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For his first feature film following the end of production on the Twilight franchise, Taylor Lautner has found himself some seriously great co-stars. Just yesterday I posted my interview with Sigourney Weaver, who play’s Lautner’s character’s therapist, and today I have my one-on-one interview with Alfred Molina to share with all of you.
Sitting down with the veteran actor, I took the opportunity to talk about the process that he goes through when selecting the projects he works on, his preference for working quickly and the contrast between working on television and in the movies. Also, with 2011 being the 30th anniversary of Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, I asked Molina what is reflections are on the classic movie. Check it out!
When it comes to veteran actors, I’m always curious about the script selection process. How do you decide what projects to do and when reading a script do you focus on the script as a whole or just the character you might play?
Well that’s an interesting question. I think the way I read a script now is probably the same as ever. Although a certain amount of experience and a certain amount of knowledge helps you to read a script in a bit more detail. When I was a young actor first working on films I would read film scripts as if they were plays. It was always a frustrating and dispiriting experience because it’s films, it’s not a play. It’s completely different. It would be a bit like reading a film script like it was a novel. It doesn’t work. You have to read it in a particular way, you have to understand cuts and why we’re going from one place to another. And so you start reading them and I think I’m a bit reading them now than, say, 30 years ago. But the joy, what gets you excited about a script is still the same: good story, good dialogue, things that literally make you want to turn the page. You want to get into it. So all of those things are just the same.
But the second half of your question is interesting because I’ve developed a way of reading scripts now where I basically try and read them twice. The first time is just to read them as a general, just read it as a script. The second time I just read the scenes that my character is in to see how the character develops from the beginning to the end, to work out the track. And I love this little trick when I was in drama school that one of our teachers gave us, and he applied this to play scripts, theater scripts. It’s an old Stanislavski or Strasberg, I’m not sure, but you write two lists: a list of all the things your character says about himself, and then you write a list of all the things that other characters say about you. And I remember him saying that the more contradictory those, and the more inconsistent those lists are, the better it is. If, say, your character says, “Oh, I’m really a quiet person; I’m really quite shy,” and someone else says, “Oh! He’s crazy! He’s a madman! He’s an animal!” Now, that might seem like a contradiction, but that’s where the drama is. That’s where the juice is.
Absolutely! There’s a bit of detective work that has to go on, but it’s fun. It’s the fun part of the job. I quite enjoy reading scripts. The only time that it’s not enjoyable is when the writing or the plotting or the structure is so predictable that you’re way ahead of the story. Or that there’s just no life in it. The dialogue might be a bit pedantic or dull or obvious or the choices that the writer’s making are so kind of ordinary. Sometimes scripts are very hard to read. Sometimes they’re very obtuse or sometimes structure is confusing, but I always try to persevere because that often means, not always, but often means that there’s something else going on.
And the other thing, of course, about reading a film script, and this is why it’s quite a skill and it’s not one that I’ve conquered yet, but you’ve got to think visually. When you’re reading a play or a book, somehow that’s all about the words, it’s all about the language. But film is not. Film is about the visual image. So you read just as much into “Fade in – a large expansive desert. The sun slowly rising, the heat shimmering. We see a lone figure.” Maybe the only dialogue in that scene is the figure saying something like, “Hey, how you doing?” [laughs] Do you know what I mean? Now you might read that and kind of go, “There’s not much going on here.” But you have to find a way of visualizing the description of where of where we are. Get a sense of what the writer is trying to convey.
And that took me a while to learn that. It took me a while of reading scripts before I finally got that. And it was actually another actor who told me. Because I remember saying, “God, I don’t think much of this script,” and he was like, “What do you mean? It’s a great script!” “Well, yeah, but it’s just sort of boring.” And he said, “Yeah, but look at the pictures! The pictures are fantastic!” And I didn’t get what he meant. And so I went and looked at it again and, of course… then what I started doing is I started reading the stage directions, as it were, the descriptions. I started reading those aloud. There’s a skill to it. I have a friend who was a script reader. For years and years and years that’s what she did, she worked for HBO and Showtime and that was her job. She read scripts. And she got paid quite well too if I remember right. And she would read scripts and then write these little reports on character and plotting and so on. She was a creative writing major at university. Bright woman. And she would read scripts and she had a real skill for it because she could completely visualize these moments. And the moments in the scene where the writer has described what the audience is going to see. That’s a skill.
Well, I have to say, to my shame, I have to say there have been occasions where I’ve gotten a third of the way through a script and it’s been so impenetrable or so boring that I’ve just left it. The reason I say I’m ashamed to say is because usually it’s a failing of mine and not a failing of the script. One of the films that I’m most proud of, the first draft of the script I actually through across the room because I thought it was so…
What was it?
Well, I’m not going to say [laughs]. I don’t want to offend anybody. But the director told me off. Actually, it wasn’t the director originally, it was one of the actors who was also producing. And I said, “This is terrible!” And he said, “Read it again. Read it again. You’re going to make a terrible mistake if you turn this down.” “Yeah, but the script is so bor…” “Read it again.” And I did and I went, “Oh yeah.” And I’m glad because it was a good little script, it was a really nice story, very funny. A little film I made back in England years ago. But my first reaction was, “Oh, this is rubbish!” And I literally threw it across the room! And I was so embarrassed, because, at that time, I hadn’t learned that knack of reading.
You also have a wealth of experience in television, so is there a different approach to those scripts?
It’s kind of the same thing. Screen work always boils down to that moment between the camera and the actor or the actors. It always boils down to that ultimately. You serve the camera. The only difference I’ve found with film and television is that, I mean there are a few technical things – the scripts are made out slightly differently – in television scenes tend to be more dialogue heavy, and also the time you’ve got to work on it. You’re working on it at a bit of a clip on. Ultimately the gig is the same.
To talk more about speed, I know John Singleton worked quickly on the production of this film and usually only had between two to four takes.
Yeah, he worked fast.
I love working fast. I don’t relish the director who wants to do 25 to 30 takes, or the actors who insist on doing 25 or 30 takes. I can do without that. But I love working fast because I think the longer you work on a scene, the longer the takes, the more takes there are, I think I reach the point where it becomes a game of diminishing returns.
Line recital as opposed to performance.
Basically, yeah. Some actors take longer, maybe. I’ve worked with actors who treat the first two takes like rehearsals. And that’s okay. If the camera is on you and we’re doing a scene where I’m off camera, I’m treating that as a rehearsal. I’m working things out for myself as well. So that’s not a bad thing, but I think when it comes to Take 15 or Take 20…you know what? There’s a finite number of times you can pick up a cup of coffee, take a sip and say, “I’m leaving you.” [laughs] Do you know what I mean? In the end, that’s often a sign that no one knows what they want.
I know I’m running out of time, but I would be remiss if I didn’t ask: this year is the 30th anniversary of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Is it really? Is it this year?
Good lord, yes, of course it is.
I’m curious about your reflections on the film.
Well, it was my first film. I knew nothing about movies when I made that. My overriding memory is that that movie, thirty years ago, was cutting edge technology. It really was cutting edge technology. When I compare it to what’s available now, it looks positively…the movie doesn’t look [laughs], the technology that we had seems, now, positively Neanderthal - compared to what’s available now. At the time we were absolutely…this movie was like “The Business.” And it still stands up beautifully! I’m always citing that scene shot from above when Harrison [Ford] is lowering himself into the snake pit. Those were real snakes! And when he let go of the rope he landed in a sand pit and those were real snakes separated only by an invisible pane of glass. Nowadays it would just be green screen.
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