Everyone calls Alfred Molina a character actor. And he’s very happy about that. “There was a time when ‘character actor’ meant someone who wasn’t quite good enough to be a leading man,” the celebrated actor and owner of Hollywood’s best eyebrows tells me, leaning forward, “and I think that’s bollocks.”
The reason for such emphasis on that word? A memory, perhaps, of a pep talk he was given in his final year of drama school. Back then, the Spider-Man star was still Alfredo, later advised to drop the “o” to anglicise his name. (He’s the London-born son of a Spanish father and Italian mother.) Molina starts to summon the patronising RP of his tutor, creasing up as he does so. “He said, ‘Alfredo. I think you have to come to terms with the fact that you really won’t work until you’re well into your forties.’” A dramatic pause, and then a flourish: “‘You’re a character man.’” The actor was deflated. He thought to himself, “So that’s it? After three years?” The term, handed to him like a “consolation prize”, seemed to suggest a kind of hierarchy. “Leading man… character man… total loser,” Molina reels off, then bursts into laughter.
Molina laughs a lot: there are the small crinkles that cut into his stories, threatening to capsize them in mid-flow, and then there’s the big boom that comes at the end of a delicious anecdote. He knows how to spin a yarn; the 69-year-old has told plenty. “When I started working, I realised the beauty…” – even after 30 years in LA, the Londoner still slightly drops his “t”s – “… of being a character actor is that you get to do the most extraordinary range of stuff.” And he has. There was his brief but unforgettable cameo in the opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, that ended with him impaled on a spear trap after double-crossing Indiana Jones, his first film role. He was Joe Orton’s nervy, desperate lover – and eventual killer – Kenneth Halliwell in Prick Up Your Ears. Then there was the coked-up, silk dressing gowned, moustachioed drug dealer in Boogie Nights. The confectionery-fearing Catholic mayor in Chocolat. His Bafta-nominated role as Diego Rivera, aka Mr Frida Kahlo, in Frida. A twice-reprised performance as artist Mark Rothko in John Logan’s play, Red. The part of Dawn French’s husband in the BBC Two sitcom Roger & Val Have Just Got In. And most widely known, there’s Doc Ock, the wielder of lethal metal tentacles in the Spider-Man films.
Sitting across from me, Molina wears tortoiseshell glasses, jeans and a checked shirt, his sleeves rolled up to show a tattoo on each forearm. I peek the latter half of a Latin phrase on one – totus mundus agit histrionem, or “All the world’s a playhouse” – the motto of Shakespeare’s Globe. He pats his stomach. “I’m a big guy. I’ve always been a good 10 pounds overweight. I’m tall. I was always a bit gangly when I was young, I wasn’t athletic,” he explains. Where “character actor” had once felt like “a slap in the face”, he now sees it as “the best thing” his tutor could have said. “You’re not trading on your looks, you’re not trading on your personality. You’re not trading on anything that has to do with you. You can be anybody and anything. You can disappear, in effect. And that is a great gift.”
Molina’s latest disappearing act: as detective Armand Gamache in Three Pines, Prime Video’s moreish adaptation of Louise Penny’s murder mystery novels. Set in a tightknit village in Quebec, it’s as cold and small town-y as HBO’s Mare of Easttown while sharing many of the whodunnit characteristics of an Agatha Christie story. Gamache is sent to Three Pines to investigate the electrocution of a wealthy lifestyle guru at a curling match, but he is distracted by the disappearance of an Aboriginal woman – and accusations that police have neglected the case. (Two episodes focusing on this particular story were directed by Tracy Deer, an indigenous Mohawk.)
When Molina was first approached about the adaptation, he mentioned Penny’s books to a friend. “She just went absolutely crazy: ‘Oh my god, she’s my favourite writer. I’ve read all of her books.’ Just waxing lyrical.” He slams his hand on the table to evoke her urgency that he take the part: “She said, ‘You’ve gotta do it.’” Aware that it would be a time-consuming project, Molina had an appetite to be more than just an “actor for hire” so he proposed also becoming an executive producer. What hadn’t been a passion project initially was to become one, “just by sheer force of its own quality”.
