Culture Trips

‘My father thought actors were one step above cat burglars!’: Alfred Molina meets David Oyelowo | Stage

David Oyelowo and Alfred Molina have been friends since they appeared together on screen in As You Like It directed by Kenneth Branagh in 2006. Molina now has a role in Oyelowo’s directorial debut, The Water Man, for Netflix. They swap stories about their stints with the Royal Shakespeare Company, explain what they have missed during theatres’ closure and, to start, remember when they first fell in love with the stage.

David Oyelowo: As a kid on a council estate, Shakespeare felt like something for other people. Then I saw Robert Lepage’s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the National Theatre when I was a teenager. Timothy Spall was Bottom, a Cirque du Soleil contortionist was Puck. We were in the nosebleed seats but I understood everything about the play. I thought: this is what I want to do. It was a fizzing feeling.

Alfred Molina: My mother says I was nine when I told her I wanted to be an actor. I can’t believe I knew what the heck I was talking about. At secondary school, a teacher started a drama club: we’d do improv games and mask work. I didn’t see any Shakespeare until I was well into my teens. When I saw Anthony Hopkins in Thomas Heywood’s A Woman Killed With Kindness at the Old Vic, I thought: maybe I can do this. Not that I could be as good as that, but he looked like someone I might know – a burly guy who could have walked in from the street. Like you, I heard the play and fell in love. I think I fell in love with Anthony Hopkins!

DO: Easily done.

AM: Haven’t we all? Any actor will have a similar moment. It hits you the way love hits you.

Chris Wiegand: How achievable did an acting career seem?

DO: Fred and I didn’t come from privilege. We didn’t come from …

AM: We didn’t come from English people!

DO: We’re children of immigrants. We didn’t come from Oxbridge or from families of actors. In my family, a proper job was a proper job. After I’d seen A Midsummer Night’s Dream I fell in love with my pastor’s daughter. She worked the overhead projector in church. I never listened to a single sermon – I was obsessed with her. She invited me to the theatre. I thought it was a date! We went through the National’s stage door and into this room with all these young people making noises. I thought she had taken me to a cult! I was thrust into this circle where they were doing improv exercises. I was disastrous but I kept going. One day there was a tube strike and I was asked to read in place of actors who couldn’t make it. I thought I’d made a fool of myself but I was cast as the lead in this group’s production. There was a series of people who believed in me despite where I was from. I didn’t have that many black actors as role models – I had Denzel Washington, Sidney Poitier, but not really in the British acting fraternity. My path was circuitous and unexpected.

AM: My father thought actors were one social step above cat burglars. He didn’t trust them, let alone take them seriously. My parents were immigrants from southern Europe. I remember doing a play and having a little complaint about it to my dad over dinner. He suddenly stopped and said: “Are they paying you for this job?” I said yes, of course. And he said: “Well, shut up.”

David Oyelowo with Bryce Dallas Howard and Alfred Molina in the 2006 film As You Like It.
David Oyelowo with Bryce Dallas Howard and Alfred Molina in the 2006 film As You Like It. Photograph: Everett/REX/Shutterstock

DO: I’m with your dad. I am flabbergasted by what I get to do for a living. You realise why we call them plays – you get to go and play. And you make a living from playing. I was in London this month, filming a murder mystery set in the theatre world in the 1950s. We shot in a theatre for days on end. These were actors who hadn’t been in a play or even seen a play for a year. We were all on stage and the crew were watching us from the audience. Just for a moment it felt like doing a play.

AM: How many bows did you get?

DO: I took the bows regardless. I didn’t care if anyone was clapping. A year’s worth of bows.

AM: I did a production of Florian Zeller’s The Father in Los Angeles that ended in March last year. I went back to that theatre, the Pasadena Playhouse, a week ago. I peered in and it felt like a whole new world I knew nothing about. We’ve all been missing theatre.

DO: It’s a communal activity in the truest sense. There is a wonderful unspoken pact between actors and audiences: we don’t know each other but we’re going on a journey together. We’re going to laugh together, cry together, maybe look forward to the interval together. We sound like a pair of luvvies talking about the magic of theatre. But there is something very special about these spaces – just the sheer amount of actors who have been on those stages, the productions that have come and gone.

AM: The thing is, David and I really are a pair of luvvies.

DO: Unashamed.

AM: Let me tell my RSC story. We were doing the film of As You Like It and David had a day off. He turns up in a seriously good suit. I say: “David! Where are you off to?” He says: “The RSC.” I say: “Oh! Audition?” And he says: “No, I’m having a meeting – I am on the board.” I felt like such an idiot. My time at the RSC started in the late 70s. I was spear carrying and lantern bearing, and doing new plays by Howard Barker and others. I did the RSC tour of Taming of the Shrew in 1985. In my first couple of months at the RSC I was terrified. I was with actors I looked up to, people I’d seen in movies.

