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Alfred Molina on the 'Law & Order: Los Angeles' Revamp, His Many Accents, and His LEGO Record

by Joel Keller, posted Apr 5th 2011 2:00PM
Alfred Molina of 'Law & Order: Los Angeles'When 'Law & Order: Los Angeles' wasn't getting the ratings that NBC expects from a member of the 'L&O' franchise, the network didn't throw in the towel. In fact, it asked 'L&O' impresario Dick Wolf and his producers to go back and retool the show for the second half of its first season.

Audiences will see the result of that retooling starting Monday, April 11, at 9PM ET. Among the biggest changes is that Alfred Molina's character, Deputy D.A. Ricardo Morales, will return to the LAPD as a detective. The backstory of how that happens, including what happens to who he's replacing, Det. Rex Winters (Skeet Ulrich), will be sorted out during the first few episodes of the show's return.

I spoke to Molina last month about his thoughts on the switch, which will involve his working on every episode -- as a D.A., Molina's character was alternating episodes with Terrence Howard's character, Deputy D.A. Jonah Dekker -- and why he decided to go back to series TV after a nine-year absence. I also spoke to the veteran character actor about his many roles (and his many accents), and I found out why he's a record-holder, at least in the world of LEGOs.

Joel Keller: This is an unusual situation, not that a show's getting retooled, but that one of the characters is going to take on a bit of a different role. When you were approached with the idea of going from a lawyer to a cop, what were your thoughts on that?
Alfred Molina: Well it sounded like a very exciting idea. The way they explained it was that we would create this back story where my character, Ricardo Morales, was a policeman originally, a detective, and then became a lawyer. His dissatisfaction with his effectiveness in the D.A.'s office prompts him, because of a particular event that happens in this (upcoming) episode, prompts him to quit the D.A.'s office and go back to being a detective where he feels he can be more effective. It's a huge shift for the show and for the character, but it's played as part of his development. It's not like suddenly he becomes a cop again and doesn't quite know what happened to him. It's a process that happens over a couple of episodes.

Were you afraid that it wouldn't be organic to the character, that it would just be a shift?
Well I think any change to a character is organic if it's if it's dealt with correctly. If there's cogent reasons for it, if there's dramatically appropriate reasons for it, I think that it can work. It's when you make those choices that are dramatically inappropriate or illogical, you know, when a character dies, and then comes back, and someone says, "Oh, it's his long lost twin brother." But this is a journey, in a sense, this is a journey where a character is actually going back to some kind of root, back to something he understood and felt more comfortable with. So it's not quite, it's not a leap in the dark. In a way, it's just sort of, it's a step back to a situation that he understands more.

Have you ever been on a show where you came back as your own twin brother?
No, I haven't. But I've seen plenty of them. And as an audience member, you kind of go, "Oh, do me a favor!" You know? Don't insult my intelligence.

We've been hearing that the show is going to stylistically go back towards what the other 'L&O' shows are like, and be a little darker. Have have you been seeing that when you've been shooting the new episodes?
Yeah, I think there is a more conscious attempt to get back to the core values of the show, which can't be a bad thing. That's kind of exciting, in itself, because it's getting back to the core value of the show in a whole new context. Because I always thought of New York as the uncredited last member of the cast, in previous shows. And I think the same thing's going to happen with Los Angeles. The city itself is going to have a prominent position in the show. It's going to, in a sense, inform the show. And I think that's hopefully what the producers are aiming for with this new incarnation.

What do you think it was about that first set of episodes that didn't really connect with viewers the way the other 'Law & Order' franchises had in the past?
I really don't know. I mean, personally, I thought they were pretty good. You'd have to ask viewers that. To a certain extent, as I'm sure you know, TV's a bit of a crap shoot, especially in America. The rewards and success are so huge, and the pressures are so vast to get it right, that I think when things don't quite work, there's a sort of industry-wide panic. But the truth is that all shows can take a bit of time to kind of find their feet, find their groove. And if a show didn't quite sit as well with long-time viewers and new viewers, then that's as much to do with their response as our responsibility. I think Dick Wolf and all the 'Law & Order' people sort of listen very carefully to people's reactions, and responded accordingly.

