The celebrated actor is returning to theatre and the role of Mark Rothko – this time at Wyndham’s. He tells Alex Clark how training for the stage, a lot of hard work and a move to LA kick-started his career
Not long after sitting down with Alfred Molina, we discover that both our dads were waiters. It may sound like a niche patch of common ground but the conversation could have gone on for hours were we not meeting in a brief lunch break from rehearsals.
Molina returns to the West End to star in Michael Grandage’s new production of Red, about the artist Mark Rothko, which opens at the Wyndham’s Theatre next month.
It is his third time playing the role in John Logan’s two-hander. Back in 2009 he was opposite Eddie Redmayne who played Rothko’s assistant Ken at the Donmar Warehouse; then with Jonathan Groff on Broadway. Now he’s pairing with Alfred Enoch, who played Dean Thomas in the Harry Potter films and is in the cast of ABC’s legal drama How to Get Away With Murder.
How does it feel to be back doing a play nearly a decade after its first production? And how does he approach the business of making it new?
“When you put it in perspective,” Molina says, “when you think 50% of the cast is different, you realise this is a huge opportunity to rediscover the play, rather than to recreate what you had before.” He says he went to lengths to make sure Enoch felt confident and safe enough to innovate in the role of Ken. “It’s his now. It’s ours,” he adds.
“I always tell my students: for the time and place that you occupy a role, that role is you and you are that role. It may well have been played a million times before you and it may well be played a million after you, but for this moment in time and space, you are it. And you must own it, it must be yours.”
I begin to ask him which of his roles he’s found the most difficult to inhabit, but he answers before I’ve got the words out. “This one. That’s why I keep coming back to it.”
Why? “It’s a great part. You’re on stage all the time. There are only two of you – it’s consuming, it’s all-involving, there’s no room to escape, the two of us are completely the focus of attention. So there’s a joy in taking that journey every night. But the difference – what makes this unique – is it’s one of those parts that you just know you’re never going to get to the bottom of.”
Years ago, Molina was working on a movie when another actor finished a take with the words: “Nailed it.” The director leant over to Molina and whispered: “Nobody ever nails it.”
I’ve never, ever come off stage feeling successful
He agrees: “I’ve never, ever, ever – this might mean I’m not a very good actor, I don’t know – come off stage feeling successful. I’ve come off stage feeling good about what we did, but it’s always qualified by – ‘Tsk, didn’t quite get that, got a bit sloppy on that beat, could have come in a bit faster here, totally trod on my laugh there.’ There’s always stuff you can improve the next night and that’s the constant joy and the frustration of theatre.”
As a paint-spattered Molina hurriedly chews on a Pret salad, we bond over growing up with families working in the hospitality industry. The father you don’t see in the evenings, but who deposits mysterious brown-paper parcels in the fridge that would later yield a couple of unused steaks, the pride taken in a uniform kept just so, pressed and shined and carefully laid out; the split shifts that often meant daytime sleeping and quick changes.
“My dad was a very hirsute guy, he had a very, very heavy beard and he had to shave twice a day,” remembers Molina. “I think he invented the five o’clock shadow. Come five o’clock, before he started his evening shift, he looked like he’d put polish on his face. So there was always this smell of barbers’ salts and shaving cream – the cheap stuff that smells a bit menthol-y.”
This has led, as with many children of parents in the service industry, to Molina being fastidious over tipping and dealing with staff. It’s even stopped a few friendships in their tracks. “I don’t want to know anyone who shows any kind of disregard or disrespect to wait staff.”
The reminiscences over his father were sparked by Molina, who is now 64, explaining how he came to be a resident of Los Angeles at the beginning of the 1990s and what has kept him there more or less ever since – working.
What was your first non-theatre job?
I worked as a waiter in the hotel where my dad was a barman.
What was your first professional theatre job?
I worked with a street theatre group called the All Day Suckers. We performed at the very first Covent Garden Street Theatre Festival in 1975.
What’s your next job?
Still waiting to find out!
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
How to deal with Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise!
Who or what is your biggest influence?
The pay check.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Get in, do your thing, and get out like you have somewhere better to be.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have done?
Died a long slow death.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I always have a shower.
His unwillingness to endure even a brief period of unemployment is linked to the sense of insecurity present in many working-class households. “My parents were always a bit on the broke side and I remember my dad always saying things like: ‘Real men don’t get into fights, real men pay their bills.’ And you’ve just got to keep on making your living, you’ve got to keep on working, you’ve got to keep making money.”
