With a career spanning more than 30 years, actor Alfred Molina’s colossal talent has earned him worldwide acclaim and memorable roles in films as diverse as Chocolat, Frida, An Education and Spider-Man 2. Molina’s latest venture brings his talents to the small screen, where he plays Deputy District Attorney Ricardo Morales in NBC’s Law & Order: Los Angeles. At his home in West Hollywood, Molina met with Law & Order co-star (and newly minted ABILITY editor!) Regina Hall, as well as ABILITY’s Chet Cooper, to discuss his career, education and the triumphant spirit of Joseph Kibler, a 21 year-old Auto Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) survivor whom Molina has come to call his friend.
Chet Cooper: Congratulations on your new series.
Alfred Molina: Thank you!
Cooper: Give me a little of your background. How did you get into acting?
Molina: It’s the usual route. I went from secondary school to high school to drama school, and I graduated in 1974.
Cooper: So you knew you wanted to perform, even while in school?
Molina: Oh, yeah, I always knew. According to my mother, I was nine years old when I first said I wanted to be an actor. But I can’t imagine I really knew what I was talking about, in terms of what it involved. I just started doing school plays. My parents weren’t terribly supportive, not because they were against it, but because they just didn’t get it, really. So they were kind of like, “Oh, yeah, good, sure.”
Fortunately when I was about 12 I had a teacher at school named Martin who became something of a mentor to me. He was the first person who really took my acting seriously, and in a very practical way. He didn’t just go, “Very good, young man, very good, best of luck.” He said, “Okay, if that’s what you want to do, then you have to do this, this, this and this. You have to read this, this, this and this. You have to think about this, this, this and this. And if you don’t, you’re wasting your time.”
And he gave me a challenge. He said, “If you’re serious, I will do everything I can to help you. If I see for one moment that you’re not serious, I will wash my hands of you and you will never be able to ask me again.” I agreed to that, and I had a friend for life. We’re still friends. He’s retired now.
Anyway, Martin gave me books to read, stuff to look at, told me what to get. He was fantastic. I did school plays he directed. He started a drama club that I went to on Wednesday nights at school. I was there every night, without fail. All the geeks and nerds turned out for the drama club—all the kids who weren’t good at sports and weren’t terribly popular with the girls’ school.
Regina Hall: You were at an all-boys’ school?
Molina: I was at the boys’ school, and there was a girls’ school next door. As we got up to the lower-sixth and upper-sixth form, we then started having classes in the other school. So, in my last two years, I was in the girls’ school for economic history and English literature. That’s when I learned that girls quite like the sensitive boy. They dig sensitive. I got that. (laughter) And that was the advantage I had on the other boys. In my last two years in high school, I dated quite successfully. For being one of the nerdy kids who wasn’t very good at anything but acting in school plays, I dated pretty well, and aimed pretty high up the food chain.
Hall: We love sensitive Fred.
Molina: I’ll never forget. I was 16 or 17, and I was taking a poetry class. The assignment was, bring in a poem, no more than 20 lines long—a poem that you like, a poem that you appreciate. Be prepared to read it to the class and discuss why this poem is of interest to you. This was part of the course assessment, so it was quite an important deal.
Everybody came in with their poems, but I cheated slightly, as I was rehearsing a production of The Taming of the Shrew at the time. So I came in with a sonnet I’d memorized, and I got up there and the actor in me just couldn’t resist this moment. I started reading and after two lines, I put it down. I had memorized it.
I could see them all, the whole class, and all the girls were giving me that look. And I thought, “I’m in. I’m so in here.” And I can remember the feeling. “This is how you do it. This is how you do it!” (laughter) Because I’d tried everything else before that. I’d tried the comedy route, that didn’t work. I’d tried to look cool, that didn’t work. I’d tried the silent treatment, that didn’t suit me. There was no point in trying to impress the girls with anything athletic or academic. That was just not going to happen for me.
Hall: So you went the heart route?
Molina: I went the heart route. And it worked.
Hall: See, that’s when the women start acting like this: “He is just amazing!” Suddenly we don’t even like who we’re with anymore. “You know what? I’ll tell you what I can’t stand about my guy!” (laughter) “He never reads poetry, ever!”
Molina: But the thing was, I’d memorized the poem! That’s what did it. Anyway, around that time, I started working. I left drama school in ‘75, and I started working. My route has been pretty standard, really. There wasn’t some great break-out role early on. I just worked.
Cooper: You weren’t sitting on a barstool and somebody walked by and said—?
Molina: What did somebody call it? The Swabs drugstore routine? That’s not what happened to me at all.
Cooper: Have you had any actual “job” jobs?
