Alfred Molina: "I remember…"

Award winning actor, Alfred Molina has starred in many stage and screen productions including the movies, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Enchanted April, Frida and the Broadway show, Art. He looks back on his star-studded career. 

My first acting experience

I was at St Mary’s Catholic Primary School in Kensal Rise and I was one of the shepherds—complete with tea towel headdress and crepe paper beard.

When the Angel Gabriel—a vision of cardboard and feathers—appeared I fell to my knees gasping with awe. I was so into it that, eventually, the show’s director, Sister Mary Kenneth, who I had a big crush on, had to silence me with a finger raised to her lips.

Another kid might have been discouraged but my intention to become an actor started there at the age of five and by nine I was declaring it daily.

 

My mum, Giovanna's, great displays of affection

She was Italian and life in our family revolved around food, love and guilt. She was absolutely operatic in so many things—the way she cooked, for example, and especially the way that she showered me with love. She was constantly kissing, hugging and squeezing me and other people, too. 

I loved it, of course—except when I was a teenager—when it became a bit embarrassing.  But I inherited the tendency to show love in the same way when I became a parent myself. 

 

My dad, Esteban, was Spanish

He came to England as a refugee from the Civil War and joined the British army’s pioneer corps. My mum lived through the Second World War in Italy and immigrated shortly after.

I grew up speaking three languages that I still use today, with varying degrees of competence. 

 

It was a double life

On the one hand, I was surrounded by so many Latin influences—the emotional expressiveness, the food, the smells, the music. But they were tempered by the other part of me that was quite reserved and English.

As a kid, I didn’t want to stand out in the crowd, but the truth was that my life at home was different to my friends’ lives and I think they were quite intrigued by that.

 

My first communion

All the other kids in my class were dressed in shorts and blazers, but in Italy and Spain a sailor suit is traditional and my mum had one made for me and shipped over. I was tall for a seven-year-old and there’s a picture of me standing head and shoulders above these cool West Indian and Irish kids dressed in a f***g sailor suit… like something out of Anchors Aweigh!

No wonder I became an actor.

 

My parents separated when I was three

It was difficult because my brother and I got split up too. I stayed with my mum and my brother went with my dad—something that would never happen today. But it was the 60s and people didn’t think so much about the welfare of children.

So, I spent a great deal of time on my own in my teens and I retreated into my imagination where I could be anybody. I became an actor in my head, playing to an audience of one.

 

There was no hint of the artistic gene in my family

I can’t even say I had an uncle who was a clown and ran away to the circus.

My mother, massaging English in the way that she always did, used to claim I was artistic because her own father was ‘a sculptor’. But it turned out that, actually, he was a stone mason! 

 

My father didn't get my desire to be an actor

He worked in catering—as a waiter, bar tender and restaurant manager—and for him it was all about paying your bills and providing for your family, like a real man. He considered actors to be homosexual, drug addicts and he thought it wasn’t a career for a bloke. I filled in as a waiter myself after the Guild Hall and was even offered the chance to train as an assistant manager.

When I told my dad I’d turned it down in favour of a small part in a fringe play he gave me the kind of look that he reserved for the lost and the mad.

 

I regret falling out with my dad towards the end of his life

He had remarried and, after his death, his second wife showed me a huge suitcase full of photos and clippings and copies of reviews of everything that I had been in.

It was upsetting because I had never known he was proud of me and I would have loved to have the conversation with him.

 

My mum cam to see everything I was ever in

And, boy, did she see me in some s**t! But she would always turn up in her best fake fur coat and pearls.

She would come back stage and say, “Freddo—that’s the best thing you ever did.” And I learned from her that when one of your kids is trying their hardest it’s not the best time to offer them the benefit of your critique. 

 

My mum died at the age of 56

She was overweight and she smoked and drank and never exercised and the last 10 years of her life she reeled from one illness to the other. I think she he had never got over the divorce and carried on loving my dad till the day she died.

Sadly, I wasn’t at her bedside, but apparently, she left the earth telling a joke, which she didn’t finish. So right at the end, her timing was really bad.

 

Becoming a teacher myself a few years ago

And being asked to work with students at places like UCLA in California and Julliard in New York is a total privilege. 

There’s nothing as rewarding as working with young students. Their passion reminds me of why I wanted to be an actor in the first place and, despite the cliché, you learn as much from them as they ever do from you.

 

Steven Spielberg saved my bacon

It was 1982 and my daughter, Rachel was about to be born. We were broke. I was working in a play at The Theatre Royal Stratford East, earning nothing. Then, suddenly, I was offered a two-week stint playing Satipo, one of Indiana Jones's dodgy Peruvian guides on Raiders of the Lost Ark, for which I received an astonishing amount of money.

Not only did it introduce me to the world of film making, which I’ve been in love with ever since, and provide me with some real professional kudos, it was also, financially, a gift from heaven.

We were able to buy cots and strollers and nappies and all the stuff we needed for our baby. 

 

Being able to thank Steven personally

I bumped into him a couple of years ago at a big awards do. I was there to present a gong to Tom Stoppard. I was waiting in the wings and, in front of me, was a guy looking at a piece of paper and muttering to himself, practising his speech. I saw it was Steven.

I tapped him on the shoulder and said. ‘Hi! Alfred.. Remember me?  I may never get this opportunity again, but I wanted to thank you personally for Raiders of the Lost Ark. You saved my arse!’ And he said, ‘I had no idea! That’s fantastic. So glad I could help.’

 

My first play in New York

It was an off Broadway production of Brian Friel's Molly Sweeney which won an award for being the outstanding play of the 1996 season. For me, the highlight was working with Jason Robards who had always been a hero of mine and became like the uncle of my dreams.

He was such a warm and welcoming guy and I called him 'Guvnor'. We were talking once about the British honours system and he was intrigued. I said if you’d been English they’d have given you a knighthood. He said, “Yeah. Sir Jason Robards. I like that!”

 

Becoming a father and grandfather has been a pure joy

I don’t think I’d win any prizes as the greatest dad on earth and I wish I’d been there more, but some of the happiest moments of my life have revolved around Rachel, from the moment I first held her in her arms, to now. 

I take a lot of pride in Rachel’s achievements as a photographer and as a mother to my grandchildren, Layla, 12 and Alfie 9—named after me. Needless to say, I’m besotted by them both. 

 

My relationship with Rachel's lovely mum didn't work out, romantically

We were young and we had only been together for a couple of years when we became parents, but we were determined to both remain involved in raising our daughter and we have remained good friends. 

 

Meeting my wife Jill Gascoine in 1982

We were starring together in the West End musical, Destry Rides Again and it was a coup de foudre.

There was a big age gap (Jill was 16 years older than me) which seemed to matter to the press, but not to us.

We fell in love and Jill remained my anchor and the better part of me until she was diagnosed with dementia a few years ago.

 

As a family, we found it hard to cope with Jill's condition

But all of us, including her sons—my stepsons—Adam and Sean, have made our peace with it now. Jill is in a home in LA and being well looked after and because she is now passed the stage of railing against what’s happening to her, she seems somehow at peace in her own twilight world.

The sadness for us revolves around the loss of someone who was so funny and wise and philosophical about life. Jill was absolutely the beating heart of our family. But we have all supported each other and her sons, who have lost the mother they admired and loved so much, amaze me every day with the way that they deal with it. It’s how Jill raised them and it would make her proud.

 

 

Read the full feature in the December issue of Reader's Digest

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