Watching a bravura Alfred Molina performance is an expected delight, whether it’s over-the-top villain Doc Ock in “Spider-Man 2” or artistic giant Diego Rivera in “Frida.”
But Molina doesn’t need an outsize role to impress; he’s one of those actors who invariably finds something fresh and compelling in every character. Case in point: TNT’s miniseries “The Company,” a recounting of the Cold War from the vantage point of CIA and KGB spies.
Molina plays U.S. espionage master Harvey Torriti, code-named The Sorcerer, who serves as mentor to idealistic young recruit Jack McAuliffe (Chris O’Donnell). Michael Keaton co-stars in “The Company,” which airs in two-hour chapters over three consecutive Sundays starting Aug. 5.
Torriti is hard-drinking and weary. He’s also a wily, dedicated professional who takes no prisoners. “Shoot him, sport,” he advises McAuliffe during a standoff with the enemy, a line that Molina delivers with canny cool.
The miniseries tracks the agents through the beginnings of the epic U.S.-U.S.S.R. struggle and landmark events including the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and the Bay of Pigs to the collapse of the Soviet Union. It’s based on Robert Littell’s historical novel of the same name.
For Molina, the project’s appeal wasn’t just the broad sweep of history. He found himself sold by one element of a scene with Torriti (which, as can happen, ended up cut from the final version).
“There was a sequence where a great deal of attention was given to his cowboy boots, which he spoke about as he put his feet up on a desk,” Molina recounted. “I just thought there was something so quietly subversive about that.”
What can draw him to a part, he said, “isn’t so much an overreaching or a comprehensive arc of a character’s life. It could be just the way he plays that scene, the choice that the character makes in that scene. It can be as flimsy as that.”
Torriti appealed to Molina on several levels: The character’s the first spy Molina has played and was intriguing and a good fit.
(In a show that deftly combines real and fictional characters, it’s unclear whether Torriti is real or not. Although some characters are recognizable, such as James Angleton, the legendary CIA counterintelligence chief played by Keaton, author Littell was coy about others when he spoke with miniseries screenwriter Ken Nolan.)
‘I’m not a diva’“I’m 54 now, and I’m sort of at that age when actors start moving into a different generation of roles. I’m now playing fathers and uncles and bosses and the leading man’s employer,” he said. “I didn’t want to be one of those actors hanging on to some kind of self-image, (insisting) ‘I want to be the snarling, sexy bad guy.”’
“This role seemed to speak to me in terms of my own age, how I looked and, without sounding self-aggrandizing, my intelligence. It sounded like an interesting character, full of ambivalence and contradictions, and those are always the best to play.”
Molina is far from a preening actor. Putting off his late-arriving lunch to finish an interview, he’s genial and modest, attributing his steady work in films and on TV to a reputation for being a reliable performer.
He’s also an acclaimed theater actor, with a Tony nomination for “Art,” who makes it a point to return to the stage regularly.
“I think that’s the level I reached: I turn up, I’m not a diva, not hard to handle. I’m a professional,” he said.
In “The Company,” Molina joins in re-creating a world of clear political divisions and a balance of power between two giants that’s vastly different from current conflicts.
“It seemed like such a fascinating period in the amount of times we got to the brink of something awful and always pulled back, purely because everybody had the same weapons,” he said. “I think there’s a valid argument for people who get nostalgic about the Cold War. If everyone has a bomb, then does that mean no one’s going to use it because they all know mutual destruction is assured?”
‘Sir, sir, is there going to be a war?’Molina brought his own Cold War-era memories to “The Company,” including a vivid one from his childhood in England about America’s failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.
“I remember rushing into school, terribly excited, and saying, ‘Sir, sir, is there going to be a war?’ Not thinking about the consequences but just terribly excited about the idea, like a 10-year-old would be,” he said.
Molina grew up in a political household. His father was a refugee from the Spanish Civil War, where he had fought against the Nationalists who were supported by Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, and was a staunch communist.
“I remember my father having rather serious, heated discussions with his brother ... and saying, ‘What are you talking about?’ and being told, ‘Shush, this is grown-up talk.”’
Molina’s father and Italian-born mother settled comfortably into English life. But the actor has found America to be a better fit, personally and professionally. He and wife Jill Gascoine have lived here for 14 years and he’s become an American citizen.
“The English have an interesting knack of, no matter how English you are, always finding a way to remind you that you’re not. And it’s all very polite .... People will say, ‘Molina, is that Italian? Oh, Spanish. How interesting.”’
“What they’re saying is, ‘You’re a foreigner, even though you think you’re not.’ Here, where you come from is of no consequence because it’s essentially a meritocracy. It’s whether you can do the job or not.”
He’s even gotten to play, of all things, Englishmen, something denied him in his native country.
“It all fell into place here,” Molina said.