CW: You’d both been to drama school but did the RSC feel like another education?

AM: For me, it did.

DO: It was a continuation of the training. You wanted to go into rep to continue your education before being spat out into bigger roles, maybe even television. It’s different now. Everyone aspires to be on screen, to play the lead, as soon as possible. The first time I was in an RSC rehearsal, I remember an elderly gentleman who was very kind and very quick to let me know he’d been on stage with Laurence Olivier. Which of course was petrifying. There were great actors there: Frances de la Tour, Alan Bates. We all sat in a giant circle for our introduction. The director, Adrian Noble, started talking about iambic pentameter. I’d been at Lamda for three years and had never fully understood it. I heard myself say, in this giant room of amazing actors: “What is iambic pentameter?” And about two-thirds of the room leaned in for the answer! I thought: ‘OK, this is a place to learn.’ You never play King Lear or Iago or Hamlet and think you’ll just phone it in. They are mountains to climb.

CW: Do characters like Lear loom on the horizon when you’re starting out?

David Oyelowo and Daniel Craig in Othello.
David Oyelowo and Daniel Craig in Othello. Photograph: New York Theatre Workshop

AM: I’d watch older actors in those great roles and think they were something to look forward to playing. When I was younger it became very clear that I was what they used to call “a character man”. A character actor. No one was going to cast me as Romeo or Hamlet but, maybe one day, Claudius. I might not play the romantic lead but there are some great clowns in Shakespeare. I knew there were certain parts I might as well focus on now. We all realise, at quite an early age, the deck of cards we’ve been dealt – what you can and can’t do, physically, emotionally. What I’ve always taken very seriously is making sure that whatever room I walk into, in terms of getting a job, that that room is appropriate for me. I saw a breakdown the other day for a play with three actors. The descriptions were young man, older man, old man. I’m reading, thinking: what exactly is older?

DO: I hadn’t seen a bunch of Shakespeare or theatre. There weren’t Oliviers and Gielguds who looked like me. So much of this felt like it wasn’t at my disposal – along racial, cultural and class lines – so I didn’t have time to aspire. I was on the way to give my few lines as Decretas in the RSC’s Antony and Cleopatra in 1999 when my agent called up and said they wanted to see me for Henry VI. I asked what part and he said: Henry VI. I said: “Yes, but what part?” and the line broke up. So I got to the RSC and I do the same thing: “What part in Henry VI?” Then it finally dawned on me it was the lead role. But at that time I didn’t even know there was a play called Henry VI.

AM: Let alone that there’s three of them!

DO: So I grab the complete works and flick through them: part one, part two, part three. I didn’t know the plays. I was in Antony and Cleopatra, I knew there was a play called Romeo and Juliet and I knew Othello because it had a black guy in it. But the canon wasn’t something I delved into.

AM: It was revolutionary and historic that you played Henry VI – a young black actor with none of the connections of class or history.

Alfred Molina in Speed-the-Plow in 1989.
Alfred Molina in Speed-the-Plow in 1989. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

DO: You don’t go into these things thinking highfalutin thoughts, you just try to get the role right. But one of the things I love about telling stories is how there can be cultural ramifications that are unexpected. And they can really impact on how people perceive themselves and others. I never knew that playing Dr King in Selma in 2014 would be part of a movement, #OscarsSoWhite. There is something so important about the mirror that storytelling holds up to society.

CW: Do you have routines you stick to in the theatre?

AM: I don’t consider myself superstitious but there is something comforting about a habit you get into before performing. I run lines under my breath to get that motor going. I’ve known actors who do an hour of yoga before. Other actors warm up by telling stories in the green room. I did Art, the three-hander, on Broadway in 1998. We’d congregate in a dressing room beforehand and chat about the day we’d had. We were playing three close friends so that was part of getting into the groove.

DO: Routines become a way to manage nervous energy. It is completely counterintuitive to walk on to a stage in front of all these people with three hours’ worth of lines in your head and to be relaxed in that situation. The last production I did was Othello in New York with Daniel Craig in 2016. Neither of us had been on stage for a while. The first scene was done entirely in the dark. When the lights came on, I couldn’t remember my name let alone Othello’s lines. It was terrifying but exhilarating.

AM: You allow yourself to be completely comfortable in a room full of strangers who are going to judge you in a moment on something you’ve been working towards for months. I’ve known actors whose sole warmup was standing backstage and listening to the audience. They’re feeling the energy and calibrating themselves. We’re constantly adapting to the audience’s energy. I did David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow at the National in 1989. One character has a long speech, there’s a beat, and then the other character in one line completely dismisses it. It was a pause that you needed to ride to get the laugh line. Every night Colin Stinton and I would play this moment. It didn’t work every time but when it did, it was like we were on drugs.

The Water Man will be available on Netflix this year

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