Alfred Molina — Law & Order and the Injustice of AIDS

Circa 2010-11

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 SpiderMan 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.”

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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.

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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, with Law & Order: Los Angeles co-star Regina Hall, on the set of their new NBC drama series.
Molina, with Law & Order: Los Angeles co-star Regina Hall, on the set of their new NBC drama series.

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.”

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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. 

Cooper: Are Joe’s parents still alive? 

Molina: His mother is. She’s been living with AIDS all this time and seems to be managing pretty well. But the additional complication of Joe’s infection was that he was born paraplegic, without the use of his legs. And he was not given a very long time to live. The knowledge that we had about AIDS 21 years ago is nowhere near what it is today. The scale and the range of drugs and the cocktails was very experimental 21 years ago. So I don’t think any doctor or any specialist, such as they were then, would have given Joe much of a chance.

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But Joe, being the man he is, persevered, went to school, and is doing very, very well. Although his prognosis at the time was that he would never walk, because his legs were completely withered, he refused to accept that. He started working very hard to get his legs. He graduated to a wheelchair and then to walking with crutches. Today he spends part of his time in a wheelchair and works really hard—two hours a day, every day of the year—walking around the sports track near where he lives, just to keep his legs working. He did the AIDS Walk with the use of a cane.

Hall: How many miles was the Walk?

Molina: Just under seven. Not a long walk by arctic discovery standards or anything like that, but for someone like Joe it’s a big one. And he’s been doing that walk every year for some time now.

Cooper: And you walked with him?

Molina: I did. Mark Bashen, who is making a documentary on Joe, said to me, “Seeing as you’re doing AIDS Walk anyway, would you be interested in walking with Joe so we could film you and Joe in conversation about the walk, about AIDS?” So I met Joe. He’s a very smart, lively, funny young guy, and we talked about everything under the sun. We talked about him the least of all.

Cooper: Did you win?

Molina: (laughs) Sadly, because he walks so slowly, Joe has to walk last, because the organizers can’t take the risk of him starting at the top or being in the middle. People like to speed-walk, and many people use the AIDS Walk as a workout. The possibility of Joe getting knocked over would have been terrible, because he can’t get up on his own. So we started walking as the main body of the Walk had already departed. But it was great.

Cooper: Do you know if Joe went through a specific therapy program?

Molina: I don’t know what Joe’s regime has been in the past, but I do know that for the purposes of the Walk and for the purposes of the documentary, he was on a very strict regime for which he was walking two, twoand-a-half hours a day. He was getting massages, he was working with a trainer, stretching. He has very limited musculature in his legs, so he has to work really hard—much harder than you or I would—because of sheer lack of density of muscle.

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Cooper: And once the muscles atrophy like that—

Molina: The fact that Joe can actually support himself on his legs is quite a feat. He’s not “able” in the sense that he can trot around. He does spend part of his day in a wheelchair. But the fact that Joe could get himself together for the Walk to show that AIDS can be livable is impressive on its own.

Hall: What do you most remember from your experience at the Walk?

Molina: At one point, towards the end of the Walk, I asked Joe about his dad. I learned his father had been a junkie and had contracted AIDS through use of dirty needles. Joe started telling me about his relationship with his dad, and about the people Joe had been interviewing on behalf of the documentary—people living with AIDS.

He started telling me about all kinds of people and all kinds of backgrounds, all kinds of reactions, all kinds of states of mind in respect to AIDS. There are people who are embracing it, people who are in denial, people who are deeply, deeply angry because they contracted it, people who are really almost careless about their condition. And there was one person Joe had interviewed who had really upset him: someone who was so depressed with life he had decided deliberately to contract AIDS in order to die.

Exhausted after the AIDS Walk, Joseph Kibler embraces new friend Molina.
Exhausted after the AIDS Walk, Joseph Kibler embraces new friend Molina.

When Joe started telling me that person’s story, I could see he was really upset. Upset that anyone could want to do something like that, that anyone could actually seek that out. And I asked Joe, “Does what happened to you make you angry?” And he said, and I know he meant it, “If I could have all this all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing.” That just knocked me for six.

I was stunned. If Joe were given the choice never to have had this illness, he wouldn’t change the way things are— regardless of all of the stuff AIDS has denied him—because the disease has, in some way, defined him. It’s defined his life and has given him, I presume, some focus or purpose or some sense of—

Hall: A gift?

