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Alfred Molina talks 'Love is Strange,' John Lithgow, and gay pop culture

Actors John Lithgow and Alfred Molina pose for a portrait during the 2014 Sundance Film Festival at the Getty Images Portrait Studio at the Village At The Lift Presented By McDonald's McCafe on January 18, 2014 in Park City, Utah.
Actors John Lithgow and Alfred Molina pose for a portrait during the 2014 Sundance Film Festival at the Getty Images Portrait Studio at the Village At The Lift Presented By McDonald's McCafe on January 18, 2014 in Park City, Utah.
(Larry Busacca/Getty)

In many ways, Love is Strange doesn't fit the bill of a big screen love story. It's understated and quiet and doesn't build to a violin-scored sex scene. Critics have hailed the film, which stars Alfred Molina and John Lithgow as a couple of nearly 40 years, the year's best love story — and it's hard to disagree. With a near-perfect script by Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias, equally adept direction from Sachs, and tour-de-force performances from its leading men, Love is Strange is a film that reminds its audience that the real magic of intimate love is that it's so boringly un-magical.

Molina recently spoke to Vox about his experience on the set of Love is Strange, and what it was like to work with his long-term friend, John Lithgow, and the unconventional Ira Sachs. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Brandon Ambrosino: What attracted you to Love is Strange?

Alfred Molina: In a word, the script. It came very polished and finished. Very complete. There wasn't any of that trying to go, well, I think my character needs more of this, needs less of that. It came very finished.

I was struck by just how close the character was to my own sensibilities. I just thought, well, this is a nice fit. Normally, as a character actor, you get to play parts that are a bit larger than life — you find yourself working farther and farther away than where you're comfortable doing. You know, you're sort of doing weird things to your face, or you're shaving your head, or you're wearing tentacles. Then suddenly, there's this small, delicate, very domestic, very — in a sense — very ordinary role, playing this ordinary man. It's quite a change of pace for me, so I was very excited for that, as well.

Brandon Ambrosino: I remember hearing John Lithgow say he knew exactly what to do with his character as soon as he read the script. Did you have the same kind of response to the script?

Alfred Molina: Almost. I didn't know exactly what I was going to do, but I knew there was a lot in there I could work on, and play with. I certainly felt a real affinity with the character of George. George shares some of the same idiosyncrasies Alfred Molina has: a tendency towards pedantry, liking things just so, sort of neat and organized. All those things that make George very different from Ben, I found myself relating to very much.

Brandon Ambrosino: Lithgow has also said that he wouldn't have wanted anyone else but you to play his husband. Is the feeling mutual?

Alfred Molina: Oh, absolutely! I was with the movie right from the beginning, and originally another actor was going to play Ben, but for various logistical reasons, he had to drop out because our movie changed dates. So when the original actor dropped out, John was offered the part, and when I found out that John was playing [Ben], I was over the moon. Because, you know, John and I are old friends, and we'd never worked together before. So I was absolutely delighted that it worked out this way.

Brandon Ambrosino: Is there any difference in your approach to playing a love story versus playing a gay love story?

Alfred Molina: No, no, not at all. People, regardless of their sexual inclinations, we all fall in love for the same reasons, and fall in love in the same ways. Gay men and women don't fall in love or experience love any differently from anyone else. That's one thing that makes us all human. So no, when you're playing a role with someone who is in a long-term relationship, then is separated from that long-term partner, the pain or anguish or discomfort or unhappiness you feel will always be playable, because it's the same for everyone, whether they're gay or straight.

Brandon Ambrosino: There's been some discussion lately over whether or not straight actors should play gay roles. Some feel that gay roles should be reserved strictly for gay actors, and some disagree. What are your thoughts about that?

Alfred Molina: Well, how would they feel if they were told that gay actors could not play straight roles?

Brandon Ambrosino: I heard that there wasn't any rehearsal on set.

Alfred Molina: That's true, although it would be misleading to let you think there was no preparation. There was a great deal.

What happened was we didn't actually rehearse the scenes. We'd come to shoot scenes with our lines learned and everything else, and would know what we were going to do in those scenes. But what [director] Ira Sachs liked to do was not to rehearse the scenes, so that anything that occurred to us, any instinct that we might have had about playing the scene would happen in front of camera, with the camera running. We didn't use anything up, do you see what I mean?

