In “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” British actor Alfred Molina stars as Maxim Horvath, a sinister magician who has a long, tumultuous history with sorcerer Balthazar (Nicholas Cage) that goes back over a thousand years. During their encounter in “Apprentice,” both men are trying to get their hands on a relic, which imprisons an evil sorceress who could end the world if she is released.
Molina, 57, who was born in London to a Spanish father and Italian mother, has starred in such films as “Frida,” “Spider-Man 2,” “Nothing Like the Holidays,” and “An Education.” During an interview with me, he talked about what type of magic intrigues him and why playing the bad guy offers actors more freedom in their role.
We’ve seen you play the antagonist before in films like “Spider-Man 2” and “Prince of Persia.” What led you to the villainous role of Horvath in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice?”
You mean besides the money? (Laughs) Well, it’s just a great part. It’s always a lot of fun to play these parts that are sort of larger than life. I remember years ago [actor] Bob Hoskins said that the great thing about playing villains is that you work for half the amount of time the leading man works, you get treated like the crown jewels, and if the movie is not any good nobody blames you. It’s a perfect gig, really.
I think a misconception about you as an actor is that you usually star in more thespian roles. Is it important for you as an actor to be able to go from something like “An Education” to films like “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice?”
Well, if I said it was important, it makes it sound like there is some kind of plan that has been exercised. The truth is I’ve just been very fortunate that these different ranges in roles have come my way. “An Education” happened and then “Prince of Persia” and now this. In my next job I play a CIA operative in a political thriller. It’s been my good fortune for these parts to come up rather than any game plan I’ve had.
Did you ever believe in magic when you were a child?
I think like most kids I was always intrigued by magicians and their clever tricks. I was never impressed by card tricks or anything like that. When I was a kid there were a lot of variety shows on TV and there was always a magician on the bill. I did quite enjoy all that stuff.
Would you say you’re more of a fan of Harry Houdini or David Copperfield or maybe more modern magicians like David Blaine or Chris Angel?
I’ve never seen either of those gentlemen before so I don’t quite know what they do. I was always rather impressive with someone who could tie himself up in chains and seal himself up in a box that is dropped 20 feet under water and then magically get out. There is something rather intriguing about that. I think the reason magicians are always so popular is that there is a point where we are confounded by it. We are amazing by anything out of our own sense of what is logical. I’m sure there is trickery to it and an indefinable science and logic to it, but the enjoyment is seeing [a magician] turn that into something entertaining.
Are there any magic tricks you can do that would surprise us?
Well, I’m very good at making money disappear. (Laughs) Somebody asked me once, “Is there any magical power that you would like to have?” I said, “I would love to make people disappear.” They didn’t think that sounded very nice, but we’ve all felt that at some point in our life. It would be quite a nice power to have if you have someone annoying and bothering you. You could make them disappear for five minutes and bring them back.
Nicholas Cage said in an interview that you bring this “bliss of evil” to the film. Is there anything special that you have to do to prepare yourself for a darker and more menacing role than most?
Well, it’s like any role. You work out what’s required and then use your imagination. The great thing about these roles is that the actor is being hired in order to use his or her imagination in as much of an interesting and unusual way as possible. There was a lot of room for invention in this film. Also, when you play the bad guy you have so much more freedom. When I play the bad guy I’ve never had a director ask me to tone it down or make it smaller. Scenery chewing is approved.
Is there any added pressure on the cast and crew because the idea is loosely based on the Disney classic “Fantasia,” which is an animation many people hold close to their hearts?
I think the film pays a respectful tribute to the original genesis of it. Essentially, the film more so owes a great deal to the Arthurian legends of Merlin and Morgana le Fay. It’s not really a rehash of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” It’s a really fresh, vibrant take for all audiences.
Movies that center on magic like the “Harry Potter” franchise have been criticized by conservatives for promoting witchcraft. Do you think we’re living in a time where people are being a bit oversensitive about things coming out of the entertainment industry or are these valid concerns parents should have?
I think it’s always been that way. I think if you go back in history you’ll see that. “Gone with the Wind” was criticized when it was released for being to sexually explicit. “Citizen Kane” was regarded as anti-capitalist and pro-Communist. There’s always some nutjob somewhere who is going to find something to complain about. The truth is audiences make up their own minds.
You’ve stared in two of my favorite films of all time, “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia.” What was your experience like working with someone as talented as director/writer P.T. Anderson?
He’s one of those directors that like to give the impression that they’re shooting from the hip and somehow it’s all just happening in the moment, but actually he comes to work impeccably prepared and very specific in what he wants to achieve. He’s a visionary. I can’t think of another director in his generation who has quite the same take on things – the way he bends time and space and plays with narrative. I think he has a very unique and interesting way of confounding your expectations. There is an extraordinary moment in “Punch-Drunk Love” when there is a shot of a car coming up the street and it gets hit. That scene gives a sense of where the movie might be going. He did the same with “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia.” I think he’s a fantastic director. When you and I are talking about P.T. 25 years later, I think we’ll be looking at a career the same way we look at any of the great directors in movie history.