Gamache is a gentle giant who likes to take “lame ducks” under his wing. He’s a detective who wears lightly the wisdom he has accrued over the years – at one point, he suggests we should all have “I might be wrong” tattooed on our hands. When I ask what drives the character, Molina informs me with a glint in his eye that his 16-year-old granddaughter has been prepping him for these kinds of questions. “She said, ‘OK. Give me a soundbite – what’s his superpower?’” He laughs. “I think it’s empathy. So many detective shows are all about the what and the where and the when. But he’s much more interested in the why. Why has someone been pushed to this terrible limit, to this place where they’re now capable of something terrible?”
A meaty lead in a sophisticated crime drama fits Molina like a glove. But a role like this was never the plan. In fact, admits Molina: “My only plan was to stay employed.” Back at drama school – he trained at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London – he’d overhear his classmates, who were “strategising, planning, where they were going to go, where they wanted to be”. They’d say, “I want to be at the RSC by the time I’m 30, and I want to be playing this part by the time I’m 40.” He cites the title of American actor Lee Grant’s memoir, I Said Yes to Everything, as his motto. “All that mattered to me was that I would keep working. And I think that’s an inheritance. I think that happens to a lot of kids from immigrant parents. Because there’s a work ethic, where they’re working to provide a better life for their offspring.”
Molina’s father came to England at the start of the Second World War; his mother arrived once it had ended. He was a waiter; she cleaned rooms in a hotel. When Molina graduated from drama school, it was his first agent who told him that unless he changed his name, “You’ll be playing Spanish waiters all your life.” “That really did sting, because my dad was Spanish, and my dad was a waiter. And I can remember being really kind of… it pissed me off.” He regrets it now but concedes that, given attitudes in the mid-Seventies, his agent was right. “Of course, now I’m nudging 70 and I’m thinking maybe I should reintroduce it.” He breaks into that creasing laugh again. “And then everyone’s going, ‘Too late, mate! Too late!’”
He’s currently reading Alan Rickman’s diaries, but has thrown away the few of his own he previously kept. He jokingly trots out an example entry: “‘Went to work. Met so-and-so. Had lunch with blah blah. Went back to rehearsals. Got home late. Felt tired. Went to bed.’ After about four pages, I went, ‘This is the most f***ing boring thing I’ve ever read in my life!’” Molina reads a lot of actors’ biographies, “and they talk about how they felt this job was important, and that job was not, and that always sounds to me so luxurious,” he explains. There were jobs he took himself that he hated, but he needed the money. “I didn’t really start making kind of… money until I was 40. Up until then I went from pay cheque to pay cheque. I’m not saying that in a prideful way. But had I had the means to be fussy about what I did, I would have been. There’s so much stuff I’ve done that I’d have turned down!”
Last year, Molina went viral for a witty answer about why he returned for the latest Spider-Man film. “For me, it’s just about the money,” he replied, deadpan. Today he says that some jobs do subsidise others – “that’s always a factor in any creative person’s life” – but he doesn’t find making superhero films unfulfilling. Unlike Christian Bale, who recently described green screen acting as “the definition of monotony”, Molina is fascinated by jobs with a technical element. He tells me about spending his lunchbreak on Raiders of the Lost Ark practising a walk, over and over, that would require him to cross a camera track. In the end Steven Spielberg shot it differently – “but I was very proud of that”. “The way I see it is the technical requirements, like working with a green screen, and the creative requirements – it’s like this wonderful equation that has to be solved.”
Neither does Molina agree with Martin Scorsese’s complaint that Marvel films are ruining cinema. He believes film is “a very broad church and there’s room for any kind of denomination. Ultimately, the making of those movies isn’t the problem. The problem is the inequitable distribution of available funds for making movies. Do films really have to cost $300m? Do those films have to have $150m spent on them in order to get an audience? Whatever the accountants may say, or whatever the economics of it, there’s a kind of inequality with that.” He’d like to see “some of that Premier League money go down to the lower leagues. For all the kind of egalitarian sheen we like to put on this business, there’s not a lot of it in real terms.” But he does not see Marvel films as “less of a movie-making art” and doesn’t differentiate it substantially from other jobs. “You might have better catering somewhere along the line, but essentially I think it’s the same gig.”
