Alfred Molina in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
British actor Alfred Molina has become quite the gay icon, thanks to his longtime willingness to be creatively exploratory. In 1987, he was Kenneth Halliwell, the older, uneasy lover of promiscuous playwright Joe Orton (Gary Oldman) in Prick Up Your Ears, a landmark film of grit and insight.
In this year’s Ryan Murphy-directed adaptation of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart—about the early days of AIDS activism—he played Ben Weeks, the straight, homophobic brother of the fiery Kramer character. (Molina is nominated for an Emmy, along with five other actors from the HBO telecast.)
And now, he plays John Lithgow’s lover George in Ira Sachs’ Love Is Strange, in which Molina is a music teacher who gets fired, forcing the couple to temporarily separate and stay with friends as they reconfigure their real estate. (George moves in with two cops.) The film is a sweet and wise look at mature love—an actual film about a gay relationship. And it’s not reliant on eye candy either (though one of the cops happens to be played by Cheyenne Jackson).
I talked to Molina to assess his career as someone who’s gay for pay in the best way.
Congrats on the great work, Alfred. Was Prick Up Your Ears your first gay role?
That was my first. I was talking to someone about this the other day. A friend of mine was commenting about the fact that 30 odd years ago, we were really on that first wave of the AIDS epidemic. Anyone to do with show business was still thinking, “Is it still risky to play a gay role?” It’s such a different world now.
You’re saying it was a stigma.
I remember people saying, “Are you sure this is a smart move?” And also the fact that there was kissing involved and getting into bed and making out with guys. There was all that sense of trepidation, though it certainly wasn’t the first film to do so. But it was the cultural landscape that was different.
Our movie [Love is Strange], apart from being about real people—there’s something epic in the ordinariness. And unlike many films that portray gay relationships, the relationship is usually portrayed at the beginning of the relationship, whereas this is totally the other end of the age spectrum, where you’ve reached a point in a long-term relationship where even the things that irritate you about your partner become folded into why you love them. For all those reasons, it does make the film unique. I’m fond of saying that the fact that this is a gay relationship is almost irrelevant. The film isn’t about being gay. In a straight relationship, if one of you gets fired, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to separate. Also in the straight world, if you get married, it doesn’t automatically mean one of you is gonna get fired. But both those things happen in the film, and that’s what makes it epic. Ordinary events turn into something that changes their lives.
But there was nothing ordinary about Prick Up Your Ears.
It’s very different playing a middle-aged gay man who finally decides he wants to marry his lifelong partner, as opposed to a younger guy who turns into a murderous asshole. But I was saying to my friend the other day that just proves being gay doesn’t change anything. Everybody has all the faults and failings of everybody else. A gay friend of mine said, “Just because I’m gay doesn’t mean I’m fabulous all the time.”
Was your Normal Heart character, Ben, based on a real brother of Larry’s?
Yes, he did have a brother. They had a really good relationship. Like the character in the story, he looked after him, took care of his finances; they had a good relationship. As in the story, his brother loved him very much. The only fly in the ointment was that his brother could not accept his gayness.
Alfred Molina as Ben Weeks in 'The Normal Heart'
How did you play him as not just a construct for the story?
I tried to keep in mind this relationship between these two brothers was a really good one. They loved each other, enjoyed each other, and cared for each other, but there was this one little thing that he couldn’t understand. It’s a detail that I think is universal. I’m sure there are lots of families where that exact same situation exists. Also, it was easy to avoid because of the quality of the writing. Eventually, Ben comes ‘round and he realizes when he gets to meet Felix what a terrible waste of time it was to have not just embraced the situation. What I loved about that notion is, once you can embrace that, you actually can make another wonderful relationship.
The flick is sure up for a lot of acting Emmys.
I think there’s one other actor nominated who isn’t in The Normal Heart. [Two, actually.] My money’s on someone else [from Heart]. I won’t say who. I’m being discreet. Years ago, whenever I’d hear actors go, “It’s just nice to be nominated,” I’d go, “Yeah, right.” But now that I’ve been nominated, I’m saying the same thing. And it’s absolutely true.
As long as you win once in a while.
I’m such a bridesmaid. Lots of nominations, but I’ve never won. I think it keeps me young. The only prizes I won are where there are no other contenders. You win because you managed to find the address and turn up.
Love is Strange opens in select theaters Aug. 22.