John Lithgow and Alfred Molina’s heartbreaking, complex and perhaps even career-defining performances in Ira Sachs’ “Love Is Strange” have been a major talking point of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival thus far.
As Ben (Lithgow) and George (Molina), the two portray an aging gay couple who — after finally getting the chance to tie the knot after 39 years together — run into serious financial troubles when George is fired from his job at a Catholic private school when word gets out about his nuptials. This evolves into a nuanced, beautiful portrait of not only their love but the love of the many friends and family members around them, with Lithgow and Molina providing the centerpiece of an impressive ensemble (that includes Marisa Tomei and Cheyenne Jackson).Though as wonderful as it is to watch the pair’s seemingly effortless chemistry on screen, it somehow doesn’t quite compare to witnessing it in person.
In an interview the day after “Love Is Strange” made its world premiere at Sundance, it was immediately clear that Lithgow and Molina have a rather remarkable chemistry in real life as well (albeit, yes, a platonic one). Constantly finishing each other’s sentences and making each other laugh, witnessing their mutual affection for one another just made their work in “Love Is Strange” seem all the more endearing.
(To Molina only, as Lithgow is still finishing another interview): So while we wait for John, why don’t you talk about how you got involved in the project?
Alfred Molina: I got sent the script from my reps — who also represent Ira Sachs. They said “we have this script and we think it might be right up your street.” And I read it and I loved it. I got to page 20 and I was already phoning up saying I want to do this. And then — as often happens with independent films — it suddenly went terribly quiet. The trail went very cold and I didn’t hear anything for weeks. So I thought “oh well, maybe they didn’t raise the money,” which happens all the time on independent films. But then a week later, I got a phone call from Ira saying they had the money together and that John Lithgow is interested in doing the other part. And I’ve known John for years — we’re friends — so that totally sold me. And the fact that we are friends has helped a great deal, I think. We just felt so relaxed and easy and at home with each other. So we had a lot of fun making it.
Was last night the first time you saw it with an audience?
AM: Yes. First time with an audience and first time I’d seen the finished version. About two weeks ago, I saw a cut. It wasn’t completed, and I was just sitting on my own, so I was watching it from a very subjective point of view. But last night, watching it an audience, I suddenly realized how delightful and how wonderfully funny it is. There’s some great humor, which is really important. When you’re watching it on your own, you don’t appreciate that. It was great. It was a very sympathetic and warm audience, and that’s really what happens here. Sundance is a very welcoming environment. Ira’s been a regular here of years.
I was at that first screening, and actually watched it next to a gay couple who must have been in their 70s. They were holding hands and tearing up, which was just really, really lovely.
AM: Awww… [John Lithgow approaches to join the interview, and Molina turns to him]. John, you got to hear this. Peter, tell him what you just told me.
I was just telling him how last night when I was watching the film I was sitting next to an older gay couple who clearly were having an intensely emotional response to the film.
John Lithgow: Oh, my! And we’ve been experiencing that over and over again these last two days. Were you at the premiere?
JL: Did you hear that man that spoke about how much the film meant? Was he a part of that couple?
No, that was actually a different couple! But they were lovely too.
JL: Well, we met them at the party afterwards and it was the same experience. Together for 31 years.
AM: It’s very satisfying when that happens.
Well, you don’t see these characters depicted anywhere very often. And who they represent are people that are clearly excited to see themselves on screen, especially when it’s such a good movie.
JL: You know, the primary location in the film — the apartment that Alfred and I lose — that is an apartment in Jackson Heights, Queens that belongs to a gay couple in their 70s who have been together all these years. Great theatre fans. They’d seen both Alfred and I on stage. They brought out programs for us to sign of this we’d done.
AM: They brought out a Playbill of a play that John was in…
JL: In 1973!
AM: He couldn’t even remember doing it! [both laugh]
JL: They’d lived this kind of quiet, inconspicuous life. And suppose they’d gotten married. Now, I don’t know whether they have or not now…
AM: I’m not sure.
JL: But they were Ben and George.
AM: It was fantastic.
So let’s go back a bit… I’m very curious how you two met.
AM: I can’t remember, actually.
JL: I definitely remember.
AM: Was it backstage somewhere?
JL: It was on the red carpet of the Tony Awards.
AM: That’s right.
JL: Some year both of us were doing theater. It was just in line, shaking hands and hugging, and then I think we were at a couple of galas and benefits. But then we lost a very dear mutual friend, the actress Ileen Getz, and both of us hung around the waiting room of her hospital, days before her death. And that’s when we became pretty good friends. But we really did not know each that well going into this.
AM: Just enough to wave across a crowded restaurant. “Hey John!”
JL: But we knew the film was going to be great. Because we liked each other. But now we love each other.
