Alfred Molina is the kind of “go to” character actor who elevates every project he appears in. The 64-year-old British-born performer, son of working-class Italian and Spanish immigrants, has been much nominated for his work, and his distinctive looks have allowed him to play just about every ethnicity imaginable. After his breakthrough role as Indiana Jones’ guide in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” Molina has appeared in a wide variety of films, including “Prick Up Your Ears,” “Boogie Nights,” “Frida,” “Spider-Man 2” and “The Da Vinci Code.” In his latest film, “A Family Man,” Molina plays an aging, out-of-work engineer desperate to find a new job.
My guess is when you were starting out as an actor, you had periods of unemployment. How did that affect your performance in “A Family Man”?
Every experience you have in life feeds into what you do creatively. Certainly, when I was out of work as an actor, and the constant level of rejection, that at the time was difficult, I understood how Lou, my character in the movie, would feel, how much of a failure he might have felt, trying to put a brave face on it for his wife. And it can create a lot of tension, when you’re out of work, that pressure works on you on a practical and emotional level.
In the recent TV series “Feud,” you played director Robert Aldrich, trying desperately to referee the diva behavior of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, his stars in “Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?” Have you ever had to deal with that kind of attitude on any of your films?
I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve never had to deal with anything on the level we saw in “Feud.” The stories about Bette and Joan are delicious, but I’ve never had anything like that in my own working life. I’ve worked with people who have been very forthright about what they want, and that means they are very passionate about the work, but I’ve never dealt with that diva-ish behavior.
Your bio says you decided you wanted to be an actor at age 9, after seeing “Spartacus.” True?
It was true in the sense that my mother told me, the family history goes that I was 9 when I wanted to be an actor, and it did coincide with watching “Spartacus.” It had a profound effect on me, it was a thrilling film, it was something I related to, it was something I wanted to be.
You’re sort of the king of ethnics. Your looks are the kind where you can be cast as Jewish, Greek, Iranian, Hispanic, whatever. Was that something you aspired to when you got into acting?
I saw it as the only thing that was available to me. In drama school, my teacher described me as ethnically ambiguous, and I realized I had a certain look, physical types, I was never English enough for the English. Even from an early age I was playing Jewish, Italian, Greek, I was never going to play Hamlet. I’ve never had a game plan — my game plan was to stay employed.
When did you know you could make a living as an actor?
That was when the money I earned from one job was enough to tide me over for the next job. I remember advice my father gave me — real men don’t get into fights, they pay their bills — and I always wanted to pay my bills. About five years in I was a “jobbing actor.” I was never very fussy about what I did, because my criteria was to stay employed. My approach has been very practical.
Do you still have to audition?
No. That’s one of the nice thing about reaching a point where people know your work, and they know what they want you for. I’ve been around a long time, and that’s one of the advantages of getting a bit older. Someone told me, “You don’t need to audition, you’re part of the furniture.”
I’ve heard you’re a big jazz fan. Where did you get that interest from?
My dad was a bit of a jazz fan, he loved big band music, he had recordings of Count Basie, Glenn Miller, he had Ella Fitzgerald. But both my parents enjoyed music from their cultures, my dad liked flamenco, my mom liked Italian crooners. I first got into jazz with vocalists of the 1950s and ’60s. Then I looked into who the soloists were. At the moment, I’ve been discovering some Buddy Rich recordings, and I’m also getting into some nice Brazilian music. I’m a bit stuck in the ’60s.