While moviegoers might best remember Alfred Molina’s most dastardly roles — Dr. Octopus, the Sister Christian–loving drug dealer in Boogie Nights, the guide who double-crosses Indiana Jones in the opening scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark — his role as a husband to John Lithgow in Ira Sachs’ new film Love Is Strange could easily make the most lasting impression.
The veteran actors play a gay couple in New York City who, after decades together, finally get married, only for Molina’s character George, a Catholic school music teacher, to get fired because of his sexuality. Thanks to soaring real estate prices, taxes, and co-op rules, the men are forced to sell their Manhattan apartment and separate temporarily while they find a new place to live. George moves downstairs with two gay cops who love fantasy epics and parties, while Lithgow’s character Ben relocates to Brooklyn to live with his nephew, his novelist wife (played by Marisa Tomei), and their teen son. The gorgeously understated film tackles some hot-button issues, but focuses on the loving and sometimes strained relationships between the characters, played flawlessly by longtime friends Molina and Lithgow. We caught up with Molina — who’s also starring in the new El Rey television series Matador as a soccer team owner with terrorist ties — during a visit to New York to discuss the film, couch-hopping, his knack for playing villains, his pet peeves about binge-watching TV shows, and his brief but memorable role as Indiana Jones’ foe.
Where in the city did you film Love Is Strange?
We shot quite a bit in Brooklyn, around Park Slope, Prospect Park. We shot in various apartments in Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan. It’s a low-budget movie so we were making do. We didn’t have the peripheral perks you’d have on a big film, no trailers or anything like that. We weren’t living high on the hog — we were changing in people’s bathrooms. But it was a wonderful experience because it was like this little repertory company making this film. When you work on these kinds of films, these low-budget movies, you’re not getting paid in money but you’re getting paid in what Kenneth Branagh calls “gold of another kind,” which is the sense that everybody working on this really wants to be there. That’s payment in itself.
It will hit home for a lot of people having to deal with the crappy nature of New York real estate as well as the issues with the Catholic Church and its treatment of gay people.
Marriage equality, the equality of rights for all citizens, these are cutting-edge issues and the movie is timely. But ultimately, it’s a film about a relationship and it could have been about any relationship, really. It manages to touch on those things without becoming too much of a diatribe or polemic. It’s a film about people rather than issues.
It’s certainly different than seeing you in The Normal Heart and how emotionally devastating that was.
Yeah. The Normal Heart is dealing with an issue that was so difficult and frightening at the time, and still has a resonance in terms of how things have improved but how things are still bad in many parts of the world. I did an interview a few weeks ago and someone suggested that the movie could almost be a dissertation on the state of New York real estate, which is a narrow way of looking at it, but there is an element of accuracy to that.
Have you ever been forced to live on someone’s couch or bounce between places to live like George and Ben?
No, the only time I had to do that was when I was a student, and it was almost through choice rather than necessity. My first year at college in London, I was still living at home with my mother. Towards the end of that academic year, I decided to move in [with a friend of mine.] I was there until we graduated and then I didn’t have a job, so I went back to live with my mother for about six months but by then, she had rented out my room, so I was living at my mother’s house but sleeping on the couch. In fact, the lady who had taken over my room very sweetly offered to move out and I said, “No, this isn’t your problem. It’s my problem.” We actually got on very well, even though I was sleeping on the couch. It was a very comfortable couch, I might add. It was like having a sister for the first time, and she was a great cook. I remember, in those six months, putting on a certain amount of weight.
Were you about the same age as each other?
I was about 21, just coming up on my 22nd birthday. She was a bit older, maybe 40.
Both you and John have been married for a long time. What did you use from your own relationships in the roles?
Well, when you’re in a long-term marriage as I am and as John is, the one thing you learn is that you end up going through three or four different marriages in the sense that it changes, if you’re lucky. Once that initial phase of passion and desire starts to cool down, hopefully you’re in a position where you like and love the other person enough to want to stay. What saved my marriage, on more than one occasion, was that my wife makes me laugh, a lot. And I make her laugh, not necessarily for the right reasons, but that’s neither here nor there. [Laughs] We enjoy each other’s company, and that’s what develops over time.
