By Ed Rampell
Alfred Molina personifies the talent pool that makes Los Angeles theatre so rich and vibrant. For his movies the British-born actor has been nominated for BAFTA and Independent Spirit Awards, as well as Golden Globe and Primetime Emmy Awards for his TV work. Molina has performed on stages from Broadway to London’s West End to L.A.’s boards, and received his third Tony nomination for depicting abstract painter Mark Rothko in Red.
As if these credits aren’t enough, the quadruple threat is also, so to speak, a “raider of the lost art”: radio. Indeed, in 2016 the prolific thesp won the BBC Radio Drama Award for playing Eddie Carbone in Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge. Later this year Molina co-stars with director Edward James Olmos in The Devil Has a Name but his next outing is in a radio play at the James Bridges Theater, UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, which is being recorded for L.A. Theatre Works’ syndicated radio theater series. Inspired by actual events, A Walk in the Woods is Lee Blessing’s Geneva-set drama about nuclear disarmament that was written during the Gorbachev era and premiered on Broadway Feb. 10, 1988 at the Booth Theatre.
Alfred Molina was interviewed by phone in Los Angeles, where he currently lives.
@THIS STAGE: Whether you’re playing Dr. Octopus [2004’s Spider-Man 2], Diego Rivera [2002’s Frida], or Robert Aldrich [2017’s mini-series Feud], you always impart a sense of sheer joy that you just love to act.
MOLINA: [Laughs.] Well, that does happen to be true. But I hope it doesn’t look like exercises in indulgence. That’s not something I’m consciously thinking about… but I suppose it can’t be helped. It’s interesting you mention it. I’m very flattered… I think I see it in other actors, too.
@THIS STAGE: Another actor I also see it in is Oliver Platt.
MOLINA: Yes, absolutely. Oliver’s like me – a tall man of heft, with presence. Maybe it has something to do with our size? Us large chaps… The other actor I was thinking of I get the same feeling from is Sam Rockwell. Sam always looks – even if he’s playing a really serious scene – as if he’s on the edge of giggling. I love that.
@THIS STAGE: You were just in Vice with Rockwell [as George W. Bush].
MOLINA: That’s right. He’s wonderful in it.
@THIS STAGE: You were great as a waiter.
MOLINA: Yeah, I had one little scene. That was lots of fun.
@THIS STAGE: Many viewers know you as a movie or TV actor but in fact you have an extensive resume as a stage actor. Tell us about some of your top theatre roles, on Broadway, the West End, etc.
MOLINA: I started off in the theatre. I graduated from London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 1975. A fantastic school. After graduation I went straight into the theatre and really didn’t do anything else until 1980 when I did my very first movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark. I’ve always gone back to the theatre. I’ve always enjoyed the ability to balance film, television, and stage work – and radio, even. All these different disciplines I find keep me curious and energized.
Wherever I am, I’m always thinking nostalgically about the other one. I’m onstage playing to a half empty house and I’m thinking: “Wouldn’t it be nice to be on a film set now with someone running to get me cups of coffee?” When I’m on set, waiting around for hours until they get the shot ready, I’m thinking: “Wouldn’t it be great to be… working on something?” The grass is always greener. But I’ve been lucky. It’s nothing to do with me, nothing I’ve planned. I’ve just been lucky that for the past 45 years as a professional actor I’ve been blessed with the chances to go backwards and forwards.
@THIS STAGE: What was it like playing Tevye [a Tony-nominated role]?
MOLINA: I did Fiddler on the Roof in 2004 on Broadway at the Minskoff Theatre, which is a fantastic experience – I’ve done a couple of musicals before, but on a small scale. Back in the late ’70s, early ’80s in London, on the alternative fringe circuit there was this little vogue for young companies and young directors and actors would get together and do what came to be known as “postage stamp productions,” which were very small scaled down productions of popular classic musicals. At The Half Moon, for instance, they did Guys and Dolls and The Boys From Syracuse… where the actors played the instruments. I did… Destry Rides Again where we all played instruments, the only instrumentation in the show.
So I’d done musicals before, but nothing as big as Fiddler. It was a huge revival, followed by huge interest. It was a fantastic year doing that. It was humbling, actually. I’d never done that long a run in a musical – even when I did Oklahoma! back in the ’70s, early ’80s. And you realize how hard people work in the musical theatre. No two ways about it. It’s the most exhausting kind of work I think there is in show business…
I played Jud Fry. Oklahoma! was Cameron Mackintosh’s very first production as an independent producer… We took it on tour, then we played the Palace Theatre in London – I did six months there… Because people are so familiar with the movie, every song that came up, as soon as the opening bars sounded it got a polite round of applause from the audience. Jud Fry’s solo – “Lonely Room” – was cut from the movie so people aren’t that familiar with it. The opening of the song is basically one chord… and every time that song started up you can see people in the audience turning to one another and going, “What’s this?” [Laughs.] It’s the only song that wasn’t greeted with eager applause… It’s a great lesson in how to read an audience, to read their energy as well as your own.
