There is something about Alfred Molina’s body language today which suggests sheepishness. But what? The defensive way he draws in his shoulders, perhaps. Or the way he folds his arms as he grins. He’s a solidly built 6ft 3in, so these may be examples of a big man’s natural self-consciousness. And it might be that his look of slight vulnerability is more to do with his eyes, which are soft and dark, like those of a cow. Or his clothes. He is wearing white socks with jeans and what looks like one of those shirts you go bowling in. Perhaps this sartorial geekiness is what makes him look a little awkward.
On the other hand, if he is not entirely comfortable with the idea that he is here in London to plug The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, an all-action family movie in which he co-stars with Nicolas Cage, that would be understandable. It is meant to be the blockbuster of the summer, not least because it cost $150 million to make and is produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, the most commercially successful filmmaker in Hollywood history. From Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop to the Pirates of the Caribbean and National Treasure (one of six previous collaborations with Cage) Bruckheimer has had the Midas touch, prompting the Washington Post to call him ‘the man with the golden gut’.
But The Sorcerer’s Apprentice opened in the States a few weeks ago to a ‘disappointing’ box office. And this follows another Bruckheimer ‘disappointment’, Prince of Persia, also starring Molina. So, I ask the 57-year-old actor, how does it feel to be part of Bruckheimer’s first losing streak? He’s given this one some thought. ‘The weekend The Sorcerer’s Apprentice opened in America it was number 3 at the box office,’ he says, leaning forward in his chair. ‘And Disney executives were quoted as saying they were “disappointed”. I thought, how can that be disappointing? It made 17 million dollars in its first weekend. It will carry on making money and by the end of the year the film will have paid for itself several times over. The whole accounting ethic is very confused.’
Fair enough. What about working with Nicolas Cage, then? As much a loon as his reputation allows? ‘I am aware of his reputation for eccentricity, but I don’t quite know where it comes from.’
Saying things like he won’t eat animals that don’t have ‘dignified sex’, perhaps? ‘I don’t know about that, but he did tell me he had a gluten allergy so he doesn’t eat wheat. He goes to great lengths to find bread made from corn or rice. He has a strict diet.’ Molina leans back in his chair now, hands behind his head, the awkward questions apparently out of the way. ‘I liked him. The Nicolas Cage I met and worked with was incredibly polite and very serious about the work. Very collaborative. He loves stories such as The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Fascinated by Arthurian legend. A Merlinian buff. He was the engine of enthusiasm for the film. But yes, I’ve heard all the stories, too.’
Molina seems to be a tactful man generally. He is currently in Roger And Val Have Just Got In, a BBC2 sitcom in which he co-stars with Dawn French. It is shot without an audience, in real time, with each episode being the first 30 minutes of the evening, when the couple come home from their jobs — he is a botanist, she a domestic science teacher. During the filming French was in the middle of her separation from Lenny Henry, not that Molina noticed. ‘I had no idea about the split, that must have all been going on at the time but she didn’t bring it along. I read it in the papers along with everyone else. The series was great fun to work on. Just the two of us.’
Although television has always been something of a sideline for Molina, it wasn’t for his wife Jill Gascoine, who made her name with the 1980s series The Gentle Touch. They met in 1982 when they were working together at the Donmar in the musical Destry Rides Again and they married four years later. Though she is 72 now, 16 years older than him, the age gap has never been an issue for either of them, he says, though he can understand why people might be intrigued by it. They’re very happy together and their marriage has survived some tough times — Gascoigne has suffered severe depression, on and off, and kidney cancer (from which she made a full recovery). The couple have three children between them, she has two sons from an earlier marriage and he has a daughter from an earlier relationship. Tellingly, when I ask Molina why he hasn’t always excerised quality control in his choice of film roles, signing up for lowbrow blockbusters instead of the highbrow arthouse film with which he made his name, it is the children he makes reference to. ‘It’s put two of my kids through college.’