How long have you been married?
Thirty-two years together, 28 years married. We rehearsed for four.
In another interview, John said that you’d be telling so many jokes between takes that sometimes he was laughing too hard to for him to stay in character. Can you tell us one of the jokes?
Oh no, they’re far too disgusting. Far too disgusting, and far too private. [Laughs] No, no. But it’s true, we made each other laugh a great deal and that’s what greases the wheel when you’re working on a movie.
There’s also that scene where you’re watching Game of Thrones for the first time with one of the gay cops, played by Cheyenne Jackson. Are you a fan of the show?
I had seen the first two seasons at that point. I had to plead ignorance [in the movie]. That’s a very touching little scene, actually. I don’t remember if it was in the script or something Cheyenne improvised where he’s looking at the screen and says, “She’s so regal,” about the Mother of Dragons. I remember giggling to myself at that.
Have you caught up on the show since?
Oh, yeah. I’m totally up to date. In fact, this is one of my pet peeves, because we’ve all changed our habits in terms of the way we watch TV. People DVR stuff or binge watch, watching four or five episodes a night. I did it with Breaking Bad. I loved it. But my pet peeve now is when you want to talk about it. There might be three of us in the car and two people want to talk about last week’s episode of Game of Thrones but the other person’s gonna go “No! I haven’t caught up yet. I’m still on season one.” I think there has to be a cut-off point where spoiler alerts no longer apply. There’s got to be some regulated thing, like three months and that’s it. You can’t expect any more privileges after that. Or am I being too extreme?
That’s fair. I found out about a big death on Game of Thrones because people were joking about it on Twitter and Facebook within a few hours. Maybe it’s my fault for not reading the books.
See, I haven’t read any of the books. I read the first two chapters of the first one and it was so hard to follow, so dense in terms of plot. By then, the TV show was on so I said, “Forget it. I’m just gonna wait for the show.” I suppose Mr. Martin would be absolutely horrified by that but he’s making shit loads of money so I don’t really care. He can cry all the way to the bank.
You’re also playing the villain on Matador. Do you have a certain mindset you go into for bad guys? Obviously this character is much different from Dr. Octopus or your character from Boogie Nights.
Yeah, I’ve played a lot of villains. That tends to be my stock in trade and I’ve got no problem with that. Whenever people ask me if I’m tired of playing villains, I always say, “Villains paid for my two kids to go to two very expensive colleges, so I’ve got no complaints at all.” I love playing villains. The late Bob Hoskins, God rest his soul, said something really wonderful once and it’s become my mantra now. He was asked about playing bad guys in movies and he said, “The great thing about playing a bad guy is you work for half the time of the leading role does, you get treated like the Crown Jewels, and if it really stinks, nobody blames you.” It’s the perfect gig.
Plus you get some of the best lines.
Yeah, nobody comes out of the movie saying, “Oh, I hated the bad guy.” Everyone’s talking about the leading man. It’s great. And any chance to chew a bit of scenery, I’m your man.
In a recent poll of British film lovers, Raiders of the Lost Ark was named as the most rewatched movie. How often do you get approached by fans about your role in it?
Oh, wow. I’ve got to be honest with you, I’m very proud to have been in that movie, very proud it was my first film ever, very proud to be part of film history.
What do fans say to you about it?
What they tend to do is shout out the famous line. I’ll be walking down the street and I’ll suddenly hear, “Hey, Alfred!” and I turn around and he’ll go, “Throw me the idol and I throw you the whip!” And you go, “OK, yeah, you’ve seen the movie. Thanks. Appreciate it.” If I had a dollar for every time I’ve gotten that, I’d be wealthy. But I’m very delighted, really. People are really sweet about it. It’s a compliment and I appreciate it as such.