“No one comes up to me screaming, ‘Oh my God, it’s Alfred Molina!’” says Alfred Molina. “Tom Cruise or Julia Roberts have that. I have grown men going, ‘My mum loves you!’”
He breaks into a rattling guffaw. “I like to say to them, ‘But what about you, do you love me?’ That knocks them for a loop.”
Laughter overtakes him, big hoots that suggest everything in Molina’s life is absolutely fantastic even though, as he will shortly reveal, it absolutely isn’t.
Molina is the big name in Close to the Enemy, Stephen Poliakoff’s socio-political thriller set in bomb-shattered London immediately after the Second World War.
Molina as Harold Lindsay-Jones in Close to the Enemy
A regular on Broadway and in major movies like Spider-Man 2 and The Da Vinci Code, Molina has appeared in countless US television series and lived in Los Angeles for 25 years.
But he is a very un-starry star. Christened Alfredo, he is the son of an immigrant Spanish cook and Italian waiter and resolutely unassuming. “I go shopping, I get my own dry cleaning,” he says. “I don’t even have a swimming pool.” You don’t have a swimming pool, in LA? “It’s OK, my neighbour’s got one.” What’s it like? “I don’t know, he’s never invited me over!”
Born in London in 1953, Molina has been acting since the mid-1970s when, if he couldn’t get work on a “legitimate” play, he’d entertain the crowds at Covent Garden and pass a hat around. “I have always earned money from performing,” he says with still-evident proletarian pride, though by 1980 he wasn’t earning much – barely £100 a week.
If Steven Spielberg hadn’t offered him a part in Raiders of the Lost Ark he would have been unable to buy a pram and clothes for his new daughter. “I have never, ever stopped being thankful for that.”
But now Molina is facing an even greater heartache. He is losing his second wife of 30 years, actress Jill Gascoine, to dementia.
“Jill is in a very advanced stage of her Alzheimer’s,” he says, any laughter gone from his voice. “She is on her own path, it is too late for her.”
Molina first noticed something was wrong when the couple were in London in 2009 where he was filming Roger and Val Have Just Got In, the acclaimed, quietly bleak comic series he starred in alongside Dawn French.
“There were signs then,” Molina says of Gascoine who, at 79, is 16 years his senior. “But when it’s someone that you’re close to, someone you love, it’s the last thing you want to believe, so you’re almost in a state of denial.
“It’s not like cancer or an illness that announces itself. With cancer you’ve got a fighting chance, you can gather your resources and focus on it and, with luck, you can conquer it. Alzheimer’s is a cowardly disease. It creeps up on you from behind and by the time you realise you’ve got it you’re probably not realising much else. It’s a stinker.”
Alfred and his wife Jill in 2010
The stinker seems ubiquitous these days. “I call it the baby boomer’s disease,” Molina says. “But there are cases of people being diagnosed over here [in the USA] in their late 40s.”
Alzheimer’s claimed a high-profile victim in March 2015 with the death of novelist Terry Pratchett, who remained cheery in the face of oblivion until the very end.
Pratchett’s Twitter feed pronounced: “Terry took Death’s arm and followed him through the doors and on to the black desert under the endless night” moments after he died.
Terry took Death’s arm and followed him through the doors and on to the black desert under the endless night.
“Not everyone can approach it with the bravery that Terry Pratchett showed,” Molina says. “Every Alzheimer’s case is unique unto itself; the only thing that unites them all is the outcome is always the same. Ultimately you end up on the same path.”
That sounds like a bleak prognosis. “Yes, it is bleak, and I think that’s why so much of the research that went into curing it became pointless. Millions and millions of dollars and pounds going into this pit and we were getting nowhere. Whereas now, with more knowledge and understanding, you can, at least, start to prepare yourself.”
Pratchett was only 66 when he died. Molina is fast approaching that age himself, so is he scared of developing dementia? “I’m scared of a lot of things,” he says. “Every time I can’t find my wallet, every time I forget where I left my car keys, I’m thinking, ‘Oh, Jesus.’ I have to remind myself there’s a difference between not remembering where you put your car keys and, when you find them, not knowing what they’re for. I’ve seen that happen at close range, I know the difference.”
Filming Close to the Enemy meant leaving Gascoine behind in her California care home while he came to Liverpool. “It is difficult to be away,” he says. “But I have to work just to be able to provide for her care and I was encouraged by Jill’s family and friends to do that.”
Molina as Harold Lindsay-Jones in Close to the Enemy
While here Molina noticed a change in British society. “There are not as many actors from a working-class background getting the chances to work,” he says. “Working-class families often don’t have the money to send their kids to posh drama schools.
“People like me, Julie Walters, Brian Cox, in our 60s, were the last generation that could honestly say we were educated from the age of five to 25 and it didn’t cost us a penny. There was a society in place that made it possible.
“My dad was a waiter, my mother cleaned rooms in a hotel, and that was not an unusual scenario for actors of my generation. But now, if you haven’t been to Eton you’re f***ed.”
It was partly to escape a British class system that doesn’t take waiter’s sons too seriously that Molina moved to Los Angeles. “In America no one ever asked me where I was from,” he says. “What my education is, where I was trained – none of that.
“At auditions in Britain I’d get, ‘Molina, that’s Spanish, isn’t it? Where did you go to school? Where did you train?’ As if any of that has anything to do with it.”
Molina first came to public prominence in 1981, with that brief appearance opposite Harrison Ford in the opening sequences of Raiders of the Lost Ark. He played Satipo, the untrustworthy guide who says to Indy, “Throw me the idol, I’ll throw you the whip!” and shortly afterwards meets a horrible end.
“I was only in the movie for the first ten minutes!” Molina says. “But it became one of those moments when everyone talks about you.”
The long career that followed has been punctuated by independent hits such as Letter to Brezhnev, Boogie Nights, An Education and the gay comedy-drama Love Is Strange, but in the mass market, at least, Molina has cornered the dodgy and olive-skinned parts.
“My bread and butter has been playing swarthy foreigners,” he says. “Slightly dubious people, ethnically ambiguous people. So I was incredibly excited when Harold [a mysterious Foreign Office official] in Close to the Enemy came along, a character who is so far away from that.”
Poliakoff ’s dramas are television events, almost beyond criticism, though one wonders just how good they would be without the services of an interpreter as able as Molina, whose arrival centre stage brings a necessary calm to events.
Things pick up when he arrives, I suggest. “No,” he disagrees happily. “It all goes to s***. My billing should be ‘in spite of public demand’!”
Perhaps we shouldn’t take that too seriously, but Molina’s refusal to overcomplicate his art is real enough. “When people say, ‘So Alfred, what’s your process?’ my hackles go up,” he says.
“Whenever I sniff any kind of pretension or any holier-than-thou mystical approach to acting I think of what Anthony Hopkins said when he was asked how he acted: ‘I use my imagination, that’s what I am paid to do’. But I take my job very, very seriously. I’m proud of it.”
Stars can be flighty, self-obsessed, hysterical or sullen; they can turn the smallest problem into an existential dilemma. Molina is the opposite; bearing his burden with great dignity, he hides his undoubted talents away unless we should think him big-headed, deflecting attention to others.
Dawn French is “brilliant, just brilliant.” Poliakoff ’s writing “wonderful”. What about Molina, when does he get the credit? “But I’m blessed,” he says, guffawing again. “I actually like the sound of my own voice. So please forgive me if I’ve gone on too long.” Forgiven.
Sign up to the Radio Times newsletter for the latest TV and entertainment news