With a long history in film, theater, and television, Alfred Molina is a face you're sure to recognize. Beginning his movie career as the short-lived villain in Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981, he has since charmed audiences with many different, mostly evil characters, such as Maxim Horvath in The Sorcerer's Apprentice and Dr. Ock in Spider-Man 2. The versatile and talented actor sat down with Buzzine to talk about his new action mystery drama, Abduction.
Izumi Hasegawa: This is an interesting part. I don't think I've seen you in such an enigmatic role since The Lodger -- really walking a fine line of being good or bad. What appealed to you about this character?
Alfred Molina: What appealed to me was all those things that you cited. It's the most enigmatic character that I've played since The Lodger. That's the first thing that occurred to me as I was reading the script. No, seriously, it's all those things. One of my students asked if I ever had a plan, if there was a plan to do a certain kind of work at a certain time. I always say no. My first overriding plan was always to stay employed, so I've said yes to a lot of stuff that maybe I shouldn't have said yes to over the years, but that's neither here nor there. But one of the little things I've always tried to do is make each job, hopefully, as different from the last one as possible. When this came up, I read it and I thought, yeah. There's something here. I think I can do something with this. The enigma of this guy who you think is a good guy but he's clearly got issues -- does he have something to hide? And then, as that reveals itself slowly through the story of the movie, I thought, yeah, this could be something you could get your teeth into creatively and explore. Plus, it was the fact that I'd be getting a chance to work with people I hadn't worked with before. John Singleton and Taylor (Lautner) and Lily (Collins), as well as working with a new generation of actors. When you get to my age, there's something rather invigorating about hanging out with young actors because their energy and their drive is what reminds you of why you became an actor in the first place.
IH: What were your impressions of them as actors?
AM: I was very impressed with them. I was saying to somebody earlier on that when you get to my age, it's very easy to imagine that this new generation of actors, these young kids, all they want to do is get laid and take every drug that's available and just go to parties, because that's what we did when we were that age. But the truth is no one cares. Thirty-five years ago, when I starting, no one cared what we got up to, but now the scrutiny for young actors is enormous. The demands on them to just be on all the time is phenomenal, and none of that ever happened when I was that age.
IH: Would that scrutiny have scared you away?
AM: I don't know. I think it certainly would've affected my behavior. It couldn't help not, but I was impressed by just how together they were and how sophisticated they were, and how knowledgeable they were, not just about the work at hand and the actual work itself, but also the way that the industry works and their place in it, and how to manage themselves. I was very impressed with that.
IH: What was it about John Singleton that appealed to you as a director? Because he has a different style than some other directors...
AM: Absolutely, yeah. I think he's a very forthright and straight-ahead director. His knowledge of the language of film, the grammar that's required, is very, very clear. He knows exactly how scenes work, the mechanics of a movie. I always think that directing film has as much to do with the building blocks of the film as it has to do with any creative or artistic vision. It's one of those few jobs where both those sides of the brain have to work, obviously, equally. I liked the way he talked about it, the way he talked about the film and how it was going to work, and how he imagined it working. I got excited by it. That fired me up and I thought, yeah, let's do it, and I'm really glad I did.
IH: The character you played is slightly villainous. He's a bit more intellectual in the sense that he's not as combative as Dr. Ock in Spider-Man. Do you think you'd ever pursue roles like that again -- the ones that are more combative?
AM: Oh yeah. Well, I'm 58 now. I was 50 when I did Spider-Man 2, and I just got squeezed in under the wire, in terms of being in the right age group for the arch villain. I don't think they'll be knocking on my door pretty soon to do that again. Arch villains arriving to work, putting the tennis balls on their walker is not quite what they require these days. But I think that, as you go through your life as an actor, you hopefully find the roles that are age-appropriate and so on and so forth. A good friend of mine, who's a good 15 years older than me -- elderly, but a lovely actor -- said, "There's a time in your life when you play the perpetrator. There's a time in your life when you play the witness of a crime. There's a time in your life when you play a defense lawyer, and there's a time in your life when you play the judge." That's how you go through your career, and each moment, each generational shift has its own joys and its own demands and its own challenges. So I asked him where he thought I was. He said, "Well, you're a very young judge." I thought, "Oh, that'll do."