AM: And it’s amazing how useful that is. People have been asking me this all day, and I say that it’s half the job, in a way. Actors have to create a sort of instant intimacy — and they have to make it up, to a certain extent. You can’t get to know someone really well over days or weeks. You have to create this intimacy, which is why actors of course end up sort of spilling the beans with each other all the time. It’s like “Strangers on a Train.” A great shortcut to get to know someone is say, you know, “I had an affair with your cousin.” [both of them break out into laughs]
JL: I’ve never used that line!
AM: I’m being facetious, but you know what I’m saying. But, when you actually do have a friendship that’s just there, you don’t have to worry about any of that. It just happens. And it made it so easy. But I guess I can’t speak for John…
JL: I really don’t think I can remember any experience like this, where I felt this in tune with another actor in two major roles that create the central relationship of the film. And god knows I’ve had fantastic experiences with all manner of actors. But this was special. And it’s kicked up a notch by these last 48 hours. Realizing that the film — sure enough — is really moving people.
AM: We could have all this fun, and all this delight in a movie that no one would ever see. God knows that’s happened to both of us.
JL: In which case, we’d probably hate each other and blame each other [laughs]. We certainly wouldn’t be having this nice kumbaya.
This all certainly translates on screen. The intimacy between your characters is pretty remarkable. That scene towards the end at the bar just floored me…
JL: We shot that scene on the second to last day of shooting. That was a wonderful thing because we had accumulated this wonderful, critical mass of experience. I only had 16 shooting days on the film, so that was my 15th. And by that time, Fred had made me piss my pants laughing about ten times. He’s such a funny man. He tells these jokes where I literally have to tell him to stop talking or I will throw up.
AM: You can take that one of two ways…
JL: And in the middle of these incredible laughing jags, I said we’ve got to find a moment to inject this into our relationship. We’ve got to see how much joy they take in each other, and how much humor they share. And we did, in that scene.
It’s a hilarious scene.
JL: It’s hilarious, and it’s just so true.
So maybe talk a bit about working with Ira, and what you appreciate from him as a filmmaker.
AM: What I got really struck by when I watched it last night — and I hadn’t quite appreciated it the first time I saw it because the first time I was just so obsessed with, you know, “where did I fuck up?”
JL: Or “have I really put on that weight?”
AM: “Do I really have that many chins?”
JL: “Have I really lost that much hair? And it’s white… I thought it was grey!” [laughs]
AM: But last night — because there was an audience there — I suddenly realized the timing. Ira’s sense of timing and pacing and the way he sort of…
AM: It’s beautiful.
You’ve both played LGBT characters before, and both in the early to mid-1980s — John, in “The World According To Garp” and Alfred in “Prick Up Your Ears,” both amazing films. But now, roughly 30 years later, you’re playing LGBT characters who live in such a remarkably more progressive world than the characters in those films. I mean, Ben and George are married. And I suspect the press you’ve been doing hasn’t — at least I hope — involved questions like “what was it like to kiss each other,” and so forth.
AM: Yes, absolutely. Because “Prick Up Your Ears” was 1985 and it was one of two big, major gay themed movies that came out around that time, both by the same director, oddly enough.
AM: Yes, with “Prick Up Your Ears” and “My Beautiful Laundrette.” But there was this obsession with the sex — which, if you look at the movies, there’s not a lot of. There’s a bit more in “My Beautiful Laundrette,” because it’s youngsters. In “Prick Up Your Ears,” there’s some kissing, there’s some hugging. There’s nothing hardcore. But the obsession with that! In those days, everyone was completely pre-occupied with the question of “what was it like to be a straight actor in a gay role?” As if you were somehow running the risk of becoming infected.
JL: Exactly. Let me tell you an amazing story it only occurred to me today that I might share. I’ve never told anybody this out of respect for my good friend Jeff Goldblum. But I was asked to play “The Fly” and I turned it down. And a few months before that, I had been asked to do a film adaptation of a gay themed play, “As If,” which was about the first flowerings of the AIDS crisis. I ended up not doing that because I wasn’t available. But my agent wanted me to do “The Fly” and I didn’t want to do it. I just finished another project, and I was exhausted and I found it such an icky story. I told my agent I just didn’t want to play something so grotesque. And he said, “let me just put it this way, I’d rather see you play a fly than a homosexual.” This was in 1986! Can you imagine?
AM: Because the preoccupation then about straight actors playing gay roles or you being a fly rather than a gay man… It was all code for the whole AIDS crisis. Anything to do with being gay, you were dangerous. Even on the set of “Prick Up Your Ears,” there’s a scene where Gary Oldman takes me to this flat and he starts making out with this complete stranger. And he says to me, “kiss him.” That was part of his thing, he wanted to see us kissing. So we start kissing, and even then — because the actor who was playing the stranger was, is gay — members of the crew said to me “aren’t you a bit worried about the kissing scene?” It’s as if somehow by definition he had it, and I’d catch it. And that’s the big change. I can still remember that from those days and now… No serious journalist could ask “so you’re a straight actor, what’s it like playing a gay character?” It’d be like saying to gay actor whether you can handle being straight. It’s ridiculous.