‘There was a time when ‘character actor’ meant someone who wasn’t quite good enough to be a leading man – and I think that’s bollocks’
But can films such as Molina’s early work, like Prick Up Your Ears and Letter to Brezhnev, an Eighties romcom about working class Liverpool life under Thatcher, still get made? Molina hopes so, and also thinks these conversations aren’t new. “We forget our history. Because the industry, right from the get-go, was always this kind of struggle between art and commerce. That friction has always been there.” He tells me an old joke: an actor never said the phrase “the show must go on”. It was a producer – and the full quote was “the show must go on… because I’m losing money!”
Molina remembers Stephen Frears, who directed him in Prick Up Your Ears, wondering “why anyone would want to make a movie, because the conditions are so difficult to make the film you want to make”. Someone it was certainly hard to make films with, by many accounts, was Harvey Weinstein. Molina starred with Salma Hayek in Frida, which was produced by Miramax and released in 2002; Hayek has since written and spoken about her experiences making the film, which she had been trying to get made for many years. In a 2017 piece for The New York Times, Hayek alleged that Weinstein had sexually harassed her, bullied her and pressured her into including a full-frontal lesbian sex scene in the film. “In his eyes, I was not an artist. I wasn’t even a person. I was a thing: not a nobody, but a body,” she wrote.
Molina didn’t witness any assaults, but he did see bullying. He recalls an occasion when Weinstein came to Mexico where they were filming. “We were sent up to his suite one by one, and he basically read the riot act to us. He’d seen some rushes, and he wasn’t happy with what he’d seen.” Molina was the last to go up; he dissolves with laughter as he recalls the incident, as it was “so preposterous”. He affects a grizzled New York accent. “He said, ‘Alfred. What the f***’s going on? I’ve hired the best actors. I’ve hired Salma Hayek. She’s one of the best actors in the world. And what do I see on screen? Nothing but Frida, Frida, Frida!’” He pauses with disbelief. “I remember thinking, ‘Well, that’s the whole f***ing point, isn’t it?’ What he was talking about, of course, was she wasn’t playing ‘sexy’. She wasn’t playing this gorgeous Latina, this hot tamale. She was playing Frida.”
Hayek still, “in spite of all that, made a great movie”, he adds. “In the face of a lot of resistance from Miramax, in terms of the people she wanted in the movie, she stood up against it and fought for everyone – me included. She was loyal to a fault.” After making the film and before the MeToo stories broke, Molina went on the record in 2015 to say that “if Salma had been white and male, she would have been bigger than Harvey Weinstein”. Molina recounts an incident at a dinner, after the article had been published. “There were four of us sitting at the table. Sam Rockwell, me, and a couple of other hefty actors. And Harvey Weinstein came in. Shook everyone’s hand. Sam, then the next guy, then the next guy. And when he got to me… he just kept walking. He totally blanked me. Sam Rockwell’s at one end and I’m at the other end, and Sam goes” – Molina re-enacts an incredulous turn – “‘What the f*** did you do!?’”
Molina elects not to talk about his personal life, which is perhaps understandable given that his wife for over 30 years, the actor Jill Gascoine, star of Eighties police drama The Gentle Touch, died in 2020 after a decade-long battle with Alzheimer’s. In 2021, he married Jennifer Lee, writer and director of the Frozen films.
Molina has played a couple of gay characters – as well as Halliwell, he played John Lithgow’s partner in 2014’s Love Is Strange – and said in 2015 that “sexual orientation is irrelevant in terms of playing the character”. That’s something he stands by today. “I’m not trying to pretend to be anything I’m not, you know. I’m a white cisgender heterosexual. It’s the very asking of the question that I think is inappropriate.” He recalls what the actor Terence Stamp would say when asked about his sexuality: “There’s straight, there’s gay, and there’s British.” The crinkles of laughter are back again. “So, when people ask me, that’s my answer. ‘What’s your sexual orientation?’ I’m British.” He creases up. After all, I suppose, they’re characters. And Alfred Molina is a character actor.
Three Pines premieres on Prime Video on 2 December, with two new episodes airing each week