Stage and screen actor Alfred Molina is no stranger to performing characters with dimension, subtly, and humor in such roles as Inspector Gamache in the Three Pines, Diego Rivera in Frida, Tevye in Fiddler On The Roof, and even as the villainous Doctor Octavius in the Spider-Man movies.
Molina now takes on the part of big-shot attorney Henry Drummond in Inherit the Wind, now staged at the Pasadena Playhouse.
Originally created as a commentary on McCarthyism in the 1950’s, playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee used a fictional version of the real 1925 Scopes Monkey trial as a proxy for their message.
In the landmark case, a high school science teacher was prosecuted for teaching evolution. Molina’s character comes to the defense of the high school teacher in a trial that shakes a small, religious town to its core.
Molina spoke with LAist Weekend Edition host Julia Paskin about taking on the role. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Julia Paskin: Your character states he is not there for the money, so why does Drummond take on the case?
Alfred Molina: He’s there to defend the Constitution, I think, in some way.
[The play] was striking at something that was very, very deep in the American democracy, which is the much vaunted separation of church and state. And here we had laws being passed which were kind of faith-based that were controlling the education of people in the United States.
And [Drummond] is a warrior wanting to make sure that you know that the laws and people’s freedom of thought — in particular, freedom of speech — are protected and cherished.
JP: Here we are in 2023 with some states still debating what can be taught in schools. Perhaps the subject matter has shifted, but the debate in Inherit The Wind feels current. What does it mean to you to perform the story today?
AM: These idea and topics — they’re still part of the national discourse.
It’s what theater does best in a way. It’s able to illuminate these ideas in a dramatic way that is hopefully going to keep an audience hooked on the arguments. And we’ve had a lot of excited conversations after the play with members of the audience who are responding very energetically to the questions that the play brings up.
JP: Your character is going up against Matthew Harris Brady (played by John Douglas Thompson), and despite having very deep disagreements, there is still a respect and reverence between them. That was refreshing to me in today’s political climate. How do they maintain a humanity while thinking the other is entirely wrong?
AM: That relationship, which has gone through lots of mutations over a period of years, is mentioned quite early on in the play. So you understand that there’s a real history here. In fact, Brady says at one point, this friendship was based on a mutuality of admiration. They were clearly on different sides of the fence, but there was still this civility between them and an ability to discuss without rancor, without becoming sort of just angry with each other.
And I think that gives the relationship a depth which pays off later in the play.
JP: Your character even comes to Brady’s defense — or in defense of how we just speak about people. What’s happening for Drummond in that moment and how do you see a connection to discourse today?
AM: From a personal point of view, as the actor playing the part, it made me realize that you can disagree with people but that doesn’t mean you have to hate them.
I remember many years ago, having a really serious discussion with a relative. And then we both said, you know what, we’re never going to convince the other. So let’s just leave this aside and enjoy the rest of the relationship which is the vast majority of it.
And I think that’s something we’ve lost, particularly in this age of social media. And just the decent thing of, you might have disagreed with someone, [but] when they’re no longer in a position to argue their case, that doesn’t mean you dismiss their whole life.
Drummond actually says at one point, “I refuse to erase a man’s lifetime.” And then he goes on to say “we all have the same right, which is the right to be wrong.”
JP: You last performed at the Pasadena Playhouse in The Father in early 2020. What keeps bringing you back to the Pasadena Playhouse?
AM: Apart from the fact that it’s a 10-minute commute, you mean?
But no, It’s a lovely theater. It’s got so much history.
And we’re now under the leadership of Danny Feldman, our producing artistic director. We’re in a kind of golden age at the theater, in [that] he’s really channeled a lot of his energy and creative energy into making it truly a theater that belongs to the community.
I joined the board about a year or so ago, and we’ve now created an education committee.
The Pasadena Playhouse had a very healthy, very vibrant accredited school attached to it. Some of the alumni include people like Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman. The school closed down in the late 1960s’s, due to kind of financial restrictions. The theater was going through a bad time.
But we’re hopefully in the next few years trying to resuscitate that side of the theater. And Danny’s already started moves towards that, you know, we’ve had productions involving local school kids.
So for me, it’s lovely to be part of an institution that is truly part of this community.
Inherit the Wind is directed by Michael Michetti and is being staged at the Pasadena Playhouse through Sunday, November 26th.
Protip: You can enter a lottery to watch the show from special seating onstage.
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