A person’s ability to finally have the chance to publicly and legally state their love for the person who’s closest to them, particularly after spending years of fighting civil rights violations and social injustices, can be the most gratifying moment a person ever experiences. But when that long deserved union sets in motion a reversal of fortune that not only affects the couple’s relationship, but also those who are closest to them, what was meant to be one of the happiest moments of their lives can turn into a harrowing event. But British actor Alfred Molina, who contends with this emotional turmoil in his new drama, ‘Love Is Strange,’ which was filmed independently in New York, supports the idea that people should never question or doubt getting married, as stating their commitment to each other is never wrong.
‘Love Is Strange’ follows Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Molina), who have been together in a committed relationship for 39 years, and decide to take advantage of New York’s new marriage laws for gay couples. While the two joyful celebrate their wedding ceremony in lower Manhattan with their friends and family, their well put-together world soon starts to unravel. The Catholic school where George teaches music doesn’t approve of his new marriage to Ben and reluctantly fires him, despite the fact that his students and their families have previously supported his relationship.
With George’s loss of income, the couple is forced to sell their apartment and temporarily live apart with friends and family as they look for cheaper housing. George stays with two gay police officers, Ted and Roberto (Cheyenne Jackson and Manny Perez), who live in the same building as his old apartment with his husband. Meanwhile Ben, who makes a living as a painter, moves in with his nephew, Elliot (Darren Burrows), his wife, Kate (Marisa Tomei), and their temperamental teenage son, Joey (Charlie Tahan), in Brooklyn. While struggling with their separation, Ben and George are also forced to contend with the intergenerational tensions and unpredictable family dynamics of their new living arrangements.
Molina generously took the time recently to sit down at the Crosby Hotel in New York City to talk about starring in ‘Love Is Strange.’ Among other things, the actor discussed how he was drawn to playing George in the film, because co-writer-director Ira Sachs crafted an emotionally fulfilling story and main characters who value their love, despite the misfortunes that arise as a result of their relationship; how he and Lithgow examined the script with Sachs before they began shooting, in an effort to relate to their characters, but they didn’t rehearse in order to capture how the moments between arose organically; and how his real-life friendship with Lithgow authentically informed their first on-screen collaboration together.
ShockYa (SY): You portray the role of George in the new drama, ‘Love Is Strange.’ What was it about the character, and the script, that convinced you to take on the role?
Alfred Molina (AM): It was the script, essentially, that drew me to the character. It was very complete, finished and polished. There was no need at all to try to fix anything, and there weren’t any lapses in logic. The idea of working with a director who I haven’t worked with before was attractive. Also getting to work with John was another bonus.
Also, to be able to play a character who, in a sense, was quite ordinary, was great. Normally, when you’re a character actor like I am, you tend to be offered larger-than-life characters, including the villains who are presented in an extreme way. They often look big or act weird.
So playing this man who’s really rather ordinary and is minding his own business, and then has this thing happen to him and his partner, was great. Their world is suddenly turned upside down. Through all of that, they’re trying to hang onto something, including their simple dignity. They’re also trying to maintain some kind of control over the events in their lives. It struck me as something I haven’t played before.
SY: What was the process of getting into George’s mindset, and understanding his motivations?
AM: It was the same as any other character. As actors, we basically get paid to use our imaginations. I didn’t base George on anybody I knew. There are a list of character traits I recognized in friends of mine, and myself and my father. So there was a lot to draw on, and lots of things I recognized as being playable traits. It was an interesting point-of-view he had. Hopefully I was pulling it all together to make someone who was authentic and plausible enough for the audience to want to spend an hour-and-a-half in his company.
SY: Ira Sachs both co-wrote and directed ‘Love Is Strange.’ What was the process of working with him, as both the scribe and helmer?
AM: Ira was wonderful. He’s a very quiet director. There wasn’t any shouting or ranting on set, or screaming from the video village to the actors. He would always come to us and talk very quietly about any adjustments he wanted us to make. So that created a very conducive atmosphere where you really want to work.
SY: What was the process of working with John Lithgow on the film, since you have been friends in real lifefor 20 years?
AM: It was great, as it felt very natural and easy. I think our friendship informs the film, and certainly helped with our acting. We didn’t have any awkward moments of getting to know each other, and we just fell into it.
SY: Ira met with you and your co-stars separately to talk about the film, instead of having a combined rehearsal period before you began shooting. Did that influence the way you portrayed George?
AM: I don’t think it influenced the way I portrayed the character. It only meant that we had a lot of understanding and common ground on how we might approach the roles. Ira spent two days with me in L.A., and he did the same with John up in Calgary when he was still filming another project there. I think he spent the same amount of time here in New York with Marisa.
