This Sunday, the Mark Taper forum opens its new show ‘Red,’ starring Alfred Molina as Mark Rothko. The play takes place during the 1950s, when Rothko has been commissioned to do a new set of paintings for the Four Seasons restaurant.
Molina is joined by his co-star Jonathan Groff, who plays the artist’s new assistant. Rothko, self-aware of the rising generation of younger artists and the threat they pose to him, becomes obsessed with his work and flexes his aesthetic muscle in an effort to stave off the day when, as he says in the play, “the black will swallow the red.”
Molina’s first encounter with Rothko was in the 1970s, when he noticed a poster of one his paintings on a girlfriend’s wall. But obviously the actor had to expound upon the idea that Rothko was simply a guy who made big black pieces of art before taking the stage to portray him.
AirTalk: Does this show bring out the ‘man behind the canvas’?
Alred Molina: “It does that partly, but the show really isn’t a biographical piece. The play concentrates on the two and a half year period when he was heavily involved in what became known as the Seagram murals, which was a series of paintings for what was then, the brand-new Seagram building on Park Avenue in New York and it was the biggest single commission for a mural piece since the Sistine Chapel … The making of these Seagram murals became a kind of crisis for him artistically, creatively, intellectually, morally and so the play really concentrates on that period."
"We’re trying to really bring to life, not just the story of what the artist was going through, but the story of the making of the art itself. People often think art is just throwing a bit of paint on a canvas but it’s actually a very physical endeavor and so we’ve tried to create the physical space of Mark Rothko’s studio, so as the audience walks in they enter, for all intents and purposes, a working studio where we stretch canvases, we mix paints, we prine canvases — the actual physical work, the labor that’s involved in making art, is absolutely central to the production.”
AirTalk: In the end, Rothko throws back the commission. Why did Rothko ever accept the commission in the first place?
Molina:“That’s partly the debate within the play — why did he do that? Why was he so obsessed with this particular commission? I think it has a lot to do with his preoccupation with his legacy. I think like all great artists — particularly artists who were the first to change the form, change the roles, artists like Rothko, Pollock and so on — they created something new, something that had never been seen or done before, and that always the mark of great innovators and I think he was very conscious of that. I think he understood his place in the pantheon, the history, of art.”
AirTalk: It’s certainly cliche to talk about character actors and their ability to disappear into parts, but your command of accents has given you all kinds of range.
Molina: “I don’t think it’s so much a cliche as it is something character actors really aim for. There’s a great joy and satisfaction in being able to in some way, disappear … If you can lose yourself in it somehow — and it’s not about being real, it’s about being authentic — if you can be authentic enough so the audience to relax ... that’s part of the craft we all take pride in is being able to somehow submerge ourselves to a certain degree.
AirTalk: Is it fair to use a word like ‘conflicted’ when talking about Mark Rothko? In some ways he’s a very tragic figure.
Molina: “Like so many interesting characters that one gets to play, he’s full of contradictions. All the most interesting characters are, in the same way all the most interesting people in life are often paradoxical and seemingly contradictory … Theatrically, in terms of playing characters, that’s where the really interesting grit is. It’s in those areas where things get confused, things get conflicted and contradictory, that’s where the most interesting part of character is in many ways because you have to resolve that for the audience and make all those contradictions equally valid. If the audience is agreeing with you one second and disagreeing with you the next, totally with you one moment and totally against you the next, then you’re halfway to doing your job because that means — hopefully — they’re going through the same sort of conflict that the character is.”
How did Molina prepare for this role? How did it affect his understanding of modern art? What makes Rothko such a particularly compelling artist and personality?
Alfred Molina, actor starring as artist Mark Rothko in “Red” at the Mark Taper Forum; he is also well known for his roles in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Prick Up Your Ears,” “Frida,” “Chocolat,” and “Law and Order” among other film and television credits