Alfred Molina’s first movie shoot was straight out of a nightmare.
When the actor showed up on the set of 1981’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” a spider wrangler opened a suitcase and carefully placed a couple dozen live tarantulas on his body, he recalled decades later.
The hairy arachnids didn’t move at first, Molina said, but once a female tarantula joined the all-male group, the creepy-crawly critters started swarming across his back, chest and face.
“Alfred, look scared,” director Steven Spielberg told Molina, the actor recalled.
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“I’m scared! I’m scared!” Molina replied.
“That was my first shot on my first day,” Molina, 65, recently told The Tribune. “So it was a baptism by fire.”
Molina has racked up plenty of show-business stories over a four-decade film and television career that’s ranged from arthouse movies (“Frida,” “An Education,” “Love Is Strange”) to big-budget blockbusters (“Spider-Man 2,” “The DaVinci Code,” “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.”). He’s also found success on stage, earning Tony Award nominations in Broadway productions of “Art,” “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Red.”
He’ll share some of those anecdotes Saturday when he’s honored by the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival during a red-carpet gala at the Fremont Theater in downtown San Luis Obispo. The evening kicks off with the George Sidney Independent Film Awards and concludes with an after-party at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art.
Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz will present the King Vidor Award for Career Excellence to Molina, then interview the actor on stage before a screening of 2000’s “Chocolat.”
Past recipients of the King Vidor Award, named after the Oscar-winning director of “War and Peace,” include Josh Brolin, Jeff Bridges and Morgan Freeman. The London-born Molina is the second Brit to receive the film festival’s highest honor; “A Clockwork Orange” actor Malcolm McDowell took home the award in 2009.
Drawn to acting
The son of a Spanish-born waiter and an Italian-born housekeeper, Molina briefly considered a career in the service industry. But the call of the stage proved stronger; he attended London’s prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama and performed with the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain.
Molina had been working professionally in the theater for five or six years when he made his first film — playing Satipo, the sidekick who doublecrosses Indiana Jones in the memorable opening sequence of “Raiders.” (It includes this oft-quoted exchange: “Give me the whip.” “Throw me the idol.”)
“Of course I fell in love with (movies) as soon as I did it,” he recalled.
Over the years, Molina has played a series of unforgettable onscreen characters — including Mexican muralist Diego Rivera in “Frida,” deranged drug dealer Rahad in “Boogie Nights” and comic-book villain Doc Ock in “Spider-Man 2.” Most recently, he garnered Emmy Award and Golden Globe Award nominations for his role as director Robert Aldrich in FX’s “Feud: Bette and Joan.”
Reached by phone at his home in La Canada Flintridge, Molina talked about his life, his career and what he’s learned. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Q: What was your reaction when you found out you were this year’s King Vidor Award recipient?
A: I was very touched and very flattered. … An award that celebrates a body of work is always very satisfying. It’s like a rite of passage in a way.
Q: You made your big-screen debut with “Raiders.” What was it like walking onto a movie set for the first time?
A: I was very excited by it. I was 26. I was very, very green. I knew next to nothing about movie-making.
It was a huge learning curve, but I was fortunate that all my scenes were with (star) Harrison (Ford). As a consequence, I was looked after very well. ...
He was a real gent. He was very patient, I suspect, because I’m sure I was making lots of silly mistakes. And also we had a fantastic camera crew that realized they were dealing with a new kid. They were all very, very sweet and very helpful. .... I wanted to learn. I wanted to find out about this wonderful medium.
I don’t remember it being difficult or hard. It was just so wonderfully exciting. I do remember coming home from work every day absolutely exhausted because it was a whole new way of working.
Q: Why was “Raiders” particularly special for you?
A: I have a sentimental attachment to it because it was my first movie but also a very emotional attachment to it. My then-partner (wife Jill Gascoine) was pregnant with our daughter and we were broke. Suddenly this movie comes along that was paying me more for a week’s worth of work than I had ever seen in my life.
We were able to have our daughter in a modicum of comfort. We had the money to buy a pram and a stroller and a bassinet. We were able to decorate this tiny little cupboard that was going to be Rachel’s nursery.
I have a soft spot in my heart for (that movie).
Q: You’ve had a hugely varied career, with a wide range of projects. What inspired that path?
A: That was never a plan or a strategy. My only criteria throughout all my working life has been just to stay employed. (chuckles) Pay the bills. ...
Young actors often ask you things like, “What’s the secret to a successful career?” I always say, “A career isn’t something you plan. A career is something you look back on.” You have no idea what’s ahead of you. Your only obligation is to be ready for it, be ready for the opportunity that arises. …
When I look back, I see a kind of crazy quilt of choices — some good, some not so good, some interesting, some not so interesting. You wouldn’t notice any kind of noticeable game plan.
Q: What attracted you, for instance, to the role of Doc Ock in “Spider-Man 2”?
A: Just an honest-to-goodness desire to be working. It was a wonderful opportunity. I was actually stunned when I was told I might be on the short list for this character. ... I was surprised to get (the role) but I was also delighted. ...
Again, it was a huge learning curve. When we did “Raiders,” the technology that was used in that movie was cutting edge. But compare it to the technology we use today, and it looks positively primitive. In the scene in which Harrison is lowering himself into a snake pit, he really was lowering himself into a real snake pit full of real snakes. He wouldn’t do that now. It’d be green screen everywhere.
The technology we were working with on “Spider-Man 2” was extraordinary. Again, I found myself thinking, “I don’t know how any of this works, but I want to learn. I want to find out.”
Q: You had an emotional experience on that movie set too.
A: I celebrated my 50th birthday when we were filming that movie. We were on a night shoot and we stopped filming to have a little break and they wheeled out this birthday cake, which I thought was very sweet. I’m eating a piece of cake on the backlot of Universal Studios in costume and my first thought was my mum. My mother had passed away by then. ... I remember thinking about my mum and how much she would have loved all this.
It’s a memory that I keep very close.
Q: You never seem to phone in performances. No matter the role or the project, you always give it your all.
A: Years ago when I was at college I had a wonderful teacher who put us all in our place one day. ... He asked us how we saw ourselves — how did we view our value as contributors to a creative life. ...
I remember putting my hand up and saying, “I think I’m an artist.” He said, “You’ve just played Hamlet. Are you an artist?” And I said, “Yes.” Then he said, “You’ve just played the guy who delivers pizza and you’ve got one line and your line is ‘Where do you want the pizza?’ Are you an artist?” And I said, rather pompously, “Well, not really.”
He pulled me up short and he said, “That’s your first mistake. If you’re a real actor and you’re playing the pizza guy, you give that one line the same consideration, the same concentration, the same commitment, as you do when you’re playing Hamlet. Otherwise you’re just a dilettante.” ...
He was right. ... I don’t care who you are or what you’ve achieved, no part is beneath you. You have the right to say no. You have the right to turn it down. But if you’ve taken the job, you give it everything you’ve got, regardless of what it is.