After a lifetime in the legit theatre and a chameleon-like career as a character actor in films, Alfred Molina finally has his own action figure.
It is Doc Ock, the mutant mad scientist with four menacing appendages fused to his spine and added to his own four limbs. Molina plays the character in Spider-Man 2, his first big effects-driven Hollywood picture.
As the chief nemesis for Tobey Maguire's Spider-Man in this $200-million (rumoured) sequel, the ebullient British actor gets to see himself transformed into a plastic action figure because the Spider-Man franchise is about marketing spin-off products as much as it is about selling movie magic.
"It's strange, because it looks nothing like me," Molina says at the Sony Pictures Studios lot in Los Angeles. "I mean, facially, they've been very flattering. They've given me cheekbones, which I don't have. They've got my nose but they've given me a slightly higher brow, which I don't have. Also, they've given me pecs, which I've never had in my life. I've got middle-aged man-tits! So they were very flattering."
The 51-year-old Molina's good-natured self-mocking is characteristic. So is his self-awareness. After an awkward mass interview in a cavernous soundstage, Molina (on a weekend furlough from playing Tevye in an acclaimed Fiddler On The Roof revival on Broadway), retreats to a cozier office.
There, he tells The Sun every great superhero needs a strong villain to make him look good. "You've got to have a great villain. Someone once said that the hero is only as good as the villain which, coming from me, sounds like self-aggrandizement, which I suppose it is. But it is true and that truism is as old as literature itself. Shakespeare knew that. Chaucer knew that. The Greeks knew that."
Molina says that, in drama, good can only be measured "in relation to the evil that it overpowers, which is why being a villain is always great fun to play because you can be outrageous. "And the more outrageous you are, the more villainous, the more cruel, the more mean, the more unpleasant, the more dangerous, the more scary, the better."
In Spider-Man 2, Doc Ock begins as Otto Octavius, a gifted scientist searching to harness vast amounts of energy. Inspired by his poet wife (Donna Murphy), he seeks to benefit all mankind. But a lab accident (is there any other kind in a comic-book saga?) fuses Octavius to the four bionic arms he created for his fantastic experiment. They, in turn, mutate Octavius into a death-dealing monster controlled by the tentacles. Only Spider-Man can stop him -- or can he?
The emotional stake in the Doc Ock character is interesting, Molina says. "That is a testament to Sam's skills as a storyteller," he says of director Sam Raimi, who also helmed the first Spider-Man movie, which generated $404 million in box-office receipts in the U.S. and Canada and a total of $820 million worldwide, catapulting it into the top 10 all-time.
"He was keenly aware of that," Molina continues about Raimi's desire to make Dr. Octopus into a multi-layered villain, "and he wanted to make sure that that got developed. Because he didn't want the domestic scenes, the private scenes, to be sacrificed for the sake of great showdown effects.
"Because he realizes that, without that complexity, without the vested interests of the audience in those characters right from the beginning, then the big transformations become meaningless."
Raimi did not really know who Alfred Molina was before the casting process for Spider-Man 2. It was the director's wife Gillian Greene (daughter of Canadian legend Lorne Greene) who alerted her husband after watching Molina so spectacularly devour the role of Mexican artist Diego Rivera in the drama Frida.
"So I watched the movie," Raimi says. "It was a brilliant movie and he was outrageously good in it. And it was only later that I realized that I had seen him in many other pictures. But he's such a chameleon, I didn't know it at the time. And, when I met him, I expected him to have a Spanish accent. I was completely bowled over when I found out he was a Brit."
Yet that fact -- of being nearly anonymous despite starring on stage and in films since his debut in a small role in Raiders Of The Lost Ark -- does not weird out the London-born actor, whose heritage is Spanish-Italian (he now lives in L.A. and has taken out U.S. citizenship).
"I took that as a compliment," says Molina, whose varied film credits include Letter To Brezhnev, Prick Up Your Ears, Boogie Nights, Chocolat, Species, The Perez Family, Enchanted April, Not Without My Daughter, Texas Rangers and the forthcoming Undertaking Betty, a lyrical comedy.
He's also appeared on a couple of his own TV sitcoms, Ladies Man and Bram And Alice.
"If it's true that it's possible to disappear into the role that you play, then I hope that's what I do," says Molina. "I don't know how well I do it, or if I do it at all successfully -- ever -- but that's what I always try to do.
"And I've been very lucky I've had the chance to play a very wide range of parts that have meant that I've had to change my physique or change my look, change the way I behave, change the way I sound, and that's my job.
"That's what I love about it and that's why I would rather be a character actor than a leading man. Going from a Mexican muralist to a comic book villain to a Jewish milkman is a nice way to spend your time."
Now his worlds are colliding and his anonymity shot. Spider-Man fans are already congregating nightly outside the stage door at New York's Minskoff Theatre. It makes one curious if Molina was reticent to tackle such a high-profile role.
"No!" he bellows, spicing it with a laugh. "I wasn't reticent at all. I was glad for the job. I was happy to do it."
For such a charming fellow, villainy becomes him.