Compared to the rest of the cast of Prince of Persia, Alfred Molina has quite a bit of experience with big budget summer blockbusters, having appeared in Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark almost thirty years ago, and he also played Doc Ock in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2. While he’s playing a much more straightforward villain for Jerry Bruckheimer’s other summer movie The Sorcerer’s Apprentice–and we interviewed him on the set of that movie as well!–back in November ’08, he talked to us about how his Prince of Persia character Sheik Amar isn’t really a villain… just misguided by his love for money and wealth. He also told us about one of the funniest scenes in the movie involving himself and an ostrich.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your character and how he fits into this universe?
Alfred Molina: Yeah, the Sheik, I suppose you could describe him as the comic relief or he’s a kind of rogue. He starts off like he’s one of the bad guys but reluctantly turns into the hero’s ally when they discover they have a mutual interest. Whereas Dastan is driven by honor and revenge and all those good things, the Sheik is basically motivated by greed, lust, and the desire to acquire gold. But they form this alliance to achieve their ends, and he kind of becomes good in the end in a way. Without sounding too grandiose about it, there is a kind of redemptive end to it that he finds he finds the better part of himself in a way. But he’s still a rogue. I mean we were playing this game on the set a few weeks ago… months ago actually when we were in Morocco. We were hanging around the set and we used to play this game where we would cast the movie as if it were being made 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago. And it’s interesting how you start thinking in terms of the actors that would have played the part before. I found it very useful, and I figured that 40 years ago in the ’60s it would have been Peter Ustinov. It’s that juicy kind of role. I don’t know if any of you know that movie “Topkapi” that he plays a Greek character who’s a villain but a rather friendly avuncular kind of bad guy. This is I think the area that the Sheik is in. He’s certainly not a villain in the dark art arena. That’s not the universe we’re in. He’s a much more practical, much more low-rent, and he operates on a much smaller scale. There’s a scene when he makes it perfectly clear that really all he’s interested in is the gold, the money, what he can make out of the situation. He thinks very short-term, that’s the kind of guy he is.
Q: At what point do you enter the story? Are you someone Jake meets along the way and then becomes part of his journey?
Molina: Yeah, what happens is that Dastan basically encroaches on my turf, and I wanna know who he is, and he gets away from me but then we recapture him. Then he thinks he’s in disguise but I actually let him know that I actually know who he is. He doesn’t think of it in terms of a long-term advantage. He just thinks about getting money, and the dagger which means one thing to Dastan and Tamina and means a completely other thing to me. At one point… (to the publicist) Can I quote a line from the script, is that allowed? We take the knife from Dastan, which of course is crucial to him as you know, and Seso looks at it and goes, “Oh, nice knife.” I take it off him and I just throw it to one of my minions and say I’ll just melt it down for the jewels. That’s the level that I operate at, so when Dastan is going through his various adventures to get to his primary objective I’m actually running alongside, also trying to get the dagger in a sense but for completely different reasons.
Q: Are you familiar with or inspired by the game at all?
Molina: I know nothing about the game, although my stepson who works for a company that makes games and I told him, “I’m going off, I’m not going to be here for your birthday, I’m going off to start working on a film in London.” “Oh what you doing?” “Prince of Persia.” “Prince of Persia?!?! F*cking hell, that’s fantastic!” ‘Cause he’s a gamer and he works for a company that makes games and he told all the guys that work in his department and they were all just really excited about it. “Oh, they’re finally gonna do it!” Apparently there’s been talk about this becoming a movie for years apparently for all I know, and he was like really excited, but my generation, it kind of skipped us by. I feel a bit weird going into a store and saying (putting on a funny voice) “Oh hello, I’d like to buy the ‘Prince of Persia’ game, please. Oh, can you show me how it’s done?” (laughs) I feel a bit sort of self-conscious about doing that.
Q: Do you have a particular weapon?
Molina: No, I don’t. Fortunately my character is an absolute coward. Although I’m involved in one big fight scene, my character basically hides behind other people or bits of furniture. He’s not a… what’s the word? He’s not a warrior. He’s a schemer. He’s a second-hand car salesman and quite a corrupt one at that. In a way, that’s where the comedy comes in is that the character – I’m making him sound completely sleazy but there’s a lot of joy and a lot of fun in the sleaziness in that he’s very smart. He has the most refined and the most highly-developed sense of survival of any character in the movie. Every other character in the movie is willing to sacrifice everything and my character definitely is not. He would regard that kind of valor as completely pointless. I do a bit of screaming and running around with a sword but my main guy is Seson, the character that Steve Toussaint plays. There’s a back story with his character that I at some point or other saved his life and he comes from a culture from a mindset that means that I own him. He is mine. He belongs to me. He gives himself, and he devotes himself to me because I saved his life, and he’s the warrior. He’s got these fantastic knife skills. He’s the one. He’s sort of my warrior by proxy.