We would warm up, rather in the same way you would warm up a thoroughbred: not by making him run a race, but just let him warm up, and then let the horse go. I think that's what Ira would've wanted to do. It actually worked out very well. I've very rarely worked that way. Most of the time in films, you're rehearsing a scene and playing at it, and you keep going at it two or three takes. But here, every time we did it was fresh, because we hadn't used up all our ideas, all our our energy in unnecessary rehearsals. But, again, there was a great deal of preparation involved, so it wasn't like a situation where we just turned up and flew by the seat of our pants.

Brandon Ambrosino: What exactly was the preparation like?

Alfred Molina: We would talk a great deal about the scene. We all had an equal understanding of our character's back-story in that scene, what our character wanted or needed in that scene, what we had to achieve in terms of storytelling. Ira's direction was very much geared towards the story we're telling, rather than telling us how to be or how to behave in the scene. He trusted that we would do that, because that's what we do. That's our job. Our job is to make our behavior as authentic as possible, and Ira's job was to make us behave in the right story. So it was a very collaborative way of working. Almost seamless, actually. I really enjoyed it.

Also, Ira creates a nice atmosphere on set. He's not a shouter. Not one of those directors who screams at people, or keeps on shouting, "Let's go! Let's go!" He speaks quietly. He treats everyone on set with equal respect, and all due courtesy. He creates an atmosphere that's very supportive.

Brandon Ambrosino: But Ira wasn't really winging it, right?

Alfred Molina: Often with directors who are not demonstrative, who don't put on their director's coat, very often they might create an impression that they're just shooting from the hip. But nine times out 10, that's really just because they're incredibly prepared. I was working recently with Robert Rodriguez, who kind of creates a similar impression: you could very easily be seduced into thinking he's just making it up as he goes along. But he's another one of those directors who comes impeccably prepared, he knows exactly what he needs, exactly how to get it, exactly what's required. It's a great gift as a director to create that impression of being sort of, "Oh, I'm just here for the ride." But actually [to be] someone who's creating something very specific, a specific vision. That's a great skill.

Brandon Ambrosino: Have you seen Vicious starring Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi?

Alfred Molina: I haven't seen it yet, no, but I've heard of it.

Brandon Ambrosino: That PBS sitcom is all about the 49 year-long relationship of two gay men. Your film, while not a comedy, is similarly about love shared between two older gay men. Do you think there's anything to the fact that popular gay-themed stories are featuring older gay men as their protagonists?

Alfred Molina: Well, I think there's certainly a degree of acceptance and inclusion that maybe wasn't there 10 years ago. I can remember a time when playing a gay character, or even just doing films with a gay theme, were really very risky things to do — not in a political sense, but just risky at box office. Now it's becoming more and more mainstream. I think there's a degree of inclusion and acceptance that's gradually building. There are still many, many people who are resisting the notion of gay themes being part of the mainstream, but it's changing. So if there is an increased interest, then I think our movie may well be a small part of that development.

But I think what's curious is that even within gay-themed movies and television shows, it's usually [about] people at the younger end of the age spectrum. It's gay couples striving to find themselves or each other or their place in world. Usually a crisis is involved. But here, it's a couple in the … autumnal phase of their years, do you know what i mean? They have a very well established relationship, and they're struggling to survive and to absorb yet another crisis. And that's a very different perspective, a very different way of looking at the relationship.

I think [Love is Strange] has a universal view — it's not just about being gay. It's about loving someone for a long, long time, and how that love stays alive. And how, within the long-term relationship, things change over the years. A good friends of ours, who's been married over 50 years, was just saying to us how within that marriage, he and his wife have gone through several marriages. They've gone through so many different phases — eras, if you like. But that's the beauty of long-term relationships: that they absorb everything, and you end up with an intimacy you can't get any other way.

Brandon Ambrosino: There's a rumor going around that your co-star Cheyenne Jackson, who's a fabulous gay icon

Alfred Molina: Cheyenne Jackson is gay? Good Heavens! I'm shocked! (laughter)

Brandon Ambrosino: Well, I heard that he taught you some — as the New York Times put it — gay nomenclature. Care to school me?

Alfred Molina: So, not being gay myself, I'm not completely [familiar] with the subtleties of gay culture. But I heard Cheyenne describe someone once as a twink. And I said, "That sounds like a candy bar. What's a twink?" So he stood talking about these little different little labels: there are bears, there are daddies, and stuff.

I just got fascinated! I said to him, "If I was gay, what would I be?" He said, "Oh, you'd definitely be a bear." I thought, well, what a compliment. So I looked at John, who had white hair and a white beard, and I said, "Would that make John a polar bear?" Don't you agree with that?

Brandon Ambrosino: I totally agree with that! And now we've got it in writing, so I guess it's official.

Love is Strange opens in select theaters on August 22, 2014.