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Exclusive interview with Alfred Molina on 'Love is Strange'

He has played a variety of characters in movies like “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Prick Up Your Ears,” “Boogie Nights,” “Spider-Man 2” and “Not Without My Daughter” to where it seems like he can play anybody (and he probably can). Now Alfred Molina takes on a more intimate role in Ira Sachs’ “Love Is Strange” where he plays George, a Catholic school music teacher who, as the movie starts, marries his lover of 39 years, Ben (played by John Lithgow). They have a joyous ceremony, but once word reaches the school of George’s wedding, they subsequently fire him. This leads to a great deal of upheaval in the newlyweds’ life as they are forced to sell their apartment and spend time apart for the first time in years as they search for more affordable housing. The situation weighs very heavily on George to where he feels like he’s failing Ben and everyone around him.

The many faces of Alfred Molina-slide0
Photo by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images
Movie poster for 'Love is Strange'
Sony Pictures Classics

It was a great pleasure to speak with Molina while he was doing press for “Love Is Strange.” It turns out that he and Lithgow have been friends for many years, so the fact that they have great chemistry onscreen should be no surprise. In addition, I also asked Molina about how sees the world of independent filmmaking today, why Stanley Kubrick’s “Spartacus” inspired him to become an actor, and of what it was like to shoot this film without any rehearsals.

Since you and John Lithgow have been friends for a long time, did the chemistry you two developed onscreen come easy to you?

Alfred Molina: Yes it did. I think the advantage of being friends with John, having had a relationship as friends, helps us both in a way. For me it just meant there was shorthand already in place. There was an ease and a rapport and a relaxation between us that was very easy and also very conducive and helpful for the roles we were playing. I think we would’ve still enjoyed the fact that we are friends if we had been playing adversaries in a movie or a good guy, bad guy. But the fact that we were playing a couple in a long-term relationship, I think our history as friends only helped and sort of aided that.

What I really liked about this movie is that what the characters go through is quite ordinary, but it takes on a different feeling here. We don’t see enough movies these days about regular ordinary people, and the problems the characters go through here feel quite epic.

Alfred Molina: Yeah. People lose their jobs, people lose their homes and it’s always bad news. But it happens very often for the most trivial of reasons, and I think the fact that Ira Sachs and (co-writer) Mauricio Zacharias created a couple who, by their very ordinariness, when this crisis happens to them, it takes on epic proportions. And like most crises that happen to ordinary people it becomes huge because normally in our own lives we don’t have the power or the means to overcome them quite so easily. It takes time and I think the fact that George and Ben are, for all intents and purposes, a very ordinary and a very anonymous couple adds to the strength of this story.

I also wanted to congratulate you on receiving the Spotlight Award from the Creative Coalition at Sundance for your work in independent films. How do you think the world of independent films is faring today? Has it gotten easier to make them or harder?

Alfred Molina: Well I think it all depends on one’s perspective. Independent moviemaking is always a challenge. I think whenever you’re working on projects that don’t have immediate commercial appeal and you’re working outside of the studios, especially on low budget films where you’re really scrambling to raise $2 or $3 million to make a movie or however much it is, you’re working under all kinds of restrictions and challenges and the biggest one of course being time. You don’t have time. You very often don’t have time to absorb any mistakes or any accidents or anything that happens that kind of works against your schedule, so it’s always a challenge. But I think the fact that there are so many independent movies finding an eager audience means that there’s something being done right and well. There is an audience out there for good stories. There’s an audience out there for well-made, well-crafted, sincere movies about real people in real situations, and I think the reason why there’s an audience is because of the way cable TV, for instance, has welcomed movies. So many directors and writers and actors are now working on cable shows because that’s where some of the best movies are being made where young directors are getting the chance to make their films and tell their stories. The relationship between the product and the audience has changed a lot. There was a time when you were working on television that you were very much the guest in someone’s house. But now cable has changed all that because you’re paying for it. Also our TVs have gotten bigger so it’s like watching a movie, and if you’ve got a 50 inch screen in your front room, the ratio is pretty typical of a small movie house. You can be watching movies at home and I think that changes the dynamic between the product and the audience, and there’s an audience out there for small films. The independent industry lurches from one crisis to another, and in those ups and downs there’s some great movies being made.

I’ve talked with a lot of indie filmmakers recently and they usually get a shooting schedule that’s 30 days if they’re lucky, but those schedules keep getting shorter as time goes on.

Alfred Molina: That’s right, yeah, because making movies gets more and more expensive. But there will always be an independent director, writer, actors who want to continue to work in that milieu because ultimately that’s where the most interesting stuff is happening. I can only speak for myself, but I think that’s where the best films are being made.

Your character of George has a great line in this film where he says, “Life has its obstacles, but I’ve learned early on that they will always be lessened if faced with honesty.” I think it’s very interesting in that George teaches at a Catholic school and has for many years, but the school doesn’t always respect the individual that he is.

