You've seen Alfred Molina, who stars as a British soldier who befriends a Jewish boy in The Little Traitor, in any number of movies, but you may not be able to place either his name or his face.
That's because he is arguably the most versatile actor in film today, often playing characters from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. The London-born actor, the son of an Italian mother and a Spanish father, has had roles as Mexican artist Diego Rivera in Frida, a nerdy American ghostwriter in The Hoax, the arch-villain Doc Ock in Spider-Man 2, a Spanish bishop in The Da Vinci Code, and an Iranian doctor in Not Without My Daughter. So it's almost a novelty for him to play a Brit, an irony he happily acknowledged in a recent phone interview.
"It's an interesting change. I'm usually the foreigner in the room," he said.
To prepare for the role as a British soldier in Jerusalem, "I read as much as I could about what was going on then. And I talked to older people who had been political activists to get a sense of how people dealt with it, of what it was it like to be under an occupying force." He also read books from the English point of view, "that the Mandate was not very desirable or popular but it was necessary, there had to be a buffer between Jews and Arabs."
Molina, who had appeared in a radio production of the Amos Oz novel Black Box, had at one time tried to secure the rights to Panther in the Basement. In the end, the deal fell through, but Molina and Oz, whom the actor counts as one of his favorite writers, became friends.
"I loved the book," said Molina of Panther in the Basement. "It's such an unlikely premise and such an odd and interesting idea."
One odd situation Molina had not counted on was the reality of filming in a country at war, since the Second Lebanon War broke out in 2006 while The Little Traitor was being shot in Jerusalem.
"The day-to-day reality is, you're presented with the situation and you just get on with it," said Molina. In contrast to the image of Israel as a war-torn disaster area presented in the media, "the truth is that most of the time most Israelis and Palestinians are getting on with life... It struck me hugely, all the stories about various outrages like bombs going off, and then how quickly normal life got going again. It was as if people were saying, 'This doesn't define us.' Terrible things happen and yet you have to overcome it... I found it very admirable."
Of course, there were disruptions. "One day, my driver said, 'I won't be picking you up tomorrow, it'll be my father instead.' He had been called up." People did ask him if he was planning to go home, but he joked, "I'm not leaving the falafel." He did admit that "there was a concern that it would get worse," and he was thankful that it was "reasonably brief."
Although his time here may have been short, he was here long enough to learn that, although they may cope well with war, "People kvetch about the small shit."
This was actually the second time Molina has filmed in Israel. The first was in the early 1990s, when he made Not Without My Daughter. "Teheran was completely recreated in Tel Aviv. I enjoyed working there both times."
He moves back and forth easily between the worlds of big-budget and independent filmmaking. "I'm always on the lookout for interesting things, for a different project [like The Little Traitor] worth going out of your way to do."
He spoke during a break from filming The Sorcerer's Apprentice, a big-budget fantasy starring Nicolas Cage, in New York. "It's an action, fantasy film set about a good sorcerer and a bad sorcerer who fight over the soul of the apprentice." Asked which character he plays, he laughed. "The bad one, of course."