When you and Terrence Howard found out that you both were going to be on every episode, instead of every other episode, was this a challenge you guys welcomed as actors?
Oh yeah! I mean, there's no doubt about it. It's more work, obviously, and you know, longer hours and everything, but that's fine. You know, actors have never been shy of work. We've been short of work. We've never been shy of it. It's good. I was very happy to know that I'd be working on every episode. I mean, I was enjoying the one episode on, one episode off routine. It was very of easy and relaxed. But when this possibility came along, I thought, "this is great." I was very happy to get involved in this way.

Is there a 'Law & Order' actor that you look to as guidance or inspiration for what you're doing in L.A.?
Yeah, well I think the guy who, I think for me, totally epitomized the show was Jerry Orbach, who defined the show in a way that -- with all due respect to all the other actors who have played detectives in the show, and they've all been wonderful, there's been some marvelous actors playing the detectives in the show -- I think Jerry was the one who in a sense defined it. That's the only way I can put it. I mean, he's the first and last person you think of, in a way. And it was interesting that it was a good few years into the show before he arrived. But when he did, it all kind of started making sense. The older detectives, wise and slightly more cynical, sort of a bit frayed around the edges, a bit bruised, with the younger, idealistic, more sort of hard-headed part, and that balance of worldly wisdom and youthful enthusiasm. And I think, I'm hoping, not that I'm comparing myself in any way to Jerry, but I think that dynamic of an older detective with a younger is what we're trying to imitate now.

You haven't done American series TV in almost a decade. What mad you decide go back to doing a series?
Well, it was very simple. You know, I'm in my mid-50s and I wanted a job where I could stay home more. You know, I've been making movies for the best part of 30 years, and I've spend most of my working life away from home, either on location, or on tour, or doing a play in a different city from where I'm living. And I was beginning to feel that -- and don't get me wrong, this is not a complaint by any means; I've been busy, I've been working, and I've been very, very happy with that -- but I was sitting in my dressing room in NY, doing a play, and I suddenly thought, "You know what, it'd be really nice to get a nice, interesting job at home so I could go home at night and have dinner with my wife, rather than having room service or hanging out with the film crew." And I just thought, "Is that too much to ask?" Then lo and behold, a month after I had that little reverie, I've come to this offer. So maybe it was in the air. Maybe it was meant to be. But it's something that I was happy to welcome, as a new sort of phase in my professional career.

And you get to do only one accent now for a while.
That's right. Yes, exactly. Unless it slips and I go somewhere else. Which I'm sure I'll be pulled up short if that happens.

At what point in your career did you realize that you were going to have that kind of thing in your skill set where you can do a varied set of accents?
Well, I think I realized it quite early, because I was able to do them. And with a little bit of work, they sort of came relatively easily. But it's always been a part of my work, you know, the chance to play different characters. I was a character actor when I was in my teens. I was one of nature's fat boys, and even as a young actor, I was never going to play Romeo. I was never going to be a romantic lead. I was a character guy right from the start.

What was the toughest accent for you to maintain in a role throughout?
I think the hardest one that I've ever had to do was required the most amount of study, I think, was when I was playing an Iranian, a Persian [in 'Not Without My Daughter']. He was a Persian who had learned English in America, and was then returning back to his original language. And that was the hard one. Because there were subtleties in that, which I have to be honest, probably eluded me most of the time. Every now and again I got it right, but that was a tough one.

Do you think we would ever see you in another comic book villain role again like Doc Ock?
Who knows, who knows. When those things come up, you know, I'd love to do something else like that again. But I've never planned anything. I've never planned a career, I've never had a strategy. People say, "You've had a really varied career." And I look back on things and I think yeah, I suppose it is pretty varied. But I think the only reason it's varied is because I've never said no to anything. If your priority is to keep on working all the time, chances are, you're going to do a pretty wide range of stuff.

Are you surprised when actors do say no to things?
No, I'm not. Because everybody has their own criteria, their own set of values and concerns. I find it very hard to say no, because my dad was a waiter and my mum cleaned rooms in a hotel. I mean, they were out of work quite a lot in their lives. And I know what it's like to live in that kind of environment, so I don't want to be out of work. So when jobs come up, I tend to kind of go "Yeah, OK." I've never had the luxury of choosing what I want to do. I've always just tried to do the best possible job that's around. And it does lead to a variety of stuff. It does lead to a varied life. Because, you know, one day I might be making a movie, the next day, I might be making a TV show, the next day I might be doing a play. So it's... I've got no complaints.

