Interview: Alfred Molina and Alfred Enoch Talk RED

By: Apr. 23, 2018
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Alfred Molina and Alfred Enoch

Alfred Molina is reprising his role as Mark Rothko in John Logan's play Red, teaming up once again with director Michael Grandage for the first London revival (and West End premiere). Read Grandage's introduction to his production here!

Molina is joined for the London run by How To Get Away With Murder star Alfred Enoch.

What can you tell us about the play and your characters?

Molina: I play Mark Rothko, the painter, and Alfie plays a young man called Ken, who arrives for the job of my new assistant. It's about their relationship over a period of two years in which Mark Rothko has been commissioned to paint these huge murals for what was then the new Four Seasons restaurant in New York, on the ground floor of the Seagram building.

What made it interesting is the joining of two things: one was that Mark Rothko was the king of Abstract Expressionism at that time, cutting-edge art, and the Seagrams building, which was the cutting-edge building of that period. The designers were using revolutionary techniques and materials that had never been used before, copper cladding, all kinds of chrome and glass, in a way that had never been seen before.

And Rothko kind of refers to it and says that this building is unlike anything the world has seen, reflecting the goal and ambition of the city and the whole humankind. It was a kind of coming together of two really important movements that the world was obsessed with.

Not just the art world, but the world of architecture too - socially, politically, culturally, it was a huge moment in history. It was a marriage of the two biggest stars in their field, suddenly coming together to make this amazing thing. But like so often happens with those things, it was very quick force.

So, it's Rothko's journey, but also the journey between these two men who are very different in age. There's a father-son element, there's a master-servant element, there's a teacher-student element - it's the way that that relationship changes through the process of the work they're engaging in.

Are there any parallels between your two characters and yourselves as actors?

Enoch: Very happily, this was a much more welcoming room than the one Ken walks into at the beginning!

Molina: He's having a nicer time than Ken did.

Enoch: Before we started rehearsals I'd known, because we'd actually met by then, but at one point I was reading the script and I thought "Gosh!". But not at all, it's been such a pleasure. It's been great.

Molina: I think it's important to say that with all the different manifestations of the cast, Michael [Grandage] and I have always felt it was really important that whoever came to play Ken was 50% of the cast and therefore he was 50% of the play. It wasn't a matter of recreating what we'd done already but discovering the play again.

What Alfie gives me, his choices... I'm talking as if you're not in the room, I'm sorry! [they laugh] Whatever he chooses to do will have an effect on what I do, and it's just as good for me for it to be different. This is yours now, what you do is valid, I'll respond accordingly.

Enoch: Which is not Ken's situation! It wasn't 50-50.

What do you feel you bring to the show?

Enoch: It's quite hard for me to sort of evaluate that with any kind of objectivity. I'm just trying to... get it right, I guess! [Laughs] I've been given a lot of freedom, so I think that my responsibility is to seize that.

Molina: Alfie is too modest to say so, but I can say it for him. He comes with an amazing amount of skill, and intelligence, and sensitivity, and awareness, and these are things that you learn as an actor through your career. If I had been as aware and intelligent and skilled when I was his age I would have been very happy.

It's not really a matter of "Let me tell you how it's done, boy"; it's not that kind of dynamic at all. It couldn't be. You couldn't give the responsibility of a role like Ken to an actor who really didn't know anything. The beauty of this play is that it needs a level of skill and dexterity that Alfie has in abundance. It's been an absolute joy.

What did you learn about painting?

Molina: That's an interesting question. People usually ask "What did you learn about Rothko?", so I start showing off about all the books I've read. I tell you what I did learn about painting, which I actually didn't know before. I'm a bit embarrassed I didn't know this. It's physical work. It's not sitting there with an easel and delicately doing it. It's hard physical work, particularly when you work on these big frames the way Rothko did. That's why he needed assistance.

And they weren't all art students, some of them were big guys who just moved frames around and built them, especially as he got older. It's hard work, it's sweaty work, it's dirty work, and it takes time, getting the pigments right... There's an alchemy, a chemistry to it, there's all the technical side. I learned that. It's not for wimps.