Could this be the real reason why Molina is looking sheepish? Here, after all, is a man who trained at the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama, began his career at the Royal Shakespeare Company and has been in some of the best arthouse movies ever made, from Stephen Frears’s 1987 film Prick Up Your Ears, in which he portrayed a menacing Kenneth Halliwell (Joe Orton’s lover and killer), to An Education in which he played the buttoned up father of Lynn Barber, whose memoir inspired the film. Barber has written that she found Molina’s Oscar-nominated performance ‘positively heart-rending’, which is quite an accolade, coming from her. On stage, meanwhile, Molina has won acclaim (as well as various Tony and Bafta nominations) for his performances in intelligent, powerful plays such as Red, about the life of the abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko. With his dark, beetling eyebrows, Molina does fierce intensity well. He can be a thoughtful and subtle actor. So what, apart from the children, is he doing it slumming it in all these blockbusters? Are they worthy of his talents? Does he find them artistically rewarding?
‘Well, Michael Caine once said that in order to sustain a high standard of living you have to be in a low standard of film. But actually the acting pleasure is the same in the two types of film. Different parts make different demands on you. A completely fictitious character gives you freedom to use your imagination, but when you are playing a character from recent history, then you have to be more careful about accuracy.’
His method, he explains, is to absorb as much information as he can about a subject then to throw it away ‘because the last thing the audience want is for you to show off your homework. Acting isn’t an intellectual exercise. It’s visceral.’
His portrayal of Rothko was a case in point. He became fascinated by the subject, learned how to prepare convases and even found himself empathising with the artist. ’His life was very well documented. There were loads of photographs of him because for a man who claimed to hate the commercialisation of art, he always posed for photographs. He was very aware of his image. He was, in a sense, always performing. Even his suicide was a sort of performance.’ But the thing Molina wanted to convey most was that Rothko always felt an outsider in New York. He was an immigrant from Russia. ‘His nose was up against the glass.’
Not unlike the young Alfred, or Alfredo as he was growing up the eldest child of immigrants in North West London. He was multilingual, because his father was a waiter from Spain, his mother a cleaner from Italy. His parents met in London while working at the same hotel. ‘My father arrived in England just before the outbreak of war,’ Molina says. ‘And he worked very hard to assimilate. He became a naturalised Britain after serving in the Pioneer Corps. Though both my parents left school at 15 they spoke four languages: English, Italian, Spanish and French. They spoke French when they wanted to be private, so I wouldn’t know what they were talking about. I’ve always considered French a romantic and mysterious language for that reason.’
But as hard as they tried to assimilate, his parents always felt like outsiders here. ‘I remember getting into an argument with my father,’ Molina says. ‘I said to him in quite a condescending way: “I was born here. I’m English. I feel English.” And he looked at me and laughed and said: “It doesn’t matter how English you feel, an Englishman will always remind you are not.” He was right. The English have the subtlest ways of reminding you you are not English.’ He adopts an upper class voice. ‘“Alfredo? That’s European isn’t it? How nice.” My father once cooked a meal for the friends of his boss. Traditional paella. And someone said to him: “So do you have this every day in your country? No wonder you chaps are always playing your castanets and looking happy.” Casual racial stereotypes…’ He shakes his head. ‘You know, I based the father in An Education, Lynn Barber’s father, on all the twats my father worked for.’
Alfred Molina dropped the ‘o’ from Alfredo soon after graduating and because he wasn’t ‘lens fodder’, as he puts it, he became a character actor, as oppose to a leading man, and has remained one ever since. ‘My agent told me to change Alfredo to Alfred, otherwise “You’ll be playing Greek waiters all your career.” He didn’t even bother to get my nationality right.’
Blimey. But I suppose this was the 1970s, the heyday, if that’s the right word, of racial stereotyping. I mean, he must have loved Fawlty Towers. ‘Yeah, I remember being called Manuel. That was the last great stereotype.’