Molina: I had some job jobs when I was at drama school, when I was studying. During my first year I had a couple of job jobs. I worked as a waiter for a while: the usual story. And I also worked as a hospital porter. In America you call that an orderly. I worked as a hospital porter in a geriatric hospital for a couple of months, and I actually enjoyed it. It was really interesting. I enjoyed all those old biddies. They were great fun. The worst part was that we were responsible for taking any of the cadavers down from the wards to the mortuary.
Cooper: People who had died?
Molina: Yeah. But the nurses wrapped them all up. We just had to transport the bodies and do the paperwork. But overall I enjoyed that job. I met people. I felt in some small way that I was helping. And the other guys with whom I worked were an interesting bunch of people: young guys, older guys. And of course, I was at the age at which every experience was brand new, so I had a sense that this sort of thing could be exciting. And I also knew that it was a temporary job, so it wasn’t going to be my life.
Cooper: Do you do any work today with nonprofits?
Molina: No, nothing with nonprofits or anything like that. The only thing I’ve been doing over the years is teaching for free.
Cooper: Is that your way of giving back, after having had that influential relationship with a mentor?
Molina: Oh, I don’t think I’m doing for these students what Martin did for me. I don’t think I’m quite that much of a life-changer. But I do think teaching is a good way of giving something back. I’m not an academic, so my approach to the work is vocational. But after 35 years of acting, you pick up some stuff and you learn stuff, and what are you going to do with it, other than either pass it on or leave it behind?
I don’t need to teach for a living. I make a nice living, so I can do this for nothing and for fun. It can be as much fun for me, hopefully, as it will be instructive or interesting for the students. I’ve been teaching for about 20 years, and it happened almost by accident. I had been asked by the dean of my drama school to fill in for a teacher who had pulled out of a two-day class. The school was desperate and asked me to come in and do some coaching. And I said, “I’ve never done anything like this. I have no idea what’s going on.” And they said, “Don’t worry, it’s nothing big. They’re just working on their audition pieces and we just need someone to give the kids a few pointers.”
So I turned up, and my two students were Joseph Fiennes and a young man called Stuart Bunce, who is now a very well-known actor in London. They were just kids then. Students. I worked with them on a couple of pieces, and I enjoyed that much, much more than I’d expected. I’d thought I was just doing someone a favor, but it turned out to be incredibly stimulating for me. And these guys were asking me questions, and I was rather happily discovering that I knew the answers.
Cooper: Tell us a little bit about how you met Joseph Kibler.
Molina: I took part in the Los Angeles AIDS Walk, maybe 14 years ago, with a group of friends. It was a lot of fun: a big day, lots of flags, people in costume, just as it was this year. I’d never gotten involved in it in subsequent years, apart from sending money, because I’m often away, working. So I suppose recently part of my process of coming back home, as it were, is to get involved again with things that I did before I was traveling all the time.
This year, as the day of the walk approached, our makeup artist on Law & Order mentioned it. I started writing out a check, just to make a small donation, and suddenly I said, “I could do the walk this year! It’s next Sunday.” Then I got an e-mail from a young man, a film student, who has been making a documentary over the last year or so with a young man called Joseph Kibler.
Joe is about 21 now and is studying to be a digital film editor. Joe was born with AIDS—his mother was infected by his father, though she was ignorant of that fact when she was pregnant...... continued in ABILITY Magazine
Articles in the Alfred Molina Issue; Senator Tom Harkin — IDEA 35 Years; Ashley’s Column — Girls Ride; Acupuncture — Ancient Chinese Secret, Revealed!; Aphasia: The Movie — A Film Beyond Words; Love Simple — Lights! Camera!...Lupus?; Trail Mix — The Wilderness Made Accessible; Amputee Recovery — From the Middle East to Haiti; Lachi — A Voice in the Darkness; Laura Hogikyan — The Play’s the Thing; Creative Arts Festival — Veterans with Artistic Vision; A Trip to Germany — Disability and Deutchland; A Day In The Life — Nursing with a Movement Disorder; Alfred Molina — Law & Order and the Injustice of AIDS; Malcolm Smith — A Ride Down Memory Lane; Shakes — Parkinson’s Disease; Victoria Taylor — Excerpt From Caitlin’s Wish; Sally Franz — Excerpt From Scrambled Leggs; ABILITY's Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences... subscribe
Excerpts from the Alfred Molina Jan/Dec 2010-11 Issue:
Alfred Molina — Interview
Love Simple — Lights! Camera!...Lupus?
Malcolm Smith — A Ride Down Memory Lane
Creative Arts Festival — Veterans with Artistic Vision
Amputee Recovery — From the Middle East to Haiti
Lachi — A Voice in the Darkness
Acupuncture — Ancient Chinese Secret, Revealed!