Movie Interviews
2:56 pm
Mon August 25, 2014

Longtime Friends Lithgow And Molina Play Longtime Couple In 'Love Is Strange'

Originally published on Mon August 25, 2014 5:53 pm

When actors John Lithgow and Alfred Molina came by NPR's New York studios, they brought with them a loose, joking rapport — the shorthand of longtime friends. "Fred and I had known each other for 15-20 years," says Lithgow — who calls Molina "Fred."

"If anyone says, ... 'I know Alfred really well,' they're lying!" Molina tells NPR's Melissa Block.

"You can call him Freddie Teacups; that's his mob name," Lithgow says with a laugh.

Lithgow and Molina bring that same easy intimacy to their roles in the new movie Love Is Strange. It's a quiet portrait of a marriage. Lithgow and Molina play Ben and George, a gay couple who get married in New York after 39 years together.

Their marriage costs Molina's character his job teaching music at a Catholic school. When he's fired, the men are forced to sell their apartment — and ask friends and family if they can move in. The two men have shared four decades together. Now, because no one has room for both of them, they're forced to live apart.


Interview Highlights

On the cramped New York apartment they share at the beginning of the film — which actually belonged to a gay couple who had been together longer than Ben and George

Molina: They'd been together for a long, long time. They'd witnessed all the various changes, all the big political and cultural upheavals in the last 50 years.

Lithgow: [They were] a nice reference point for us — very kind of self-effacing men. One very charming thing was they were huge theater fans. They'd seen everything that Fred and I had done on Broadway. They even had a collection of programs ... they'd seen the first thing I'd done on Broadway in 1973.

On a scene in which Ben and George discuss Ben's infidelities

Lithgow: In 40 years ... you go through hard times, you go through crises. I don't think this is Ben confessing to George. It's just a moment of saying, "I'm sorry" — probably not for the first time. It's a film about the nature of long, long relationships.

Molina: It's also a kind of acknowledgement of their survival that they survived all these vicissitudes and all the changes, all the crises. And that's the strength of a long-term relationship, that you arrive at a point where in a sense it's a celebration, despite everything. Despite all the things that we've been through, we're still here, and that's why I think the title of the movie — the use of the word "strange" — I always thought it was in the ... Shakespearean sense ... of something being most strange, most wondrous strange, of something being magical and mystical and mysterious — and love is that. Love survives all kinds of things.

On the history the couple has witnessed during their 40-year relationship

Lithgow: It's a gay relationship that's been going on for 40 years — these have been 40 extraordinary years in our cultural history. They have seen so many chapters, including the appalling tragedy of AIDS in the '80s and '90s. These two men have surely lost 100 friends between them. Nothing is said about that, and yet it's a kind of melancholy undercurrent.

On playing gay characters in the past

Molina: When we were shooting Prick Up Your Ears ... I remember having discussions with very serious people — intelligent people — who were wondering if my choice to play a gay character was going to have a bad effect on my career. You wouldn't dream of suggesting that to an actor now. It's amazing how things have changed.

On how this film is extraordinary in its ordinariness

Lithgow: You think of major breakthrough films on gay themes like Brokeback Mountain or Milk or Longtime Companion or Prick Up Your Ears -- all of them involve crisis and torment and frequently death — sometimes murder and assassination. ... This [movie] is so prosaic and quotidian. This is an ordinary, comfortable, kind of inconspicuous and unassuming couple. And that's what's so amazing about it. You realize watching it, I have never seen this before. You see it rarely enough on the subject of a straight marriage — but a gay marriage.

Molina: It's the epic quality of the ordinary. You scratch something ordinary, and then something extraordinary is more often than not beneath it.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

When the actors John Lithgow and Alfred Molina came by our New York studios the other day, they brought with them a loose joking rapport - the shorthand of longtime friends.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN LITHGOW: Fred and I had known each other for - well, 15 - 20 years.

BLOCK: You call Alfred Molina, Fred. We should clarify...

ALFRED MOLINA: Yeah, everybody calls me Fred.

BLOCK: OK.

MOLINA: Yeah, if anyone says to you, I know Alfred really well, they're lying.

(LAUGHTER)

LITHGOW: You can call him Freddy teacups. That's his mob name.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: John Lithgow had just wrapped up a run playing King Lear on stage in Central Park, and he was having a bit of an identity crisis.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LITHGOW: I had my long, long beard shaved off. I can't even recognize myself. And I think, who is that kid?

MOLINA: He looks like a slightly grumpy baby.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: Lithgow and Molina bring that same easy intimacy to their roles in the new movie "Love Is Strange." It's a quiet portrait of marriage. They play a gay couple who get married in New York after 39 years as partners. Their marriage costs Molina's character his job teaching music at a Catholic school. When he's fired, the men are forced to sell their apartment and ask friends and family if they can move in.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LOVE IS STRANGE")

MOLINA: (As George) Now, it won't be long before I get another job, and it shouldn't be long before we find another apartment, but in the meantime...

LITHGOW: (As Ben) It's just a transition phase - probably just a week or two.

BLOCK: These two men, Ben and George, have shared four decades together. Now no one has room for both of them, and they're forced to live apart. I talked with Alfred Molina and John Lithgow about creating the history of this couple on screen. They told me one thing that helped was the cramped New York apartment they share at the beginning of the film.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MOLINA: The apartment that was our apartment belonged to a couple who have been - how long have they been together, John?