@THIS STAGE: Here in Los Angeles you performed at a 2016 fundraiser for the Skylight Theatre[‘s Artistic Development Program, INKubator, which nurtures developing artists from across L.A. and at-risk teens in local high schools and detention centers] in a staged reading of Vera Laughed.
MOLINA: I’ve done loads of staged readings in L.A. over the years. It’s a lovely way to get a new play on its feet or reintroducing audiences to classics… Especially when we can raise money for a good cause, it’s always a joy. My theatre work in L.A. – I’ve worked at The Geffen, The Mark Taper, in Theatre Row. It’s interesting; L.A. seems to have a reputation for not being a theatre city – but in fact, there’s a lot of theatre in L.A. I’d argue it’s not that it’s not a theatre-making city – it’s very often not a theatre-going city. Audiences are very, very territorial. There’s the Pasadena Playhouse audience and The Geffen Playhouse audience – and thank goodness for them. Because without those subscriptions and base, theatre in L.A. would find it very hard to keep going.
@THIS STAGE: Tell us about A Walk in the Woods?
MOLINA: It’s a play by Lee Blessings – it’s a two-hander. It’s really the various encounters over a period of time between two middle ranking diplomats, one American, one Russian. The play is really set at the height of the Cold War. They start off very relaxed, as if they’re just two friends, just chatting in a place where there’s a little bit of scenery. But then the play turns into a much more serious conflict between them – in terms of why they’re there, what they’re doing, what they’re dealing with, and what’s happening in the world and how can they do something about it. They start off – one of them is very cynical about their job there, the other is very idealistic. And then those positions change – they sort of both inform and infect each other with their own enthusiasms and cynicisms.
It’s beautifully balanced – it’s almost like a chess game, but it’s more passionate than that. There’s lot of passion and emotion in the play – it’s not just two people talking rather cleverly. Although there’s some very clever talk in it… It’s a play about feelings, desire, impulse and what drives people.
My character is named Andrey [Botvinnik]. He’s the Russian. Steven Weber is playing the other character. Cameron Watson is directing. It’ll be a really, really interesting evening, I think. It’s a beautiful play… Good writing is always timeless. It stands up now as well as it did 20, 30 years ago…
@THIS STAGE: Is this your first time acting for radio?
MOLINA: Oh, no, no, no. I’m an old hand at radio. I’ve been doing radio all my life. I think this is my 10th or 11th outing with L.A. Theatre Works [including True West, Copenhagen, and The Lion in Winter].
@THIS STAGE: You have a very expressive face. What’s the difference between acting for radio and for the screen and live stage?
MOLINA: The biggest difference is you don’t have to remember the lines, you’re reading the script. It’s just another discipline. Anything you’d convey onscreen or onstage with a look or gesture or physical attitude, you can still do that on the radio. But what you’re doing is you’re putting all of that expression into your voice, how you read the line. You may give a certain word a particular lisp just to emphasize that. Or you may just do something with the timing of the line. You may take a pause at a crucial place – you have to give the audience all that information that you would…I worked in England with an old radio hand who talked about, “When you pause on the radio it’s like raising an eyebrow onstage or onscreen.”
A Walk in the Woods is being performed Jan. 25 at 8:00 p.m., Jan. 26 at 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. and Jan. 27 at 4:00 p.m. at the James Bridges Theater, UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, 235 Charles E. Young Drive, L.A., CA 90095. A talkback with playwright Lee Blessing and professor of political science Richard D. Anderson, Jr., a specialist on Soviet politics and foreign policy, will follow the Saturday matinee performance. Each of the four performances will be recorded live in front of an audience for radio broadcast six to eight weeks later, plus distribution on CD, digital download and online streaming. L.A. Theatre Works’ syndicated radio theater series broadcasts weekly on public radio stations across the U.S. (locally, in Southern California, on KPFK 90.7 FM); can be heard daily in China and around the world on the Radio Beijing Network; can be downloaded as a podcast via iTunes and NPR One; and can be streamed on demand at www.latw.org. Ticket info: (310)827-0889 or www.latw.org.