But isn’t he now trading in stereotypes himself? He does an American accent very well, which is not surprising given that he has lived in Los Angeles for 12 years and has become a US citizen (because, as he puts it, over there they accept that everyone comes from somewhere else). But in this new movie he plays the English villain, a staple of Hollywood casting. And he has form in this, having played among others Dr Otto Octavius, the half-man, half-octopus villain in Spiderman 2. (That movie, by the way, cost $ 200m and grossed more than that in its first eight days of US release, breaking all records, so Molina knows the world of the blockbuster from both sides.)
So. Hollywood and English villains. What’s that all about? ‘It’s an honourable tradition and long may it continue. It even goes back to the silent era. So that couldn’t have been about the accent. But they were often English in the 50s. And when Alan Rickman went to Hollywood to do Die Hard I did think the standard had been passed on.’
Has he noticed an English backlash lately? ‘With Obama you mean? I haven’t been aware of it. Though I have noticed Americans emphasising the British in BP… Perhaps there is a future role for me as Tony Hayward.’
Well, a villain is a villain, is a villain. Molina might be a bit on the tall side though. And that reminds me of something I wanted to ask him. What’s it like being tall in Hollywood? I mean Tom Cruise is a more typical size for a film star, isn’t he? ‘Well, there’s Clint Eastwood and Tim Robbins and actually there is a younger generation of Hollywood actors who are all big strapping lads. I was doing some work with some students recently and I was average height among them. When I was a kid at school I was always the tallest. When I was 12 I was 5ft 10in, tall enough to be a policeman.’
Big feet? ‘Oh yeah, size 13. And by the time I was 17 I’d reached my height of 6ft 3in.’
How did being tall affect his personality, does he suppose? Did it make him placid? Did it mean he avoided fights because everyone backed off? ‘No, because I was a fat kid and I was physically uncoordinated. I was the kid who bumped into things, so I was a prime target at school. I couldn’t handle myself at all. I got picked on a lot, but now I get my revenge.’
How? ‘Because I live well. All the bullies have now disappeared in to obscurity. So fuck ‘em.’
It is an uncharacteristically aggressive comment for Molina, who seems mild mannered in person, and it makes me wonder whether he was an angry child. ‘Yes I was. Well, frustrated. Because I never stood up to them. I was a coward. It’s almost impossible to stand up to bullies unless you are prepared to be a bully yourself. It must have turned into anger somewhere and the anger must have got directed into acting. I know as an actor I’m good at rage.’
He sure is. His suppressed anger in Prick Up Your Ears was chilling, mainly because it was combined with a savage wit. ‘Yes I always get the feeling that whatever that period in my teenage years produced psychologically, I’m glad I was able to turn it into something positive through acting, so that it didn’t become a festering bitterness. It wasn’t some kind of impotence.’
One of the jibes at school, he now recalls, was that the Italians had been cowardly during the war, and he was half Italian. That stung, because he felt like a coward not standing up to them. He knew very early on that drama was his therapy and salvation. ‘I joined the drama club at 14 and very quickly I found I was living there emotionally.’
Yet he says he was clumsy and self-conscious because of his height; how did he square that with putting himself up on a stage to be stared at? ‘I think it’s why it happened. I was drawn to the idea of escaping by inhabiting other people. It was also a matter of getting the first punch in. If you are prepared to mock yourself first, it deflates the capacity of others to mock you. I knew I could do comedy and make people laugh. And I looked funny.’
In what way? ‘This is my natural nose.’ He points at it with his index finger, his thumb cocked ironically, like a pistol. ‘It’s never been broken. It was this way when I was born. And I knew I was funny and was a good mimic. I had lots of material because my parents were immigrants and they had strong accents. I could imitate them. I had ways of being funny and comic. And I knew what I was doing, I didn’t know quite what, but I knew drama and comedy deflated any bullying. I remember someone saying “You’re mad you are!” and I thought “Yeah but I’m going to make a living from this, from being mad. I knew I was going to turn it in to something worthwhile.’
