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The Contender Q&A: 'An Education' star Alfred Molina

January 21, 2010 |  5:23 pm


One of the more prolific and respected character actors of the last decade, Alfred Molina is known to a wide variety of film audiences: Summer movie aficionados know him from his earliest film role in "Raiders of the Lost Ark," as the tragic Doctor Octopus from "Spider-Man 2" or "The Da Vinci Code" (and they'll see more of him this year in "Prince of Persia"), while art-house and independent audiences are familiar with his memorable turns in Paul Thomas Anderson's "Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia," as well as "Prick Up Your Ears," "Frida," "Coffee and Cigarettes" and numerous others.

He's also been a staple of TV viewers' diets ("The Company," "Murder on the Orient Express") and has maintained a presence in theater on both sides of the Atlantic. Currently, he's drawing rave reviews — and award nominations — for his turn as the class-conscious father of Carey Mulligan's lovestruck schoolgirl in Lone Scherfig's 1960s drama "An Education."

Molina, a Los Angeles resident for the last decade, spoke to The Circuit via phone from his native London, where he is appearing as the artist Mark Rothko in John Logan's play "Red" (he also recently completed a BBC sitcom with Dawn French called "Roger and Val Have Just Got In"). Despite connection problems caused by a heavy snowstorm, he spoke at length on the '60s generation gap, his diverse career and the man who had the greatest influence on his decision to become an actor.

 The cultural gap between generations is always wide, but the one between your character, Jack, and Jenny (Carey Mulligan) seems almost insurmountable. Was that divide — between the men who came of age during World War II and their '60s-era children — familiar to you?

Yes. (Screenwriter) Nick Hornby made an interesting point that London in the 1960s was as different from London in 1945 as it was from London in 1932. Men of Jack's generation went through World War II and came back expecting to be treated as heroes. But what they discovered is that they were coming back to a country that had, in a sense, lost the war. This wasn't the case in America, which underwent a huge expansion period after the war that lasted right through to the late '70s. We still had rationing after the war, and the decade after World War II was a period of great austerity.

I think that Jack's generation felt embittered that they had spent so many years fighting a war and it had somehow not paid off. Kids were worse at the end of that war than they were during it. But by putting all their ambitions and all their focus into the betterment of their children, and working very, very hard to see that their kids got into college or university, I think that denied them some sort of connection to the next generation. 

When you were Jenny's age, did you know men like Jack?

Oh, yeah, very much so. In fact, my dad was a man like Jack, as were several friends of his. In an odd sort of way, Jack was a very easy character to play — or rather, a very recognizable character. I had a very clear picture of him, and I expect that's because I grew up with someone like him. Jack is very typical of his generation. 

Although you and Carey Mulligan are at loggerheads throughout the picture, it's clear that there's a great deal of on-screen chemistry between the two of you.

It certainly makes things easier. It doesn't always happen, but I think there's a great deal to be said about when actors get on (laughs). We've all had our share of situations where things were strained, but the truth is, that's very unusual. We all happened to get on rather well [in this picture] — it was a very generous group.  Also, if you're working on an independent project, as we were, the whole atmosphere is very conducive to collaboration. 

Alfred_AnEducation At its core, the film is about the impact, for better or for worse, that one person can have on another's life. Who are the people from your life who have had a significant effect on your career or your outlook?

Well, I'd say that the people who had the most important impact on my life were my parents. But in terms of creating a pathway for me to become an actor, I think one of the most influential people in my life was my English teacher at school. He was, I think, the first person in my life to actually take me seriously. We met on my first day at school — I was 11 at the time, I believe — and it was his first day at that school as well. He basically took care of me, and he was the first person to whom I said that I wanted to be an actor. His first reaction was, "OK, if that's what you want to do, here's what you need to do, and I'll help." He gave me a huge amount of support and even wrote a letter to the education board and pleaded my case when I was denied a grant to go to drama school. They changed their minds and awarded me the grant. And we're still friends.

You've played roles in so many diverse projects over the years — you've done, and continue to do theater, but also big-budget action films, animated features and television, and even an American sitcom (1999's "Ladies Man"). Is there a medium you prefer over the others?

I love working in all mediums — I love TV, I love film, I love the theater, and I do radio when I can. I'm sort of an omnivore in that sense. And there are different requirements for each medium — what you do in radio is not always applicable to television or film. But ultimately, the acting is what interests me, the quality of the role, and not particularly the medium itself. 

You received a Critics' Choice Movie Award nomination for "An Education," and you're nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award along with your cast mates. They're just two of many honors you've received throughout your career. What sort of impact does this recognition have on you and your work?

Well, it doesn't have much impact unless you win the award. When you're mentioned as a contender, it's very flattering and nice that people think of you and regard your work in that way, but I think there's a danger in placing any long-lasting importance in such things. I'm not trying to devalue them; if someone thinks I should get an award, I'm delighted to hear it. I wouldn't dream of giving that back (laughs). 

— Paul Gaita

Top photo: Alfred Molina. Credit: Kevin Lynch.

Bottom photo: (l-r) Alfred Molina, Cara Seymour, Carey Mulligan and Peter Sarsgaard in "An Education." Credit: Stephen Rabold / Sony Pictures Classics.

More from The Circuit:

The Contender Q&A: Oren Moverman

The Contender Q&A: Christian McKay

The Contender Q&A: "Food, Inc." director Robert Kenner

The Contender Q&A: Jackie Earle Haley