What role, when you look back on it, were you thinking like, "Man, I did that?"
Well, I'm very proud of having played Diego Rivera [in 'Frida'], I'm very proud of having done 'Spider-Man 2.' I'm proud of those movies. And I'm very proud of the fact that my first film was [as Satipo in] 'Raiders of the Lost Ark.' I was involved in that. And that gives me a great deal of pleasure to know that. But you know, I found out the other day that I've got three different LEGO figures from movies that I've been in. Which, apparently, is the record.

Really? Which?
'Raiders,' Doc Ock, and [Sheik Amar], the character I played in 'Prince of Persia.' I can't remember who it was that told me that. It was like on some LEGO Facebook page or something. And I thought, wow, that's cool. So I'm very happy to have been a small part in this whole game. It gives me a lot of pleasure.

'Law & Order: Los Angeles' airs Mondays at 9PM ET on NBC, starting April 11.

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dave bowman

Oops, I clicked twice.

April 27 2011 at 4:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
dave bowman

Wow, Molina and Howard are really raking in the ratings....dropped to 3rd and 5th place. Univision beat NBC on one night. Bone headed decision to get rid of Ulrich. Molina looks out of place as a cop and now Stoll who used to be a stand out on screen blends into the scenery. Stop beating this dead horse and trying to convince people the show is 'better' now. It is not. It is boring and forced and awkward to watch. The revamp jumped the shark when the DDA switched to cop -- laughable and an embarrassment to the franchise.

April 27 2011 at 4:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
dave bowman

Wow, Molina and Howard are really raking in the ratings....dropped to 3rd and 5th place. Univision beat NBC on one night. Bone headed decision to get rid of Ulrich. Molina looks out of place as a cop and now Stoll who used to be a stand out on screen blends into the scenery. Stop beating this dead horse and trying to convince people the show is 'better' now. It is not. It is boring and forced and awkward to watch. The revamp jumped the shark when the DDA switched to cop -- laughable and an embarrassment to the franchise.

April 27 2011 at 4:01 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I tried to like L&O LA, but was most disappointed in it. The show could not hold my attention. I wish I could pinpoint the reasons but it may link to why the original L&O lost its lustre once Sam Waterston became DA. Let there me no mistake, he was the anchor for the show. DA's came and went, female Asst DA's came and went, even police came and went but as long as we had Jack (Sam), everything worked! The actor who replaced him just did not have that "something" Sam always had. Could someone else have replaced Sam? Yes, but it wasn't the young man they hired. I missed Jerry O. but at least they found other actors who were appealing characters in the police roles. In the LA series, the actors just haven't grabbed my attention. I'm hoping Molina will be more appealing in the detective role. Terence Howard has underwhelmed me in his DA role and frankly I find him unappealing. Skeet Ulrich is a good actor but was misplaced. You've got to get the chemistry and the actors "right" as well as having good scripts. I'll watch again to see if the new and improved version captures my attention.

April 11 2011 at 1:49 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Albert Molina has always been an asset to any project he is in; thinking of "Chocolat," he has such great depth as an actor and comedian. He is so right about Jerry Orbach. After he replaced George Dzunda (whatever happened to him?) the show just took off and became successful.

April 11 2011 at 11:36 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I watch the re-runs of L & O, and comparing the original L & O to the L & O LA, there is no comparison. I think NBC crapped in their mess kit when they canceled the original L & O. It was on for about 20 years, and I cannot believe it was canceled. If something is not broke, don't fix it. Other that making arrests and court sessions, the original L & O had a lot of personal things going on with the actors, like the Lt. having cancer, one officer having a gambling problem. And Sam Waterston was the perfect DA. What a tragic mistake that it was canceled. NBC, please bring it back.

April 11 2011 at 11:19 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Jeff Hines

Wow you guys just put the nails in the coffin of this show!!! It wasn't to good to begin with but the detectives where great, you legal team is what sucked and you gave them bigger roles jeez!!!!

April 06 2011 at 11:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Face it, without Skeet Ulrich, the show will suck. You replaced the wrong actors. Molina and Howard should be gone, personalities like dead fish for god's sake. Won't bother watching now. Not that I was expecting anything better from NBC.

April 05 2011 at 6:25 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Just admit taking L @ O NY was a big mistake. BRING BACK JACK

April 05 2011 at 2:23 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

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