We went through the script in very fine detail, and went through all the scenes. We examined everything that happened, and why they happened. We tried to relate them to things that may have happened in our own lives or collective memories. Although we didn’t rehearse and have a read-through, we all came to the scenes very well prepared. We were all very much on the same page on who these people were.
SY: Did you have a chance to speak with John before you actually began filming?
AM: No, we didn’t. I knew he was cast, and was delighted to hear that. But I didn’t have a way to contact him when he was shooting in Calgary. But we did have dinner with Ira in Los Angeles, and I think that was right before John went to Canada to work. But we didn’t talk a great deal about the movie; it was more of a social evening, and we got to know Ira. As soon as John arrived here in New York, we started shooting, and it was fantastic.
SY: George and Ben’s family and friends are happy for them when they got married in the beginning of the film. But when they had to move in with them after selling their apartment, that put a strain on their relationships. How did you work with your co-stars to develop that aspect?
AM: We just played what was on the page, really, and there really wasn’t any developing necessary. We just had to serve the story, and that’s what we do as actors. We hopefully bring the story to a three-dimensional life. We didn’t have to develop or fix anything. It was just sitting there, waiting for us to inhabit it.
SY: George and Ben have been together for almost 40 years. What prompted them to get married now, after being in a relationship together for so long?
AM: Well, they took advantage of a change in the law. It might be difficult for a heterosexual person to appreciate just how amazing that may be for a gay man or woman who has been in a long-term relationship to suddenly be afforded a basic human right that the rest of us take for granted. It would never occur to me to question any right I have to love who I want, where and when I want. It also would never occur to me to think, wow, that’s an amazing thing. It’s something you take for granted, like breathing, going shopping or taking money out of the bank.
If you’re a gay man or woman, that basic human right has been denied to you. Suddenly, when that changes and becomes available by law, it must be the most extraordinary feeling. I’m not surprised there was a rush of people to get married.
I think gay weddings are even more emotional. Weddings are emotional to begin with, so I cry, even at strangers’ weddings. It’s emotional when anyone stands up and publicly says, “I want to spend the rest of my life with you.” But for gay couples, it’s charged with so much more, as more is at stake. So when the law changes and you take advantage of that, and then you’re punished for it because of a loophole in the law, it’s all the more tragic.
SY: While the wedding is an emotional time for the couple, they’re forced to sell their condo after George loses his job. Do you feel they began to question why they decided to get married, as their fortune quickly changed?
AM: In the movie, they never question their decision to get married, or doubt their commitment to each other. There’s a scene where my character asks John’s character, “Do you blame me? Is this all my fault?” I think he’s asking for reassurance. Ben tells George, “This isn’t your fault. This isn’t anyone’s fault.” They never question their decision, because they’ve done nothing wrong.
SY: What was the process of filming the movie on location here in New York?
AM: It was wonderful-I love working here. I’ve shot lots of films here over the years. I’ve worked here in the theater and on television. It’s always an exciting, productive and creative time here. There’s something about the energy of the city that makes me love working here. New York has always been a creative place, and that’s why I think it’s such a magnet.
I’ve read a statistic recently where the vast majority of high school students planning on going to college want to come here to study in New York. It has as much to do with the city as the universities here.
I was obsessed with coming to New York every since I was a teenager. But I didn’t get here until I was about 30 or 35, when I came here on vacation. When I was a teen, I would listen to American music and like American cars. The image I had of America was of New York, with the skyscrapers, the streets, Central Park and the other iconic places of the city. I also thought of the other boroughs, and I even got excited when I heard people mention Staten Island. Little did I know there’s nothing there! (laughs) But it’s so full of excitement, it’s no wonder everyone wants to come here.
SY: What was the process of shooting ‘Love Is Strange’ independently, as opposed to filming the bigger studio movies you’ve starred in?
AM: I think the basic difference isn’t very big. There are differences in circumstances and facilities, and on a big movie, you have the luxury of time. If you’re working on a multi-million dollar budget, if something goes terribly wrong, like if an actor makes a gesture and knocks this over (points to a flowerpot on a table) and breaks it, there’s time to get a new one. Changes are there are half a dozen other ones just like it, waiting just in case. But on a low-budget independent film, you might only have one of these. If it breaks, you have to scramble to get it replaced.
But the moment of creativity and work is the same. The moment when someone says “Action,” you start acting. It’s the same excitement, dread and anxiety.
Written by: Karen Benardello