Renowned British actor Alfred Molina admits that shooting intimate scenes in Ira Sach’s poignant drama Love is Strange, was made all the more easier given they were shared with his old friend, John Lithgow.
We sat down with the experienced actor – known primarily for his work in the likes of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Chocolat and Spider-Man 2 – alongside the director Sachs, while the former explained that knowing his co-star benefits the authenticity of the piece, which can in turn only benefit the finished product.
“John and were friends already, so we went straight into it,” he said. “I had been working around four or five days before he arrived, in the middle of a scene, and we all went, “John!” and suddenly he was there. As soon as I saw him we had a hug and a kiss and there it was – Ben and George, right there. It would have happened anyway, even if we’d been strangers – but it happened the second we saw each other.”
Sachs was quick to quiz his actor on that – wanting to know if it’s easy to portray love of this ilk, and whether Molina could have done as good a job had Lithgow not been such a close friend.
“Can you manufacture that, if you need to?” Sachs asked. “You have to. You have to.” Molina replied. “It might not be in quite the same way, but there’s kind of an implicit understanding between acting, that, we may not know each other and for all we know we may never see each other again, but if you’re in a relationship in the story, you’ve got to make it work. So you do. You assume a kind of intimacy. I used to come home and say, “I’ve just been working with so and so and I love him or her”. Somebody would say, “is that real or movie love?” It’s movie love, of course it’s movie love! I hardly know the person. I’ve got no idea who she is, but tomorrow morning I’ve got to kiss her and we’ve got to stimulate sex, so I’m going to have to be nice to her.”
“But there’s nothing remotely sexual or arousing about shooting a love scene for a movie,” he continued. “The room is full of complete strangers. There’s people doing much more interesting things than you are and you’re just going through the mechanics of it and playing a performance to make it seem authentic. This is my big thing, nothing we do as actors is real. It’s the absolutely zenith or artificiality. Our job isn’t to make it real – it’s to make it authentic. The audience know they’re watching a movie, they know they’re sitting in a room with 500 other people, but all they need is enough authenticity to suspend that disbelief and believe it for the next two hours. That’s all the trick is. So you can manufacture it – but if you know the person you’re working with, for the two people involved that’s a real boost.”
Molina and Lithgow play George and Ben, respectively, in this indelible piece of cinema, a married couple who find themselves unwittingly living apart when the former is sacked from his teaching job. In regards to trying to depict such a strong bond and a long-term relationship on screen – Molina tells us that he took inspiration from all variations of love – not just gay relationships.
“Every example of a long term relationship, whether it is a straight one or a gay one, is always useful – because ultimately falling in love, staying in love, falling out of love, finding the person to love, being found worthy of someone else’s love, it’s all the same experience, whether you’re gay or straight,” he said. “Gay men and women fall in love in exactly the same way as straight men and women do. So any experience you have of long term relationships is all helpful in creating it on screen.”
Molina also felt that the fact Ben and George are in such a lengthy, stable relationship – added something to proceedings, particularly as gay and lesbian cinema is so often about discovery, rather than connecting with characters who have been together for decades (in this instance, a 40 year relationship).
“The fact that we’re at the unusual end of the age spectrum means that this is about two men who have found themselves a long time ago,” Molina told us. “They’ve been living with this version of themselves, which has been evolving over the years – but they’ve reached a point where they are very happy. When you first meet someone, there are little idiosyncrasies about them you find endearing, and as the relationship develops over the years, those little idiosyncrasies can become irritating. Then you go another 10 or 20 years, and those idiosyncrasies are endearing again. They become part of the fabric that keeps the relationship together, or what makes it strong, and what makes the bond. Ben and George have done that, they’ve established that. So the movie is not about their relationship so much as it is about how their relationship helps them deal with this crisis.”
It was also the subtleties to Sach’s screenplay and direction which enhanced the viewer’s connection with the affable characters. With moments where it’s what not said that is the most powerful.
“There’s a scene where we’re on a date, and we’re walking down a narrow street in New York, and the shot is from the back and we’re just walking away from the camera, and we’re partners on a date, but there’s no holding hands. There’s no linking arms, there are no public demonstrations of affection. That was implied in the script, because this was a relationship which has gone through an era when that was unacceptable. It was unacceptable for two men to hold hands in the street or kiss each other. Now you see it all the time and it’s wonderful. It’s just part of the fabric of life. So they got into this habit and they can’t break it. So it’s little moments like that which are so touching and subtle. There’s an understanding of how things have changed, and of their history – and the story of the movie is all the richer for that.”
Love is Strange is a warm, tender production that will make you laugh and tug on your heartstrings simultaneously. It signals something of a change of pace for Sachs too, whose preceding endeavour Keep the Lights On was a distinctively more cold, sombre affair.
“I was happier as a person when I set out to write this film, than I was in the years depicted in Keep the Lights On,” he said. “I was happy when I made it, so I had some distance from that time, but it depicts a pretty sad time.”
Though admitting it’s all completely subjective, Sachs is aware of the affability of his two leads – which is a huge part of the film’s appeal.
“This is not a film about two people trying to understand who they are through a relationship. What I like about Ben and George is how confident they are about who they are, and that’s the same about Alfred Molina and John Lithgow and they blur on some level, and you like to be around them. People who see this film like to be around Ben and George,” he finished.