Molina’s father was a Spaniard, who came to Britain as a refugee from the Spanish Civil War; his mother was Italian, and the couple met while working at a London hotel. All their friends, Molina remembers, worked in the same industry and very few were English; it was largely an immigrant culture. Often – and Molina did this himself as a young, out-of-work actor – they’d congregate at an office in Denmark Street, in the West End, at dawn, jostling for the day-jobs as waiters, busboys, kitchen porters to be handed out.
Molina’s move to find work in the US started when Mike Newell’s 1991 film version of Elizabeth von Arnim’s novel The Enchanted April – in which he starred alongside Joan Plowright, Miranda Richardson and Jim Broadbent – became a hit in the US. Molina’s American agent encouraged him to go over for a couple of weeks and press the flesh. It worked. He got a small part in a film – “a glorified walk-on, at the risk of sounding too grand” – and took it partly so that he would qualify for membership of the Screen Actors Guild.
Three months and another part later, he and his wife, actor Jill Gascoine, returned to the UK and the work dried up. “There was nothing going on. And suddenly there was this shock of just sitting there.”
Convinced that there was work for him back in LA, Molina and Gascoine packed their suitcases. “We started off saying to each other: ‘Well, you know, it’s an adventure. We’ll give it a year, see what happens.’ And then of course, the next thing you know you’ve got a mortgage and a dog. And you go: ‘Oh, I think we’ve moved’,” he says.
Molina talks of this period as productive and enjoyable. “The reasons aren’t really noble, necessarily, it’s not like I found myself, or anything like that. It was selfish, in a way. I wanted to work, I wanted to make a living. I wanted to get a career off the ground and I was getting an opportunity to do those things, so we stayed.”
But what’s striking is that an onlooker might have felt his career was already off the ground; in the 1980s, he’d already appeared in Raiders of the Lost Ark and the cult hit Letter to Brezhnev, and as Kenneth Halliwell, lover and murderer of Gary Oldman’s Joe Orton, in Prick Up Your Ears.
He’d made an impression in several of the BBC’s Screen One and Screen Two TV films, most notably playing comedian Tony Hancock in William Humble’s incisive biopic, which also starred Frances Barber, Malcolm Sinclair and Jim Carter. In that last piece of work – lamentably, Molina thinks, wiped by the BBC – he is extraordinary as the lugubrious, depressive, charismatic comic, urged forward by his talent and ambition and held back by melancholy and self-criticism.
Returning to the immigrant culture that surrounded him growing up, I ask whether it chimed with him taking on the role of Rothko, depicted around the time he was commissioned to paint murals for the swanky Four Seasons restaurant.
There is, he replies, only one mention in the play of Rothko’s immigrant status, but it’s a significant one, when his assistant asks him how old he was when he arrived in America.
“He [Rothko] says: ‘I was 10. Went to live in Portland in the ghetto with all the other talky-thinky Jews.’ And he explains how his name was Markus Rothkowitz and he’s got one little moment, which is a lovely moment, where Ken says: ‘You changed your name?’ And his answer to that is: ‘Yeah, my first dealer said, too many Jewish painters on the books. So Markus Rothkowitz became Mark Rothko. Now nobody knows I’m a Jew.’ So there’s a moment where he just lets you look at the wound, just a little, but then he covers it up very quickly with a joke,” says Molina.
And that experience – of altering your identity to boost your chances of passing in a dominant culture – resonates with Molina. “I remember changing my name from Alfredo to Alfred because my first agent said: ‘You’d better change your name otherwise you’ll be playing Spanish waiters all your life.’
“And I can remember at the time being grateful, and I regret it now – because you wouldn’t dream of saying that to an actor now, nobody would suggest to David Oyelowo, change your name a little bit, or Benicio del Toro, or any actor with a more ethnic name, there’s no way you’d suggest changing it. But in those days, I kind of went: ‘Yeah, of course’.”
Does he wish he’d kept Alfredo? He wishes he had possessed the wisdom, he says, “to understand just how condescending that was. Especially as my dad was a Spanish waiter. If I’d have been smarter, maybe a few years older, I might have had the courage to turn around and say: ‘Fuck you.’”
Molina’s return to the UK for this third production of Red punctuates a CV studded with film and TV hits, including the role of Doctor Octopus in Spider-Man 2, Diego Rivera opposite Salma Hayek in Frida and, most recently, the part of Robert Aldrich in the Joan Crawford-Bette Davis drama Feud.