LITHGOW: Longer than Ben and George.

MOLINA: Yeah, you know, 50 - 60 - 55 years or something like that. And they let us use their apartment...

LITHGOW: ...and they were extras in the opening scene.

MOLINA: That's right.

BLOCK: This is a gay couple.

MOLINA: Yes, and they'd been together for a long, long time. They'd witnessed all the, you know, various changes - all the big political and cultural upheavals in the last 50 years. And they were inspirational, really.

LITHGOW: And a nice reference point for us.

MOLINA: Yeah.

LITHGOW: They were very, kind of, self-effacing men. One very charming thing was they were huge theater fans. They'd seen everything that Fred and I had done on Broadway. In fact, they even had a collection of programs - of playbills. And they brought them out for me to sign. They'd seen the first thing I had done on Broadway in 1973.

BLOCK: No kidding. And they saved the program.

LITHGOW: And they saved the programs.

MOLINA: But they couldn't remember the production. (Laughter).

LITHGOW: They couldn't remember me. That's what - I was a little miffed.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: Well it's been a long time. I'm talking with John Lithgow and Alfred Molina about the new film "Love Is Strange." I'm curious whether this seems to you like a marriage of opposites because, John Lithgow - Ben, your character - seems to me to be a bit of a free spirit. George - Alfred Molina, your character - is more tightly wrapped. And let's listen to a scene of the two of you at a bar where it becomes clear that George - Alfred, your character - has been faithful for all these years that you've been together - not so for Ben. Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LOVE IS STRANGE")

MOLINA: (As George) Do I detect a note of jealousy in your voice?

LITHGOW: (As Ben) I have wondered what you've been doing in your few nights without me.

MOLINA: (As George) That's not for me, Ben. You know that.

LITHGOW: (As Ben) For all these years?

MOLINA: (As George) For all these years.

LITHGOW: (As Ben) Amazing - I'm sorry I can't say the same to you, George. But at least I've always been honest with you.

MOLINA: (As George) Sometimes I think ignorance might be a little better.

LITHGOW: (As Ben) I'm sorry, George.

BLOCK: What was going through your mind as you were shooting this scene? John, do you want to start?

LITHGOW: Well, in 40 years - a 40-year-long relationship, you go through hard times. You go through crises. I don't think this is Ben confessing to George. It's just a moment of saying I'm sorry, probably not for the first time. You know, I - it's a film about the nature of long, long relationships.

MOLINA: The way I saw it was that it was also not just - you know, on the face of it, it's Ben apologizing. But it's also a kind of acknowledgment of their survival - that they survived all these vicissitudes and all the changes - all the crises. And that's the strength of a long-term relationship - that you arrive at a point where, in a sense, it's a celebration. You know, despite everything - despite all the things that we've been through, we're still here.

And that's why I think the title of the movie - you know, the use of the word strange - and I always thought it was in the kind of almost Shakespearean sense of things being - something being most strange - most wondrous strange - you know, something being magical and mystical and mysterious. And love is that. Love survives all kinds of things. And that's what's so fantastic about it.

LITHGOW: And the fact that it is a same-sex marriage, or it's a gay relationship that's been going on for 40 years - these have been 40 extraordinary years in our cultural history.

BLOCK: Yeah.

LITHGOW: They have seen so many chapters, including the appalling tragedy of AIDS in the '80s and '90s. They have - these two men have surely lost a hundred friends between them. Nothing is said about that, and yet it's a kind of melancholy undercurrent.

BLOCK: You know, I was thinking about some of the past characters that each of you has played. Alfred Molina, you played a gay writer in the movie "Prick Up Your Ears" way back in 1987. John Lithgow, you were a transsexual former football player in "The World According To Garp" back in 1982. I've been wondering if you would have thought, 30 or so years ago, that one day you would be playing something as normal, humdrum, ordinary as a marriage between two gay men?

MOLINA: Well, I certainly didn't. But isn't that wonderful that we did? I mean, I don't know what John's experience was like when he did "Garp," but certainly when we were shooting "Prick Up Your Ears," there was - I remember having discussions with very serious people - intelligent people who would be wondering if me - my choice to play a gay character was going to have a bad effect on my career. And you wouldn't dream of suggesting that to an actor now. It's amazing how things have changed.

LITHGOW: You think of major breakthrough films on gay themes like "Brokeback Mountain" or "Milk" or "Longtime Companion" or "Prick Up Your Ears." All of them involve crisis and torment and, frequently, death - sometimes murder and assassination, like in "Milk." This is so prosaic and quotidian. This is an ordinary, comfortable kind of inconspicuous and unassuming couple.

And that's what's so amazing about it. You realize watching it, I have never seen this before. You see it rarely enough on the subject of a straight marriage, but a gay marriage?

MOLINA: It's the epic quality of the ordinary. You know, you scratch something ordinary, and then something extraordinary is always - you know, is more often than not, beneath it.

BLOCK: Well, John Lithgow and Alfred Molina, thanks so much for talking to us today.

LITHGOW: It's a great pleasure. We're very proud of it.

MOLINA: Thank you.

BLOCK: John Lithgow and Alfred Molina star in the new movie "Love Is Strange." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.