IH: Thirty years ago, you did Raiders of the Lost Ark. Can you talk about any specific memories you might have of that experience and what it ultimately did for your career?
AM: Well, it kind of – what's the word – kick-started my film career in the sense that it was my first movie job. I knew nothing about films. I was a theater actor for seven or eight years before that. I knew nothing about cameras, lenses -- nothing about the technical side of movie-making at all, and I really learned on the job. I was working with a big star, Harrison Ford. Steven (Spielberg) was a big director star already. It was a big, big gig. What I remember, of course, is, at the time, the technology that was being used on that movie was absolutely cutting edge, but compared to what's available now, it seems almost like banging rivets and using wooden nails. When you think about it now, there's a scene in Raiders when Harrison is lowering himself into a snake pit. Do you remember that scene? Now, that was shot from above, and that was real snakes in a real pit, and when he finally falls, he's face to face with all these snakes. The only thing between him and all these real snakes was an invisible glass partition. Nowadays, the actor playing that part -- let's say that Taylor is now playing the Harrison Ford role -- he would be nowhere near any snakes. He would be lowering himself down onto a green screen or a blue screen, and they'd put in the snakes afterward. They'd be able to do all kinds of other things with the snakes. They'd have snakes snapping at him, snakes doing terrible things to him. The ability to turn that storytelling moment into something more vibrant, more thrilling is absolutely there because the technology has changed so much. But at the time, I remember thinking, "This is fantastic. How did they do that? That's amazing." I think about it, and it was guys running around with smoke machines and big, hefty guys at the end of a rope, pulling. The technology was so basic, when I think of it now. So that's my memory of it.
IH: Then you jump forward and do The Sorcerer's Apprentice, which is loaded with FX...
AM: Totally, yeah. And Spider-Man 2 and all those movies. You have to remind yourself. Raiders was just before the advent of video playback. I can remember -- this is the amazing thing -- the camera on a dolly, and Steven Spielberg underneath the lens, watching the scene. You never see that now. You're doing a movie now, and the director could be a hundred yards away sipping a cappuccino.
IH: Do you think something got lost in the addition of technology?
AM: I don't know. I don't think anything has been lost really, because I think ultimately what we're doing is making entertainment. So anything that enhances our ability to make that entertainment can only be a good thing. I think what might have been lost is something a bit romantic -- a sense of camaraderie, a sense of something happening in the moment. But the truth is that's been replaced by a new kind of camaraderie. Now the actors all gather around the playback and we watch it. I think, if anything, the technology has made the process longer. When you think about it, before playback, you would do the scene. The director would ask the focus puller, "Was it in focus?" and he or she would say yes. He would check with all the departments. Were they happy with the take? And then we'd move on. Now, everybody gathers around and watches what we just shot, which means that everything takes twice as long. Budgets go up and the credit list goes on forever. So the technology has made the industry heavier in that sense, but I think, from the acting point of view, the job is really the same. We're telling stories. The moment between the actor and the camera is the same, and it's been that way ever since the very first movie was made.
IH: There's a story that Douglas Slocombe didn't even use a light meter on Raiders. Is there now more precision that you have to do because of the technology today?
AM: I think so. I think there has to be. The advent of computer-generated imagery and all of the new technology has created a kind of need -- especially in high-definition and all those things -- for precision that maybe you didn't have before. That's actually true, yeah. Dougie never used a light meter. It was all by eye, and of course the tragedy is that he actually lost his sight toward the end of his life, which is a terrible irony. I think there was a sense that people were able to trust their instinct. They were able to trust their craft. Directors would hire a DP and would trust that DP to know what he or she was doing, but now the stakes are so high. When you're spending $250 million dollars on a movie, the last thing you want is someone to come up and say, "I think we're a bit out of focus on that last one, chief."