Prior to playing Rothko at the Donmar in 2009, his theatrical roles in this country were some time before: in David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow in 1989 and Tennessee Williams’ Night of the Iguana in 1992, both at London’s National Theatre. Then came a series of stage productions – and a string of nominations – in the US for Art, Fiddler on the Roof and Long Day’s Journey Into Night.
… his early career
“I graduated from drama school in 1975 and I spent five or six years in the theatre before I went anywhere near a film camera. But I suspect I was part of perhaps one of the last generations of actors that, when we graduated, assumed we would go into the theatre. That was the first port of call.”
… his time at drama school
“I was at the Guildhall for three years – my training was exclusively for theatre. We had one class a week that was called ‘microphone technique’ and that was about as technological as we got.”
“Somebody asked me the other day – ‘Looking back on your career, is there anything you would change?’ And I didn’t say at the time, but the truth is, if there is something I would change, I wouldn’t be so bloody grateful all the time.”
… BBC drama in the 1980s
“There was a very healthy period in BBC drama, because there was money and they were commissioning writers and directors to do little films – they were movies, they were 90-minute movies. But they were kind of stretching out into interesting areas. It was a fantastic period.
At the beginning of his career, after graduating from the Guildhall, Molina assumed – as was more common in those days – that his career would flourish more readily in theatre than elsewhere.
“I did nothing but theatre for the first five or six years,” he says. “I didn’t do my first film until 1980. But it’s very different now. For a lot of actors, their first job is often a screen job, a TV job or a film job, because the network of theatres has diminished.
Years ago you could come out of drama school and get hired by a rep outside London and be there for six months
“I sound like such an old fart. ‘When I started in the business…’ ” he adopts a parodic, mellifluous voice but then becomes earnest: “It was 40-odd years ago, every major town, even a small town, had at least one theatre. Some towns had two or three and there was a rep system. It wasn’t as busy as it was in the 1950s or 1960s but it was two-weekly, or three-weekly or monthly rep. There were still companies that were hiring for a season, so that you could come out of drama school and get hired by a rep outside London – you could be there for six months.”
His enthusiasm for the theatre remains clear. He doesn’t suffer from the worst excesses of stage fright and he’s pretty sanguine about reviews, remembering a moment from early on.
His agent had sent him a big package of clippings. “The first one I pulled out said: ‘If there’s any justice in the world or in the movie universe, Gary Oldman and Alfred Molina should be sharing top honours for their work in this film.’ ” He called to his wife – “Look at that, Jill! Look at that!” – and immediately resolved to frame it. He plucked out another one and was met with the view that, “in as much as his character was a failure in life, so is Alfred Molina in his attempt at portraying him”. By this time his wife was reading over his shoulder. “And she went, ‘Well, you’d better frame that one as well.’ ” He roars with laughter.
But there is still a sense of vulnerability. What does he most worry about before a job? “I don’t know if I should admit to this,” he answers. “Oh, what the hell. I don’t live here. There’s a fear of not being loved. There’s a fear of people not appreciating what you do. A fear of, after you’ve worked really hard to get something as good as you can get it, and you know you’ve worked as hard as you can, you’ve done everything in your power to get it good, to get it right, to get it where it should be, and then it is dismissed. That’s really scary. That’s what scares me.”
It is the end of lunch and Molina has to go back to his canvas. But before he does, an incidental question – what does he like to do when he comes back to London – prompts a response about walking through the old sites of his childhood, including the places he lived with his mother after his parents divorced.
He recalls one particularly grim, tiny bedsit, his mother in a state, holding down a job, trying to cope, and a fellow lodger, he now thinks was probably working as a prostitute, looking after them. “All those memories, all that history, all that experience never came to anything until I became an actor. And then, of course, it’s stuff that you draw on, it’s like a little well of emotional glue. That’s where you go when you need it, you take a little dip and you use it. And the one thing you discover is that the more you go dipping, the deeper that well gets. It’s infinite.”
Born: London, 1953
Training: Guildhall School of Music and Drama
• Oklahoma!, Palace Theatre (1980-81)
• Speed-the-Plow, National Theatre (1989)
• Art, Bernard B Jacobs Theatre (1998)
• Fiddler on the Roof, Minskoff Theatre (2001-2005)
• Red, Donmar Warehouse, John Golden Theatre (2009-2010)
• Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Geffen Playhouse (2017)
• Theatre World award for Molly Sweeney (1996)
• Drama Desk award for outstanding featured actor in a play for Art (1998)
• Drama League award for distinguished performance for Red (2010)
Agent: Lou Coulson Associates
Red is at Wyndham’s Theatre from May 4-July 28