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Q&A: Alfred Molina On 'Close To The Enemy'

"Close To The Enemy" follows intelligence officer Captain Callum Ferguson (Jim Sturgess), whose last task for the Army is to ensure that a captured German scientist, Dieter (August Diehl), starts working for the British RAF on urgently developing the Jet engine. With the background of the emerging Cold War, it is clear to all that it's crucial for British national security that cutting edge technology is made available to the armed forces as quickly as possible. Callum uses unorthodox methods in his attempt to convince Dieter to work with the British and eventually a friendship develops between the two men, but soon tensions arise as all is not as it seems.

Over the course of the series, Callum encounters a number of other characters whose stories all intertwine. These characters include Harold Lindsay-Jones (Alfred Molina), a Foreign Office official who reveals some startling truths about the outbreak of the war.

Molina recently spoke about the show and why he enjoys playing villains.

Q: What made you say yes to 'Close to the Enemy?'

Alfred Molina: It’s just a fantastic script. It tells a huge story brilliantly over seven hours. Also, Stephen is probably one of the most original auteurs working in British film and TV today.

I was a big fan of "Dancing on the Edge" and when "I was offered Close to the Enemy," I had just finished working with Chiwetel Ejiofor, who starred in Dancing on the Edge. So I asked him, “What is it like working with Stephen?” Chiwetel was so enthusiastic about Stephen’s ideas and approach that I thought, “This sounds too good to be true.” I said yes straight away, and what Chiwetel had said to me proved to be absolutely true!

Q; Can you outline what makes Stephen such a terrific filmmaker?

Alfred Molina: He is one of the best TV directors I’ve ever worked with. He’s got a superb eye and great taste. He is also a wonderful writer. There’s something very economical about his writing. The way he structures language is very precise. It sounds like real talk.

On the page, the dialogue looks complicated and repetitive, but it is actually very reflective of the way we all talk in real life. We all repeat ourselves and stumble over words. In one scene, Harold’s describing a factual event to Callum and Victor and he repeats himself three times in one speech. That’s how we all talk. If you said to me, “Talk to me about your kids,” that’s how I would talk.

He’s also not afraid of comedy or throwing a laugh into the middle of a serious scene. It’s very classy writing. For an actor, it’s like gold dust.

Q: Please talk us through your character.

Alfred Molina: First of all, I was very flattered that Stephen should think of me as an upper-class Brit, 25 years to the day after an executive told me I was too ethnic ever to play Brits!

When I was approaching the part of Harold, I kept thinking of Sir Humphrey, Nigel Hawthorne’s brilliant performance as a civil servant in Yes, Minister, someone who never quite says what he means. There always seems to be an ambivalence about him, although he is always able to answer any questions.

Whereas Sir Humphrey was comic, Harold has a darker and more tragic side. He goes through the story almost like a ghost. He is constantly popping up in other people’s lives, either as a help or a hindrance. You soon realize he has the most enormous tragic past. Other characters refer to him as a “man of mystery” and ask if he is for real. He has an intriguing effect on the other characters.

Q: So is Harold rather detached from the other characters?

Alfred Molina: Yes. He represents the old guard. Emotionally, culturally and politically, the war has left him in a place where he exists in a very different world and he feels completely out of place. His story is about rationalizing and coming to terms with that.

Q: Why is 1946 such a good year to set a drama?

Alfred Molina: What’s interesting about 1946 as opposed 1945 is that a lot of people in Britain felt they had actually lost the war. They were having to deal with austerity, poverty and a shift in world power. That moment of elation at the end of hostilities had passed. We’re so used to those images of celebrations and the idea that the Brits can take it. But the truth is that for the first few years after the war Britain was in desperate trouble.

It’s a period rich with story possibilities, and that’s why Stephen chose it.

Q: Why do you think we remain so interested in that era?

Alfred Molina: Our fascination with that period stems from understanding how precarious victory was. The effects of the war carried on for decades.

I was born in 1953, and I remember huge areas of London being bombed out. The echoes of war were still very much around. It’s quite understandable that there is an enduring interest in what that generation went through. Our dads and grandads were involved in that war. For any nation which goes through a war like that, there will always be a collective memory. We’ll always been fascinated by the “what if?”

Q: Over the years, you have played some memorable baddies. Do you ever have reservations about playing villains?

Alfred Molina: No. It’s all about the quality of the writing. Eventually it always boils down to that. I have no problem with playing villains. In fact, it put my two kids through college!

"Close To The Enemy" premieres in the U.K. Nov. 11 on BBC Two & in the U.S. on Starz later this year.