Conversation: Alfred Molina Plays Painter Mark Rothko in ‘Red’

A scene from ‘Red’ starring Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne. Video courtesy the Donmar Warehouse Theater in New York. Photo © Johan Persson
His large, lush, colored canvases helped revolutionize art in the 20th century and are usually contemplated in silence in museums around the world. In ‘Red’, a new drama by John Logan, abstract artist Mark Rothko speaks his mind about art and life and battles with a young assistant as the two prepare a commission of blood-colored murals. Veteran actor Alfred Molina (acclaimed most recently for his role in last year’s ‘An Education’) plays the famous but violent-tempered artist. After a hit London run, the play has now opened on Broadway.
I talked to Molina earlier this week, by phone from New York:
JEFFREY BROWN: Alfred Molina is appearing in the new play, “Red,” which is a story about the painter Mark Rothko. Welcome to you.

ALFRED MOLINA: Thank you very much, nice to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: I read where you described reading this play and realizing quickly that you had to do it. Why? What is it about the Rothko character in the play that grabbed you?

ALFRED MOLINA: Well, the play was just a beautifully written piece, very exciting to read, very powerful and very funny. It deals with a very interesting period not only in Mark Rothko’s life, but also in New York’s cultural life. It was very, very important. The play basically deals with the two-year period when Mark Rothko, having been commissioned to provide a series of large canvases for what was then the brand new Four Seasons Restaurant, which was on the first floor of the also brand new Seagram Building on Park Avenue, which at the time was a cutting edge, state of the art building. New York had never seen a building quite like this, quite the same use of material. The whole thing was very, very cutting edge. And Rothko received what was then the biggest commission for a piece of public art since the Renaissance. There was a huge cultural moment and also very important period in Mark Rothko’s life. The play deals with that two-year period.

JEFFREY BROWN: I did a story several years ago for the NewsHour on a major Rothko exhibition. And at that time I read a fair amount about his life, as I gather you did to prepare for this. My memory is that he was not a happy man, a rather difficult man.

ALFRED MOLINA: That’s one way of looking at it. I think he was certainly very, very complex, and I think very demanding on both himself and others. I think he had a very strict, rather rigid moral and intellectual code and standards. He was in a way struggling at this point in his life. He was struggling not only with this fame as a painter, because he was famous and very successful in his own lifetime, but also dealing with a lot of conflicting feelings about the very nature of that fame. I think he felt very torn between a desire to have his paintings seen and recognized, and at the same time a terrible fear even in the act of doing that, there was something to be lost in the integrity of the work. He was a complicated guy, and I think the play goes a long way in trying explain what that complexity cost him and how it manifested itself.

Transcript continues after the jump.

Alfred Monlina as Mark Rothko in 'Red'. Photo (c) John PerssonJEFFREY BROWN: There was an article recently in the Washington Post about a trip you took down here to Washington to see a number of Rothko paintings.

ALFRED MOLINA: That’s right, yes. My acting partner Eddie Redmayne, who plays Ken, my assistant in the play — it was our day off on Monday — so we went down to Washington just to look at the Rothko’s in the National Gallery of Art. And also very kindly, the people at the Phillips Collection opened their doors for us, which is very sweet, to let us see the Rothko’s in there. It was an amazing day actually. It was a fantastic day.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what do you get from that? I know that the paintings that are the subject of this play are now in the Tate Museum, and I guess you’ve seen some before. What does that do for you to see the actual paintings? Does it show up somehow in the performance that we see?
ALFRED MOLINA: If it shows up in the performance, then we haven’t really done our job very well. I think it’s always good for actors to do their research and to do their homework, but that’s not what an audience is paying for you. I think it’s just a question of soaking up as much information and as much atmosphere, to get a sense of character and the ambiance and the world that he or she was in, and in way just absorb it and then just play the part. I think an audience that walks away thinking, “Well, he’s really done his research,” hasn’t really had the most satisfying night in the theater.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean we shouldn’t be thinking about that while we’re watching you.

ALFRED MOLINA: Exactly. An actor shouldn’t really be wearing their research like some kind of badge.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right, so then that goes for the biography, what you know about his life as well, I guess.

ALFRED MOLINA: Absolutely, yes. It’s interesting for me to know that stuff, but it’s not something that an audience is going to want rammed down their throat.

JEFFREY BROWN: I’m curious about something, because it’s always seemed to me hard to capture creativity in film or on stage. Movies about artists often have to deal with that internal life by sort of creating some kind of external drama. You’ve played other artists, like I remember Diego Rivera [in Freida. Does it feel harder to play an artist than other roles?

ALFRED MOLINA: No, not really, because in both the cases, having played Diego Rivera and now playing Mark Rothko, the great advantage of those two characters is that both of them were very well known in their own lifetime, and so they and their work have been very, very well documented. In both cases there were lots of photos to look at, books to look at, lots biographical material to read, lots of books with reproductions of their work, so there was tons and tons of stuff to delve into. But you’re right. There is often difficulty in translating the inner-created-life into something tangible, indeed actable, for an audience to watch. I think in the case of our play about Rothko, what the writers have done is create an environment where the characters aren’t just talking about the art, but the audience is actually seeing them make the art. The audience sees us stretching canvases, the stretchers, building the canvas, priming a canvas, mixing the paint.

JEFFREY BROWN: That was all things you had to learn to do, I guess?

ALFRED MOLINA: Yes. I think the experience for an audience in our play is a much more tangible one, because they can see exactly what physical work is involved in the actually making.

JEFFREY BROWN: Before I let you go, let me ask you one more thing. Back to where we started about picking a play like this — people listening to this will know you like to mix up roles — how do you pick things?

ALFRED MOLINA: I just go by how it strikes me at the time. I’ve never planned anything. Your career is behind you, but what’s coming up you never know. I’ll take every project that comes if it speaks to me in some way or if I can relate to it at some level, then I’ll do it.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Alfred Molina is playing Mark Rothko in the play, “Red,” now in New York. Thanks so much for talking to us.

ALFRED MOLINA: My pleasure. Thank you very much.

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