Q: You talk about the backstory and Sir Ben earlier gave us his backstory…
Molina: Don’t believe a word Sir Ben says. Yeah, well he’s got that accent. You can get away with murder with that posh accent. It’s amazing. (Laughter)
Q: Is a lot of that backstory you told us going to be in the movie or is that stuff told to you just to know how your character relates to others?
Molina: Oh no, this is all… I don’t know what Ben told you, what I’m telling you is definitely it’s part of the scenario of the film because it explains the relationship, because we needed to have that there otherwise this huge gorgeous powerful-looking black guy next to this sleazy sheik you kind of think, “What’s he doing and what’s keeping him there?” He treats him so badly. You know he’s so kind of dismissive of him in many ways. Why is he giving him all his loyalty? So yes, absolutely explained, and then you discover the story goes on that this relationship which on the face of it seems sort of mercenary actually has quite some strong emotional depth because there is a friendship, there is a relationship between the two men. The Sheik is cut out in a sense to find his good side, which he discovers that he is actually rather concerned about what’s going to happen to him and is fully aware of the great sacrifice that Seso is prepared to make, so there’s a nice development in the story. It’s not one of those rather dull things that are just stuck in there to make the plot work. There’s a real organic reason for this relationship.
Q: Were you involved in the outfit of your character?
Molina: To a certain extent, yeah, but Penny (Rose, costume designer) had a very clear idea of what she wanted, and the idea that we came up with was that kind of shabby grandeur, faded grandeur. The idea was that at one time, my clothes would have been really fantastic, full of gold thread and velvet and leather. All the materials that in this world we live in are very, very expensive. At one time this coat I wear must have been gorgeous, the day I bought it or probably the day I stole it, but it’s faded. It’s the only coat I’ve got and I wear it day in and day out so it’s now starting to look pretty sh*tty and kind of worn out, but you can still see that it was once something fabulous. I love that idea he probably stole this coat from some great Wasir and then just has worn it to death. The same thing with the boots and the same thing with this thing that I’m wearing, it’s all tatty, stained. So the idea of this man (who is) avaricious for gold and greedy for material wealth and money and things that shine, he just looks like a faded shabby thing. For instance in the turban there’s a little line of gold thread. The idea is that once this was some gorgeous thing that was kind of swathed round his head, but now it’s all kind of tacky and horrible.
Q: We’ve heard that your character has a run-in with ostriches.
Molina: Yeah, well in the script it looks like quite an ordinary moment, but we discovered that ostriches–as well as being a very low fat source of protein–actually have great comic mileage. With the right direction and given the right motivation, they are very, very funny on screen. The irony was that we were constantly being told by the handlers that we had to be very, very careful around the ostriches because they were very unpredictable, they could be dangerous. You couldn’t really train an ostrich, which always made me think, “Well, how come you’re getting paid for training these ostriches if they’re ‘untrainable’?” (laughter) I’m being facetious. So we had this whole thing set up that we all had to be really careful, very respectful. Couldn’t talk to them on a Sunday. All that kind of stuff. We discovered that they’re incredibly lovely, and one of the handlers–this very nice woman Jennifer, who’s absolutely delightful woman–I noticed that whenever she was dealing with the ostriches in between shots that she was like stroking his neck. Just stroking the neck of the ostrich and keeping it calm, so I thought, “Well I’ll do the same thing. You know let the ostrich get used to.” She thought it was a good idea, so in between shots and before we started filming, I was stroking the ostrich and the ostrich is kind of getting used to the sound of my voice. We had a scene where the ostriches had a race but we weren’t anywhere near them at that point, but I had a scene where I had to get very, very close to one, and Mike Newell wanted me to whip off the hood that keeps them in the dark and keeps them still. Everyone thought, “Well, as soon as you do that, the ostrich is just gonna look for somewhere to escape.” So I thought well if I stand here and just do this maybe that’ll work. So I’m stroking the ostrich. “Action.” I take the thing off and the first take this ostrich stays absolutely still. Completely still. And it was fantastic. We do the dialogue and I’m talking to the ostrich and I’m talking, and in the scene I’m talking about how beautiful this ostrich is and how I feel so much for this ostrich. It’s the only one left of my empire of ostriches, and I’m getting rather kind of sentimental and sort of hurt and upset about this ostrich, and this beautiful thing just stayed absolutely still. Then we finished the scene and I walked out of the shot, and we all went, “Oh my god this is fantastic. All this stuff about them being terrible…” and that was the only take we got. Every take after that something went wrong. But then Mike said, “Look whatever happens, as long as it’s safe, just go along with it.” So we had maybe five or six maybe more different versions of the scene depending on what the ostrich did. In one take–I doubt if they’ll use it–the ostrich went out of shot. In another take, it looked straight into the camera. I thought that was pretty smart of the ostrich and there was one shot where I managed to get really, really close to the ostrich and so it really worked out well. I won’t tell you how close. I’ll let you see the movie. Pay your ten bucks and then you can find out how close we got.
