Lovely, bouncy Alfred Molina has been swelling the action for well over 30 years. The west Londoner, a cackling giant of Spanish and Italian parentage, has – like Anthony Quinn and Ben Kingsley – been lucky enough to exhibit a sort of non-specific foreignness that suits any number of character roles. He was in the opening moments of Raiders of the Lost Ark. He was magnificent as Kenneth Halliwell, Joe Orton's doomed lover, in Prick Up Your Ears. He stole scenes as the drug-addled Rick Springfield fan in Boogie Nights.
It's a busy, varied career. But I can't imagine he ever guessed that, in his 62nd year, he'd get to act out a love scene with John Lithgow in a bunk bed.
“What do you mean?” he says in mock surprise. “That was always number two on my bucket list. I’ve said this before in interviews and I like to repeat myself. ‘Career’ is basically what’s behind you. Anything that strikes me as different is worth doing.”
Lithgow and Molina get it together in a touching new movie called Love Is Strange. Ira Sachs's film concerns two older male New Yorkers who, following their marriage, are forced to leave their Manhattan apartment and live separately with friends. Inevitable tensions emerge with their hosts.
By accident rather than design, this film about a happily married gay couple emerges here at a significant point.
“It might have the feel of a campaigning film for an Irish audience with your referendum coming up now in May,” he agrees. “That is very timely. And if the movie in any way contributes to the debate, that’s good. But certainly none of us set out to make a piece of agitprop. The narrative is universal. What happens to these men is not extraordinary.”
Molina tells the truth. It is not at all hard to imagine the same story being told about a straight couple. What is, perhaps, more unusual (and welcome) is that the film concerns – how can I put this delicately? – two older people.
“You put that very delicately indeed,” says Molina, a broad fellow with a rich, chortling voice. “I would have said ‘a couple of old curmudgeons’. Films about gay people, whether men or women, tend to be about very young, very beautiful people. These are two guys who are a bit crusty. That makes it very accessible. It’s a long relationship.”
He must have some grasp of this himself. Molina married Jill Gascoine, the charismatic actor best known for The Onedin Line and Cats Eyes, nearly 30 years ago.
“I think anybody can relate to that who has been in a relationship for a long time,” he says. “The hot days of rampant sex seem a long time ago. Ha ha. You used to swing from the chandeliers. Now, you spend your evenings dusting the chandeliers.”
Molina and Gascoine, who live in Los Angeles, have not had an easy time of it. Gascoine (16 years older than Molina) recovered from a bout of kidney cancer in the late 1990s and, five years ago, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. When I mention her condition, Molina adopts the realistic tone of a man committed to making the best of an awful situation.
“Jill doesn’t live at home any more,” he says. “The house was becoming a minefield for her, and the Alzheimer’s was progressing very quickly. It became untenable, I’m afraid. But she’s nearby. So things are as well as could be expected. Thank you for asking.”
Alfredo Molina entered the world in 1953. His parents sound like terrific people. His mother was born in Italy and, intending to emigrate to the US, got distracted by London and never made it any farther.
“‘I can still go to Brooklyn,’ she used to tell my father when they were arguing. That was her neutron bomb,” he says, laughing. His father was a voluble Spaniard socialist who fought against Franco in the civil war and retained a mistrust of priests and nuns throughout his life.
"We lived in Notting Hill before Julia Roberts moved in," says Molina. "It was a wonderful mix back then. Most of the kids were second-generation immigrants like me: Polish, Irish and so on. I wish I'd been more aware of it all."
After graduating from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Molina found himself hopping from gig to gig, like most actors. Happily, his dad was in the catering business and was able to ensure that Alfred always had a waiting job when he wasn't carrying spears or lurking sympathetically over the dying Shakespearean hero. There is no obvious big break on his CV, but that opening sequence of Raiders does still hang over him. So brief. So unavoidable.
"Oh yeah. But that's okay," he says. "If one is remembered for an iconic moment in a film, that's really cool. People my age tend to remember Raiders of the Lost Ark. Younger audiences mention me in The Da Vinci Code or in Spider-Man 2.
"And there's the matinee ladies who love Chocolat or Enchanted April. I never understand actors who get upset being reminded of something from 30 years ago. Those films have paid for a very nice lifestyle and the expensive education of two children."
Reeks of west London
So what of this strange compunction directors have to cast him as one sort of foreigner or another? In conversation, Alfred Molina could hardly seem more English. His self-deprecatory gags are delivered in a voice that, despite decades in LA, still reeks of west London before gentrification took over.
"The director James Ivory once told me I would never be in one of his films because I wasn't British enough," he says with less bitterness than that outrageous remark deserves.
“There was a time when Ben Kingsley and I were still ‘all-purpose foreign’. We didn’t fit into any category. But that meant there was a whole other area of work that was open to us.”
Molina’s talent for ethnic transformation contributed to a busy career that eventually bought him a house in Los Angeles. As he admits, an actor is, if he or she can manage it, probably better off securing a reputation for “character roles”. Time is less cruel to such careers. If you can play loveable oddballs at 20, then you can play such roles at 80.
So, what does he make of LA? What has kept him away for so long?
“I have to say: I love it. It’s fashionable for British actors to say they hate it. ‘It’s got no culture. You have to drive everywhere.’ All that stuff. Some of that is true. But it’s all to do with what you make of it.”
Next up he is playing a “Mexican-American” lawyer and an “Afghan diplomat”. Before then we get the unlikely vista of Molina snuggling up to Lithgow in a bunk bed.
“When I heard John had the part I thought: that scene is going to be hysterical. I’m 6ft 2in and something. John is 6ft 4in. This is going to be hysterical. Ha, ha, ha.”
They don’t call them “character” actors for nothing.
Love Is Strange is on limited release
MOLINA MAGIC: HIS KEY ROLES
- Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) Molina is in the very first scene as Indiana Jones's supposed ally. It's a small role, but people still yell his few lines at him.
- Prick up Your Ears (1987) In this very different study of a gay relationship to that in Love Is Strange, Molina is poignant and hilarious as Joe Orton's tormented lover, Kenneth Halliwell.
- Boogie Nights (1997) A small but hugely significant role. Molina is hilarious as the drugged-up lunatic who entertains Mark Wahlberg and his goons to the strains of Jessie's Girl.
- Frida (2002) Alfred gives us a stirring, charismatic portrayal as Marxist muralist Diego Rivera in Salma Hayek's stylish biopic of Frida Kahlo.
- Spider-Man 2 (2004) Before superheroes outstayed their welcome, Molina essayed the definitive Dr Octopus.