IH: Speaking of things going wrong, John said that while you were shooting at the Pirates game, some fans were throwing F-bombs because you were in the way of the game. Did you experience any of that?
AM: Yeah, I heard some of it because there was a real game going on and stuff like that, and a lot of the fans were forgetting that the movie was going on. I remember at the time thinking, "Not my problem. Sound editors, you said you wanted the gig. Here it is." That was kind of funny, but there were also a lot of fans that, when they found out Taylor was there, there was a lot of shouting and screaming stuff. It was fun, but it was all very well-organized and very well-dealt-with.
IH: Is it a nightmare to act with those kinds of uncertainties?
AM: It can be, if it gets out of control, if it starts impeding your work, but the truth is that most locations, when they're real locations and there are real things going on, you just adapt to that reality. It's really simple. Like if there's a lot of ambient sound, you just know that when you're in the scene, you've got to talk a bit louder. It's when the immediate atmosphere or the immediate environment is actually stopping you from getting it done -- that's when it becomes a bit of a nightmare, but that's very rare.
IH: Having worked with big action stars like Harrison Ford and Tobey Maguire, what are those qualities that you see in Taylor as he emerges as one of them?
AM: I think he's well on the way to emerge as one of them. He's got all the attributes that are required for that, and plus, he likes that kind of movie. He loves that world, and he wants to make that world his. I think that's great. There's an old adage that it's not enough to have the talent. You have to the talent to have the talent, and I think he's definitely got that. It's funny because, when we were working together, most actors, in my experience -- certainly the ones you look up to, the ones that you admire, the ones that inspire you -- are usually 10 or 15 years ahead of you. From my generation, it was people like (Marlon) Brando, (Robert) De Niro, Steve McQueen -- people like that -- and you look up to them, and what they're doing is what you're aspiring to. I just casually turned around to Taylor and I said, "Who are the actors that inspire you, the guys that you look up to?" He said, "Matt Damon." I thought, "Great." I mean, he's a wonderful actor, but what struck me was just how quickly time flies. I thought, hang on. Isn't Matt Damon like a new kid? Didn't he just turn up? Wasn't Good Will Hunting just last week? Then you realize, no. He's 40. It just hit me how quickly it goes by, because De Niro is still working. Michael Douglas is still working. Those guys are still around. (Jack) Nicholson... You forget. You think, "Shit." I was reeling.
IH: You've done theater, umpteen films... You just had a great turn in Harry's Law on television...
AM: Three episodes. It was great fun.
IH: Is there a particular medium that you prefer working in?
AM: No, I love it all. I try to mix it up as much as I can. It's partly accidental, partly deliberate, but I love acting. If it's a stage play or a TV show or a movie or a radio play or a piece of animation, doing a voice for a cartoon, whatever it is, reading a book – I love my craft. I'm proud of it. Any chance I get to exercise it is good, as far as I'm concerned. If I can carry on making a living at it – touch wood – that's how I'll feel about it. I've never thought of myself as like, "Well, I do this," and I know that some actors do. I know that some actors love to just concentrate on one medium -- that's where they feel comfortable or secure, and that's fine. I've always enjoyed walking into a room with my first reaction being, "Oh, how do we do this?" I've always enjoyed that feeling of there being another new puzzle to solve. I love making films because it's the ultimate moment where you've got creative and a technical equations to solve, and often at the same time. That's really, really exciting.
IH: If you hang around long enough, you might be doing an octogenarian villain...
AM: That's right, yeah. My daughter was teasing me about that. We were talking about my grandkids growing up and going to school and stuff, and I said, "I hope I'm still around when they go to college," and my daughter said, "Yeah, you could be the bad guy in the corner with the walking frame." I thought, "Yeah, if I can stand up."
Lionsgate's 'Abduction' is released on September 23, 2011.