Q: Besides the ostriches, you work with a lot of animals, so there must have been a lot of new challenges with this movie.
Molina: Well I didn’t. I only had ostriches and horses to worry about, and donkeys yeah but the only the only thing you’ve got to deal with today with the donkeys is the donkey sh*t basically. That’s the biggest problem on the set, so we didn’t have too much. A lot of the other actors who are playing other roles had a lot more riding to do than I did and a lot more stunt-like stuff to do on horses, battles and stuff like that. My involvement with the animals was really quite minimal in comparison to what they had to do. I had one scene where I had to ride, one scene where I led a horse, so I haven’t had too much to worry about.
Q: What about shooting in Morocco?
Molina: Oh, yeah, that was pretty intense. We were there in the hottest time of the year and I couldn’t understand why my hotel was empty. I kept thinking, “August, isn’t everybody in Europe on holiday in August?” and I discover, of course, they don’t go there because it’s too bloody hot. All the locals, you could see they’re all thinking, “What are you doing here?” Nobody works in August. Mad dogs and Englishmen I guess. But it was yeah it was very, very hot, but a lot of fun to work there. The company was an enthusiastic bunch, a very enthusiastic crew. Hard-working. Really good bunch of actors. It was actually a very pleasant experience from that point of view.
Q: What has been the most extraordinary moment or experience on this film so far?
Molina: I think the most extraordinary moment was watching that ostrich get it in one take, I mean that was pretty extraordinary. (laughter) No, I think the whole thing has a kind of excitement about it, there’s no getting away from it. It’s hard work and it can be very tiring and exhausting but when you work on these big films, it is a very special experience, because you’re working on a scale which is so huge that there’s nowhere else where you would do this. The film I did just before this was a tiny little independent movie shot in Chicago. It was basically a family around a table, and the biggest technical demand was we had to shoot a scene where we all had to get through a three-course dinner. And that seemed like a huge issue at the time. (laughter) But you compare that to what’s been going on here and you realize that you’re working on a scale that is unbelievably… I can only speak for myself, but I find it very, very exciting because that’s why I got into films in the first place. I mean the movie that got me excited enough to want to be a film actor was “Spartacus,” and I think about the scale of that and I watched it again recently and if you think about the scale of a film like that… in comparison looks kind of quite domestic now. Compared to what we’re capable of doing now. In it’s day, that was “Prince of Persia.” Those were the big movies, and I remember looking at that film and just thinking, “Oh, I wanna be there.” I still get that sort of excitement you know.
Q: How has working on this film compared to working on the “Spider-Man” movie?
Molina: Well, in a way it’s very similar in terms of the scale of it. It’s a big picture, it takes months to shoot. It’s certainly on a par in terms of the budget and… just the amount of work that’s involved but it has the added thing, as you can see around you, it has the added sort of richness of it being kind of set in a historical period, although we’re not completely specific as to where that is. So there’s less of an emphasis on high-tech state of the art technology and more to do with fantasy and adventure. In our universe you can you can still have just a big puff of exploding smoke and it can still be quite an exciting thing, whereas for something like Spider-Man, you’ve got to be a bit more technical you know. And we don’t have the advantage of being to explain plot points with a computer. “I’ve just discovered on so-and-so’s harddrive that blah, blah, blah.” We have to open up some big book. (laughs) “It says here in the ancient runes.” The difference is in the feel, the texture of the movie, but in terms of the resources required and the level of technical expertise required to make it in terms of just the degree of time and effort and expense, it’s certainly very much the same thing.
Q: Can you see this turning into a franchise?
Molina: Oh easily yeah. I mean it’s easy for me to say that but I think it could easily turn into a franchise, but it all depends on the audience. If the audiences loves it and the audiences go for it and want it, then I think it’s a done deal, but it’s hard to predict that. I don’t know how these things work from a producer’s point of view, but I think if you can sense there’s a groundswell of interest and enough people are saying, “Yeah, we wanna see more of this” then I suppose that would make sense. But these films are very, very big, and they’re very expensive and they take a long time to set up and you know it’s a big risk, it’s big gamble. When you look at all the successful franchises, there’s always hiccups along the way. Everyone says, “Oh Marvel, the Marvel franchise, every movie is a hit!” Well no, it’s not true. You know the Spider-Man franchise has been a hit but there are many stumbles along the way. What the criteria are to make that choice I don’t know, but certainly if the audiences love it then I’m sure there will be… I’m sure it’s something that people would want to get into, yeah.
Q: Would you be back for the next two if they do more movies?
Molina: Well I can’t say for sure, because they haven’t optioned me for anything else, but this is the first big tentpole movie where I haven’t died, so that could be a good sign. Normally I get killed off–I got killed off in “Raiders,” I got killed off in “Spider-Man.” Yeah, my luck’s gotta change.