Interview: Alfred Molina, actor

ALFRED Molina, or Fred to his pals, is not your typical Hollywood actor. I'm thinking this as I watch him, seated centre stage in a gigantic suite in a London hotel, oooohing and ahhhhing over a sandwich like a kid who's just been handed an iPhone 4 at Christmas.

"Wow!" he exclaims when it's brought in halfway through the interview and set in front of him. "Is this what you get when you're a Hollywood actor? Thank you! Thank you!"

This is not normal, though he does at least go on to eat all the filling and leave the bread. We're talking about a major British actor of 35 years standing who has conquered Hollywood, Broadway, the West End, and been a giant octopus to boot. He has played himself in a Jim Jarmusch film and the big-bellied Diego Rivera to Salma Hayek's Frida Kahlo. He lives in a house in LA with a swimming pool, for God's sake. Why so tickled by a club sandwich?

Later, towards the end of the interview Molina surprises me again, referring to "people like us". But he isn't talking about fellow actors, Hugh Laurie and Robert Carlyle perhaps, a couple of the Brits who have followed him across the pond. He's talking about both of us being the children of immigrants.

"My English friends don't get it," he confides, when I ask what his Spanish father and Italian mother made of his decision to pursue acting. "They say 'surely they must have been proud of you for doing what you wanted?' I always say 'you're not an immigrant. You don't know what it's like'. You work every hour that God sends in order that your children don't have to do what you do. Then your son puts himself willingly in the way of all kinds of jeopardy – financial insecurity, rejection, regular bouts of unemployment – and it's as if all your efforts are being completely disregarded. I think it's the same for all immigrants, wherever they come from. And I think the darker your skin the harder the process becomes."

Molina is a disarming man, and a disarming actor. You never know where he will pop up next – summer blockbuster, Broadway chinstroker, BBC sitcom (and that's just this year). We also have no idea what accent he'll be nailing when he does. Molina is a supreme shape-shifter. He can do subtle and silly, poignant and pompous, and usually in the same performance.

"He's like a Ferrari," is how the director of An Education, in which Molina played the buttoned down 1950s father to perfection, put it. "You can press the gas pedal more and it can go much faster, but there's no need." And Michael Grandage, artistic director at London's Donmar theatre, describes him as "an absolutely ferocious actor" yet also one with "very little vanity".

Another way of putting it is what you see isn't what you get with this towering, shaven-headed 57-year-old. Molina's hair, usually more bouffant, is just starting to grow back after playing Mark Rothko, the troubled Russian-born American artist, to rave reviews and a Tony nomination on Broadway. Despite the skinhead he looks like a shorn teddy bear, all giant paws, dopey, slopey eyes, baggy sleeveless shirt, and loafers and white socks peeping out of jeans. A cuddly bear who usually plays nasty villains, that is.

The contradictions don't end there. Molina is remarkably unstarry (the sandwich being just one example), yet he has lived in Los Angeles for the past 16 years with his wife of 27 years, Jill Gascoine. You expect his interests to be highbrow and macho (the actor who most influenced him at drama school was De Niro) but his mobile ringtone is the twinkle-toed Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy from The Nutcracker. You expect him to speak like a luvvie then out comes an accent that would make Guy Ritchie blub with envy, closer to cockney than King's Road.

We forget how Molina talks because he's so good at other people's voices. He 'gives good foreign' is how he has always put it. Today he tells me, with a big toothy grin, "I can play any Caucasian character with impunity". So Molina has nailed Mexicans and Spaniards, Iranians and Frenchmen, Italians and Jews. Englishmen? Not so much. It's been a long time since the Eighties when he played such quintessential Brits as Joe Orton's lover Kenneth Halliwell or Tony Hancock. Even the English accent he has in his new film, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, is not his own.