Did his parents know he was having a hard time with the bullies? ‘I think they must have known because they got divorced when I was 12 and their situation was part of it. It wasn’t their fault but they must have been aware of it.’
I get a sense that he wishes his father had been more protective of him. When I ask whether he was also a big strapping man, Molina shakes his head. ‘My father was also tall, but thin, having had a duodenum ulcer that was cut out — he had a tiny stomach so he couldn’t eat a full meal.’ His mother died at 56 but his father lived to 81, so he saw some of his son’s success. ‘He saw Prick Up Your Ears,’ Molina says. ‘He was a bit confused by that one. I asked him if it was weird seeing me kiss a man on screen and he said: “You do what you have to do.” It was chosen as the opening film of the Barcelona Festival and because Barcelona had a vibrant gay community they came out on mass. Afterwards, at the party, two very camp gentleman from a gay magazine interviewed my father, who was back living in Barcelona at the time. He came over to me later that night and said: “Alfredo, I just been talking to this man and he say to me he think you are fabulous. What does that mean? This word ‘fabulous’?”
The accent is funny. He’s still doing it. Still making people laugh with his range of comedy voices, this time to charm an interviewer rather than a school bully. His other motivations for becoming an actor are intriguing. They are partly frivolous — he says that this way of life beats holding down a real job ‘any day of the week’ and that he would ‘rather be an unemployed actor than an employed anything else’. And they are partly serious. He reckons that people don’t become actors because they have something extra to offer but because they’ve ‘got something missing’. Hmm. And the whole notion of pretending to be someone else, he notes, has a great deal in common with the immigrant experience.
But there is also a materialistic side. He was raised in relative poverty. Now he is thought to earn around three million dollars a movie. What is it like being the star of a Hollywood blockbuster, I ask. How is he treated over there? Is it all stretch limos, sycophancy and chilled champagne? ‘It’s actually not like that, the big stars get treated incredibly well because there is such a huge investment in them, but most of the time on a big movie like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice the acting is only a small, eight-week chunk of a two-year project.’
A lot of the energy goes on the marketing strategies these days, he reckons. They are incredibly sophisticated now because there is so much money involved. ‘You have to make it something the adults will enjoy as well as the children. It’s a very interesting formula that Jerry Bruckheimer has developed because there has to be action and adventure in his movies, but also comedy. He really understands how family entertainment works. He also really understands television. I mean look at CSI. That’s a huge worldwide franchise. You get CSI Shanghai. CSI Deli. CSI Bournemouth, probably.’
And in this connection it should perhaps be added that The Sorcerer’s Apprentice isn’t all that bad. I took my children to the preview and they loved it: laughed in all the right places; sat on the edges of their seats. But I suppose the problem is that the success of a film such as this is measured purely in revenue terms rather than artistic. ‘Yes,’ Molina says, nodding earnestly. ‘That’s an odd thing with the reviews. The critics are almost superfluous to the result of the film and how it works with the audience. These films are almost critic proof, or at least the critics don’t have the same impact. It is not like an arthouse movie.’
They’re working him hard for this movie, I note. Is it all hands to the pump? ‘It’s all in the contract these days — interviews, international premieres, because there’s so much riding on it. When I started out in this business, the publicity side of things was always discretionary. You’d get a casual call asking if you fancy doing a couple of interviews on Wednesday.’ He grins. ‘But hey, I’m not complaining. This is a great life.’
And acting did mean he got to meet the love of his life. Apart from his wife, the other loves of his life are his daughter Rachel (from an early relationship) and her two young children, his grandchildren. One of them is named Alfred, ‘but he’s Alfie and I’m Fred, to avoid confusion’. Pointedly, he is not Alfredo. That ship has sailed.