Alfred Molina interview: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Boogie Nights, Prince Of Persia and more

In the run-up to the release of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, we met with actor Alfred Molina to discuss acting, Jerry Bruckheimer and Boogie Nights…

It’s been a busy summer for Alfred Molina. After a scene-stealing comedic turn in Prince of Persia: The Sands Of Time, he’s back on blockbuster duty opposite Nicolas Cage in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Den Of Geek spent ten, stretched to a cheeky twelve, minutes in his company to talk playing bad, less is more, Boogie Nights, and Engelbert Humperdink.

This is your second Jerry Bruckheimer film in very quick succession …

Yes, almost one after the other.

So, you filmed this straight after Prince Of Persia?

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Almost. We were towards the end of Prince Of Persia and just moved from Morocco back to London to the sound stage at Pinewood. And Jerry and the Disney producers were already making plans for The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and one of them said to me, “Would you be interested in doing another film with us?” And I said, “Sure,” thinking he meant maybe at some point in the future, and he started telling me about Apprentice and the part of Horvath.

It sounded great and I said, “Yeah, it sounds fantastic. I’d love to get involved. Let me know when.” And then I discovered that they were working things out and it was going to happen pretty quickly.

And I think there was maybe a list of actors they were considering for the part. It certainly wasn’t an offer at that point. I think I was on a short list of actors and I think the joke around the set was that I got it because I was the cheapest out of all of them [laughs].

And Jon Turteltaub sort of compounded that by saying to me once … we were shooting a scene and there was quite a long bit of dialogue and we did it and we got it in one and it went really well and he was very happy with it, and he came up to me and said, “That was fantastic! That was fantastic! Who knew that my third choice would work out so well?”

What was it that attracted you, then? The name, Maxim Horvath, is pretty great. Does that sort of thing attract you?

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It is not so much the name as just the quality of the characters that really make them. He could have been called Engelbert Humperdink, it wouldn’t really have mattered. But I think what grabs you, in a way, is the possibilities that are there in the script in terms of how colourful or how inventive you can be with the character.

If there is room to do something with it that is kind of a bit out of the ordinary, you know? And what appealed to me about Horvath was that the way he was being described, it was completely the opposite to everything I was doing on Prince Of Persia.

You know, he was dapper, English, posh, well dressed, elegant, sophisticated. And we used to play this game on Prince Of Persia when we were in-between shots to pass the time. We played this game where we would imagine the film being made ten, twenty, thirty, forty years ago, and we would go through our fantasy casting. Who would be playing my part ten years ago, twenty years ago, thirty years ago? And it was always fun because it was a good test of your movie history. Who was the hot young actor ten years ago? Was it Johnny Depp, maybe? Or who would have played Jake’s part ten years ago, twenty years ago?

So, I thought when we got to thirty years ago or forty years ago, I thought my part in Prince Of Persia would have been played by someone like Peter Ustinov. And I sort of played the same game with Apprentice and I figured that maybe thirty years ago my part would have been played by someone like George Sanders, those actors who were always rather suave. And I suddenly realised the parts couldn’t have been more different.

So, I thought that was another attraction: working for the same people, working for the same company but in a completely different way. That made it interesting.

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You mention being dapper and it being a very big change of pace to Prince Of Persia, which gave you more of an out-and-out comedy role. How do you approach a villain in a film of this scale? Because I imagine, with all the spectacle, some people would go grandiose and over-the-top but you played it a different way.

I think it all depends what is in the script. The script will always indicate what’s required in terms of what you are going to create. It was clear right from the start that Horvath wasn’t a moustache twirling villain in a kind of comical way. Although there is humour in it, it’s more sardonic, it’s more ironic.

His humour is sort of cruel, in a way, whereas Sheik Amar [in Prince Of Persia] was a bit more like a secondhand car salesman, a bit rough and ready, you know?

So, you really have to make sure that you don’t create something that isn’t going to fit inside the movie, because, very often, that could be a terrible temptation, but it could also be a recipe for disaster.

If you suddenly decide this character is going to be like this and if it doesn’t fit in with the film, nothing is going to work

How did it work on set? Because there were some scenes which felt very organic and kind of off the cuff. Is there room in a blockbuster of this kind to do that? 

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Oh, yes, there was. And also the fact that a lot of those scenes were verbal, it wasn’t all special effects. There were some real human scenes.

There were a lot of dialogue scenes where character was developed, and in the relationship between Horvath and Drake Stone [Toby Kebbell] there was room there to develop that. I always thought their relationship was a bit like a rather irritated father with the son for whom he has so many expectations, but proves to be a terrible disappointment.

So, there was room to think in those terms and, very often in films like these, you can end up just not having characters having relationships with each other. They just have moments when they are on screen at the same time.

So, it is much nicer and much more interesting for the audience, as well as the actors, when there is something to play for, not just something to play with.

It seems like there have been opportunities in the past as well for you to do that, of finding your lines on set. I’m thinking of Rahad Jackson in Boogie Nights

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Well, there was a lot more improvisation in that.

How does that compare with Apprentice? How much is on paper and how much do you come up with on set.

On Apprentice, there wasn’t really that much. We didn’t improvise dialogue at all. We would adjust the dialogue occasionally or cut something. Because film is essentially a visual way of storytelling, I am always in favour of less than more, always in favour of cutting stuff. I think, if the visual action is telling the story, then you don’t need to verbalise it.

It is a bit like, if there is a scene where you say to me, “Get out of here,” and I say, “I’m leaving now,” and the scene is you saying, “Get out of here,” and then I just walk out the door, you don’t need me to say, “I’m leaving.” You know what I mean? You see me leave and it is the way I leave which tells the story. Do I slam the door? Do I pause at the door? Do I look as if I don’t want to go? So, we would often cut stuff just to keep the story moving. So, there wasn’t much improvisation.

Whereas on Boogie Nights, there was a lot of improvisation, particularly that scene with the firecrackers. That was so… kind of loose, you know?

P.T. Anderson told the actor who was playing Cosmo, the Chinese kid [Joe G.M. Chan ] … his brief was, “You just keep lighting the firecrackers whenever you want.” That wasn’t choreographed or rehearsed in any way, so we didn’t know when that was going to happen.

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But that was a much freer situation, so it depends on what the director needs and how the story is being told. It’s different circumstances, but the work is essentially the same.

You said in the past you enjoy the challenge of taking on different roles. But I wondered was there a role you felt you would like to go back to, one that kind of got under your skin?

That’s interesting. I hadn’t thought about that.

Because with Rahad there were apparently more scenes that might have happened once the police arrived.

There are loads of parts where I think, “Oh, I could have done with more screen time!” [laughs]

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A spin-off or a sequel you would love to do?

I did a little film… I did a tiny film for the BBC a long, long time ago called The Accountant, and I loved it. It was in the days when the BBC had a Screen One and a Screen Two and it was a great little film about a middle class Jewish accountant who does a little favour for a friend, slightly shady, a slight misdeed, and ends up getting mixed up with the Mafia. A great story. And I always thought that would have been a wonderful character to do another film with, but it wasn’t to be.

Mr Alfred Molina, thank you very much.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is released on August 11th.