"When I was doing Art on Broadway," he says referring to Yasmina Reza's award-winning play of the 1990s, "I played an American. After the show the actors would take turns to get donations from the audience. Every time I did it this whisper would ripple through the crowd as everyone went 'what? He's English?'." He relates this, of course, in a perfect American accent. "There was one night I heard a guy in a really loud voice go 'I thought he was Mexican'." Molina chuckles at this, his big frame shaking. He likes a good laugh. Maybe that's why he looks younger than I expected (another surprise).

He tends to play villains or foreigners, or in the case of Hollywood, villainous foreigners. "Anything vaguely swarthy I'm the go-to guy," he jokes. But later Molina becomes more serious about this capacity to zip himself into other nationalities and what that implies: people don't necessarily see him for what he is, an Englishman. He feels more English when he is in America and thinks this is perhaps what has kept him there. In England he's the foreign-looking guy who can do great accents. In America he can just be the British actor. "When you've had the immigrant experience, well in leaving I'm completing the circle in some way," he says. "I'm sure psychologically there is a lot of mileage there."

His role as the suave but dastardly Horvath in The Sorcerer's Apprentice, based loosely on the 1940 Disney classic Fantasia, is no departure. The latest fruit of a Disney and Jerry Bruckheimer collaboration, it has the same self-referential silliness and spirit of adventure as Pirates of the Caribbean. There's even a reference to Raiders of the Lost Ark, which featured a young Alfred Molina in his film debut as – surprise surprise – Satipo, one of Indiana Jones' guides through the South American jungle. The first foreign villain of many.

The Sorcerer's Apprentice is a big, bombastic fantasy cut from the same CGI cloth as the Harry Potter franchise. Molina, as the evil sorcerer in fur collar and hat, and Nicholas Cage, as the grizzled mentor with matted hair, are the highlights, wiggling their eyebrows as they out-spell each other and chewing so much scenery in the process you wonder they don't gag on it. "I like to call it legitimate scenery chewing," he laughs. "The kind where everyone goes 'oh marvellous' instead of finding everything you do embarrassing. Doing these parts are the only times when a director will come up to you and say 'can you make it bigger?'"

Molina doesn't take these mainstream villainous roles too seriously. But, he notes, they helped put two children through college and anyway, they're great fun. "You've got to take the work seriously," he acknowledges, "but if you start taking yourself seriously you're on a hiding to nothing. It's make-believe, a fantasy. You can't be like," he puts on a posh accent, "'this is terribly hard work, terribly demanding'. Come on. You start sounding like a bunch of w******. We're not curing cancer here. Nic (Cage] understands that perfectly. He was in his element on this film."

Molina modelled Horvath on George Sanders, the quintessentially debonair English actor who played Addison DeWitt in All About Eve. "A cad," says Molina. "I'm a movie buff and whenever I do a movie I always think who would be playing this part 30 years ago? For Prince of Persia I figured my part would have been played by Peter Ustinov. A lot of actors do that. Salma Hayek does it too. So for this one I thought suave, sardonic, menacing, never raises his voice. George Sanders."

Molina has also just made a return, after a 20-year absence, to our small screens. Meanwhile back in the States he has signed up for a new series of Law & Order. First he stars opposite Dawn French in the new BBC sitcom Roger and Val Have Just Got In, which does for the long-lived British marriage what the Royle Family did for, well, the long-lived British family. All the action takes place in the home, French and Molina are the only two characters, it's shot on one camera, and Molina describes it as a sitcom as imagined by Mike Leigh.

They sent me the first two episodes and I thought this is unusual," says Molina. "I gave it to Jill, she read it immediately and said you have to do this. And the chance to work with Dawn... I've been a huge fan of hers for years."

What's the secret of his own long lasting marriage? Molina and Gascoine met at the Donmar in 1982 acting opposite each other in a musical production of Destry Rides Again. Molina had a daughter from a previous relationship. She had two sons and was 16 years older. They've been together ever since. "The secret is I keep Jill locked up in the basement," he jokes. "No. She's a woman of infinite patience and has limitless powers of forgiveness. And I like being married. We get on. But we do spend a lot of time apart. I'll be on location and Jill never was one for following me around. She has her own life."

