Alfred Molina was born and bred in Notting Hill, but his Spanish-Italian background blessed him with looks suited to play many nationalities, including an American tentacled terror in the blockbuster sequel to Spider-Man. He tells Donald Clarke why he approached the role of a comic-book baddie as seriously as any other
Accepting the offer to play a character from Marvel or DC comics is a brave move for any actor. A surprising number of single male lunatics seem to have nothing better to do with their time than access Internet bulletin boards and whinge IN CAPITALS about the awful things film producers are doing to their favourite heroes and villains. Just witness the heated debate (often taking on an unpleasantly racist tone) raging in various corners of cyberspace about the appropriateness of Halle Berry's presence in the upcoming Catwoman.
So I wonder if Alfred Molina had the courage to check out how his casting as the evil Dr Octopus in Sam Raimi's hugely enjoyable Spider-Man 2 has gone down with the faithful.
"Well I checked it out once," he laughs. "I went to superhero.com or whatever and the first message that I read said 'Oh, I saw Alfred Molina in this film and that film and I think he is a really interesting choice. Once again Sam Raimi has gone for somebody with a theatre background to play the villain.' Which I thought was an interesting thing to say. And then I read the second one: 'Who the fuck is Alfred Molina? I've never heard of him.' And then the third one was 'Wasn't he that big fat guy who was in Frida? He's going to be useless.' I never looked again."
He booms with laughter. Actually, he's not that fat any more. The 51-year-old actor piled on the pounds to play the artist Diego Rivera in Julie Taymor's 2002 biopic of Frida Kahlo ("I just ate two of everything") and has only recently managed to get back to his regular weight. Spider-Man 2, in which he appears portly but not massive, caught him somewhere in between the two extremes.
The ability to change appearance has always been one of Molina's strengths as an actor. Born to a Spanish father and an Italian mother, the young Alfredo, as he was then known, grew up in west London and credits his cosmopolitan upbringing with nurturing his talents as a chameleon.
"I was born and raised in Notting Hill when it was still a working class area - before Julia Roberts moved in," he says. "When I was at school the kids were Irish, West Indian, a lot of Portuguese and Italian. Almost all the kids were first generation and I heard this wonderful panoply of accents. So I guess I sucked it all up and turned it into this energy that drives what I do."
Over the last two decades or so, since his magnificent performance as Joe Orton's pathetic lover Kenneth Halliwell in Stephen Frears's Prick Up Your Ears, Molina has developed an enviable reputation as a hugely versatile character actor. This is perhaps the most secure career path available to the film actor. Think of all those great supporting players from Hollywood's past: Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, Martin Balsam. They were never fashionable, but they were never out of work.
Molina does, however, feel that British casting agents were always a little confused by his non-specific foreignness. I had read an interview where he commented in a jovial tone that he could never see himself being cast in a Merchant Ivory film.
"I think what I meant by that was that it would be unlikely that I would be cast and if I was I would be the swarthy foreign guy who tries to make a pass at Helena Bonham Carter, or the carriage driver who makes an impertinent remark to Dame Maggie Smith. I wouldn't be playing any of the English characters."
Molina and his wife, the actress Jill Gascoigne, star of the vintage TV series The Onedin Line and Cat's Eyes, moved to Los Angeles in the early 1990s. "In England I was always the foreign guy. In America I am just one kind of many ethnic types that are all working in film." In fact his dark, what-exactly-is-he looks have helped him play characters from any number of racial groups.
Like Ben Kingsley, Molina can wear a turban, fling a pizza or fight a bull with equal confidence. (Neither of them has ever, to my knowledge, been asked to be Scandinavian, but it can only be a matter of time.) He was Iranian in the dubious Not Without My Daughter, Russian in Anna Karenina, Irish in the barely released Pete's Meteor and Mexican in Frida. I'm not quite sure what he was in Boogie Nights, but his unforgettable cameo as a furiously wired drug dealer was one of the best things in that fine film.
And now, offering further proof that Hollywood views Englishness as a character flaw, Molina finds himself the latest in a long line of Brits cast as villains in mainstream blockbusters. "Yes. I am the latest in a great and honourable tradition that goes back to Basil Rathbone, James Mason and, more recently, Steven Berkoff and Gary Oldman."
It doesn't concern him that American producers seem so ready to cast the English (and occasionally - see Anthony Hopkins - the Welsh) as diabolical maniacs? "No. Because the thing is that the British actor tends to end up playing a different nationality anyway," he rationalises. "When Alan Rickman was in Die Hard he was a German. Gary Oldman has been all kinds. But, I think, sadly, the days of the rather suave, devilish Englishman might be gone. Now there's a part I'd like to play. I'd love to play one of those suave Englishmen with a pencil-thin moustache." He comes over all George Saunders: "Have another drink, darling."
As fans of the Spider-Man comics will be aware, Dr Octopus began life as humble Dr Otto Octavius, a hugely intelligent (American) research scientist who, in the accident-prone tradition of so many of Spidey's foes, becomes attached to four mighty telescopic legs during a botched experiment. As is so often the case in such situations, he simultaneously goes bananas and devotes the rest of his life to taking over the planet.
Molina is excellent in the role. The slightly pathetic, sat-upon look that he often wears - and which contrasts so conveniently with his substantial physical presence - adds real poignancy to the character. This Doc Ock is, however, rather less of a nerd than I remember him from the comic books.
Where is the pudding-bowl haircut? Where are the bad glasses? "Oh, well, that was the original version. But I did a bit of research and he went through - depending on who was drawing him - quite a few changes. And you are talking about the very first one, a tubby guy with a really bad haircut. But he slowly became better looking in a Dracula fashion. Suddenly he had cheekbones. Then the most recent version in the comics could be the Phantom of the Opera."
Molina goes on to talk in depth about Doc Ock's calmness and control. It really does sound as if he has approached the role with proper, actorly seriousness.
"Yeah. I think so," he says with an ironic twinkle. "It is partly to do with wanting to be fully involved. But because this is something of a fantasy there is, I think, even more of an impetus for you to invest something in it. The humanity is all down to you. But it's not like a big serious play or anything. The last thing you will hear on the set of Spider-Man is [luvvy voice] 'Look, I just don't think my character would say this!'"
The mechanical arms - which the Doc partly controls and which, in the style of possessed ventriloquist dummies in such films as Dead of Night and Magic, partly control him - were created using a combination of mechanical and digital wizardry. Molina admits that most of his time on set was taken up working with the puppeteers.
"It really was a very different way of acting," he says. "If anything it was akin to choreography. I had never done a movie quite like this before. But I have always been a bit of a geek about movies. I love talking to the camera crew about which lens they use or whatever."
It really is an odd career. Molina went straight from the set of Spider-Man to Broadway, where his lead performance in the revival of Fiddler on the Roof (he received better notices than the production did) won him a Tony nomination. Is this how he imagined things would pan out when, again playing a dubious foreigner, he delivered a tiny but memorable bit in Raiders of the Lost Ark?
"Well, I tell my acting students that there really is no such thing as a career. A career is simply what you have done. You may eventually look back after a few years and say, 'Oh look, that was my career. That is what I did.'"