Did it make you pick up painting as a hobby?

Molina: It did not! But I'll tell you what I've started doing just for fun, a joke with friends. In Los Angeles where I live, one of my favourite restaurants is a tiny hole in the wall and they have paper on the table as kind of tablecloth and every table has a little pot full of crayons.

I just started doing these little drawings, little jokey facsimiles in Rothko's style. I call them Frothkos. I used to do one, take a photograph and send it to friends. Then I really got into it! Every time I went to this restaurant I started doing them and I got about 20 of them now.

Enoch: [Laughing] How are they doing on the art market?

Molina: [Laughing too] Brilliant! Big! I can give up this acting lot! But really, it was just doodles but I enjoyed getting into that. But fine art, which I love, is not a skill that I possess.

Is your approach to the material different when you play a real person as opposed to a fictional character?

Molina: It is a little bit, yeah. I think that when you're playing someone who actually existed, either a contemporary or historical figure, I think the job is essentially the same because hopefully you're recreating what's on the page of the script, but there's a certain responsibility not to misrepresent that person. Especially if there's documented material on that person.

Now, there's quite a lot on Rothko: there's been loads of books and essays written about his work, fantastic biographies, and his son Christopher wrote a beautiful appreciative study on his father's work with lots of little insights on his personality.

You learn certain things about, say, Mark Rothko, and you know he was born in Russia, came to America when he was 10, didn't have a Russian accent but had a kind of Americanised accent which changed a bit when he moved to New York.

I know that I can't suddenly turn up and say that I'm gonna do it with a big Russian accent as if I've just come off the boat. I can't suddenly decide "You know what, just to make him more sympathetic I'm gonna give him a limp" - you can't do that, unlike with a fictitious character. You just have to be careful not to misrepresent them, but that's really the only obligation you have.

How much of Rothko the person and how much of Rothko the artist is in the play?

Molina: I think it's 50-50. What made him the artist he was is so closely tied up to what his values were as a human being. He was very strict, intellectually rigorous, very unforgiving when it came to the failure of others, he was very demanding on himself. He expected high standards from himself and from the people around him. He didn't forgive easily. He was demanding, unpredictable, prone to drinking. But then again when he drank it kind of freed something in him. He was a snob, I think, artistically.

As he went through his career, his painting became more and more rigorous, more and more strict in terms of what he allowed to go on the canvas. He starts off as a surrealist in the early Forties, crazy stuff. He starts to refine and refine and refine until right at the end of his career he's doing canvases that are basically black and purple. That, to me, suggested a kind of discipline which is part of his personality.

There's a great moment in the play, one of my favourite moments, Ken is just making small talk and says "Oh, that Chinese place has closed", and I come up with this whole spiritual reason why this is part of the whole cycle of life, and then Ken says "You're not one for small talk", and he just snaps back "Yeah, because it's small".

There's this kind of feeling. Eleanor Roosevelt once said that there are three levels of conversation: people talk about events, then they talk about people, then they talk about ideas.

That's what Rothko was interested in. He wasn't interested in talking about events, he wasn't interested in hearing about where you went for your holiday. He was just interested in ideas. He demanded that from people, which is tough - that's hard to live with.

Do you feel like you have to compare your performance to the other actors who've played Ken?

Enoch: No. But that's partly how I've been freed by Fred and Michael. Also, I didn't see them. I couldn't if I wanted to. It's one of those productions people know about, it was a huge deal and I remember I didn't go see it. I was at university or school or something, I can't remember!

Molina: I feel so old!

Enoch: [Laughs] I feel like shouldn't have said that now. I didn't have time! But it's one of those things I've since looked back on. I did a show at the Donmar and you were on the wall and I was like "Oh I wish I'd seen Red!" so many times. Or someone mentioning it and me wishing I'd seen it.

But again, I can't, I wouldn't want to work in that way. You've got to find your own relationship with the play, your own take, and it's always going to be different. And then someone else is going to do it and see different things in it. So, no.

Red runs at Wyndham's Theatre 4 May to 28 July.


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