Molina never wanted to be anything but an actor. He grew up in working class multicultural Notting Hill, or pre-Julia Roberts Notting Hill as he puts it. His father was a refugee from the Spanish Civil War and arrived in England in 1939. He worked as a waiter in hotels and a chauffeur. His mother came from Italy nine years later and was a hotel cleaner. Acting wasn't something the young Molina knew about. Yet, so the story goes, at the age of nine he uttered the words "I want to be an actor".

"I can't imagine I knew what I was talking about," he says. "The only thing I can think of is something my teachers said years later, that I was a terrific show off. When I was a kid at school I was tall for my age and very fat. One of nature's fat kids. And I think even at that age I had the sense to utilise it all and make it funny. It was a way of deflecting anger and surviving in the playground. I could just be the clown. Then as I grew up I got better at it."

His parents didn't discourage him, but they didn't understand it either. "They weren't mean. They never said 'what are you playing at?' But they weren't involved in it. I think they thought it was just a piece of fun." Did his father find it hard to understand picking a career like acting having grafted so hard when he came to the UK? "Yes," says Molina, and then he pauses for such a long time I'm ready to smooth over the silence with another question. Then he starts up again. "My dad thought it was flippant. I remember him saying people like us don't become actors. People who are the sons of working-class immigrants." He laughs loudly. "To my father, actors were from another social strata."

Molina tells me a story about how his father wanted him to work in his hotel. "And if I say so myself I was a good waiter," he says. But when he was offered the chance to train as an assistant manager he turned it down. His father was upset but Molina stood his ground. "Then I got offered my first acting job," he recalls.

"It was equity minimum wages, 15 a week. In the hotel, including tips, I was taking home 50 a week, good money in the Seventies. My old man thought I'd lost my mind. He just didn't understand. He kept making me go through the figures, going 'and how much are you going to make?'. I could see this terrible defeat in his eyes."

Yet it was brave of Molina to strike out. He shakes his head. "I don't think it was brave. It was selfish. It was all about me, what I wanted." He looks a little upset. "I'll tell you what was brave. My parents letting me do it."

Molina's mother, a proud, hard-working woman who jumped up in the screening of Raiders of the Lost Ark and shouted 'that's my boy!' didn't get to see him in another film. She died at the age of 56. Molina's father saw more of his work in the Eighties but never said much about his acting. Then, after he died, Molina found a suitcase of clippings about his son he had collected.

"That was... a big shock," Molina says slowly. "I used to think my dad couldn't articulate how he felt. But the truth is he was a very garrulous man. He didn't have an education beyond 15 but he was a good talker, what my Yiddish friends call a Yachna, someone with the gift of the gab. So it wasn't that he didn't have the words. When I found the suitcase I couldn't believe it."

Perhaps it's not so surprising that Molina has been most at home playing foreigners, villains, and outsiders. Becoming other people gave him his own sense of belonging. Was it always that way? "When I first started acting in school plays, rehearsing, learning about make-up, I loved it," Molina says. "I loved everything about it. It filled me with joy. I knew I suddenly belonged. I found complete peace."

• The Sorcerer's Apprentice is released Friday. Roger and Val Have Just Got In is on Fridays, BBC Two, 11:05pm It is a novel vision that would have been more purposeful if the clowning were funnier and the surrealism more disturbing.

Likewise, the writers contributing to The Big Bite-Sized Breakfast are often better at ideas than execution, but the five-play compilation - croissant included - is a breezy way to limber up for the greater transformations of your Fringe day.

White, Traverse @ Scottish Book Trust, until 29 August; Belt Up's Odyssey, C Soco, until 28 August (selected days); The Second Star To The Right, C Soco, until 30 August; Belt Up's Antigone, C Soco, until 30 August; Flesh And Blood & Fish And Fowl, Traverse @ St Stephen's, until 28 August; The Big Bite-Sized Breakfast, Assembly Rooms, until 29 August