Molina: Yeah, some gift. Most of us never think of disease as a gift. No one ever thinks of being ill as something that can do him good, on any level, physical or spiritual.

Hall: The gift is perspective.

Molina: But I think in some way it’s unique to Joe. I think his perspective is that this life he’s been given isn’t something to be dismissed or despised. It’s what he is.

I asked Joe, “Were you ever angry? Did you ever reach a point where you were screaming in the night, wondering, ‘Why me?’” I suspect that is what I would be doing. But Joe made an interesting point. He said, “The only question you ask yourself is, ‘Why not me?’ That’s the only question worth asking.”

Just on a philosophical level, that’s quite a big idea to get hold of, sitting here as we are with our health and comfort and discussing it objectively. It’s an interesting question, isn’t it? But when you’re living with that illness every day, that’s a big, big thing.

Hall: Unusual, to be 21 and have that kind of wisdom.

Molina: Yeah. His generosity really hit me. And I found myself getting very welled up. I found it a little bit hard to talk to him after that for a while, because it was such a huge thought, such a huge idea.

Cooper: It stuck with you.

Molina: I’ve thought about it a great deal. It’s an eyeopener, really. If you’re brave enough and strong enough to seriously believe in that philosophy, without it being some kind of self-aggrandizing palliative, that empowers you in the most extraordinary way. I’ve never been really, really ill. I’ve broken a toe, I’ve had influenza, I’ve gotten double pneumonia that put me in bed for a week. I hope those to be the worst of my problems. But when you’re living with something as hugely emphatic as AIDS, or with a really serious cancer or whatever it is, to somehow embrace it and say, “Why not me?” has got to be monumental.

Hall: Especially when you’ve done nothing of your own action to acquire the condition.

Molina: I’ve met people who have had cancer, but they’d smoked all their lives, or they’d lived in a way that, no matter how generous you are, causes you to think, “Well, you kind of asked for it. You were flirting with disaster.” If you’ve been smoking two packs a day and suddenly your doctor says, “You’ve got to quit because you’ve got lung cancer,” I suppose maybe there’s a part of your brain that goes, “Well, I guess it was inevitable.” But if you’ve done nothing wrong, if you’ve done nothing to warrant this condition or merit it or earn it, that must be a different feeling.

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Hall: Since AIDS has now been around for decades, sometimes it seems that it’s not as publicly impactful today as it was when it was a new disease.

Molina: And I find it amazing that people still think of it as a gay disease.

Hall: Its largest demographic is actually black women from the ages of 18 to 35.

Molina: It’s also getting higher among Latino men.

Hall: Is it your hope that this documentary, this Walk, will help awaken people who have gotten too comfortable with the existence of AIDS? Get more people to realize it’s a real threat to them?

Molina: None of us can be above it. When AIDS ceased to be a headline, it became easier to, in a sense, dismiss it from the forefront of our minds—if it’s not in the headlines, it must be contained. You hear one or two stories of someone successfully living with AIDS, coping with it, dealing with it, and you hear about some advance in the treatment of AIDS. Then you go, “Oh, I can relax about that one. Let’s worry about adult-onset diabetes now.”

Whatever is grabbing the headlines is our preoccupation. But the truth is, if AIDS is here to stay, then we need to think about AIDS in the same way in which we think about cancer, about autism. It’s a condition of humanity. It’s not just some weird thing that’s here to visit us for a while and then will clear up and go away. It’s a bona fide disease. There can be no moral judgment placed on it.

We don’t morally judge people when they get cancer, unless they’ve kind of asked for it. We can moralize about people smoking cigarettes, but until smoking is made illegal, nobody has a leg to stand on. We don’t moralize about people’s illnesses. We moralize about their responses to their diseases, but we don’t say, “You’re a bad person because you’ve got cancer.” So we need to cease moralization about AIDS.

Unlike the other big diseases, AIDS still has a political, social, and moral dimension to it. If the largest affected demographic were that of white, middle-aged men, this disease would have a s–tload of money thrown at it. But as long as it’s predominantly targeting gays and blacks and Latinos and weirdos, then we’re fine. That kind of ignorance that needs to be dealt with. I don’t think anyone can really get away with saying, “AIDS? What’s that?” Those days are over. We’re way beyond that. Now the subtleties of the disease need to be addressed.

