and I’ve always been nothing but grateful and thrilled to be a part of that. No, it never occurred to me to say, “Oh, by the way, any chance…?” I suppose because I died. [Laughs] I think that’s always a pretty emphatic sign that you probably won’t be back. Your character dying and then you coming back I think only seems to happen in soaps. I can’t remember when it happened in movies. Maybe it does, I don’t know, but no, it didn’t occur to me to ask certainly. As the Raiders franchise carried on, I remember just thinking, “Wow, I was in at the beginning.” Even with a tiny part, it didn’t matter. I’m part of a little piece of film history which is nice. It’s very gratifying.
Your one scene in Boogie Nights has been memorable too. Did that seem like a significant scene when you were doing it?
Not at the time, no. It was a great scene to do and we had a lot of fun doing it but I don’t think any of us really had any inkling just how successful or how meaningful or powerful it would be. I remember at the time thinking, “Go on, this is fun. This is good fun.” But when it happened and when it came out and everybody was talking about that scene, that took me, delightfully, but it took me by surprise. But again, very happily so. It hasn’t been a bad thing by all means.
Now that they’re doing a new series of Spider-Man, how would you feel if they cast a new Dr. Octopus?
Well, I think parts are like rental cars. They don’t really belong to you. If they do, when a new franchise gets booted up, they’re bound to, if they revisit similar villains. I think for instance a different actor is going to play the James Franco role and if they revisit Dr. Octopus and they get another actor, that’s as it should be. It would be a bit like somebody getting up and saying, “Oh, you can’t play Hamlet. That’s my part.” [Laughs] It doesn’t really make any sense.
Diego Rivera was one of the most significant roles in your career. Have a lot of people seen Frida now?
Yeah, the films that I get recognized for, it seems to break down in terms of age. Guys who are like my age remember Raiders and their sons and daughters remember Spider-Man and Boogie Nights and things like that. The mums are always the ones that mention things like Frida and Chocolat. It’s really interesting. I think my demographic of fans is shallow, but very wide.
The one special effect I remember most is the King Kong scene. Was that a special effect you participated in or was it animation?
Yes, I did, I did. It was a very interesting process. We did it in a couple of days and it was lots of wonderfully inventive use of cartoon and animation and still photography and stuff we filmed. I remember they built a fake top of the Empire State Building so that when I was clinging onto it I looked the same size as King Kong, and I was doing all the King Kong moves and growling and trying to hit the aeroplane and all that kind of thing. And then Julie [Taymor] did this wonderful kind of stop-go, slightly undercranked thing where it looked like a silent movie, the sort of shaky framing. It was great fun to do and at the time I wasn’t quite totally sure what she was aiming for. She kind of explained it and everything but I couldn’t quite imagine it because I’m just dull I think. But when I saw it I suddenly went, “Oh yeah, it’s totally got that.” It was very interesting.
I’ve had a chance to see “Monday Mornings” also. Are medical situations great drama too?
Well, I think they are. The fact that we’re still making medical shows, I suppose any story that puts people in jeopardy or puts people in some kind of conflict either with other people or with a situation, is always good storytelling. The kind of built in drama with medical shows are stories of life and death or will he, won’t he, who survives, who doesn’t? I think “Monday Mornings” has a little added twist in that there’s also this room 311 which almost gives this medical show a touch of the courtroom drama. So I think it’s something we haven’t seen before in a medical show on TV. We’ve got all the procedural stuff so you’ll still see surgeons up to their elbows in gore and viscera, but you’ve also got this other dimension of room 311 where doctors go there to get a new one ripped out of them or have to answer for their actions. I think it’s a different kind of approach to the medical show so I’m hoping the audience respond to it.
Will your character ever be called in front of those meetings, or is he always the leader?
I don’t know. He may do. Certainly in the book that the show is based on, that does happen. But also there are characters in the book that die off very quickly, so I’m hoping they don’t stick to the novel too closely. [Laughs]
Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.