Alfred Molina: Absolutely, and I think that’s a great shame for anyone who’s in the same position as George; losing your job or losing your home or being chastised by society in some way because of who you choose to love and who you choose to spend your life with. As a heterosexual that’s something I’ve taken completely for granted. I can take it for granted that I can love whoever the hell I want and no one can stop me, but my gay friends have only recently begun to enjoy that right. So I think that’s why lines like that in the movie are terribly important and very, very resonant not just for gay men and women but for everybody. I was talking today with John (Lithgow) about how… He’s only been to a few gay weddings in recent years, but we both found them incredibly moving. Weddings are moving anyway. Anybody who confidently stands up and says I want to spend the rest of my life with this other person is making a very dramatic and a very moving and emotional statement, but when it’s two gay people you know that it’s not just full of the romantic and emotional power of the moment. It’s full of years, sometimes decades, of struggle to reach that point, so it has even more significance.

That’s a very good point. In recent years we’ve had movies like this and “The Kids Are All Right” which are about gay couples, but the fact that the couples are gay becomes irrelevant because they deal with the truth of what married life is like and the struggles that come with it.

Alfred Molina: You ask anyone who’s active in any kind of human rights or equal rights campaign and I’m sure they would say that their ultimate goal is to no longer have to have conversations like this where one sexuality is no longer relevant. Whenever I come across any kind of vaguely homophobic sentiments I’ve gotten to ask people, “When did you first realize that you were straight?” It’s amazing the reaction that gets because they don’t know how to answer, and the truth is that no one should have to put up with being asked that.

I once read that you said that you have to believe in what you’re saying in the same way your character does. Whether it’s Mother Teresa or Adolf Hitler you’re playing, you have to portray them honestly and accurately regardless of whether they were good or bad. A lot of actors like to change material to where it suits them better, but I liked what you said because it goes the fact that the part is not about you, it’s about the character you’re playing.

Alfred Molina: I’ve always regarded my job as being about serving the character regardless of who the character is. At a certain point taking on a job and then once you signed the contract and taken the money then saying “oh by the way I don’t think my character would say this” or “I don’t think my character would be like this,” that’s a conversation that one should have before you sign the contract and take the money. Once you have committed to something, you should be committing to the same things that everyone’s agreed on. Just as an act of creativity, you’ve got to give the same amount of dedication to whether you’re playing Adolf Hitler or Mother Teresa.

I also read that you were inspired to become an actor after watching the movie “Spartacus.” What was it specifically about that movie that inspired you so much?

Alfred Molina: You know I don’t know myself. It was so long ago and I must’ve been about nine years old when the film came out. I just remember coming out of that film just knowing that’s what I wanted to do. I don’t mean I wanted to be a gladiator, but I just wanted to be doing that; making films, being in films. I’m not quite sure what it was that prompted that, but it was a very powerful feeling.

There were no rehearsals of scenes when it came to filming “Love is Strange.” How did that affect you as an actor?

Alfred Molina: Well it was an interesting process really because normally you have rehearsals and work things out. I would hate for you to think that it was due to a lack of preparation; it wasn’t that. Ira Sachs, our director, came to the project impeccably prepared. What he didn’t do though was that he didn’t have us rehearse the scene and then play into the camera what we had rehearsed. He just wanted us to go into the take with the camera running and to just discover it in the moment. That was a very refreshing way to work, I loved it. I’m looking forward to doing it again. It’s very rare that directors give you that kind of freedom and also, given the fact that we were under the severe constraints in terms of time and money, it worked out well.

“Love is Strange” seems to give the audience a very unique look at New York whereas other movies tend to portray it as a crime ridden place among others things. Would you say this movie gives a more accurate view of New York than other recent films have?

Alfred Molina: Well I think it’s as accurate a view of New York as any other movie. I don’t think the view of the city that the movie has is a negative one by any means. The city looks beautiful in this movie especially in that last sequence with that sunset and the two young characters on their skateboards. It’s a beautiful, beautiful ending to the film. Because it’s the most photogenic city in the world, any film that takes place in New York has to deal with New York as a character in the film. There’s nothing nondescript about New York. It’s a unique looking place. No other city in the world looks quite like it, so I think it’s something any filmmaker has to embrace.

The interesting thing about the way Ira Sachs frames this movie is that it could’ve taken a huge political stance but he doesn’t which feels quite appropriate. He’s not taking issue with anybody, but he’s takes good observations of the Catholic doctrine and how it affects certain people.

Alfred Molina: Yeah, absolutely. It’s not a political film; it’s not a diatribe on the state of gay culture or the Catholic Church. It’s a domestic story. It’s a love story set against some real events that happened to real people, and I think it makes some very wry observations about the city and about New York real estate and about the conditions a lot of people live under. It’s not a message movie. What drives the movie is a kind of deep humanity.