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Hall: I’m like, “You know what? I protect myself, so it’s not really a disease that affects me.” But truly, if it affects one of us, it affects all of us.

Molina: I remember hearing stories in the ‘80s about AIDS—or SIDS, I think it was called at one time. The idea was that it was affecting all of these young gay guys in San Francisco. They were all dropping like nine-pins. They were getting it from having sex with each other, from this and from that. Even amongst sensible, intelligent, upright people, I remember hearing, “It’s the gays. It’s a ghetto disease.” Sometimes we seem not to have moved on from that mindset. And that worries me. Babies get AIDS through no fault of their own.

People were getting it through transfusions. There’s more control over British people donating blood in America, because of mad cow disease, than there are controls for checking people for AIDS. I can’t be a blood donor in this country because I’m British.

Hall: I think too often we see somebody like Magic Johnson and we think, “Oh, you can live with AIDS.” He looks normal and healthy. There’s still so much ignorance about the disease, the drugs, how they all affect you. And because AIDS is no longer a priority in the news, I think there’s a generation that doesn’t find it as dangerous as it really is, because it’s not really talked about.

Molina: There are definitely advances being made, however. Joe told me, for instance, that when he was younger he was on 25 different drugs a day. And no one really knew what the side effects of those drugs were, what the interactive effects were. Now he’s down to five meds a day. That’s an amazing advance when you think of the quality of people’s lives. But the disease is still there.

Not all of us can be experts, doctors, scientists, researchers. Not all of us can discover the cure for something. But if as a community we’re aware, if we’re more aware of the conditions, the causes, the impact, the results, the effects of all these things—things that people are living with constantly—I think it just helps us to reach out and not be frightened.

Molina sets the scene for ABILITY’s Chet Cooper and Regina Hall.
Molina sets the scene for ABILITY’s Chet Cooper and Regina Hall.

Hall: Does Joe live on his own?

Molina: No, he lives with about four roommates, here in LA They were all students at the LA film school together, and I think two of them still are. They’re all very close. They all help him, so it’s as if he’s got a family. He’s well looked after.

The focus of his movie deals with him interviewing other people living with AIDS, as well as with his preparations for the Walk. He really, really worked hard. Mayor Villaraigosa inaugurated the Walk this year, and Joe tried to get in line to talk with him. Joe didn’t succeed, however, and he came back to us and he said, “I’ve just been snubbed by the mayor.” I said, “Did you get it on film?” And he went, “Oh, yeah!” (laughter)

You know, it took me ages and ages to understand you don’t have to be afraid of someone else’s disease. The disease doesn’t define the person. It might impose limitations, it might leave someone in bed or stuck in the house. It might put someone in a home. But it doesn’t change the person.

I’m a bit ashamed of myself in many ways, because it took me a long, long time to learn this truth. I had all the usual panics about, how close do I get to people with illnesses? What kind of risks am I running? And there’s a lot of fear-mongering that goes on, particularly in respect to AIDS. In the ‘80s it was, don’t shake hands with someone with AIDS. Don’t let their sweat get on you!

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Hall: There was a lot of ignorance.

Molina: Oh, unbelievable. Joe told me about some of the stuff he has to deal with when he goes swimming, for instance. Just to go swimming in a public pool. Word gets out that this boy has AIDS and people are pulling their kids out of the water, even today. And you think, “That doesn’t help anybody.”

We learn this stuff. We’re not born with it. I remember when I was a kid, I was with my mother, and we saw a guy in the street who had clearly had a terrible injury, maybe as a result of the war. We saw this man was very, very badly deformed. One whole side of his face looked caved in, like it was missing. He had a big coat on, with a collar, and it was clear that maybe he had no jaw. It was as if one whole side of him were torn away.

He was walking towards us and, in my youthful ignorance, I just stopped and stared at this man. I remember my mother just yanking me out of the way, saying, “Don’t look at him. Don’t look at him!” As if somehow I would catch something. And you learn from that moment. That jogs you, so the next time it happens, you do it for yourself: you look away. We have to unlearn all of that stuff as we get older. Some people never do. (Joseph Kibler’s film)

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